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History of excavations in the Kourion area

Early excavators around Kourion

The ancient site of Kourion attracted considerable attention from travellers, scholars and amateur excavators in the 19th century AD, before the advent of the modern science of field archaeology. This was largely owing to its prominent acropolis, which rises dramatically from the sea to a height of some 100m, but also because of the extensive ruins and cemeteries between the village of Episkopi and the site of the ancient city. Rock-cut tombs honeycombed the surrounding hills and the flanks of the acropolis, while the flatter ground in the plain below would also proved to contain many ancient burials. Gordon Hake, who explored the area in 1882, stated that ‘the country all around is one vast cemetery’.[1]

These tombs were, no doubt, first opened by the local population for objects of precious materials, and later for general antiquities, which could be sold to collectors as the interest in ancient Cypriot artefacts grew. This taste first developed among the foreign commercial and diplomatic community, but the wealthier or more educated members of the local Cypriot community also began to collect and study antiquities during the 19th century as part of a growing interest in the remote history of the island.

The area was also known to be the location of the ancient city of Kourion (or Curium as it was called in Latin) and the famous sanctuary of Apollo Hylates, mentioned by ancient Greek authors such as Herodotos, Arrian, Diodoros Siculus and Strabo. Indeed, the local population still associated the area around the sanctuary with Apollo when its ruins were first recorded by western European visitors in the 19th century AD (see below).[2]

Numerous travellers recorded their impressions of the landscape and the visible ruins. Richard Pococke, an Irish bishop and scholar who travelled around Cyprus in 1738, was aware of the historical associations of the area. He was unable, however, to identify the location of the sanctuary of Apollo, which he believed to lie around the modern village.[3]  In the 1820s, the Italian classical scholar Carlo Vidua published some inscriptions recorded around Episkopi by an anonymous traveller, which mentioned the name of the city of Kourion, thus confirming the location of the ancient city in this area.[4]

Later, in 1839, the American missionary Lorenzo Warriner Pease sketched the layout of a large tomb near the acropolis and copied the text of an inscription in honour of a Ptolemaic ruler at the site of Apollo Hylates, which, he noted, was called ‘Apollonas’ (belonging to Apollo) by the local people.[5]  The German antiquarian Ludwig Ross observed the remains of a large building with Doric columns as well as other Ptolemaic inscriptions in the same location during his tour of Cyprus in 1845.[6]

View of the acropolis of Kourion in the 19th century, showing Cesnola observing it through a telescope, probably from the Ayios Ermoyenis cemetery to the south-east. (Cesnola 1877, 293)


Undoubtedly the most famous early excavator at Kourion was the Italian-American consul Luigi Palma di Cesnola (1832–1904). He explored the area extensively in 1874 and 1875, particularly the rich cemeteries of the ancient city around the chapel of Ayios Ermoyenis, the sanctuary of Apollo Hylates, and possibly on the acropolis.[7]  The published details of his work are schematic and often misleading, while his account of the spectacular ‘Curium Treasure’ is largely an invention. He claimed to have discovered an elaborate underground complex consisting of a series of large inter-connecting chambers literally crammed with thousands of antiquities of great quality and value, which he compared to the recently discovered ‘Treasure of Priam’ found by Heinrich Schliemann at Troy.

In reality, the treasure was assembled from various sources of different periods and cultures, though many of the items may indeed have been found in the burial grounds around the ancient city, especially the cemetery known as Ayios Ermoyenis below the eastern (‘Amathus’) gate of the city. Both the testimony of several individuals who worked for Cesnola at Kourion, as well as several letters written by Cesnola to Samuel Birch at the British Museum over the course of the summer of 1875, reveal that some of the most spectacular items in the ‘Treasure’ were found in chamber tombs in this area at this time.[8]

The Birch correspondence describes the excavation of a tomb with multiple chambers, during which was found the famous pair of bracelets inscribed with the name of the king of Paphos in Cypriot Syllabic script.[9]  Significantly, Cesnola noted that if it were not for the presence of human remains in the chambers, he would have believed he was dealing with a temple treasury. Regardless of whether the details in these letters are themselves unreliable, it is clear that Cesnola knew he was dealing with one or more ancient tombs.[10]

In the same area, a succession of later excavators, including the British Museum in 1895 (see beow), uncovered many rich burials of the Cypro-Archaic (CA), Cypro-Classical (CC) and Hellenistic periods with similar material to that found in the ‘Curium Treasure’, suggesting that this was one of the major burial grounds of the city’s élite in the later first millennium BC (see below).

