Digging deeper holes: 20 years as an archaeologist in Cyprus

For 20 years archaeologists from the university have been working in Cyprus. University of Sydney Paphos excavation project.

When the first shovelful of dirt was moved by Australian archaeologists in Paphos, Cyprus in May 1995, few of us thought that we would still be working on the site 20 years later.

The nature of archaeological excavation can be slow and painstaking. But even then, long-term projects remain relatively uncommon. So what are the pros and cons of long-term research instead of smaller projects based around grant funding?

The ancient theatre of Nea Paphos, Cyprus. University of Sydney Paphos archaeological project, Author provided

The University of Sydney began excavating at Paphos in 1995 at the initiative of Emeritus Professor Richard Green. Like all foreign archaeological missions working in Cyprus, the work is conducted under the auspices of the Department of Antiquities for the Republic of Cyprus. The team has excavated for five to six weeks annually at various times of the year, with additional study seasons and finds recording work done by individual scholars and researchers.

The project was initially funded by Australian Research Council grants. Today the excavations run by myself and Dr Smadar Gabrieli are largely self-financed through student contributions, and an active volunteer program. This enables members of the public to work on the project alongside the professional archaeological team. We are also supported by the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens and the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney.

Excavating on site in 2007. University of Sydney Paphos archaeological project, Author provided

The ancient town of Nea Paphos was the capital of Cyprus for more than six centuries in the Hellenistic and Roman periods of the island’s history; its important geo-political positioning on ancient maritime trading routes made the emporium city wealthy for centuries.

Devastated by a series of earthquakes in late antiquity, and again in the Middle Ages, the town’s population dwindled and it became a sleepy fishing village – until the 1970s and a modern tourist boom. This lack of modern development has meant that much of the archaeology of ancient Paphos has survived in relatively good condition.

This was especially due to the foresight by Cypriot authorities in the 1960s to leave a large proportion of the town as an archaeological park, now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The ancient theatre of Paphos

The Tombs of the Kings at Paphos. The World Heritage listing recognises the surviving ancient architecture and Roman mosaics at the site. University of Sydney Paphos archaeological project, Author provided

Over the period of excavating at the area of the north-western corner of the ancient city, the Australian team has revealed the architectural remains of a theatre – with a capacity to hold more than 8,500 spectators at its peak in the 2nd century AD.

Careful stratigraphic excavation, detailed architectural study, and chronological investigation of ceramics and other finds, now give us a clear picture of a building constructed at the very foundation of the town in the late 4th century BCE. It was used as a venue for performance and entertainment for more than six and a half centuries.

The theatre underwent at least five phases of reconstruction and alteration before its eventual destruction in the earthquakes around 365 AD that destroyed the south coast of the island.

Aerial view of the cavea and orchestra of the theatre, along with the remains of the Hellenistic so-called ‘Charion stairs’ (tunnel) running underneath the ancient orchestra. University of Sydney Paphos archaeological project, Author provided

The fact that the theatre was one of the first public buildings in the city demonstrates the important role of the dramatic arts in creating the new cultural koine (common identity) of the Hellenistic world. This is in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests: an aspiration to adopt Greek cultural practices.

The study of each subsequent Hellenistic and Roman phase has revealed significant new information on architectural practices and the way communities engaged with performance. The archaeology of Nea Paphos provides an excellent case study for the history of urban town planning, performance history and public infrastructure building.

Fragment of a marble Imperial statue that would have adorned the stage building during the middle-2nd century AD. A surviving marble dedicatory inscription of this era acknowledges the Roman emperors Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius for supporting the theatre’s renovations. University of Sydney Paphos archaeological project, Author provided

The changing nature of archaeological investigation

All academic disciplines change over two decades, but archaeology has undergone a revolution in the time since we began digging. The first seasons of excavations took place before even digital photography was available. Today, digital recording and modern surveying techniques utilising GPR, GPS and 3D recording are regular components of our investigations.

This provides a challenge to the archiving of our research and the publication of materials, dealing with both analogue and digital files. Technological and methodological changes have brought some exciting new approaches to the way we think of the Classical past.

Hypothetical CAD reconstruction of the Roman era stage of the Paphos theatre created by architect Geoff Stennett. University of Sydney Paphos archaeological project, Author provided

Although the pressures of funding and publication favours shorter-term work, long-term fieldwork projects do have another advantage. They allow the types of questions asked to evolve, and new evidence creates a deeper knowledge of the site each season.

As we continue to work around the ancient theatre in recent years, we have revealed a Roman nymphaeum (water fountain) and Roman road. As a result, our investigative focus has changed from the theatre itself to the urban context of the theatre’s precinct: the location of ancient gates, the nature of street colonnades and the way the Roman city was laid out for pedestrian and animal-drawn traffic.

None of these types of questions would have been possible several years ago, before we understood the chronological framework of the development of the theatre.

3rd century AD pavers of a Roman road in front of the nymphaeum build near the theatre. University of Sydney Paphos archaeological project, Author provided

A long-term project can create a mass of data (excavated finds, in our case) requiring study and publication. So it can be a struggle to keep up. But it also enables far greater qualitative analysis and far subtler examination of particular questions. The key is a good team of researchers committed to the project.

Sorting of ceramic finds. University of Sydney Paphos archaeological project, Author provided

Our second home

Excavating at the site of the ancient theatre of Paphos in 2010. University of Sydney Paphos archaeological project, Author provided

One of the by-products of field projects working in the same area over a prolonged period of time is the realisation that the team makes an enduring contribution to the local community. We are always very conscious that we are making a significant injection to the local economy each season.

We have attempted to contribute to local cultural life by participating (where appropriate) in local community events and hosting artistic exhibitions, talks and public guided tours of the site while we work.

In 2017 Paphos will serve as European Cultural Capital and the ruins of the ancient theatre will be showcased.

Over the years we have built up a support network of friends, colleagues and supporters amongst the local community. Although Paphos is now largely a tourist town that is used to visitors coming and going, there is core support from the local community. Over the years, their attitudes have changed from bewilderment (as to why Australians would travel around the globe to study their history) to pride that we would make the commitment and effort in recovering “their” story.

It is an honour to have become part of their community.

The future of the past

A team of archaeologists, students and volunteers will excavate at the site next in Easter 2016. The Australian excavations at Paphos will continue into the future while ever there is funding and willingness by our Cypriot collaborators and colleagues to have us work there.

We, of course, have future publications to add to the project’s library. But as someone who was there as a student on the very first season - and now working as a co-director – I believe that long-lifespan those fieldwork projects enable investigators to ask intergenerational questions, and can provide a far more holistic understanding of the nuanced evidence uncovered by prolonged excavation and study.

Sunrise on site. University of Sydney Paphos archaeological project, Author provided