Excavations after the excavations

Or post-excavations in the store-rooms


(in Minerva. The International Review of Ancient Art & Archaeology. March/April 2003, Vol. 14, no 2)

Is it really possible to carry out excavations in the storerooms of a museum, where you have worked for three decades? To find wonderful things you could never dream of after almost 75 years, since the real excavations were carried out? To open the wooden packing crates with a crowbar, to be covered with dust, and amongst fragments and big sherds find real pieces of art? You pick up indifferent pieces of terracotta and limestone and when you turn them around you will find the smiling face of a Hellenistic statue or the bearded face of an archaic gentleman with a soft smile on his lips. You open another large crate, which hasn’t been touched since 1931. On top, there is a layer with sherds in different sizes and a wooden label, which tells you about their exact find-spot on the original site. This will continue until you reach the bottom of the crate. The notation of every stratum where the sherds were found is written on the labels, following the sherds of each layer in the big box. I had to be extremely careful, not to mix the sherds or the labels of the separate levels. In that case, the work made by the archaeologists 80 years ago would have been ruined. In another crate there were huge pieces of terracotta, evidently fragments of roof-tiles covering the houses or tombs from the site.

In all the boxes, the finds were covered with dust and straw. There were also material remains left by visiting rats. Removing all this and repackaging the material into new boxes, was sometimes a very unhealthy task. Less heat and sunshine, but almost as much dirt as on a real excavation.

Other more interesting details also prevented me from proceeding in the work: many finds were wrapped in old newspapers and it was more than amusing to read about news from the 1930’s. Very attractive were also the small boxes in different sizes, containing the so-called small finds. Terracotta fragments of statuettes sometimes painted in yellow, black and red. Roman coins, different tools and small knives made of bronze. The boxes had originally contained cigars, Turkish or Egyptian cigarettes, sugar etc. Everything necessary for the decent life of an archaeologist. The boxes were very attractively decorated with palm-trees, smiling Africans, camels etc.

The big crates were transported in the spring of 1931 on one of the ships of the Swedish Orient Line from the harbour of Famagusta in Cyprus to Gothenburg in Sweden. They were in all 771 large wooden crates and they contained the main part of the finds from the excavations, carried out by the Swedish Cyprus Expedition 1927-1931. These fabulous excavations are probably known to many readers, and were presented in Minerva 12:1, January/February 2001. It was the story of an archaeological adventure in Cyprus, a story about four young Swedes revealing the history of Cyprus from about 6000 BC to approximately 300 AD, when Cyprus had became a part of the Roman Empire. The archaeologists were excavating tombs, sanctuaries and a few settlements and fortresses all over Cyprus. Their work was pioneering since it was the first time that serious excavations were carried out in Cyprus, including all kinds of documentation. A new law was introduced, which gave Sweden the right to acquire more than half of the finds at the end of the excavation. When travelling in Cyprus today, you can still meet people in the villages who remember the fair-haired archaeologists and the remarkable man who travelled all over the island by bike looking for excavation sites. This man was Einar Gjerstad, the head of the Expedition. Some years ago, when I went to Cyprus to introduce my picture book about the Swedish Cyprus Expedition, I was invited to lecture at Idalion which was one of the main Swedish sites. Many people came to the lecture and they were all very excited, since their fathers or grandfathers had been working with the Swedes and they of course told the stories to all their relatives.


The Cyprus Collections in Stockholm are well known to many scholars and visitors, but not many people have heard about the extent of all the treasures in the storerooms. The Cyprus Collections have been housed in Medelhavsmuseet for almost 80 years, and the museum was based on them when it was constituted in 1954. The Collections are the most important in the world, outside Nicosia, and parts of it have - since the 1930’s - been studied by visiting scholars and students from all over the world. But nobody - not even the staff - has ever tried to unpack and study the Collection as a whole.


