Bronze age burials

Jennifer Webb


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Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host, Matt Smith, and today we'll be hearing from La Trobe University archaeologist Dr. Jennifer Webb. She will be talking about excavations and artefacts from a Bronze Age burial site in Cyprus. For those who are interested, she has provided images and they will appear in the enhanced podcast feed.

Jennifer Webb:

The Bronze Age is a period of time which is at the broadest level defined by the use of bronze as opposed to stone in the early period or iron in the later period. In fact, for most of the Bronze Age in Cyprus, they were using copper rather than bronze, which is an alloy of copper and tin, but nevertheless we refer to the period as a whole as the Bronze Age.

In Cyprus, the Bronze Age lasted from around about 2500 B.C. through until around about 1100 B.C. So it's a very long period of time. And it's broken up into periods that we refer to as the Early and the Middle and the Late Bronze Age.

The Bronze Age in Cyprus was initiated by the arrival of people from somewhere on the Anatolian mainland and they brought with them a whole suite of new technologies and artefact types and animals and so on to Cyprus, including knowledge of copper-mining and processing and casting and so on. There was some of that going on prior to this period, but in a very limited way. They also brought cattle to the island and probably new breeds of sheep and goats and possibly new crops and plant materials as well.

They really quite radically transformed the material culture of the island right across the island. They established villages in the areas where the copper ore deposits are. Cyprus is very famous for its copper ore deposits, and it's the presence of copper on the island that has really played a major role in driving the sort of historical direction which we can see through many years.

Most people would have lived in quite small villages. They would have been engaged in agriculture growing wheat and barley, probably spent a lot of time processing those crops with stone-grinding tools, which would have taken hours and hours everyday, I suspect.

Some people would have been engaged in mining and processing of copper ores and smelting and making finished artefacts. They were making their own pottery. Every household probably made some of its own pottery. They had fruits. They had lentils. They had figs, grapes, olives, of course. So their diet would have been not so different to the typical Mediterranean diet as it is today.

In the Early and Middle Bronze Age, there were no cities as we would recognize them. Urbanization is something that occurred quite later in Cyprus. It wasn't until the Late Bronze Age, around about the 15th century B.C., that we started seeing very large urban settlements mostly located near the coast and engaged in very significant international trade with places like Egypt and Syria, Anatolia and the Aegean, mostly, again, trading in copper ingots but many other commodities as well.

So through the very long period of the Bronze Age, life would have changed quite radically from the beginning to the end of that period.

Matt Smith:

OK, so I'm a Cypriot and I pass away, and at this point this is where your research comes in and what you've been doing recently, because you've been digging up a graveyard there. Tell me a bit about the graveyard that you've been exploring, doing your excavations. Where is it and how was it found?

Jennifer Webb:

Our most recent project in Cyprus has indeed involved the excavation of a cemetery. It's been a joint project with a colleague from the Department of Antiquities in Cyprus. He, in fact, was responsible for the field work, the actual excavation, and my colleague David Frankel and I and various technical staff and students from La Trobe were involved with the finds, the material that came out of the tombs.

This is a cemetery which was probably in use only for one or two generations, so a very short period of time...which is very useful for us because it gives us a very tight chronological control of the material...probably from something like 2300 B.C. to 2200 B.C., roundabout 100 years.

It's located on the south coast of Cyprus, about two kilometres inland from the coast, on the slopes of a hill. The tombs are cut into the rock. They're small chambers. They vary in size, but between two and three square meters in terms of the floor quite small...carved out of the rock, which is quite soft in this area. They sank a vertical shaft, and then from the lower part of the vertical shaft opened this oval chamber to put the bodies in.

Most of the tombs in this cemetery rather surprisingly only held one burial. Some of them had two. There's one with four and one with as many as nine individual burials. What was very interesting and in fact is not known for many other cemetery of this period in Cyprus is the fact that they were cutting tombs especially for very young children, for infants and children, in this cemetery.

So we have very small tombs which are less than a square meter in area, which were used for two-year-olds, and then we have slightly larger ones for children, and then we have sort of average ones for adults. So they were clearly treating children in the same way as they were treating adults in terms of burial.

The other thing, and this is common to all Bronze Age tombs in Cyprus, is that they put pots in with the bodies. In some cases, many pots, but usually around 15 or so pottery vessels of various types...bowls, jugs, cooking pots. Every one of these tombs has a number of pottery vessels.

