Idalion – abode for the goddess of love and war

Marie-Louise Winbladh

 The legendary Swedish excavations in Cyprus, which began more than 80 years ago, not only left everlasting traces in the history of archaeology. The excavations became the story of an archaeological adventure in Cyprus, a story about four Swedes whose work was pioneering since it was the first time that serious excavations were carried out in Cyprus. When travelling in Cyprus today, you can still meet people in the villages who remember the fair-haired archaeologists and the remarkable man who bicycled all over the island looking for excavation sites. This man was Einar Gjerstad, the head of the Expedition.

In September 1927 the Swedish Cyprus Expedition departed for the island. It included the director Einar Gjerstad, the archaeologists Alfred Westholm, Erik Sjöqvist, and the architect John Lindros. They were all very young, none of them more than 30 years old. John Lindros was also the photographer of the Expedition. He was very interested in ethnology and has documented how people lived and worked in the villages. Alfred Westholm (the Cypriots called him Alfiros) was also a very good photographer and usually took his own photographs while excavating.

In his book Ages and days in Cyprus, Gjerstad has not only written a popular account of the excavations but has also given a very lively and poetic description of the everyday life of the archaeologists and the Cypriots they met. The stories in Ages and days in Cyprus are spiced with humour and anecdotes. The Swedes met many remarkable people and made friends everywhere. A quotation from Gjerstad’s book also tells of his deep understanding of the possibilities of archaeology:


... It is clear, then, that an archaeological excavation is not all excavation. It also includes conversations with the people living near the excavation sites. When the archaeological investigation has been completed and everybody returns to the kafeneion, then the real talking begins. The talk is of money and plots of land, of poverty and oxen, of local taxes and saints, of love and lies, of death and eternal life. Moreover, these talks are not the least important result of the archaeological survey, for it is through long and constant association with the people in the villages that the archaeologist can attain a psychological understanding of the results of the excavation. This may sound like foolish talk to anyone who considers that the archaeological work consists only of the investigation of styles, classification and dating, et cetera. If, however, one holds the view that it is impossible to fully understand a cultural product without understanding the person who made it, what can one do when the people in question are more or less well preserved skeletons who have not left us one single line of writing? Well, in Cyprus, where the cultural heritage from classical antiquity recurs in houses and tools, in habits and in customs and where anthropologists’ examinations have shown striking likenesses between the skulls of modern and prehistoric Cypriots, it would seem to be justifiable to suppose that the thoughts which filled those prehistoric skulls were generally rather like the thoughts of the modern Cypriot. In other words, acquiring a thorough knowledge of the lives of the peasants today ought to enable us to have a psychological understanding of prehistoric events and to understand thoughts which have no written documents to explain them.


A wonderful and true definition of the task of the archaeologist, still of interest but seldom embraced. Even in this respect Gjerstad was ahead of his time.

The work of the Swedish Cyprus Expedition was the first organized effort to excavate in Cyprus in a scientific manner, for the sake of archaeology and not for private profit, which at that time was far too frequent.

True to their habit, the Swedes finished their excavation at Dali with a magnificent party for the workers (fig. 1). There is no better way to describe this party than to call on Einar Gjerstad himself:


The toilsome part of the archaeological work at Dali finished with a party for the workers and it was here that I had the great pleasure to meet the best person in the world. The best person in the world had a goat and a sheep of which I was the prospective purchaser, having in mind the coming party. This good man was a sturdy, very serious person by the name of Paraskevas.

Steaming bowls of cut-up sacrificial animals and beans, shining in oil, were passed down the long tables. The light Dali wine made our spirits bright and full of fun. When the wine goes in, songs come out and songs could be heard in both Greek and Turkish.

Of course, we are in Cyprus, and this is the mixture of the Occidental and the Oriental which was called Cypriot culture during the days of antiquity.


