Studies of world’s first farmers hampered by bitter political stalemate in Cyprus

AKANTHOU, CYPRUS—Archaeologist Müge Şevketoğlu walks down a dirt road toward the Mediterranean coast, trying to make sense of a skeleton that her team dug up this spring in this town in northern Cyprus. The woman was found face down, arms splayed, in a ditch just outside a cluster of mudbrick houses that date back more than 10,000 years—among the earliest on this island, and home to some of the first farmers anywhere. Şevketoğlu suspects the woman met a violent end.

It's the close of the dig season, and two students cover stone foundations with tarp and backfill trenches while Şevketoğlu muses on conflict, an eternal theme on Cyprus. "Being savage was always there in human nature, especially when you start farming … [and] land ownership," Şevketoğlu says. "That's where we all went wrong, I think."

For Şevketoğlu, a Turkish-Cypriot, humanity's age-old tendency to fight over land has a deeply personal meaning. "You can link it very easily to Cyprus's main problem," she says: the political division that has riven the island for the past 5 decades.

The Republic of Cyprus, an EU member state, controls the southern two-thirds of the island, where the ethnically Greek Cypriot majority lives. Since Turkey invaded the island in 1974, the ethnically Turkish Cypriot community has had de facto control of the northern third of the island. A United Nations buffer zone slices through the capital, Nicosia. Although there's been little violence recently, the international community considers Turkey's presence an illegal occupation. So the north is politically isolated from the rest of the world, hit with boycotts, embargoes, sanctions—and a ban on archaeological digs.

The political standoff has compromised both Şevketoğlu's career and our understanding of a place that may have been a key steppingstone in the spread of the world's first farmers. Sites such as Akanthou now show that Cyprus was occupied by 10,000 years ago, far earlier than previously believed. The early dates are changing how archaeologists view the spread of farming and settled life—the so-called Neolithic package—from the Middle East into Europe.

But northern sites such as Akanthou remain rare, and mostly outside current archaeological efforts. The Department of Antiquities in the south forbids excavation in the north, and condemns journals or meetings that present research on northern sites. Few publications have been willing to risk censure. "The north [of Cyprus] has been in a vacuum for the last 40 years because of the unfortunate political situation," says archaeologist Alan Simmons of the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has excavated sites similar to Akanthou in southern Cyprus.

Şevketoğlu is among the few archaeologists to defy the Republic of Cyprus. For 2 decades Şevketoğlu, who is affiliated with Cyprus International University in Nicosia, has been digging here, surveying around it, and campaigning to protect it and other northern sites from development.

"She's defined and helped to save much of the prehistoric archaeology of north Cyprus from destruction by development and agricultural damage, and she's faced a great deal of criticism and ignorance for doing so," says Ian Hanson, an archaeologist at Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom who has worked with Şevketoğlu at here. Her efforts to protect sites have even occasionally put her at odds with the Turkish-Cypriot authorities, who often lack the resources and expertise needed to safeguard archaeological sites.

The most recent peace talks between the north and south collapsed this summer, and the political stalemate is likely to continue. But Şevketoğlu and some other frustrated archaeologists still hope to find ways to jump-start work in the north. "How long can archaeological sites wait?" she asks. "We need to find a way of working this out."

As spring ends at Akanthou, it's easy to see why some of the earliest visitors to the island tied up their boats and dropped their sacks here. The landscape overflows with abundance. Wild artichokes send flashes of purple through the high grass. Partridges stamp their prints into the dirt. In the north, limestone cliffs flank secluded harbors. On a clear day, the hills of Turkey cling to the horizon. And yet for years, archaeologists thought that people didn't arrive here until after farming and settled life had fully developed on the mainland.

Back in the 1970s, when Şevketoğlu was a child in northern Cyprus, the earliest known settlement on the island was the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Khirokitia, in the south, which dates back 9000 years. Today, other sites in the south show that people first visited Cyprus at least 3000 years earlier.

At Aetokremnos, a cache of burned dwarf hippo bones suggests seafaring hunters voyaged to the island as early as 12,500 years ago and may have helped kill off the island's native "mini-megafauna," including dwarf elephants. Later sites such as Shillourokambos, a 10,400-year-old farming settlement famous for its burial of the world's oldest pet cat, are contemporary with agricultural sites in Anatolia, and even earlier than some on the eastern Mediterranean mainland.

"Groups of people were deliberately stocking the island with cereals—as early as anyone was cultivating cereals on the mainland—and [with] animals, such as wild boar, cats, fallow deer, as well as sheep, goat, and cattle," says Trevor Watkins, a professor emeritus of archaeology at the University of Edinburgh who advised Şevketoğlu when she did her Ph.D. work there.

"The Neolithic on the island is now as early as the mainland," Simmons says. "That means that these guys were going back and forth all the time." Their seafaring prowess opens the possibility that farmers spread into Europe by sea as well as by land, an idea bolstered recently by DNA studies.

Where did these early sailors land? Akanthou may hold one answer. Radiocarbon dates from the site show it is at least 10,200 years old, perhaps one of the oldest settlements on Cyprus. And Şevketoğlu's findings suggest it had far-flung connections.

