Ancient Cyprus in the British Museum

Edited by Thomas Kiely

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History of excavations: the British Museum at Hala Sultan Tekke in 1897–8

H.B. Walters’ excavations of 1897

In 1897, excavators from the British Museum led by H.B. Walters, an assistant in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, were exploring the area around Maroni village further along the coast to the west. They were alerted to the presence of rich tombs (including imports from the Mycenaean world) in the area of the mosque known as Hala Sultan Tekke on the western shore of the Larnaka Salt Lake just outside the modern town. The area was well known by that time as a source of antiquities, being so close to the town of Larnaka where many collectors and dealers (both foreign residents and local Cypriots) were based.[1]

It is highly likely, for example, that Luigi Palma di Cesnola explored this area during his time as American consul in Larnaka, though no record exists of his operations. Walters also benefitted from the advice of his local foreman Grigori Antoniou, who had previously worked with him at Maroni and the British Museum agents, Charles and Percy Christian, both of whom carried on a lively private trade in antiquities in addition to their licensed work for the Museum. As the Maroni sites were proving less rich and productive than they had hoped, operations were transferred to the Larnaka Bay area. In a letter of 23 November 1897 to his superior A.S. Murray in London discussing the excavations at Maroni, H.B. Walters observed:

There is said to be a very promising site at the Tekke, close to the Larnaka Salt Lake, for which Cobham would give us permission if necessary. I don’t know whether you would care to try this supposing Maroni were to continue barren. It is strange how Mycenaean antiquities keep turning up all around Larnaka.

Having negotiated for permission to excavate from the owners of the land around the Tekke (the Muslim authorities known as the Evkaf), as well as from the British administration of the island, which required all excavators to obtain a permit, work began work at the site in December 1897.

Walters' sketch plan of his excavation area at Hala Sultan Tekke

Although only a week in total was spent at the site, Walters’ team appears to have opened a large number of tombs in an area to the north-west of the mosque. A pencilled square on a map of the area preserved in the British Museum archives shows a field around 300m x 300m in extent.

A plan showing the distribution of the tombs is highly schematic, lacking both a scale and a compass indicator. The main record of this work is a short series of letters sent by Walters to his superiors at the British Museum, together with several schematic lists of the contents of 10 of the most notable tombs (given the Roman numerals I to X) now preserved in the archives of the Department of Greece and Rome.

Few details are recorded of the architecture of the tombs, the burial deposits or the treatment of the dead.It is almost certain that the surviving tomb groups do not provide a complete record of what was found. In particular, locally produced or fragmentary objects, particularly plain pottery, were also found but not preserved or recorded because at the time this material was not regarded as historically or aesthetically important. It is also clear that many of the tombs had already been looted or disturbed prior to Walters’ visit, which, together with his relative inexperience as an excavator, would have made it difficult for him to obtain the kind of results that modern archaeologists would demand.

Work ceased at the end of December, but Walters arranged for the site to be guarded until excavations could be resumed at a later stage, as it was clear that the area had already been explored illegally before the British Museum began excavations there. Extracts of some of the original archival sources are provided below.

Letter of 22nd December 1897 to the Principal Librarian (that is, Director) of the British Museum (some paragraph breaks have been inserted for greater legibility):

As my telegram of the 20th will have informed you, the Maroni site is now exhausted, and I have been negotiating for leave to make trials on the Tekké land in the neighbourhood. As I learn from Mr Murray that you do not wish regular excavations to be undertaken on a new site at present, I find by the above mentioned date we shall have gained sufficient information as to the prospects of the Tekké site, and I hope you will approve this course of action…

…As regards the difficulties with the owners, i.e. the Efkaf authorities, to which my telegram referred, I am happy to say that they have been satisfactorily settled. The Turkish occupiers of the Tekké sent a report to the Delegates of the Efkaf at Nicosia that we had been excavating before we had actually obtained permission, apparently choosing to ignore the fact that this had been the work of the illicit diggers from the neighbouring village. However Mr Christian and I went up to Nicosia on Monday last and interviewed Mr Ashmore, the British Delegate, with satisfactory results, and we obtained the permission on the following day. One of the conditions is that the Tekké owners should have a claim to the owners’ share of the finds, but I think that by the payment of a small sum of money we can obtain that share of the finds, should they be desirable. But in any case we cannot expect to find much in the course of one week…

…Turning to the Tekké site, it is of course early to speak as yet, but the result of our trials at the time of writing is fairly favourable. On tomb has yielded a fine gold ring with Egyptian hieroglyphics on the bezel, and other objects in gold, and other tombs which are not yet completed contain good fragments of Mycenaean pottery. It appears that until quite recently the site has not been touched in modern times, although so much excavation, lawful and otherwise, has been done in the neighbourhood. It seems extremely probable, however, that if we leave this site unfinished, it will become the prey of illicit diggers, and perhaps completely spoiled. But even if we spend the whole of the £500 at present available, we could not go very far towards finishing it.

Walters then states that the site will almost certainly be subject to illegal excavation and proposes a plan to hire a guard or else to ask Percy Christian to look into the matter:

Postscript (23 December)

The Tekké site has continued to produce favourable results today. Among other things we have found a very fine haematite cylinder with Phoenician designs, a Mycenaean oinochoe with bulls on the shoulder (a new type), and sundry gold ornaments. We hope to continue digging tomorrow (24th) and resume on the 27th for three days, when I shall suspend operations and arrange for the distribution [of the finds among the interested parties] on the 30th inst. In view of the very favourable prospects of the site, and the impossibility of continuing excavations now for any length of time, I hope the plan I have proposed above (to put a watchman on the site) will meet with your approval until we are once more in a position to carry on operations.

  • ^ [1] - Nicolaou 1976, chapter I; Goring 1988.
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