Bronze Age Tombs, Karmi (Lapatsa and Palealona)

Updated: Mar 2

The cemetery at Karmi lies mid-way between two of the major settlements Bellapais and Lapithos. Dating from the Bronze Age, circa. 2000BC (end of Pre-Bronze Age 1 – beginning of Pre-Bronze 2) onwards, offered the potential to understand more about this formative period of Cypriot history.


The Northern coastline of Cyprus was the most densely populated region of Cyprus in the Early – Middle Bronze Age. The cemetery at Karmi lies mid-way between two of the major settlements Bellapais and Lapithos. Dating from the Bronze Age, circa. 2000BC (end of Pre-Bronze Age 1 – beginning of Pre-Bronze 2) onwards, offered the potential to understand more about this formative period of Cypriot history.


Excavated in 1961 by Australian Archaeologist, James Rivers Stewart, 42 rock-cut tombs were uncovered (14 at Lapatsa and 28 at Palealona), however his findings were never published, due to his death the following year. A single paper was published posthumously providing details of one of the more unusual tombs, but the remainder of the excavation remained unpublished.


“Tomb of the Seafarer”


This was a single burial of an adult man accompanied by 7 pottery vessels, a bronze knife and a bronze spearhead. The pottery comprised items typical of the Middle Bronze Age, Cypriot White Painted ware and the more common Red Polished ware. Unusually a single Kamares ware Minoan cup from Crete were amongst his grave goods, leading to the grave being known as the “Tomb of the Seafarer” and Stewart theorised this man had acquired the cup on his travels as a sailor. In the Early/Middle Bronze Age imports were rare as Cyprus was relatively isolated from it Mediterranean neighbours until later in the Bronze Age. Despite this, it is now thought the cup together with the Egyptian faience beads also found in the tomb, would have been obtained through international trade in the region.


The man was buried with his legs bent, see below, and had a severe congenital back problem, he was between 40 and 50 years old, a good age for people of this period.


Typical Bronze Age Tombs


Most tombs are at Karmi were not single burials, but were re-used multiple times, some for over 300 years. It must have taken substantial effort to dig these tombs, so it’s likely they were started well in advance of a person’s death and probably indicated the occupant had status within the community.


Although tombs were re-used it has been impossible to establish how frequently, as the previous remains were often disturbed or removed, together with the grave goods during the process. Throughout history graves often act as symbolic places where the community can remember or venerate ancestors, hence the mis-treatment of the remains of former occupants raises interesting questions.


Karmi tombs are generally of the ‘dromos’ type, found at several locations within Cyprus. The “dromos” or entrance/passageway is usually around 2-3 metres in length and slopes slightly downwards to a single oval tomb chamber, generally smaller in size. The tomb is sealed with a large stone slab or a stone wall packed with earth (schematic below). In some tombs there are also cupboards/niches which appear to have been used for burying children.


Tomb 6 – Carved Tomb


One of the earlier tombs at Karmi, probably from the Early Cypriot 1 period (PreBA 1), has a figure carved in relief, possibly a female nude, but eroded and unclear, flanked by 1 or 2 columns. On the adjacent wall is a single column topped by a pair or horns (a recurrent theme associated with Bronze Age sites, with similarities to those of Central Anatolia) and around the entrance to the grave chamber are 3 columns topped with a horizontal row of V shaped incisions. The excavators suggest the tomb was envisaged literally as a ‘house of the dead’, although it has subsequently been such it might be a mortuary shrine. The Cyprus Museum, displays a clay model possibly depicting a funerary ritual, similar to the type which was perhaps performed here.



If the tomb is a mortuary temple, this implies a continual ritual significance, whereby the local community might participate in ceremonies at the tomb an ongoing basis not just for funerals. Ancestor worship is a common phenomenon across the Eastern Mediterranean throughout the Bronze Age.


Pottery & Grave Goods


A large number of grave goods were found within the tombs, 952 items in total, summarised below:


The main items found are characteristic of Bronze Age Cyprus, locally made - Red polished ware, Black Polished Ware and White Painted Ware. Red polished ware and Black polished ware was generally undecorated, or had limited incised decoration. White Painted Ware is usually decorated with geometric patterns painted on in red slip.


There is a marked difference in pottery style between the Karmi tombs and those at Bellapais, of a similar period. The pottery found at Bellapais was often decorated with motifs such as rayed disks, animal heads and horned figures. Modelled animals also are often added to the rims and handles. The pottery here is much plainer, however the tombs are themselves at Karmi are more elaborately decorated with figures and columns, compared to the plainer tombs of Bellapais.


Significant differences are evident between the cemeteries in the north of the island compared to those of the south, where the graves are generally smaller, simpler and more uniform. The tombs typically contain plain pottery vessels suggesting the attitudes towards funerary ritual and display, status and identify were different.


Funerary Rituals


In addition to the complete pottery vessels, large numbers of potsherds and animal bones mainly cattle were found in both the grave chambers and dromoi. The volume of remains suggests large amounts of feasting and drinking were part of the burial ritual. A common ritual associated with burial in the eastern Mediterranean in that time. It seems probable that the people of Karmi employed elaborate burial ceremonies, with lavish feasting and drinking to demonstrate the status of their elites and to differentiate themselves from people of the neighbouring communities.


References:

The Bronze Age cemeteries at Karmi Palealona and Lapatsa in Cyprus : excavations by J. R. B. Stewart. Author: Jennifer M Webb; et al. Series: Studies in Mediterranean archaeology, 136. Publisher: Sävedalen : Paul Åströms förlag, 2009.

Recovering two ancient sites in Cyprus, David Frankel

https://www.humanities.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/AAH-Hums-Aust-04-2013-D-Frankel.pdfhe


Archaeology of Cyprus, Bernard Knapp, Cambridge World Archaeology, p315


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