Excavating at ancient Idalion

The ancient city of Idalion is located close to the modern village of Dali and was an important religious centre with several sanctuaries dedicated to Aphrodite. It was one of the many Cypriote sites chosen by the Swedish Cyprus Expedition for archaeological investigation. Einar Gjerstad published the results from the excavations at Idalion, but it was Erik Sjöqvist who conducted the excavations there during the summer and autumn of 1928. The Swedish expedition found large amounts of terracotta statuettes, which conjure up the image of female fertility. Idalion had two acopoleis, from where the town wall extended down the hills and enclosed the city. Outside the city wall there was a large necropolis, which extended up to the city wall (fig. 2).

On the western acropolis, called the Ampilerí, the expedition excavated the remains of a fortification wall and several rooms and houses close to the wall. The Swedes identified six different building periods. Periods 1–3 were dated to the Late Cypriote III, when the city kingdom of Idalion seems to have been formed. The majority of the objects of period 1–3 were found in undisturbed cultural strata. Periods 4–6 were considered to belong from Cypro-Geometric III to Cypro-Archaic II. Based on these assumptions, the earliest settlement on the acropolis could have begun around 1200 B.C. On the northern side of the Ampilerí, the archaeologists investigated a fortified stronghold from the Late Cypriote III period, surrounded by walls. Inside the walls there was a settlement with small houses, centred around a cult chapel with two rooms. A stone altar had been erected in one of the rooms, and beside the altar the remains of the votives were found. There were five terracotta bulls, some seals and cylinders, shells, and coloured stones.

The cult centre was the main sanctuary of the settlement since the Late Cypriot Period, perhaps already from Late Cypriote IIB. A local town goddess was venerated, who also protected all the human activities in the settlement, that is, metallurgy, handicraft, and spinning. Figurines of cattle and horses indicate stock farming and female terracottas of naked women show the importance of female sexuality and fertility. The cult centre on the summit of the western acropolis of Idalion was used from the Late Cypriote Period until its destruction around 450


More than 30 years ago, Per Ålin studied the sherds from Idalion in the Medelhavsmuseet storeroom. He suggested that the three early building periods at Idalion should be dated mainly to the Late Cypriote IIIA period (corresponding to the Late Helladic IIIC:1B period), based on the pottery evidence. The Bronze Age settlement on the acropolis of Idalion seems to have been destroyed at the end of Late Cypriote IIIC. The settlement does not seem to have been deserted in the period between the latest Bronze Age and the Iron Age occupation. Again based on pottery evidence, Per Ålin put forward that Period 4 would begin in the late Cypro-Geometric period.

The cult proper survived, even if the cult premises got a different character. The original outline of the sanctuary was changed and slightly reoriented. Instead of a cult house surrounded by dwellings, there was now a small chapel and an altar on an open courtyard, a temenos. A huge wall enclosed the sanctuary and also served as a defence.

Both Phoenicians and Greek Cypriots honoured their most important goddess in the same sanctuary and the finds indicate a strong connection between Athena and Anat as a warlike patron goddess. The votive offerings at Idalion were different from the votives at other cult places. Very few sculptures, but weapons such as swords, daggers, spears, shields, arrows, horse equipment, axes, as well as helmets of bronze and iron, were found here, but also terracotta figurines of warriors and an armed rider. Among the votives were also personal belongings such as needles, fibulae and bracelets. A large amount of pottery was also excavated, some of which was adorned with exquisite lotus flowers, lotus buds, rosettes and palmettes, and sometimes also birds and human figures. The archaeologists also found several figurines with upraised arms.

The summit sanctuary at Ampilerí differs from the other sanctuaries on Cyprus and other sites at Idalion, where large amounts of terracotta figurines and stone sculpture were found, dedicated by the believers. Perhaps the goddess only functioned as a warlike patron goddess of the town and the royal family. From the summit of the western acropolis, she was able to control both the town and the area of Idalion.

