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!

Digital Magic for Magical Texts

It has been a grey damp day here in London. Glad to be tucked in working from home with the cat on my lap and a fresh pot of the black stuff.  I have been beavering away on a pile of image data for Magica Levantina, a University of Cologne project on magical texts from the ancient Near East.  Although I am a Research Associate at the Cologne Center for eHumanities, I have spent a good portion of my time working in museum collections far beyond Cologne, including the Princeton, Philadelphia, Paris, Naples, and soon (all being well) Jerusalem. But for now I have been working at the British Museum, which happily is not far from home and is giving me a bit of a break from the travel.

Gypsum tablet

Part of a gypsum tablet with a magical Greek inscription from Amathus, Cyprus (1891,0418.50 + 59,  © Trustees of the British Museum).

This week I have been conducting Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) on inscribed tablets fragments in the Department of Greece and Rome. The tablet fragments are made of selenite (gypsum), and were found at  the site of Amathus and date to between 100 CE-300 CE.

The almost complete tablet above bears a curse written in alphabetic Greek. However, the technique used to make the inscription, combined with its small size and the translucence of the material, make it very challenging to read or discern other potentially significant physical features.

RTI specular enhancement detail of Greek inscribed selenite tablet from Amathus, Cyprus. (1891,0418.50 + 59, Kathryn E. Piquette, courtesy Trustees of the British Museum)

Detail from the upper left of the above, visualised using the RTI specular enhancement mode  (1891,0418.50 + 59, Kathryn E. Piquette, courtesy Trustees of the British Museum)

BM staff very kindly took the tablet off display* yesterday so I could image it using RTI. The  detail to the right does not really do justice to the results I processed today since it is not possible in this context to have the relighting and other functionality of the RTIViewer. Nevertheless, the text is now vastly more readable.

Thanks to the magic of modern tablets, this ancient one, or at least its visual surrogate, is currently making its way through the ether to my colleagues in Cologne.

* The tablet was put promptly back on display today I am told (Room G72/2), so do pop down to the British Museum and take a closer look.

From Museum to the Field: My Archaeological Life at the Nicholson Museum and in Paphos in Cyprus

My name is Dr Craig Barker.  I am the Manager of Education and Public Programs for Sydney University Museums, which includes the Nicholson Museum, home to the largest collection of Egyptian, Near Eastern and Classical antiquities in Australia, and the Macleay Museum which has significant holdings of cultural material from Indigenous Australia, Papua New Guinea and various locations in the South Pacific.  I am also a classical archaeologist who is the co-director of the University of Sydney’s excavations of the Hellenistic-Roman theatre at Nea Paphos in Cyprus.  So I get the best of both worlds: fieldwork and museum work.

My activities today during ‘Day of Archaeology 2014’ have actually been similar to a relatively typical day for me.  As I write this I have just completed a museum tour along with the Nicholson Museum’s senior curator, Michael Turner.  This was a morning tour for a number of benefactors to the University of Sydney, so it was a relatively formal tour, although still lots of fun, as I led a hands-on workshop with the group where Egyptian and Roman material in the Nicholson collection was handled.  Although Australia is currently in the middle of school and university semester holidays for the winter, our education team has been kept busy with school holiday programs and other activities.  Yesterday I and other curatorial staff welcomed over 50 school aged students from the Matavai Cultural Arts group of Pacifica communities in Sydney who came and explored the various museums and the material culture of the Pacific held in the Macleay Museum, as well as having a look around the grounds of the university.  So even without our usual undergraduate and school visitors it has been a busy time using the museum collections.  Discover our collections:

Part of the Nicholson Museum's Egyptian collection

Part of the Nicholson Museum’s Egyptian collection

One of the key components of any archaeological museum’s educational activities is explaining to visitors the aims and aspirations of archaeologists to interpret the past by using material culture, so it is great to actually be able to use genuine archaeological material.  In the case of the Nicholson’s collections of Egyptian and Classical artefacts this is even moreso, as its relatively rare for Australians to be able to access this type of material easily.  The hands-on artefact workshops are always a highlight of organized museum visits by school groups and tutorials.

Craig Barker teaching in the Nicholson Museum

Craig Barker teaching in the Nicholson Museum

A hands-on workshop at the Nicholson Museum

A hands-on workshop at the Nicholson Museum

Although all museum staff like to pretend that they don’t have favourite collections, in reality we do.  And mine is the Nicholson Museum’s Cypriot collection.  Obviously I work in Cyprus so know the material culture well, but the story of the 1500 Cypriot objects in the Nicholson Museum in Sydney is fascinating, and is largely associated with the work of our previous curator Professor J.R.B. Stewart (1913-1962), who was the first Professor of Middle Eastern archaeology in an Australian archaeologist, but also the first ever Australian to excavate in the Mediterranean, firstly in Cyprus in 1937 for the British School at Athens, and then again at a number of Bronze Age cemetery sites in northern Cyprus in the 1950s, including his final dig at Karmi in 1961; the first time Australian students had worked on an Australian funded and directed excavation project in Cyprus, and developing a strong scholarly contact between the two island nations.  2013 was the centenary of his birth, and a major conference was held at the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute (CAARI) in Nicosia to commemorate his contribution to the archaeology of the island, particularly the Bronze Ages.  We at the Nicholson Museum marked Stewart’s contribution with an exhibition titled Aphrodite’s Island: Australian Archaeologists in Cyprus which I curated; displaying material from the various excavations he directed, and material he acquired from Cyprus in the 1950s to be used for teaching his students.  It is interesting that decades after Stewart’s death, we returned to Cyprus to continue that link of research, education and excavation.