In this case, the tombs were almost entirely undisturbed, which is a very rare situation in Cyprus. Many, many tombs have been looted, either in antiquity or more recently, and often you find just very damaged fragmentary vessels left and often the skeletal material is not well-preserved.

In this case, the tombs were cut into very hard rock and they obviously have not been easy for looters to find. So we were very fortunate in finding for the most part undisturbed tombs. We had altogether 47 tombs in this particular cemetery, which is not the total original number, but that's the number in the area that was excavated.

And they produced a total of 657, I think it was, individual pottery vessels, almost all of which were complete or near-complete, and a small number of metal objects, including two very substantial copper spearheads, and a lot of skeletal material, which unfortunately because of the lime content in the soil was not particularly well-preserved.

But our paleoanthropologist, Dr. Kirsi Lorentz, who works in Cyprus, was able to analyse this material for us and identify 52 individuals. There were some tombs where no skeletal material was preserved, and in many cases much of it must have been lost. And not many of the bodies were not well-enough preserved for her to identify the sex of the individual, but certainly she could tell us the age range in most cases.

Matt Smith:

So if I'm a Bronze Age Cypriot and I have cut this tomb into the rock, these are a shaft, and then you said they opened up once you get down in there, put the body in, put a stopper over it of some sort?

Jennifer Webb:

Yes, I forgot to mention that. In the mouth, or as we call it the storming under the opening into the chamber, is blocked with a quite large stone after the last body has been put in. In the case of these tombs, because they had not been disturbed, those stone blocks or the blocking stones were still in position.

Matt Smith:

And the fact that there is a void of some sort there, not just piling earth in on top of it.

Jennifer Webb:

No, no. Unless soil has somehow entered the tomb subsequently, most of that area is void, which was the case with these ones. And in fact, some of these tombs were found when the tops of the void chambers were sliced off, a bit like slicing the top of an egg, and then they would just open underneath and you could immediately see all the vessels laid out with a light covering of soil over them that had sort of drifted in through the cracks.

But other than that, they didn't really need to be excavated. We just needed to enter the chamber and clean them and draw them, of course, in position and remove them.

Matt Smith:

What could you tell about something like this? I assume that you'd be able to infer things from whether there were multiple burials or not?

Jennifer Webb:

Yes. From the few cases where we did have skulls in position and some long bones, it appears the bodies were placed in a flexed attitude, which means their sort of knees were drawn up towards their chests and their arms were bent at the elbow with the hands up towards the face placed just inside the entrance to the chamber.

In some cases, it looks as though they may have held a small bowl in one of their hands up towards their face, as though drinking from the bowl. We have evidence for that kind of positioning elsewhere. The pots are spread around them.

Matt Smith:

Why would they bury with those as grave goods?

Jennifer Webb:

Well, that is a very good question. There have been many theories about that. I think it's impossible to be sure.

For many, many years in Cypriot archaeology, the standard explanation for that was that these people believed in a physical afterlife in which they would need their eating bowls and their drinking cups and their jugs and their cooking pots and so on so that they were being put in the grave with them so that they could take them to the next world, as it were, and continue to use them.

Nowadays, it's much more fashionable to talk about these pots, both in a Cypriot context and the rest of the Mediterranean, because this is not unique to Cyprus. Most people talk about these pots as though they are likely to be remnants of some kind of funerary feast that took place at the grave side, where presumably the relatives of the dead person and friends and other members of their community would have come and sat down and eaten meat and drunk wine or beer in memory of that person or in a mortuary performance, and then those vessels were then placed in the grave with the corpse.

How you would ever distinguish between those two possibilities, I don't really know, but it is certainly the case that right through the Bronze Age and the Iron Age in Cyprus and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, objects, particularly pottery, and other objects as well were placed with the dead. It could also have been perhaps that there was a notion that when a person died, the objects that they had used during life in their household should not continue to be used by the living. But then you would expect there to be some kind of consistency in the numbers of bowls versus jugs, and it doesn't seem to be that kind of patterning.

Matt Smith:

You also said that you found two spearheads. Did you find that surprising? Why were there only two amongst all these tombs?

Jennifer Webb:

Amongst all these tombs, we found six pieces of metal...two spearheads, two matching dress pins...which were found in one tomb with one body, so they probably were used to close the shroud or some other kind of clothing that that body was wearing when it was placed in the tomb...there was one small needle in another tomb and another very small fragment of maybe a ring or something that was too badly-preserved to identify.