Most recently, Demos Christou of the Department of Antiquities excavated a large stone-built tomb with a sloping entrance passage dating to the late CA or CC periods, the only example of the so-called Royal Tomb type, which is commonly found at other sites on the island during this time such as Salamis and Tamassos. Some of the rich finds from this tomb closely match those from the ‘Curium Treasure’, suggesting that this was one of the local sources for Cesnola’s material.[11]

Plan of the so-called ‘Treasure Chamber’ of Kourion, which was invented by Luigi Palma di Cesnola. (Cesnola 1877, 304)


In 1876, Cesnola offered to sell the ‘Treasure’ along with other items to the British Museum for £12,000, over three-quarters of a million pounds by modern standards. During negotiations, however, he agreed to accept £10,000 on condition that the collection was kept together and exhibited in a gallery bearing his name.[12]  During this time he also worked on his popular account of his discoveries, Cyprus. Its Ancient Cities, Tombs, and Temples, in order to compete with Schliemann’s publications on Troy and Mycenae. Part of the reason for this was simply to enhance his reputation in the academic world, but also to deflect the criticisms his work had attracted in the preceding decade.

Cesnola simultaneously conducted negotiations with other museums, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the museum in Philadelphia, and possibly the Louvre.[13]  Despite the efforts of Charles Newton, the Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities, and the support of the Trustees of the British Museum, lack of funds from the British Treasury once again thwarted the purchase. The entire collection was sold to the recently established Metropolitan Museum for $50,000. Cesnola himself was soon after appointed Secretary, and then Director, of the museum, at whose core were the collections formed by Cesnola himself on Cyprus in the late 1860s and 1870s.[14]

An interesting postscript to this story lies in the fact that the ‘Curium Treasure’ soon attracted considerable attention in New York, to such an extent that the prestigious jewellers Tiffany & Co made a facsimile range of some of the more elaborate pieces for sale to its customers. This included a gold open-loop bracelet with terminals in the form of lions’ heads, which reproduced very accurately the details of the original. An example of one of these Tiffany bracelets can be found in the British Museum collections.[15]

Newton had to make do with a much smaller collection of objects, whose purchase for £300 was approved by the Trustees in 1876.[16]  This collection appears to have been assembled by Cesnola before his campaign of summer 1875 when he excavated the most impressive parts of the ‘Treasure’. It comprised a fairly heterogeneous group of material from various sources – like the ‘Treasure’ – but included a pair of massive bronze cauldron handles decorated with lotus blossoms, which match exactly two from the ‘Curium Treasure’.[17]  It is quite likely that the handles, together with some of the other bronze items in this group, came from a tomb in the Ayios Ermoyenis cemetery, if not from one of the tomb groups that made up the ‘Treasure’ itself.

Newton appears not to have been privy to the details of Cesnola’s letters to Birch mentioned above, for he continued to be impressed (and convinced) by Cesnola’s public version of the ‘Treasure Chamber’, which the latter published in 1877. From the beginning of the British administration of Cyprus in 1878, he pressed the British government to provide funds for excavation or at least to place it under firm official regulation.[18]  He also argued that an investment of £200 and a team of sappers from the Royal Engineers would be sufficient to clear the blockage that Cesnola claimed had prevented the complete excavation of the chamber. Although frustrated again by financial constraints, official Museum interest in the site remained strong and would eventually be put into practice by the Turner Bequest excavations of 1895 (see below).[19]

In the meantime, a succession of excavators explored the site. In 1882, Captain Gordon Hake excavated at Kourion on behalf of the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria & Albert Museum) in search of objects of strictly aesthetic interest. This was one of a series of excavations organised by Lt. (later Lord) Kitchener as part of the work of the Survey of Cyprus he undertook on behalf of the new British authorities.[20]  In his manuscript report preserved in the V&A archives (a copy of which exists in the Department of Greece and Rome at the British Museum), Hake described how the burial grounds had already been thoroughly ransacked.

Hake nonetheless acquired a rich collection of pottery, glass and miscellaneous items for the museum and noted that much remained to be discovered, stating in his report that ‘the countryside all around is all cemetery’. Newton was offered a share of these finds for the British Museum but rejected them, possibly on the grounds that as no burial groups had been kept intact, the material had limited archaeological value to answer important questions of the day, especially the chronology of the Bronze and earlier Iron Ages remains of the island and their relationship with early Greek art.[21]

Many of the objects that were kept by the South Kensington Museum at the time were transferred to the British Museum in the early 1980s. They are discussed in greater detail below (see Guide to the Collection II below for more details of Hake’s background and archaeological activities at Kourion).