Aphrodite's Island: Australian Archaeologists in Cyprus

Aphrodite’s Island: Australian Archaeologists in Cyprus

The University of Sydney has been conducting excavations in Nea Paphos since 1995 when the project was established by Emeritus Professor J.R. Green.  The work is conducted under the auspices of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus, and is sponsored by the Nicholson Museum and the Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens.  We are currently planning our 2014 field season which will take place in late August and early September.  As the season gets closer I have been liaising with the team members and students, and have a few emails to send out this afternoon discussing aims for the season with senior team members and dealing with questions from the team.  Although I really should be putting some work into a publication that I am only half-finished this afternoon I realistically don’t think I will have a great deal of time to work on it today.  Over the weekend instead perhaps?

It is a real pleasure to be able to excavate and study in Cyprus, especially at such an interesting site.  Nea Paphos is inscribed on the World Heritage list and was the capital of the island during the Ptolemaic and Roman eras.  Despite today being a major tourist area and heavily developed, the area has spectacular archaeological remnants, including famous mosaics, an incredible necropolis site at the so-called Tombs of the Kings, and some very impressive Crusader remains when Paphos acted as one of the major ports for trade and pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land in the 11th and 12th centuries.  The Danish King, Erik the Good, died in Paphos in 1103 on pilgrimage.

Paphos theatre from the air following excavation

Paphos theatre from the air following excavation

The theatre of Paphos was constructed in the late 4th century BC, and was used as a space for performance and entertainment through various renovations and phases of architectural remodeling until its final destruction via earthquake in the late 4th century AD.   At its largest extent in the mid-second century AD phase, under the Antonine emperors the theatre was expanded to hold a capacity of over 8000 spectators.  The architectural development of the theatre has proved fascinating and much of our research has concentrated upon identifying the different phases, and the influence of Alexandria and Rome on each phase.  The later Roman theatre was adorned with marble which was imported from across the Mediterranean Sea.  As befitting a site used for so long, the ceramic, glass and small find evidence, while often fragmentary, documents the incredible history of the site and its role in major maritime trading networks, particularly with Alexandria in Egypt, two days sail to the south.  In more recent seasons we have begun to explore the urban layout of the precinct near the theatre, firstly with GPR surveying in 2010 and more recently through excavation.  We have located a major road surface directly to the south of the theatre and have excavated a Roman nymphaeum very close to the theatre which will be the subjects of publications currently being developed.  It is providing a fascinating insight into the Hellenistation and Romanisation of Cyprus, as well as indicating the significant role theatre played in the development of a Hellenistic cultural koine across the eastern Mediterranean in the period following Alexander the Great’s conquests.

Corinthian capital from the theatre at Nea Paphos

Corinthian capital from the theatre at Nea Paphos

I (and many of the returning team members) cannot wait to return to Paphos.  One of the great things about long term research and excavation projects is that you get to spend time with colleagues and friends in the area you are working.  Paphos has become a second home to myself and many of the senior team members, and it is always nice to return and catch up with people and enjoy haloumi, Keo beer and other pleasures of Cypriot life.  You will be able to follow the work we do over the five weeks of our field season in Paphos in 2014 on our blog:  A colleague of mine at the Nicholson and I are currently investigating us Skyping some excursion classes in the museum live from the site in Paphos so school students see the archaeologists live at work (we are working out time zones at the moment!).

Excavation at the theatre in 2012

Excavation at the theatre in 2012

This season we are hoping to open two trenches – one in the area of the foundations of the theatre’s stage building, the other a continuation of work we did in our last season in 2013 at the rear of the cavea (seating) area of the theatre.  There will also be considerable recording work to complete as we near the publication of our first volume of the project’s excavation report.  It will be hard work in the summer humidity, but should help with our understanding of the ancient theatre and the urban layout of the Roman city of Nea Paphos.

So for the ‘Day of Archaeology 2014’ I have been planning for future excavation, but also spending time with people exploring the collections of the museums I work in.  Its not a bad life at all.



Guiding students through the University of Sydney's historic Great Hall

Guiding students through the University of Sydney’s historic Great Hall


Recording the nymphaeum at Paphos

Recording the nymphaeum at Paphos

A Lego Colosseum and Other Stories

I am a Classical Archaeologist at the University of Sydney in Australia, and work as the Manager of Education and Public Programs at the Nicholson Museum, Australia’s largest collection of Old World archaeological material.  So my ‘Day of Archaeology 2012’ is spent like most others – trying to balance between museum education and archaeological research on the project I am working: excavations of a Hellenistic-Roman period theatre site in Paphos in Cyprus.