Cyprus: Interconnections in the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1700-1100 BC)

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By: A. Bernard Knapp
Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute, 11 Andreas Demetriou, 1066 Nicosia, Cyprus. Email.

Throughout its long prehistory and protohistory, the island of Cyprus was strategically situated between the cultures of ancient western Asia and the Aegean, if not those of the central Mediterranean. As a consequence, in literature both academic and popular, the island is frequently referred to as a ‘crossroads of civilizations’. This is especially the case for the Late Bronze Age (henceforth LBA, between ca. 1700-1100 BC), but it also holds true for the Iron Age, the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the Medieval and even the modern eras, albeit in very different ways.Cyprus

But how accurate is this image, projected not just by scholars but also by travel agents and merchandisers? By assigning to the island an intermediary role as a ‘crossroads’, archaeologists and historians view political, economic and even artistic developments on Cyprus as linked to external forces — invasions, migrations, colonization — based in scholarly preconceptions that expect to encounter Aegean or western Asiatic cultural influences. Such a passive and ahistorical role for Cyprus may be questioned, not least because during the transition to the LBA (ca. 1700–1500 BC) certain people on the island became very active in the interregional systems of trade and exchange that characterized this era. This was a time of increased mobility and connectivity between Cyprus and the Levant, Egypt, Anatolia and the Aegean, a time that impacted positively on a changing society and an emerging insular identity, all reflected in new material and social practices.

During the centuries between ca. 1500-1100 BC, there is a steep rise in Cyprus’s connectivity with many regions in the eastern and central Mediterranean, and presumably in the types of mobility — ships, merchants, sailors — that made it possible. Archaeological data demonstrate Cyprus’s deepening involvement in systems of metallurgical production and consumption, within and beyond the island. To exploit Cyprus’s copper ore-bodies on the scale that is evident throughout the LBA required an increasingly complex level of organization. Specialized technological skills, the coordination of time and labor, and social realignments enabled producers, distributors and consumers to interact, both cooperatively and competitively. All the organizational factors involved in establishing the Cypriot copper industry promoted the development of a more stratified social order and the growth of power differentials. By controlling access to copper ores, and ultimately by managing the output of specialist smiths or artisans, Cypriot élites consolidated their power base and may have excluded other sectors of society from those metal goods that symbolized élite membership. Until the late 13th or early 12th century BC, however, these élites seldom used copper or bronze for display or mortuary deposition, instead replying on exotic items imported from the Aegean, the Levant and Egypt.

Centralized control over Cypriot copper resources and long-distance trade, access to luxury goods and desirable imports, and the capacity to maintain neutrality in a turbulent geopolitical climate transformed the island into a wealthy, socially stratified polity dominated by a political élite responsive to external demand for its most valuable resource, copper. Whether or not the trade in copper or the production and exchange of bronze objects formed the main focus of LBA trade, archaeometallurgical practices involved miners, producers and distributors in networks of mobility along which ideas, skills and technologies moved, exposing local artisans and traders to wider regional polities, peoples and politico-economic practices.

The general constellation of LBA sites as well as the number and variety of both imported and local goods found in them, suggest that a maritime location, the attraction of overseas markets, and the existence of competing social groups or political alliances were key factors in the location of these sites. Densely populated coastal towns like Enkomi, Kition, Hala Sultan Tekke and Maroni relied on raw materials, especially copper, and agricultural or manufactured goods from inland production sites to underpin their involvement in interregional and long distance exchange. For most of the LBA, Enkomi served as a major gateway for Aegean wares travelling to Ugarit and elsewhere in the Levant. All these port towns, i.e. those directly on the sea, were deeply involved in international trade. Copper oxhide ingots and other products were exported throughout the Mediterranean and beyond, as long distance exchange became vital to the Cypriot economy. Cuneiform letters sent from Alašiya (Cyprus) to Egypt and Ugarit reveal that the ruler of Cyprus regulated copper production and trade.

During the Late Cypriot 1 period (ca. 1600-1450 BC), political and economic control, and thus the engagement in foreign trade on Cyprus, seems to have been centered initially at Enkomi. Subsequently other major coastal or even inland emporia became involved: these included Kalavasos, Maroni, Alassa, Hala Sultan Tekke and Kition. Although the material record of LBA Cyprus reveals no transparent indicators of the palatial organizations that characterized neighboring Egyptian, Levantine and Aegean polities, the combined material and documentary records leave little doubt that socio-political and economic power were centralized in a royal personage, if not necessarily a specific place.

During the Late Cypriot 2 period (ca. 1450-1250 BC), there emerged a distinctive, three- or four-tiered settlement hierarchy characterized by site size, location and function. The people who lived in urban centers shared a common material culture. Similarities in both local and imported pottery vessels, and in the style and content of seal iconography, must have served as powerful, symbolic media for expressing centralized control. At the same time, these urban dwellers invested a great deal of time and labor in erecting somewhat standardized monumental buildings. Élite activities were also focused on procuring resources and exotica, investing more and more energy and material goods into mortuary deposits, developing and maintaining diverse symbols of power, and producing a range of goods and raw materials — bronze statuettes, stands and cauldrons, and copper oxhide ingots — for internal consumption and external trade. By the end of this period, élite activities seem to have become increasingly exclusive, as access to monumental structures became more restricted: at Myrtou Pigadhes, Palaipaphos and Kition, for example, entryways were closed off or hidden, and open courtyards were walled off and segregated.