Some years ago the museum had to leave one of its storerooms, far away from the museum. It became necessary to unpack, study temporarily and repack a big part of the Collections, still in enormous wooden crates and smaller cardboard boxes. In the darkness of the store-room, deep below street-level, this became both an exciting and depressing experience. So many treasures and fabulous finds, beyond the knowledge of scholars. So many masterpieces and interesting finds - and what could I do, where could I store them?! Hiding among crates and sets of shelves, there were also some life-sized sculptures. Some of them were once placed, perhaps as guards, at the palace of Vouni on north-western Cyprus. Stiff, impressive bodies in white soft limestone. Beautifully carved, but now missing their heads. Other statues, also male, had lost their provenance but are artistically more interesting. Tall, powerful and vigorous bodies, ready to leave their stone bases at any moment. All of them are cut in a very hard limestone with a golden orange patina. After studying old catalogue sheets and diaries, I finally found out that they most probably derive from Karpassos in north-eastern Cyprus. They were votaries in a sanctuary, excavated by the Swedes but never published since it was sacked. Almost no remains were left or found.


On shelves, hidden behind all the crates, there was a big collection of limestone sculpture from Kition, Mersinaki and Vouní, all important and wealthy sites in ancient Cyprus. Kition was a flourishing town in eastern Cyprus, founded by the Phoenician colonists in the 9th century BC. On the acropolis of the town, they erected a temple to Melqart, their patron-god, whom they had brought from Phoenicia. There were no visible remains of the temple, and all the votives, dedicated to the god in the 5th century B.C. , were found in a deep crypt or pit in the ground. There the Phoenicians had buried the holy gifts, too sacred to be removed from the site. Now the main part of these votives was still waiting in the darkness of a Swedish storeroom. Statuettes or parts of them, represent the god himself. A young vigorous man, dressed in a lion-skin and sometimes with the mace in his right hand. Stepping forward with a determined expression in his face. Other fragments represent votives, likewise attractive young men, carrying goat and other gifts to their patron-god. Almost all votives are male, since Melqart is a male god.


Vouní, the Greek palace from the 5th century BC, situated on a height 270 m above sea-level at the north-western coast of Cyprus and invaded by the Swedes in 1929 A.D. The palace was waiting for them, with all its rooms, impressive staircases, storerooms and even a sauna. The inhabitants were all gone, but had left behind the silent sculptures, originally on position along the large staircases. There were statues and statuettes, representing young beautiful women, with elegant coiffures and heavy jewellery, lovely dressed in linen garment (chiton) and sometimes also a woollen mantle (himation).  In silence they lined up in the palace, greeting the more short-lived Vounites. More statuettes were found, high up on the hilltop, at some distance from the palace proper. Gracious statuettes, grasping fruit and flowers as gifts to the goddess Athena, to whom the temple was dedicated.


An isolated sanctuary was erected on the north-west coast of Cyprus, where hundreds of statues and stauettes were given to the Greek gods Athena and Apollo. Mersinaki was situated in an area where the Greek influence had always been very strong. Attic pottery was imported during the 5th and 4th centuries BC to the nearby town of Marion. The sanctuary at Mersinaki must have been huge, but nothing of it was preserved. The many votives from the Cypro-Archaic to the Hellenistic period were found in pits, standing side by side. Impressive life-size terracotta statues, restored in the 1930’s, are guarding the Cyprus exhibition, looking at the visitors with a stern look in their dark eyes. But their many colleagues and cousins are still waiting in the storerooms. Or at least fragments of them, since many large statues are in boxes, ready for cleaning and conservation. The museum has a fantastic collection of heads from Mersinaki - female and male, bearded heads and youths, beautiful and ugly. All of them with a quite individual expression in their faces. There is also an imposing collection of fragments from bodies, but with no heads.


A less grateful task was to unpack all the 5000 small cardboard boxes with sherds, left from the excavations 75 years ago and seldom studied during these 70 years. The sherds derive from the many tombs and a main part of them could probably be put together to complete pots. Many of the boxes were used by the archaeologists and workers during the years of excavation 1927-31 and had of course to be changed. It was an amazing experience to read the handwriting of the Cypriote workers, who didn’t use the Greek word ostraka for sherds but the Cypriote gastria. On every box I could read the date of the find, the exact findspot and the content of the box. In the boxes were most of the time no surprises, but sometimes I had to stop in astonishment. Complete pots in the Black-on-Red ware, small jugs in perfect condition. Plates in Cypro-Geometric ware with a well preserved Bichrome decoration in black and red. Bowls, pots and plates in pieces, but easy to mend. In other boxes, parts of frescoes, nails of copper, Roman bronze coins. A large part of the boxes contained small terracottas from different sanctuaries at Kythrea, Mersinaki and Ayia Irini. Small men in funny caps. Riders with and without their horses, warriors, horses without their riders, fragment of chariot groups etc. Some of them still with black and red colours, staring at you with big reproaching eyes.