The name of Athena is mentioned on a bronze plaque with Cypro-Syllabic signs, so far the longest Cypro-Syllabic inscription ever found. It was discovered in the late 19th century in the area of the sanctuary. At the end of the text, there is a request that the inscription should be placed in “the temple of Athena, who is in Idalion”. Consistent with the inscription, the goddess also functioned as a judging goddess.

According to the excavators, the sanctuary prospered in the early and late Archaic periods. There were, however, also other sanctuaries, perhaps only in Cypro-Archaic I, dedicated to female and male deities in and around Idalion.

The acropolis at Ampilerí was excavated during the period 31st of May until 18th of July 1928. In the excavation diary Erik Sjöqvist writes as follows:


II. Ampillerí

28th of May 1928

The seventh excavation site of the season is a terrace of cultivation on the lowest part of the northern slope of the Idalion acropolis, approximately in the longitudinal axis of the so-called theatre. It is an almost plain vineyard, where a couple of stonecutters had been digging for cut stone about 25 years ago. They found stone in a wall they followed some ten meters, on a depth of about one meter. On that occasion they found a complete and beautifully painted limestone statue and several minor statues. There are still distinct traces of this excavation in the shape of a trench, extending approximately in north-south direction, framed by banks of earth.

22nd of June 1928

In the Square D3 … fragments of pottery were found and a large amount of small rectangular scales of bronze and iron. During the continued excavation ... it turned out to be a deposit with vases, arrowheads, and a cuirass, of which smaller parts on several spots were corroded into large “cakes”. In order to remove these “cakes” in the best way, paraffin was poured on them. The paraffin hardened and consolidated the “cakes”.

During the cleaning of the trench the following was observed: A layer of charcoal and ash … was found below the deposit proper. The layer was thickest in the middle and thinner at the edges. The layer was not horizontal. Minor remains of bone were in the ash.

The votives were deposited at different places on the site. Some of the objects were probably hung on the walls and fell down when the wall collapsed. A unique scale armour was also found, as mentioned above in the excavation diary (fig. 4). The cuirass was manufactured about 500 B.C. and is one of the few scale armours from such an early period, which is still preserved. The iron splints are all scale-shaped with straight long sides, one short straight side and the other rounded. They are provided with a projection on the longitudinal axis and pierced with holes. The iron scales were originally arranged in horizontal rows overlapping each other, and the scales in each row also overlapped. There were about 6 800 iron scales, while the bronze scales were very few and probably used as borders. Pieces with several rows of scales, rusted together in their original position, show how the scales were arranged. The short rounded end of the scale was turned downwards. There were no remains of metal nails on the iron scales so they must have been laced or sewn on a lining of cloth or leather. Neither were there remains of plaits and strips by which the splints could have been kept together so the reconstruction is conjectural. The reconstruction of the armour on a cork model is not technically exact, but rather serves to give a general impression of how the armour looked. The armour has been reconstructed with shoulder pieces as such are found on the Cypriote leather cuirasses as represented on the sculptures. The armour had been thrown in a pit together with a number of pots and other objects so that the original arrangement was not preserved. Scale corselets of this type were widely spread in the Near East and Egypt from about 1500 B.C. A number of armour scales derive from excavations at Norgan Tepe in modern Iraq (the ancient city of Nuzi) and can be dated to c. 1475 B.C. Similar scales, dating from the 14th century B.C, have also been found at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) in Syria. Armour scales of a comparable type, but of a later date, were found in the palace at Nimrud from the 9th century B.C, and at Megiddo in ancient Palestine. The splints mentioned are approximately similar to the Idalion type. Homer describes an episode from the Trojan War in the Iliad, where the Cypriote king Cinyras presents scale armour as a gift to the Greek hero Agamemnon.
The cult probably came to an end when Idalion no longer was an independent town. Idalion was captured by Kition in 470 B.C. and given a Phoenician king. The siege and capture of Idalion is documented through coins and inscriptions.

