Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Prehistoric Cypriot Art and Culture

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Although it covers an area of only 3,570 square miles, Cyprus, situated in the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean Sea, is the third largest island in this region of the ancient world, after Sicily and Sardinia. Its unique culture dates from as early as the end of the ninth millennium B.C., when the first permanent settlers may have arrived from southern Anatolia or the Syro-Palestinian coast, bringing with them an already developed culture. However, there is evidence for the presence of seasonal hunters of pygmy elephants and pygmy hippopotami before then, ca. 10,000 B.C. The earliest Neolithic settlers had an organized society based on agriculture and animal husbandry. Several of their settlements have been excavated throughout the island, including Khirokitia and Kalavasos near the southern coast. During the latter part of the Neolithic period (ca. 8500 B.C.–ca. 3900 B.C.), islanders began to work clay, making vessels which they baked and often decorated with abstract patterns in red on a light slip.


Stylistic features and iconographic elements borrowed from Egypt, the Near East, and the Aegean are often mixed together in Cypriot works.

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The culture of the succeeding Chalcolithic period (ca. 3900 B.C.–ca. 2500 B.C.) may have been introduced to the island by a new wave of settlers who came from the same regions as the Neolithic settlers. Their art and religious practices were sophisticated. Clay and stone female figures, often with accentuated genitals, predominate, symbolizing the fertility of humans, animals, and the soil—the essential needs of an agrarian community. In the latter part of the Chalcolithic period, people began making small tools and decorative ornaments from the native copper (chalkos); thus the phase is termed Chalcolithic, referring to the transition from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age.


The unique geographic location of Cyprus at the crossroads of seafaring trade in the eastern Mediterranean made it an important center for trade and commerce in antiquity. Already in the Early Bronze Age (ca. 2500 B.C.–ca. 1900 B.C.) and Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1900 B.C.–ca. 1600 B.C.), Cyprus had established contacts with Minoan Crete and, subsequently, Mycenaean Greece, as well as with the ancient civilizations of the Near East (Syria and Palestine), Egypt, and southern Anatolia. From the first part of the second millennium B.C., Near Eastern texts referring to the kingdom of "Alasia," a name that is most likely synonymous with all or part of the island, attest to Cypriot connections with the Syro-Palestinian coast. Rich copper resources provided the Cypriots with a commodity that was highly valued and in great demand throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. Cypriots exported large quantities of this raw material and other goods, such as opium in Small Base Ring Ware jugs resembling the capsules of opium poppies in exchange for luxury goods such as silver, gold, ivory tusks, wool, perfumed oils, chariots, horses, precious furniture, and other finished objects.


The pottery of the prehistoric Cypriots, especially that produced in the Early and Middle Bronze Ages, is exuberant and imaginative in shape and decoration. Terracotta figurines were also produced in fairly large numbers and placed in tombs throughout the Bronze Age. As in the Chalcolithic period, they most commonly depict female figures that symbolize regeneration. Other funerary objects, especially those buried with men, include bronze tools and weapons. Gold and silver jewelry, and cylinder seals appear on Cyprus as early as 2500 B.C. The island had a highly developed glyptic art, which shows influences from both the Near East and the Aegean region.


During the Late Bronze Age (ca. 1600 B.C.–ca. 1050 B.C.), copper was being produced and exported on a massive scale, and Cypriot trade expanded to include Egypt, the Near East, and the Aegean region. Correspondence between the pharaoh of Egypt and the king of Alasia, dating from the first half of the fourteenth century B.C., provides valuable information about the trade relations between Cyprus and Egypt. The Cesnola Collection has a number of objects of faience and alabaster that were imported into Cyprus from Egypt during this period. The scope of Cypriot maritime trade at this time is best exemplified by the fourteenth-century B.C. shipwreck at Ulu Burun recently excavated off the southwestern coast of Anatolia. Archaeological remains indicate that the ship was sailing west, having perhaps called at other harbors in the Levant, and that it had loaded 355 copper ingots (ten tons of copper) in Cyprus, as well as large storage jars, some of them containing fine Cypriot pottery and agricultural goods, including coriander.


Undeniable influence of the Aegean on Cypriot culture during the Late Bronze Age can be seen in the development of writing, bronzeworking, seal stone carving, jewelry production, and some ceramic styles, especially in the twelfth century B.C., when intermittent Mycenaean settlers were arriving on the island. From about 1500 B.C., the Cypriots began using a still undeciphered script, which very much resembles the Linear A of Minoan Crete. Long examples exist on baked clay tablets and other documents found at urban centers such as Enkomi (on the eastern coast) and Kalavasos (on the southern coast). Engraved and pointed characters of the script appear on a number of vases in the Cesnola Collection at the Metropolitan.


During the Late Bronze Age, Cyprus was also an important center for the manufacture of works of art that show an amalgam of local and foreign influences. Stylistic features and iconographic elements borrowed from Egypt, the Near East, and the Aegean are often mixed together in Cypriot works. Undoubtedly foreign motifs, and the significance they held, were reinterpreted as they became part of distinctive local artistic traditions. Cypriot artisans traveled abroad as well, and in the twelfth century B.C. some Cypriot metalsmiths may have settled as far west as Sicily and Sardinia.


Little is known about the political system on Cyprus during the Late Bronze Age, although the island clearly maintained strong ties with the Near East, especially Syria. Urban centers with palatial structures of the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries B.C., such as Enkomi and Kition, have been excavated extensively, and rich cemeteries of the same period have yielded luxury goods in a variety of materials. From the beginning of the fourteenth century B.C., there was a significant influx to Cyprus of fine quality Mycenaean vessels, which are found almost exclusively in the tombs of an aristocratic elite. With the destruction of the Mycenaean centers in Greece during the twelfth century B.C., political conditions in the Aegean became unstable and refugees left their homes for safer places, including Cyprus, beginning the Hellenization of the island that would take root over the next two centuries.

Colette Hemingway
Independent Scholar

Seán Hemingway
Department of Greek and Roman Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art