Ancient Cyprus in the British Museum

Edited by Thomas Kiely

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Cyprus is the third largest island in the Mediterranean, with a highly strategic position linking the Aegean, Anatolia, the Levant and Egypt. It was famous in antiquity for its abundant copper mines, extensive forests, fine craftsmanship and luxury goods, and, perhaps most of all, as the birthplace of the goddess Aphrodite.

For much of its long history, and indeed down to modern times, Cyprus has played a central role in the complex political and economic relationships of the eastern Mediterranean region, both as a source of raw materials and manufactured goods, but also as a cultural nexus between the diverse populations of the entire region. This is reflected in the richly textured archaeological record of the island which, while drawing widely from neighbouring regions for techniques and artistic inspirations, nonetheless remains distinctively Cypriot.

Map of Cyprus showing major physical features and important archaeoloigcal sites (the names of ancient places are in italics)

British Museum collection

The British Museum holds one of the largest and most archaeologically important collections of ancient Cypriot artefacts outside of the island itself. This comprises over nine thousand antiquities from over 40 sites throughout the island now held in the Department of Greece and Rome, approximately one thousand ancient coins preserved in the Department of Coins and Medals, and about one thousand items which were exported form Cyprus in antiquity in the collections of the Departments of the Middle East and Ancient Egypt and Sudan. The antiquities ranges in date from the Ceramic Neolithic period down to the end of the Roman Empire (around 5000 BC–AD 500). There is in addition a smaller number of Byzantine, Mediaeval, Venetian and Ottoman artefacts held by the Department of Prehistory and Europe. A selection of this extraordinary collection is on display in the A.G. Leventis Gallery of Cypriot Antiquities, but also throughout the museum where it illustrates the cultural achievements of Cyprus through the ages within the broader context of world civilisations as represented in the British Museum holdings.    

The vast majority of these artefacts were acquired during the second half of the 19th century, before the emergence of modern archaeological methods of excavation and recording. Nonetheless, one of the great strengths of the collection lies in the fact that a considerable proportion of the objects have a firm provenance or findspot. Approximately half of the antiquities in the Department of Greece and Rome were excavated by the British Museum itself, particularly during the Turner Bequest excavations of the 1890s (as well as several later campaigns funded by the museum), all of which are comparatively well documented. Many other groups of artefacts acquired at this time can also be traced back to their original site or archaeological context, reflecting the attempts of important museum figures such as Charles Newton and Alexander Murray to encourage excavation and collection under the supervision or guidance of scholars. 

The catalogue

The Ancient Cyprus in the British Museum Online Research Catalogue (ORC) provides an introduction to this extraordinarily rich and historically important trove of ancient material. This ORC aims to provide a detailed and fully illustrated database of the entire Cypriot collection, together with essays outlining the history and archaeological development of the sites represented in the British Museum, in order to introduce the general public, students and scholars to the archaeology of Cyprus. In particular, we have attempted to present the finds  from older excavations in the context of modern archaeological discoveries and research. Each new season of excavations on the island brings forth new information of and insights into the lives of ancient Cypriots, and certain sections of this catalogue will no doubt become out-of-date in the near future. However we hope that the introductory material provides readers of all levels of knowledge and specialisation with a basic framework for understanding the material presented in the British Museum collection database.

Wherever possible, we have also integrated the texts of archival notebooks and correspondence surviving from the 19th century excavations. This rich historical resource, much of which has been unpublished until recently, helps to illustrate the background and nature of the original excavations, but also provides additional information on the findpots or on artefacts which were not kept at the time. In line with the Ottoman Law on Antiquities (1874) which remained in force during the early British period on Cyprus, approximately one-third of all finds were given to the Cyprus Museum. Other bodies of material excavated by the Cyprus Exploration Fund (1888–94) and the British Museum’s own excavations (1893–99) were likewise divided among a number of institutions in the United Kingdom and Cyprus. Many of these were not published at the time of excavation, but the finds from Enkomi have recently been studied and digitised by the Cyprus Museum, in collaboration with the British Museum. This information, which complements and completes the publication of the British Museum material from the 1896 excavations presented here, can now be accessed through the project website ( It is hoped that further bodies of material dispersed by 19th-century archaeologists will also be studied and digitised in order to reconstruct as much a possible the original finds from these excavations and to highlight the rich collections of Cypriot antiquities created as a result of 19th-century- collection practices. With this aim in mind, each chapter of the Online Research Catalogue includes a brief section on the dispersal of objects from their respective sites throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Progress to date

Six chapters of this catalogue have been completed so far, and more will follow as the work of the project continues.

  • Some 1,800 items from the important Late Bronze Age cemetery and settlement site of Enkomi (around 1650 BC–1050 BC), excavated by the British Museum in 1896, were studied by Dr Lindy Crewe for the first phase of the ORC published in 2008.
  • The chapter on Kourion presents almost 800 objects from the Bronze and Iron Age cemeteries dotted around the acropolis of the ancient city and the modern village of Episkopi excavated by Lt Herbert Kitchener and Gordon Hake in 1882 and by the British Museum in 1895. Also included are casual finds from the same burial grounds, together with other artefacts from the surrounding region illustrating the earlier history of human settlement in the area.  
  • The sections on Maroni, Hala Sultan Tekke and Klavdia-Tremithos describe several important Bronze Age communities with far-flung trading connections, whose remains were also explored by the British Museum in the 1890s,
  • The chapter on the ancient city-kingdom Lapethos describes the history of the archaeologically very rich area of northern Cyprus around the villages of Lapithos and Karavas. The text is focused in particular on a small group of terracotta figurines from an Iron Age sanctuary, the coins struck by the ancient city-kingdom of Lapethos, and a treasure of Byzantine silverware found there in the early 19th century.  

Future of the catalogue

Over time this catalogue will grow as bodies of material from other sites are added, along with additional information to help the reader understand the archaeology of the island. The entire Cyprus collection can already be browsed in the Museum's Collections Online Database, though please note that many of the entries which have not yet been updated contain only basic information and will be updated in due course (see Guide to the Cyprus Collection for a full list of registration numbers and sites represented). The information presented in the completed catalogue chapters, however, reflects the latest academic scholarship on the subject. Our aim is to keep this catalogue updated on a regular basis in line with new discoveries and research. We welcome contributions from researchers who would like to provide further information or comments on any of the object records.

Thomas Kiely, curator, Department of Greece and Rome
December 2008

Updated, July 2011

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