Roman theatres and contemporary arts: Australian archaeologists in Cyprus

I am spending the Day of Archaeology working on writing my report of the 2016 field season and at the same time planning the 2017 season. Archaeology is often like that, jumping backwards and forwards. “A big ball of wibbly-wobbly… timeywimey… stuff” I believe the expression is.

I am the director of the University of Sydney’s Paphos Theatre Archaeological Project working at the world heritage listed site of the ancient theatre of Nea Paphos in Cyprus.  The Australian team have been working at this site since 1995 under the auspices of the Department of Antiquities of the Republic of Cyprus, and financed through our generous team of students and volunteers, along with private donors and the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens (AAIA) and the Nicholson Museum at the University of Sydney, Australia’s largest museum of antiquities.

Paphos Theatre, Cyprus

Nea Paphos was the ancient capital of Cyprus under the Ptolemies of Alexandria (during the Hellenistic period) and the early Roman Imperial period; the city established sometime in the very late 4th or very early 3rd century BC to take advantage of the natural harbour which would become in time a major emporium for all maritime trade networks between the Aegean and Alexandria.  The establishment of the new city was all part of the creation of a new Hellenic cultural koine across the eastern Mediterranean region in the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests.  The building of a new theatre (the oldest permanent theatre in Cyprus) in the newly established town around 300 BC was a clear demonstration of this sweeping cultural change.

Through careful stratigraphic excavation over 17 seasons, the Paphos Theatre Archaeological Project has been able to understand the building and broader site. The theatre was a venue for performance and spectacle for over six and a half centuries from its 3rd century BC construction until its final destruction by earthquake in the late 4th century AD. Despite much of the stone of the ancient theatre being reused in Late Antiquity during the construction of a nearby basilica, there is considerable architectural evidence for a stage building showing firstly Alexandrian-influence during the Hellenistic period and then Roman Imperial tastes with marble facading, Imperial sculptures and imported columns. At its largest extent, during the Antonine phase of the 2nd century AD, the theatre was over 90 m wide and had capacity for seating over 8500 spectators.

Panoramic image of the theatre. Photo by Guy Hazell

In recent seasons the project has focused its attention on the urban layout of the entire theatrical precinct. This work has seen the excavation of a Roman nymphaeum, and a paved, possibly colonnaded road to the south of the theatre over 8.4 m wide and dating to the 2nd century AD. This major thoroughfare was probably associated with access to the north-east city gate and the pilgrim’s route to the sanctuary of Aphrodite nearby.

In October 2016 the team opened five trenches, designed to illuminate our knowledge of activities taking place in the extremities of the theatre itself. It is the formal report of this activity that I am currently writing up.

Excavation on the top of the cavea in 2016

Trenches 16A and 16B were both located on the very top of the cavea (theatre seating), continuing earlier excavation, where a significant medieval or post-medieval structure of a probable industrial nature has been found built over the remains of the theatre. Considerable evidence of funnel-shaped sugar moulds and sugar jars were uncovered, suggesting that the building may have been a warehouse for sugar. Cyprus was the major source of sugar production, or ‘sweet salt’ as the Crusaders described it, from the Middle Ages until the rise of Caribbean production in the 16th century, and although Paphos harbour lost its significance by this point, perhaps there was still trade on a smaller scale.

Trench 16C was located in the very SW corner of the site, under the remains of a demolished building once used by the team as a dig house. It was hoped that this trench would locate the road further to the west and potentially an entrance from the road to the western parodos, replicating the layout of the eastern parodos. Unfortunately wall and floor surfaces from an Ottoman building restricted the working space. Even so, over 2.3 m beneath the surface level, a number of pavers were revealed that clearly show the road continues on a straight east-west alignment for the entire length of the theatre.

Measuring in Trench 16D

Trench 16D was also designed to expose more of the Roman road. Located closer to the nymphaeum the trench cleared the foundations of an Ottoman-period house. A significant number of ancient theatrical architectural elements were actually in-corporated into the lowest levels of the wall (pictured). Underneath, more of the stone pavers of the road were revealed.

The paved Roman road.

Trench 16E was located on the eastern side of the nymphaeum and was a continuation of an area of excavation first begun in 2010. A stone wall is indicative of medieval activity but continued excavation is required to understand the relationship of this section of the site with the theatre during the Roman era and earlier.

There were a number of significant architectural finds in 2016, including limestone architrave blocks of the Hellenistic period and a Roman marble Corinthian capital. A fragmentary Roman marble hand was also uncovered. Ceramic and other finds were consistent with finds in previous seasons, including a significant number of Roman and medieval ceramic sherds, among them lead glazed sgraffito pottery of the Crusader period.

Woman’s face in profile, fragment of Sgraffito bowl, Inv. No. 8258, trench 12D, deposit 2867, from the Paphos Theatre. Photo by Bob Miller

Major conservation work was conducted by the Department of Antiquities on the remains of painted plaster fragments from the area of the western parodos that were part of the major Antonine phase of the theatre, which give clear indication of some of the colour and design.

Painted plaster remnants on parados wall revealed following conservation.

We are currently planning our next field season to take place in October of 2017, so I currently have a number of emails from student and volunteer team members in my inbox waiting an answer after I finish this blog.  Much of my time is currently concerned with logistics – booking airfares, arranging accommodation and filling in safety forms for the university.  But in 2017 we are intending to open two new trenches; one continuing the work on top of the hill to understand the post-theatrical ‘warehouse’ building, the other investigating more of the Roman road which we hope to eventually expose for some considerable length.  We currently hypothesis that the insula block to the south of the road should be approximately 90 metres long and 30 metres wide.  Much of the 2017 season will also be concerned with restoring our finds from previous season in more appropriate manners for access for future researchers.

It will be a busy season, as the city of Paphos is currently European Capital of Culture for 2017, along with Aarhus in Denmark.  An exciting array of events are held throughout the year as part of the Pafos2017 festival, and excitingly archaeology is well represented.  This includes our own exhibition, Travellers From Australia to be held 2-15 October.  Over the years a number of Australian visual artists have worked at the site under the guidance of Prof. Diana Wood Conroy, our project artist-in-residence. It is an exciting element of the project, having archaeologist and artist work side by side. Both artists and archaeologists are related in their passion for the material culture of the past, but each has a different way of looking and interpretation in understanding the complexity of time and space.  From photography to sculpture, from illustration to tapestry each artist has recorded the ancient site, and indeed the process of excavation, in a remarkable way.

“By mixing artistic and archaeological images we get a new grammar of looking”, writes one of the artists, Derek Kreckler, in our forthcoming exhibition catalogue.  Media artist Brogan Bunt makes the point of the irony of ephemeral digital platforms of the modern world: the new technology he was using in 2006 is now unusable in 2017; yet for him, the ancient sites of Paphos have maintained their identity for millennia, while digital virtual heritage is far more fragile than the places it sets out to document and preserve.

Some sneak peeks of some of the works to be exhibited can be seen here:

Rowan Conroy, Pafos theatre Cavea, full moon, April 2006. Pigment inkjet print on cotton rag (from digitised 4×5 film positive) 900 x 1400 mm

Diana Wood Conroy.
Flower for Aphrodite
1998 – 2012
Woven tapestry fragment: wool and silk on cotton warp, 25 cm x
25 cm framed

Angela Brennan, Fourteen pots, Stoneware 2016-2017. Dimensions variable.

It is an interesting additional dimension to our archaeological work, and particularly on the site of an ancient theatre, which for centuries saw creative expression portrayed in the space, to allow a modern generation of artists into the archaeological process to spark their creativity is extremely exciting too!

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