By Jean Christou
An American archaeologist is to spend nine months in Cyprus mapping how the building of fortresses around the island impacted ancient societies and what prompted them to move in that direction.
Fulbright scholar Eilis Monahan’s aim is to learn how a relatively egalitarian village society during the early to Middle Bronze Age (2500-1650 BC), rapidly changed to one of extreme social inequality and political complexity in the Late Bronze Age (1650-1050 BC).
“I’m interested in the way the built environment controls the way we can move and affects our social interactions,” Monahan told the Cornell Chronicle, the newspaper of Cornell University. “The material world actually creates social inequality by making our differences concrete. Objects, buildings, these things that surround our lives, provide opportunities and limitations on our actions. Because these things are real and in the world outside our own existence, their effects can be long-lived and unpredictable.”
In another Q&A article on a university website, Monahan said her main area of interest was social and political developments in the Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East.
She said archaeology can, and sometimes does, combine the study of history, art history, politics, economics, languages, geography, chemistry, physics, geology, from which archaeologists can glean any perspective that might help them better understand where humans have been, where they are now, and where they might be heading.
She said the Cyprus project grew out of a pilot project she ran in 2013 with Dr Matthew Spigelman when they were both in Cyprus working on other archaeological projects. They stayed an additional ten days mapping the area of Ayios Sozomenos in the Nicosia district.
“That was when I realised there was much more work to be done on these sites. I saw the potential for a real contribution to our understanding of how Cypriot society changes during this period and, more broadly, how buildings and landscapes affect the way people interact with each other and the relationships they establish,” Monahan said.
Her investigations so far have primarily been the surveying and mapping of sites and museum collections from previous excavations into a group of fortresses and surrounding settlements in the central region of Cyprus between the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, around 3,700 years ago.
“This is a very exciting period in Cypriot history when the island transitioned from a village-based and relatively insular society to a complex urban-focused society involved in trade and diplomacy with the major polities of the Eastern Mediterranean, including the Egyptians, Hittites, and Babylonians,” she said. “My project investigates how the introduction of fortifications to the landscape alters social relations, and the roles that fortresses and their control of the landscape may play in the development of political regimes.”
Monahan told the Chronicle that as an island, Cyprus offered a unique opportunity for study because of its isolation but also its central location between the Aegean, Anatolia, the Levant.
“The ancient Cypriots were in a really special situation: They had something [copper] that everyone wanted, but by being on an island they had more control over their interactions with the other powerful states and empires of the time,” she said.
Monahan plans to survey 23 sites around the island, some on lowlands and others such as fortresses on higher ground. “I’ve spent the last seven years staring at various kinds of Cypriot pottery, so a lot of my work will be using the pottery to assess the sites,” she said. She will also use radar equipment to look beneath the surface. She expects to find that a number of settlements were suddenly abandoned and moved closer to the four fortresses, either for protection or because of pressure from community leaders or political authorities, she told the interviewer.
This indicated that during the period in question there had somehow been an increase in violence, whether it came about due to invaders or internal turmoil. This was evident from excavations that showed an increased presence of weapons on sites and in tombs. The creation of the fortresses showed that people were fearful of something. “The question then becomes, how does the presence of these buildings and objects change the way society behaves?” said Monahan.
“Most of the fortresses on Cyprus are in the occupied territory in northern Cyprus, controlled by Turkey, but there’s one cluster in the republic where you can access them,” she said.