The Swedish Cyprus Expedition also carried out a small excavation at nearby Vasilika, which lasted only three days. It seems that they started at Vasilika and then moved to Ampilerí. According to the diary, the site at Dali-Vasilika was excavated between the 19th and the 21st of May 1928. Extract from the excavation diary:


The Dali excavation 1928. I. Vasilika

On the 8th of May we made a small trial pit near the tree and found fragments of some Geometric and Archaic figurines and a wall. Some meters west of this pit, a two-meter wide trench was dug in order to get a profile through the area. The west side of the trench constitutes the 0-line, which is divided in meters. The trench is called The Big Profile. The pottery of the surface layer is Geometric, Archaic, and later, including several terracotta fragments and Archaic figurines and riders. The type is mature Archaic and excellent. At … a very beautiful Archaic terracotta head was found, of a bearded man with plaited hair and a headgear, similar to a turban. The presence of scattered fragments of over life-size terracotta statues is remarkable and promising: an ear, part of an arm et cetera.


Hidden treasures in the Medelhavsmuseet store rooms

As has been stated above, Per Ålin studied the rich sherd material from Idalion three decades ago. He mentions correctly that Gjerstad, who with the greatest accuracy described the structures and the findings, published the Dali excavations. The pottery catalogue in the publication The Swedish Cyprus Expedition. vol. II, however, only contained more or less complete vases. The stratified sherd material, assignable to the different periods, was also identified but not published. The intention of Per Ålin was to give a detailed publication of the Idalion pottery from the Swedish excavations and from stratified contexts. The sherds were then stored in about 1 300 boxes and this large amount forced him to study and publish only a selection of the material.

In the spring of 2005 a main part of the immense sherd material from the Swedish excavations was put in acid-free boxes. A database of the sherds was also established, giving a rough description of the contents. During the course of the work we were able to make some new observations and hitherto unknown finds, not in the least from Idalion. As has been stated by other scholars, the main part of the ceramic material from Periods 1–3 was plain and coarse wares, with only a few pots illustrated in the publication. A small amount of Levanto-Helladic and Sub-Mycenaean wares was noted. There were many sherds with “Mycenaean” decoration, most of which certainly are of local manufacture even if it sometimes can be hard to decide whether or not small fragments should be labelled Mycenaean, according to Per Ålin. He also states that the majority of the decorated wares from Period 1–3 have Mycenaean shapes and patterns, even if the fabric is clearly local. The sherd material is very fragmentary, but it was easy to recognize the Mycenaean influence on the decoration. Some sherds also show a significant resemblance to corresponding material from the Greek-Swedish Excavations at the Aghia Aikaterini square, Chanià, Crete. From Idalion we have several sherds with a running spiral pattern, and some are very similar to pottery from Chanià, for example fragments of bowls with running spirals that are found in a Late Minoan IIIC context.[1] Another fragment with large stemmed spirals could be compared to the decoration on a large krater from Chanià, with broad curved bands, framed by ladders and ending in spirals. The Chanià piece shows a relationship with the Late Helladic Close style and is dated to the Late Minoan IIIC period.[2] Most interesting is perhaps the rather frequent Mycenaean (or Minoan?) flower, unfortunately not visible as a whole on the Idalion sherds.[3] Moreover, some of the sherds from Idalion show a certain similarity with the so-called Local Kydonian ware from Chanià, but this needs more studies. We also know that Cypriot White Slip pottery was found in Kydonia, and in the Chanià Archaeological Museum there is a complete White Slip II milk bowl, and further White Slip II pottery has been found in a Late Minoan IIIC context. Earlier excavations at Chanià have yielded Cypriote pottery from a Late Minoan IIIB context.