Commercial syndicates were organised in 1883 by the expatriate British businessmen J. W. Williamson and Charles Christian, who claimed to have made a 500% profit on their investment, demonstrating the lucrative nature of speculative excavation at this time. Williamson’s attitude to the official regulations appears to have been somewhat casual, as he was accused of digging illegally on government land without official supervision. This problem reflects the difficulties of the British administration in policing the excavation of antiquities without a proper archaeological service, though it is unclear how much of a priority the strict enforcement of antiquities legislation was at this time.[22]  Other private individuals, such as the island’s Chief Secretary Col. Falkland Warren and the Government Engineer Samuel Brown, dug here in 1883–4 for a variety of reasons: financial, antiquarian and social.[23]

Warren also excavated around Kourion on behalf of the intrepid Lady Annie Brassey, the wife of a wealthy and influential Liberal MP, who assembled a large collection of antiquities, ethnographic material and natural history specimens during her extensive travels around the world during the 1870s and 1880s. Although relatively little known in archaeological circles, she is one of the very few Victorian women collectors of antiquities, which she intended to use for educational purposes, in addition to satisfying her own curiosity for the many ancient and exotic artefacts collected during her extensive travels. Her collection was dispersed after her death, though part of it is preserved in museums in Hastings and Wolverhampton, among other places.[24]  The campaigns at Kourion around this time were nominally supervised by the government inspector Max Ohnefalsch-Richter, who also excavated around here on behalf of the Berlin Museum. The fact that he also excavated for private clients at the same time illustrates the ambiguous and contradictory attitudes towards antiquities on Cyprus at this time.  [25]

Drawing of the plan and section and accompanying grave goods from a tomb or tombs at Kourion excavated by Max Ohnefalsch-Richter around 1883 (Ohnefalsch-Richter 1893, plate CLXXIII, 19). The small plaque with two naked females marked ‘c’ is very similar to examples found in Tomb 73 of the British Museum excavations in 1896. (Bailey and Hockey 1991)

Finally, the French Consul Emile de Castillon carried out a short season at Kourion in 1886–7, just before the new High Commissioner, Sir Henry Bulwer, banned all private and speculative excavation and restricted digging to public institutions.[26]  Both Ohnefalsch-Richter and de Castillon made some attempts to record their discoveries systematically, including descriptions of the specific findspots of objects such as tombs. It is a sign of the changes in archaeological methods and attitudes that gradually came into force during this time.

  • ^ [1] - V&A archives: G. Hake, Manuscript Report in the Kitchener File; also cited in Bailey 1965, 8 (see Guide to the Collection II below for a full transcript); Kiely 2009b, 64 and Kiely 2010b for an account of Newton's interests in the archaeology of Cyprus.
  • ^ [2] - Severis 2002, 1046
  • ^ [3] - Cobham 1908, 265
  • ^ [4] - Mitford 1971, nos 38, 45, and 84.
  • ^ [5] - Severis 2002, 1045–7; Buitron and Oliver 1988; Mitford 1971, no. 38
  • ^ [6] - Ross 1845; 1852/1910, 85; Mitford 1971, 3.
  • ^ [7] - Cesnola 1877, chapter 11; Swiny 1991 also provides a succinct overview of his life and an account of the book itself. Also McFadden 1971, chapter 11.
  • ^ [8] - Masson 1984a.
  • ^ [9] - Masson 1983, no. 176 (now lost).
  • ^ [10] - Masson 1984b, 3–5.
  • ^ [11] - Christou 1994, chapter 10; Christou 2000, esp. fig. 7; also Annual Report of the Department of Antiquities, Cyprus 1989, 55 and 1990, 53.
  • ^ [12] - BM Central Archives, Original Papers, Newton’s report of 8 Dec 1878.
  • ^ [13] - McFadden 1971, 167–8. A letter from Cesnola to Newton dated 12th January 1876 alludes to negotiations with William Waddington, the French Minister of Public Instruction (BM ME Archives, Original Letters).
  • ^ [14] - McFadden 1971; Karageorghis 2000, 7–8.
  • ^ [15] - Gere et al. 1984, no. 978; Gere and Rudoe 2010, 435–6.
  • ^ [16] - BM GR 1876,9-9.1–127.
  • ^ [17] - Karageorghis et al. 2000, 271–2; Matthäus 1985, 193.
  • ^ [18] - Tatton-Brown 2001, 183 provides extracts of the principal documents; also Kiely 2010b.
  • ^ [19] - BM Central Archive Original Papers, report of Newton to Trustees 6 January 1879.
  • ^ [20] - Shirley 2001.
  • ^ [21] - Bailey 1965, 5–13; Kiely 2009, 64.
  • ^ [22] - Ohnefalsch-Richter 1893, 480 note *; Cyprus State Archives SA 1/6555/6 (excavation licence and letter from District Commissioner); Merrillees 2005.
  • ^ [23] - Myres and Ohnefalsch-Richter 1899, 7; Buchholz 2001, 208.
  • ^ [24] - Brassey 1880, 258; Taylor 2001, 242–3; Hadjigavriel and Severis 1998, esp. 144–52; Symons 1984, 2–3. I am very grateful to Catherine Walling, curator of Hastings Museum and Art Gallery, for generously giving me access to this collection in June 2010.
  • ^ [25] - Reinach 1891, 267–9.
  • ^ [26] - Reinach 1891, 422; De Castillon 1891; Buitron-Oliver and Oliver 2002; Goring 1988, 21–2.