The two spearheads, they were found in separate tombs that were found with single burials, the sex of neither of those burials could be assessed. But they were both aged between about 20 and 25 years old, so young adults, I would think almost certainly male, but we can't say that for sure.

So metal overall is quite rare in this cemetery and elsewhere on the island at this time. These are very substantial objects of somewhere between 30 and 40 centimetres long and they're quite weighty, so there's a lot of metal in them.

There's something special, something significant about these two individuals. It may be that they were seniority within the village, but it is very interesting that most of the tombs had very similar arrays of material in them.

The pottery all looks much the same, but there are a couple of tombs which are a bit larger and which have these rather special objects in them, which signifies some kind of intra-community distinctions in status, probably to do with achieved status.

There's one other tomb, again, everything looks much the same as it does everywhere else, but it's a bigger tomb and it has a very unusual vessel in it, almost like an ice cream cone-shaped cup. It's about 20 centimetres high. It's unlike anything else that we found in the cemetery. And it's decorated with relief decoration, which is otherwise very rare.

It looks like it might have had a ritual purpose, this vessel, and this made the individual buried with this cup in this tomb, who was also the oldest individual identified by our anthropologist. Again, we don't know the sex, but it may be that this particular individual was an elder of some kind and perhaps had ritual authority within the local community.

Matt Smith:

What do you do with the artefacts after they have been excavated?

Jennifer Webb:

They are currently all stored in the Larnaca Museum. At the end of every day of excavation, our colleague was out working in really quite difficult circumstances. It was very hot and the ground was very hard, and at the end of every day he would drive the finds to the museum in Larnaca where we were working.

Our job was to wash and mend, in the cases where things were fragmentary, all of those 657 pots, to draw them and to photograph them and describe them. We measured them, took colour readings of the fired clay and of the slip on each vessel and hardness readings of the fabric and all these detailed measurements that we take, which we put onto a database which allows us to assess the degree of variability and the technology of the pottery as well as in their surface decoration and their size and so on.

Then, we did that in 2008 and 2009. We have been writing all this up for the publication, which is now done. It's in final layout. And the volume will be published by the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus very shortly.

The other thing we did with the pottery, which turned out to have very interesting results, was that we took a machine that we have, which is a portable XRF analyzer, which in a matter of two or three minutes when it's placed up against the surface of the vessel gives you a reading of the chemical composition of the clay that was used to make the pot.

We were able in four days to sample 200 different pots and use those results to assess the degree of variability in the clay that was used to make pots within that assemblage.

It has given us some very interesting results and it allows us, I think, certainly to say that the great majority of this pottery was made locally. It's made of igneous clays, which are fairly high in metallic trace elements, which makes sense because the copper-bearing areas of the mountain range are not so far away and this site is located in a river valley. The river was probably bringing down some of these trace elements that were then ending up in the claybeds that were used to make these pots.

Matt Smith:

So most of them were from that area. But how far had other pots come from?

Jennifer Webb:

There were certainly some pots there which have come in from somewhere else. They're made of much lighter-coloured clays, more sedimentary rather than igneous clays.

The material that's coming in takes the form almost entirely of small flasks, or bottles would be another name for them, about 13 or 14 centimetres high. They are small containers of some kind. They are highly decorated, with incised decorations, which doesn't occur on any of the other vessels.

They have a hole just below the mouth of the vessel on either side, which was probably used to insert some kind of stopper. So it looks like they are specialized vessels for transporting small quantities of some precious substance, which may well have been used in association with the rites of burial.

What is that likely to have been? Possibly some kind of special oil or a perfume, or maybe even opium, which may have been consumed in association with the burial ceremony or used to anoint the corpse or to wash the hands of the people who attended the burial. I mean, we don't know, and we haven't as yet been able to do any residue analysis on these vessels, which might one day give us some idea of what was in them. But they do appear to have been coming from somewhere else.

Matt Smith:

In Cyprus?

Jennifer Webb:

In Cyprus, definitely. Yes.

Matt Smith:

That's still evidence of trade.

Jennifer Webb:

Of internal trade or trade between regions within the island. At this period, for most of the Early Bronze Age, there is little to no evidence for contact with the outside, with the world beyond Cyprus. For several hundred years, the island seems to have really been quite isolated from the rest of the world.

Matt Smith:

That's all the time we've got for the La Trobe University podcast today. If you have any questions, comments or feedback about this podcast or any other, you can send us an email at Dr. Jenny Webb, thank you for your time.

Jennifer Webb:

Thank you.