During the repacking in the store rooms we came across further sherds with spiral pattern – one body-fragment from a large vessel and one rim- and body fragment of a bowl. Both are very similar to Late Mycenaean IIIC (Close Style) pottery. There were also some very fine Mycenaean sherds, one of which seems to be imported and have elaborate decoration with part of a bird and an object that could possibly be a pomegranate. Several unique sherds were glued together and probably derive from a large amphora. They have Bichrome design with floral motifs or leaves. There were also rim fragments from two Late Cypriote III or Cypro-Geometric I (White Painted or Proto-White Painted) bowls with running spirals and quirks. Very interesting also were the pieces of a large amphora handle with a Cypro-Minoan sign. Many fragments from Late Cypriote wall brackets were also found, which could have been used as incense burners in sanctuaries. Very nice was a mended head from a Base Ring ware bull rhyton, and many White Slip II sherds of an exquisite quality. It was somewhat surprising to find several Middle Cypriote sherds with Red on Black decoration, for example a neck- and rim fragment from a very large Red on Black jug.

From the later Iron Age period the material is even more abundant. There were many fragments of figurines, both human and animals, mostly bulls and horses but also from chariot groups. Part of a chariot has a figurine inside. There were pieces from two wheels with fine Bichrome decoration and a Bichrome warrior with a shield. Very fine sculpture from Idalion-Vasilika was also found, for example four heads from figurines, legs from bulls or horses and parts of chariot groups (one with red colour). Very important finds are pieces of, for example, “Punic” masks, sculpted fragments with incisions and punctured chin, since the museum has only one mask, without certain provenance but supposed to derive from Vasilika. Much pottery was of course found, including a large amount of very fine decorated ware in the Bichrome style. There were body fragments from Bichrome amphorae and stemmed bowls with lotus flowers and buds, rosettes, networks, lotus flowers in panels, stylized trees, and scale pattern. A nice surprise were several fragments with Attic Red Figure decoration, probably imported from the Greek mainland. There is one Red Figure sherd from a bowl or guttus with a profile of a woman, most probably from the 4th century B.C. We found several sherds from large open vessels (kraters?) with Red Figure decoration, one small fragment with part of a reclining man with added purple colour and part of a Black Glazed kylix with rim and handle.

Among our finds were large amounts of scales from the famous Idalion cuirass, and also part of the bronze linings. One of the scales was stuck into the body fragment of an amphora. Another scale was stuck to the handle of a White Painted amphora. There were also large amounts of bronze and iron, such as fragments of an iron knife (?), iron rods, a bronze nail, and a tubular fragment.

A small ivory lid with incised decoration of flower petals and lines was of delicate execution. Large amounts of astragaloi from the acropolis tell about the recreational activities of the ancient people of Idalion. An astragalos is a knucklebone from sheep or goat and these were used as dice during ancient times. The very big tusk from most probably a wild boar was perhaps worn as a decoration in a helmet, or around the neck as it is sometimes worn today? Finally, the handle of a Roman oil lamp tells us about the late occupation of the Idalion settlement.

Work on the Swedish Cyprus Expedition finds did not stop when excavations were over. For decades, scholars were studying the material, plans, drawings, diaries, and photos. Scholars and students regularly visited the Cyprus collections. They came from all over the world to examine the finds from different aspects. The immense pottery collection was most frequently studied, but also the sculpture and the rich metal finds from the Lapithos tombs. A study was made during the 1980’s of the votive material from various Archaic sanctuaries on Cyprus, found by the Swedish Cyprus Expedition, and still in part unpublished. The study was widened into an interdisciplinary project combining archaeological observation with scientific analysis. One of the main objectives was information about the technological aspects of the terracottas. An important study within this project focused on determining the origin of metals from some Middle Cypriote/ Late Cypriote sites on Cyprus, based on artefacts in the collection of the Medelhavsmuseet, Stockholm.[4]

The immense achievement made by the four young men, during only four years after 1927, will continue to have an impact on future scholars and Cypriote archaeology for all time.