During the LBA 3 period (ca. 1250-1100 BC), several urban centers were destroyed while others were abandoned. These destructions and abandonments surely reflect a breakdown in political and economic order on Cyprus; they must be seen in the context of the collapse of eastern Mediterranean palatial systems, and the demise of the iconographic koiné that symbolized their connectivity. Despite these disruptions, there is clear continuity in Cypriot material culture, at least through the 12th century BC. The major disruption came during the 11th century BC, the beginning of the early Iron Age.

From a postcolonial perspective, one that sees migration as an interactive process, it is no longer possible to accept the notion of a ‘Mycenaean colonization’ of Cyprus. During the late 13th through 11th centuries BC, some Aegean peoples came to Cyprus but underwent intensive social transformations. These Aegean settlers became well integrated into Cypriot society, if we are to judge by all the continuities seen in Cypriot material and social practices. In other words, scholars no longer believe that the indigenous inhabitants of Cyprus passively adopted Mycenaean culture or were absorbed into displaced Aegean power structures. Both Aegean and Levantine migrants, if not others, became integrated with the local inhabitants, developing new social and material practices and taking on a new identity that was far more than the sum of its individual parts.

By the transition to the early Iron Age (after about 1100 BC), the collapse of the international trading system(s) of the LBA, and the ensuing loss of certain overseas markets, had made an impact on Cyprus, both socially and economically. Whilst trade with Cilicia and the Levant continued on some indeterminate level, interconnections with the Aegean and the central Mediterranean actually increased and diversified. Direct contacts with Sardinia, at least, ensured a continuing outlet for Cypriot copper in the context of the coming ‘Age of Iron’.

The loss of state control over trade almost certainly diminished the capacity of Cypriot élites to display exotica as a means to enhance their status, but there is nothing in the archaeological record to indicate that Aegean, Phoenician or any other colonists capitalized on this situation. Ultimately, however, new élite groups clearly emerged on Cyprus during the early Iron Age, including Phoenician elements in towns like Kition, local Cypriotes in Amathus, and a mixture of native Cypriote and intrusive Aegean elements elsewhere. The last, of course, were speakers of Greek, and ultimately their cooperation and entanglement with local Cypriotes led to what has been termed the ‘Greek-Cypriot ethnogenesis’.

 Final Thoughts

For the first 8000 years of its prehistory, we certainly cannot talk of Cyprus as a ‘crossroads of ‘civilization’. Even when we come to the earlier stages of the Bronze Age, if the number of goods imported to Cyprus is a valid proxy, the scale of long-distance trade can only be regarded as sporadic, not systematic. Moreover, the remarkable increase in the amount of foreign goods and exotica we see on Cyprus already during the earliest phase of the LBA should not be seen as evidence that the island served as a ‘crossroads’. Instead, such goods represent the material expression of an élite desire to cross the borders of their own society, their own identity.

Throughout Cypriot prehistory and protohistory, the island’s material culture contrasts repeatedly and markedly with that of the surrounding regions. With few exceptions, there is very limited evidence for foreign contacts until the Bronze Age, after about 2400 BC. Thus it is crucial, in the first instance, to view Cypriot prehistory and protohistory in terms of internal development and change. To emphasize this point, I quote from a recent study by Maria Iacovou (Peltenburg and Iacovou 2012: 352):

Trying to define Cyprus’s development by comparing it to the continental city states of the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC is an archaeological approach that has served its purpose well but has persisted for too long. Nowadays, it achieves little other than to underestimate the island by continuing to focus on what has come to be considered as Cypriot shortcomings. The time is ripe for the development of alternative approaches that attempt to understand Cyprus from inside and define its ‘robust island identity’.

By the 11th century BC, the settlement patterns and centralized political organization that characterized the LBA were a thing of the past. Most aspects of material culture changed dramatically, and the new power centers that emerged on early Iron Age Cyprus had distinctive sociopolitical and economic structures. Someday they would converge into the island’s early historical kingdoms. My own view on the formation of the territorial kingdoms of the early Iron Age is that we cannot see them as a close re-enactment of Cyprus’s LBA political and economic traditions, nor can we equate them with the re-emergence of a hierarchical, state-level of organization. The socio-economic, ideological and geopolitical formations that developed and persisted for long periods of time on Cyprus were always distinctively different from their Aegean, Levantine or Anatolian counterparts. Thus we must, at least in the first instance, evaluate such developments sui generis.

Of course, the views offered here are my own: the economic, ideological and power relations that characterized encounters between indigenous Cypriotes and others — whether from the Aegean, Anatolia or the Levant — throughout the millennium between about 1700-700 BC, remain issues of on-going archaeological discussion and debate.

 Reference cited

Peltenburg, E., and M. Iacovou
2012    Crete and Cyprus: contrasting political configurations. In G. Cadogan, M. Iacovou, K. Kopaka and J. Whitley (eds), Parallel Lives: Ancient Island Societies in Crete and Cyprus. British School at Athens, Studies 20: 35-63. London: British School at Athens.

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1 Comments for : Cyprus: Interconnections in the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1700-1100 BC)
  1. Please keep me informed about recent publications and if possible send pdf's to be archived in our Institute

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