As she walks through the high grass near Akanthou's coastline, wielding a stick to ward off vipers, she points out the former chicken farm where, in the late 1990s, she found artifacts in churned-up agricultural waste. Since then her rescue excavations have revealed mudbrick and stone houses decorated with red, black, and brown plaster. Animal bones indicate the people living here herded sheep, goats, and cattle, and also hunted deer. Ten intact turtle remains, lacking any marks of butchery, could shed light on ritual life.

Şevketoğlu has also uncovered abundant clues to ancient trade networks, including shiny obsidian tools and pendants made of the pale-green mineral picrolite. The jewelry suggests links to central and southern Cyprus, where picrolite occurs. And some artifacts are reminiscent of those at Shillourokambos, indicating connections to that early Neolithic settlement.

The 4000 obsidian artifacts—10 times more than any other Neolithic site on the island—also point to a more distant connection. Through chemical and stylistic analysis, Şevketoğlu linked the blades to a specific workshop site on the mainland: Kömürcü-Kaletepe in Cappadocia in Turkey. Akanthou may have been the gateway for these Anatolian tools to be traded throughout Cyprus, Şevketoğlu says. She now hopes to extract ancient DNA from the newly discovered skeleton, which might reveal the origins of these early Cypriots.

Thanks to today's politics, Şevketoğlu has managed to publish only some of her results. (She did publish a book version of her dissertation in 2000, and, in what she describes as a "fluke," a 2015 journal article on excavation results from Akanthou.) The south's Department of Antiquities, resisting any trend toward normalizing what it considers an invasion, won't approve northern excavations unless they are "strictly required to safeguard, record or preserve cultural property," as per an amendment to an international convention on protecting archaeology and heritage in conflict zones. "We do not feel that the on-going excavations [at Akanthou] reflect any of the above categories," the director of antiquities for the Republic of Cyprus, Marina Solomidou-Ieronymidou, said in a statement to Science. She says research excavations should only resume when the island is politically reunited. For now, few archaeologists besides Şevketoğlu work in the north, which has no academic archaeology programs and a rudimentary antiquities service. Potential international collaborators are often scared off by northern Cyprus's controversial status, and funding is scarce. Many of Şevketoğlu's colleagues and former students have moved overseas; some of those who have stayed in Cyprus work for the Committee on Missing Persons, a U.N.-backed team of archaeologists from both sides of the island who recover bodies of the disappeared from the conflicts in 1963–64 and 1974, Şevketoğlu says. Ironically, their work is often less politically charged than archaeological research.

Şevketoğlu argues that the freeze harms Cypriot archaeology and fuels mistrust. Samuel Hardy, an antiquities trafficking researcher and adjunct professor at the American University of Rome, agrees: He investigated the ethics of heritage work in northern Cyprus for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Sussex in Brighton, U.K., and concluded that the Greek-Cypriot stance has prevented basic preservation work.

Such work is needed. In the late 1990s, Şevketoğlu documented another coastal site at the village of Agios Amvrosios, where a construction project was slicing through artifact-rich layers. She conducted a rescue excavation in 2012 and found something rare for Cyprus: continuous settlement over thousands of years. The site was turned into a monument only after it was damaged. Near here, even sites labeled as monuments have been destroyed by development before archaeologists ever got the chance to look at the material, Şevketoğlu says. In 2005, the Turkish army bulldozed Kastros, a fishing settlement dating to perhaps 8000 years ago, to make way for massive flagpoles and a road. Still-buried prehistoric settlements are especially vulnerable because they are not as visible as Byzantine churches and other monuments.

Greek-Cypriot archaeologists have acknowledged that the imbalance in research threatens to skew the archaeological record. Despina Pilides, curator of the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia, is spearheading a project to digitally preserve and study artifacts from 12 prehistoric sites in the north. But because of the political limitations, she can only document sites and artifacts known before the 1974 conflict. "It is a unifying force for the people of Cyprus to understand that there was one island, and that's how we should look at it," she says.

Both Şevketoğlu and Hardy note that some collaborative projects have succeeded, and think northern and southern archaeologists could find ways to work together. A committee of southern and northern civil engineers and heritage experts already restores derelict monuments on both sides of the island, without relitigating the causes of damage or neglect. "We cannot say that we did not encounter any challenges," concedes Ali Tuncay, the Turkish-Cypriot community's representative for the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage in Nicosia. But he hopes the project can expand to include archaeological sites.

There is room for even small steps toward collaboration. The two sides could encourage observational studies in the north without changing existing policies, says Andrew McCarthy, a fellow at the University of Edinburgh who recently stepped down as the director of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute in Nicosia. "I find it frustrating that a tourist with no archaeological background or knowledge can go to the north, take photographs of archaeological sites, post it on Facebook, do what they like, but a trained specialist can't," he says.

Back at Akanthou, Şevketoğlu estimates that she's only revealed 1% of the site. She was able to get the Turkish-Cypriot community to protect the three surrounding hectares for now, but she worries about its future. To secure it, she envisions an Akanthou archaeological park with a visitor center, a tent over the trenches where archaeologists could dig all year, and nine replica Neolithic roundhouses for tourism and education. "We have to do something that's going to be self-sufficient and supporting itself," she says.

The local mayor is on board, and Şevketoğlu has already built one replica house out of timbers, mudbrick, and plaster, using only local materials and prehistoric methods. The earthy monument stands out from the nearby road, staking out space for what might otherwise be hidden history. Şevketoğlu has spread more logs on the ground, ready to build the next one.

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