One day I found some smaller boxes, very old and with an almost illegible text written in pencil.  On the lid I could read ”Gjerstad 1924”. These were the finds from Gjerstads first investigation of a Cypriote site, before the real excavations started three years later. As a young student and scholar, Gjerstad spent some months in Cyprus 1924 to gather information and study material from some excavated sites. 1924-25 he excavated a house in a Middle Cypriote III settlement (c.1700 B.C) at Alambra in the Nicosia district. I very carefully opened the boxes and found amazing fragments of pottery from this early site in eastern Cyprus. On the sherd from a very big vessel in red Polished ware, the potter had mounted a large figurine representing a horned animal. Perhaps a fallow deer, domesticated by the early Cypriots, who probably consumed the milk and the meat from this animal. In another box there were big lumps of very coarse clay with red paint – probably pieces of plaster from the mud-brick walls of the house at Alambra.


All the men, monsters and minotaurs in terracotta from the famous site of Ayia Irini are well known to visitors and scholars. But the excavations of this important sanctuary yielded much more than the 2000 statues and statuettes in terracotta, now on exhibit in Cyprus and Sweden. The temenos was very extensive, and had been in use from the Late Cypriote Bronze Age down to the Cypro-Archaic period, very approximately from c. 1200 B C - 500 B C. The faithful Cypriotes had come together to pay tribute to their god, to perform their rituals and participate in sacred meals. So there must be other remains from this human activity, other than the votives grouped around the altar and the cultstone. During the early period the Cypriotes offered only vegetables, while they during the later Archaic period also sacrificed animals. Along the temenos-wall, the archaeologists found lots of left-overs from the meals, mostly seafood such as shells and fish, but also animal bones, which show that there were sacred meals in connection with offerings. In the different levels on the temenos proper, the archaeologists also found thousands of sherds from pottery around the altar and in pits. The vases could have been votives, but were also used when offering liquids to the unknown and silent god of Ayia Irini. There are fragments from jugs, bowls and plates, some very well preserved and decorated in the Bichrome technique with black and red colours. And here they were now, in front of me. Hundreds of boxes with sherds or ”gastria”, as was written on the lids. All from different levels of the temenos. And all in old boxes from 1929. The material in itself was perhaps not so very exciting, but when you think that all these fragments once were used by the Cypriots during their sacred meals about 2500 years ago or more… Then it is not so difficult to imagine the whole scenery in front of you. Scholars now believe that the Cypriotes were both listening to music and dancing while performing their rites. Small terracotta stauettes play lyre, tambourine and flute or avlós. The avlós is a double-flute which can be compared to the modern sourná, played today in Macedonia and Epirus.  A very shrill and suggestive sound. Other small statuettes are dancing in a ring, sometimes with a lyre-player in the middle. They are grasping each other’s shoulders, exactly as we do today when we are dancing the Greek dances. It is not very hard to imagine the ancient Cypriots dancing, perhaps with the same rhythm and the same steps as we use today, dancing at the paneghiria when the Greeks celebrate the name days of their saints.


Boxes, boxes and more boxes in endless piles. Clouds of dust from the sherds. My admiration towards the four Swedes was endless. Excavating a whole island and more than 5000 years of history in less than four years. My – much smaller - excavation had many levels - not only the archaeological.

In the museum archives we preserve the diaries from the excavations. They are almost illegible and are not any longer available to scholars. After studying  them a couple of times, I can now recognise the handwriting of the Swedish archaeologists. Most of the time I can tell who has written what on the small boxes and when they left this task to the Cypriote workers. The archaeologists literally speak to you from these documents.


Marie-Louise Winbladh

Cyprus Collections