Bronze Age tombs yield important finds

Posted on September 5, 2011


Field research in Cyprus has involved hundreds of La Trobe students:


Dr Webb sorting early Bronze Age finds in Cyprus

As part of international research into life – and death – in the Bronze Age, La Trobe University archaeologists are about to have their work published by the Department of Antiquities in Cyprus.

The book features results from a three-year study by Dr Jennifer Webb and Professor David Frankel assisted by La Trobe students and technical staff.

Working with a colleague from Cyprus, the La Trobe team has been getting up close and personal with grave-yard remains of 52 people and hundreds of funeral relics more than 4,000 years old.

They painstakingly analysed material from 47 oval-shaped tombs at Psematismenos-Trelloukkas, an Early Bronze Age cemetery on a hillside on the south coast of Cyprus.

Dr Webb says the cemetery is an extremely significant archaeological site. It was used for only a very short time, by one or two generations, from about 2300 to 2200 BC. ‘That’s about 100 years, which gives us very tight chronological control of the material.’

Understanding Bronze Age settlement in this part of the world is important. While for most of the Early and Middle Bronze Age there is little evidence of contact or trade, by the 15th century BC there were very large urban coastal settlements that traded with Egypt and Syria, Anatolia and the Aegean – the cradle of Western civilization.

Large-scale excavations

Since 1990 Dr Webb and Professor Frankel have carried out and fully published large-scale excavations at a number of  settlement and cemetery sites in Cyprus, including Marki-Alonia, Deneia-Kafkalla and Politiko-Kokkinorotsos. Funded by the Australian Research Council, these projects have been conducted with the help of several hundred La Trobe students.

Dr Webb is a Charles La Trobe Research Fellow in Archaeology and an expert on the material culture of Early and Middle Bronze Age Cyprus. Professor Frankel also specialises in Cypriot prehistory.

Together, they have also published excavations undertaken in 1962 by an earlier generation of Australian archaeologists at Karmi, now in the Turkish occupied northern part of Cyprus.
Secure from grave robbers

Dr Webb says the tombs at this latest site varied in size. Burial chambers were between two and three square meters in area. They were located at the bottom of a shaft cut into hard rock and closed by a very large stone after the last body had been put in.This discouraged looters, so the tombs were almost entirely undisturbed, a very rare find in Cyprus.

The excavation was done by archaeologists from the Cyprus Department of Antiquities led by Dr Giorgos Georgiou. The work of the La Trobe team followed. Based at nearby Larnaca Museum, they cleaned, mended, documented and carried out the analytical work as the finds were brought in during field seasons in 2008 and 2009.

Cemetery excavation site (Image: David Frankel)

Helped by La Trobe postgraduates, colleagues and technical staff, Dr Webb and Professor Frankel documented, often from fragments, a total of 657 pots, six metal objects including two copper spearheads, several thousand tiny disk-shaped beads and a great deal of poorly preserved skeletal material which had been eroded by high concentrations of lime in the soil.

They drew, photographed and measured the pottery, analysed the fired clay, and studied its surface decoration and other features. The team took to the site a portable X-ray fluorescence analyser. ‘Within four days we were able to sample 200 pots and assess the elemental composition of the clays used to make them,’ says Dr Webb.

The great majority appear to have been made locally. They were of igneous clays high in metallic trace elements of a type found in a nearby copper-bearing mountain range.  ‘The cemetery is located in a river valley, so the trace elements were probably brought down in the water and ended up in the clay beds used to make these pots.’

Tombs for children

Dr Webb says in Cyprus the Bronze Age lasted from around 2500 BC to 1100 BC. ‘It began with the arrival of people from the Anatolian mainland who brought with them new technologies and artefacts, including knowledge of copper-mining and processing and casting.’ 

Spearheads, pins and a needle (Image: Rudy Frank)

Cyprus is famous for its copper ore deposits, says Dr Webb, which played a major role in the island’s development. People were engaged in the mining and processing of copper ores, as well as in smelting and making artefacts.  Most of the population lived in small villages, growing and processing wheat and barley, and every household probably made some of its own pottery.

The burial site was unusual compared with many other cemeteries of this period.  Only a small number of people were found in each tomb. Most contained one person, some two, and only one chamber held up to nine people.

‘Also, they cut tombs for very young children, treating children in the same way as adults in terms of burial, which was very unusual,’ says Dr Webb.

A tomb during excavation (Image: Giorgos Georgiou)

But in common with all Bronze Age tombs in Cyprus, there were plenty of pottery vessels, including bowls, jugs, cooking pots and storage jars.

‘Although the skeletal remains were poorly preserved, in some cases it looks like they may have held a small bowl in one hand, as though they were drinking from it. We have evidence for that kind of positioning elsewhere. The pots were spread around the bodies.’

Dr Webb says a standard explanation for this in Cypriot archaeology is that people believed in an afterlife in which they would need their bowls, cups, jugs and cooking pots.

‘Another theory is that they are the remnants of a grave-side funerary feast, after which the eating and drinking vessels were placed in the grave with the corpse.’

Although metal objects are relatively rare in tombs of this date on the island, archaeologists found two impressive spearheads and two matching dress pins in separate tombs.

‘The spear heads are very substantial objects, 30 and 40 centimetres long and quite heavy. So the young adults in whose tombs they were found may have been people of some standing in the village.’

Dr Webb and Professor Frankel are now working on the publication of a Middle Bronze Age copper mining village at Ambelikou in occupied Cyprus, excavated in 1942 by the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus.

Click here for a podcast interview with Dr Webb.