Gale 1989

N. H. Gale, xxxxx

Gjerstad 1980

E. Gjerstad, Ages and days in Cyprus (SIMA-PB, 12), Göteborg.

Hallager & Hallager 1997–2003

The Greek-Swedish excavations at the Ag. Aikaterini square, Kastelli, Khania 1970–1987 (Skrifter utgivna av Svenska institutet i Athen, 47:1, 1–2), vol. I–III, red. E. Hallager & B. P. Hallager, Stockholm 1997–2003.

Ålin 1978

P. Ålin, ‘Idalion pottery from the excavations of the Swedish Cyprus Expedition’, Opuscula Atheniensia 12, 1978, xx–xx.






Fig. 1 When the work was over at Dali, a great farewell party was held for the workers in the house of Panayotis. Photo: John Lindros (Medelhavsmuseet, Stockholm).


Fig. 2 Erik Sjöqvist at the Western wall. From the two acropoleis the city wall runs down the hill to enclose the whole of the ancient city of Idalion, whose ruins extend right up to the boundary of the modern village of Dali. Beyond the wall stretches the necropolis with thousands of tombs in the lush vineyards. Photo: John Lindros (Medelhavsmuseet, Stockholm).


Fig. 3 Amphoriskos of Bichrome V ware (from the settlement). Detail showing drawing of shoulder zone depicting a frieze of male heads in profile. Two of the heads have conical helmets and all have earrings. Details of dress and earrings are painted red. Cypro-Archaic II, c. 600–480 B.C. Medelhavsmuseet, Inv. no I. 692. Drawing: Margareta Sjöblom (Medelhavsmuseet, Stockholm). 


Fig. 4 Scale armour of iron and bronze. Armour scales of iron and bronze mounted on a cork model (reconstruction made in 1935). From the sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Athena at Idalion. 6th century B.C. Height: 36 cm, width: 50 cm. Medelhavsmuseet, Inv. no. I. 236. Photo: Ove Kaneberg (Medelhavsmuseet, Stockholm).


Fig. 5 Terracotta head of a bearded male (Neo Eastern-Cypriote Style). Solid, moulded head with traces of black paint on eyes and beard. Fringe of curly hair above forehead and “feathered” eyebrows in relief. Double earrings at lobes. Idalion-Vasilika. First half of the 6th century B.C. Height: 6 cm. Medelhavsmuseet, Inv. no Vasilika 6. Photo: Ove Kaneberg (Medelhavsmuseet, Stockholm).





[1] Hallager & Hallager xxxx, Pl. 52; Hallager & Hallager 1997, 77–P 0079.

[2] Hallager & Hallager xxxx, Pl. 38; Hallager & Hallager 1997, 71–P 0782 and 0834; Hallager & Hallager 2003, Pl. 50.

[3] Confer the fragment of a kalathos from Khania with a Minoan flower from a Late Minoan IIIB:2 context (Hallager & Hallager 2003, Pl. 54; Hallager & Hallager 1997, 70–p 0362, 84–P 1302, Pl. 64), and a kylix in the Local Kydonian workshop with a fine Minoan flower below the rim, found in a Late Minoan IIIB:1–2 context (Hallager & Hallger 1997, 77–P 0577; Hallager & Hallager 2003, Pl. 53).

[4] Noel H. Gale and Zofia Stos-Gale attempted to provenance metals by lead isotope analysis. In 1989 he published the outcome of chemical and lead isotope analyses of several Early and Middle Bronze Age artefacts from the Cyprus Collections in Sweden. One of the most exciting results was the chemical composition of a rat-tanged dirk from Lapithos (L. 313 A: 59, Middle Cypriote I). It contains 1.5% of tin and about the same amount of arsenic. So far this is the earliest known Cypriot object with a significant tin content: Stos-Gale, Z.A. et al. Gale presented their results at a conference in Stockholm in 2006.

Artikeln intill är publicerad i denna jubileumsbok, utkommen september 2010.