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History of excavations in the Kourion
area continued

The British Museum Turner Bequest
excavations of 1896

It was only in 1895 that a serious attempt was made to record the archaeological wealth of the Kourion area in a quasi-systematic fashion by an expedition organised by the British Museum. Kourion was the second of the three Turner Bequest excavations of 1893–6, funded by a legacy of £2,000 by Miss Emma Turner of Oxford in 1892.

The work was supervised by an assistant at the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, H.B. Walters. Two local businessmen, Charles Christian and J.W. Williamson, acted as local agents for the British Museum, arranging for permits, negotiating with land-owners and managing the workforce and finances. Both men were experienced commercial excavators and dealers in antiquities by this time, having previously sold numerous archaeological items to the Greek and Roman Department from their excavations at Kourion (mentioned above) in 1883 and later at Marion (modern Polis-tis-Khrysokhou) in 1886, as well as other items acquired from local collectors and, no doubt, tomb looters.[1]

Between January and March 1895, this team examined 118 tombs in five separate cemeteries (marked A to E on the accompanying map) and a small rural sanctuary, also located in Area C. In line with Ottoman antiquity laws, which remained in force on Cyprus after the beginning of the British administration in 1878, two-thirds of the finds were allocated to the British Museum as excavators and tenants or owners of the land, with one-third – the government share under the law – going to the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia.[2]  Some 400 items were registered by the British Museum (see below, Guide to Collection I), but many others items listed in the surviving field notebook (hereafter referred to as the Notebook) were not kept because they were regarded as being of no archaeological, historical or aesthetic value, or else on account of their poor preservation. [3]

Typically for this period, the excavators were driven by an urge to discover Classical Greek and (as the excavations progressed) Mycenaean objects, to the neglect of the predominantly Cypriot culture of the area. Many more items, including most of the plain or coarse pottery, were almost certainly ignored completely and not recorded in the Notebook. According to John Myres, many of the larger intact pottery vessels discovered the previous year at Amathus – where a similarly selective policy of retention was followed – were given to the local women for use as water jars, perhaps as a means of cultivating good relations with the local population.[4]

Some of the items from Kourion which were not registered by the British Museum on arrival in London were donated to Eton College, continuing a practice begun the previous year to provide leading museums, colleges and schools in the British Isles with collections of duplicates from Amathus.[5]  [See below, Ancient Kourion in Britain and Ireland].

Sketch of the Kourion area from the Notebook


The Turner Bequest excavations were not particularly methodical or scientific by the standards of modern archaeology, while the interpretation of the finds was heavily influenced by the cultural, historical and political assumptions of the time. Nonetheless they helped to lay the groundwork for the development of Cypriot archaeology into a scientific discipline. For instance, the BM campaigns assembled for the first time a large sample of material from specific contexts, arranged by object type and material, which could be used to construct a cultural and chronological framework for the development of society on the island in the second and first millennia BC.[6]  The practice of keeping together objects from the same tomb was also relatively new, even if many items were later dispersed.

The Notebook and other archival documents list many items which were later discarded. This suggests a concern at least to record the major finds from specific contexts (even if many were subsequently regarded as having no historical or aesthetic value) as well as basic information about the topographic layout of the sites excavated. These sources reveal a much greater attention to detail than is apparent in the main published account, Excavations in Cyprus of 1900, which can be said to reflect the ‘institutionalisation’ of the discoveries within a museum context, where information about the original excavation contexts became less important than the objects themselves.

More generally, the spectacular discoveries at Enkomi in 1896, along with the series of smaller excavations at Maroni, Hala Sultan Tekke and Klavdia during the later part of the decade, created the basis for studying what we know as the Late Bronze Age (LBA) on Cyprus. These discoveries also linked Cyprus to the Mycenaean world which had been ‘discovered’ over the previous 20 years by Newton, Schliemann and Tsountas, and laid the foundations for a much broader, inter-regional understanding of the Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean.[7]

The later material from Kourion (as well as Amathus) was also important in defining the Cypriot Iron Age. The various catalogues of objects published by the British Museum over the next 30 years provided a valuable source of material for the first truly scientific excavators on Cyprus, particularly the impressive syntheses of the period created by the members of the Swedish Cyprus Expedition over the course of the 20th century.[8]


  • ^ [1] - See Kiely forthcoming for a study of their archaeological activities.
  • ^ [2] - Myres and Ohnefalsch-Richter 1899, v–vi; Stanley Price 2001.
  • ^ [3] - GR Archives, H.B. Walters, Notes at Curium. Kiely 2009b provides a fully annotated transcription with commentary.
  • ^ [4] - I am grateful to Mr Don Bailey for this information (also Bailey and Hockey 2001, 121 note 4); cf. Kiely 2009, 66, 84 for a discussion of the selection process.
  • ^ [5] - I am grateful to Dr Christopher Greaves for confirming the presence of this material, to the Bursar Mr Andrew Wynn and to his secretary Mrs Dalacker for permitting me to study these objects in June 2010. On donations generally, see Bailey 1975, 206, notes 6 and 10 (with references).
  • ^ [6] - Steel 2001, 163–4.
  • ^ [7] - Fitton 1995a; 1995b; 2001; also Steel 2001.
  • ^ [8] - Gjerstad 1948 passim; Vessberg and Westholm 1956 passim.