Ceramics Historical Project

Cypriot Ceramics of the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages
8 March 2000

Cyprus, or Kypros in Greek, is one of the largest islands in the
Mediterranean. It is situated about forty miles south of Turkey and about
two hundred and forty miles north of Egypt. To the east it has the mountain
range of Lebanon on the mainland and to the North that of Taurus. The name
it bears is derived from the mineral that it is so rich in, copper. The
Greek word for copper is kypros. It was also celebrated in antiquity as the
birthplace and favorite dwelling of Aphrodite, the goddess of love in Greek
mythology, and was known for its wealth beauty and decadence.

In the second millennium BC the Eastern Mediterranean was full of
turmoil because of the conflict with the Hyksos who ruled Egypt. But when
the Hyksos were expelled in the middle of the sixteenth century BC there
was a period of peace and growing trade and equally growing urban centers.

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Many harbor towns soon sprung up on the southern coast of Cyprus. The main
points of trade at this time were the Aegean and the Near Eastern
countries. These years of peace caused unprecedented wealth for the island.

The island witnessed a lot of cultural innovation, advances in ceramics as
well as strengthening of ties with the Greek civilization. The Cypro-Minoan
script developed in this time. But although Cyprus did not play a major
role on the political front with her neighbors, she suffered from raids
from migrating conquerors during the latter half of the thirteenth century
BC. These invasions were not only problematic to Cyprus but also to many
other peoples that they crushed along the way, such as the Hittites and
Ugarit, until, in 1191 BC they were stopped and defeated by Pharaoh Ramses
III of Egypt upon attempt to invade his domain. Also since the island was
so rich in natural resources and was so strategically geographically
placed, it was subject to raiding by the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the
Persians and others.

When these hostilities came to an end, a great deal of Mycenaean
Greeks came to settle on Cyprus, approximately 1200 BC – 1100 BC.

Apparently the Greek writers of later times attributed this mass exodus to
the Trojan War, saying that many of the heroes that fought in it now came
to settle on the island. The influence was very powerful especially on the
language and the arts and so the culture has remained predominantly Greek
since those times despite the later conquests of other cultures.

From the eleven hundreds to the middle of the eighth century BC is
what later came to be called the Early Iron Age. And as the people became
predominantly Greek so did the artwork. The ceramics of the time show
Aegean influence in both shape and technique, but they differ from their
mainland neighbors in their slight influence from the orient. Religious and
burial traditions and beliefs started to change closer to those of the
Greek. And fashion was influenced as well with the introduction of the
safety pin.

This time was also marked by many earthquakes and natural disasters,
which led to massive destruction and the abandonment of many cities. The
first hundred years of the Iron Age, also known in this geographic region
as the Cypro-Geometric Period, some of the destroyed cities were rebuilt
and many new ones were established as well.

During the ninth century BC there was an influx of Phoenicians, who
are assumed to have been running from their home in modern day Lebanon
because of the harassment they endured from the Assyrians. They dominated
the city of Kition, which was to become their most powerful stronghold. The
cities of Salamis, Paphos, Curium and Amathus also thrived during that
period. The Phoenicians influenced a wide range of things including
religion, pottery shapes and ornament design. Their main influence,
however, was the alphabet, which was introduced to the Greeks in the eighth
century BC but somehow did not become functional on Cyprus until the fourth
century BC.

The pottery of this time on Cyprus as well as on Crete seems to have
a much influence from the Orient as it does from Greece, specifically that
of Central Asia Minor. After the turmoil that the Eastern Mediterranean had
endured in the centuries past the Mycenaean culture withered out on
mainland Greece as well as on Crete, and Cyprus was the only place that it
was preserved in. Cyprus thrived during these years as opposed to Greece
which entered a “Dark Age” that was to remain for centuries until finally
giving way to the Classical Greek civilization. In the Late Bronze Age and
the Early Iron Age the Cypriot potter was still producing hand formed
pottery without the help of a wheel, although many of the civilizations on
the mainland, on both sides, were already advanced enough to create a
potter’s wheel or a more primitive form of the process where the artist
used both hands to work on the piece and the assistant turned the piece for
him.

This area of the world was not a unified one since there was a large
amount of diverse peoples and they lived in diverse economic and geographic
regions. But with the flourishing of trade in the second millennium BC the
cultures began to accept the accumulated technical skills of their
neighbors. The pottery that served religious purposes remained largely the
same in shapes and patterns, since the purpose that it served did not call
for anything more. In secular pottery, however, shapes were changed and
refined with time and influence from neighbors. Aesthetically speaking,
Cypriot pottery was known for its freedom of form and imaginative imagery
even if it was greatly stylized at times. Cyprus was the only place where
the conservatism of the Early Bronze Age was broken and a great variety of
incised ornament and plasticity was added to the works. Patterns ranged
from completely organic shapes and naturalistic images to bold geometric
patterns, with minimal subsidiary detail. And although the pottery of the
time on Cyprus is still technically inferior to that of many of its
neighbors in technique, it carried an aesthetic creativity and fluidity
that put it amongst some of the best creations of its time in the Near
East. Some of this imaginative yet incredibly varying design is often
attributed to the multi-racial influences of the Iron Age migrations.

When it came to decoration, Cyprus is known for its White Slip wares
that are closely allied in their decorative element to that of Cappadocian
painted ware but the form of the pottery itself was the age-old Cypriot
design. There was a frequent use of bichrome decoration, a technique
employed by potters of Tell Halaf over three thousand years earlier but the
experts agree that the invention of the process was completely independent
from that of its previous users. The ware utilized was very fine, gray or
brown ferruginous clay, and it was fired to an almost metallic hardness in
kilns capable of heat that often partly vitrified both paint and pot, and
usually covered with a thin polished slip.

When it came to shape, many cultures in the early days of
civilization used organic materials that were readily available to them,
such as animal skin or gourds or some similar vegetable that could serve as
a container when carved out. In early pottery the inspiration from such
container can be witnessed in their shapes. In Cyprus these forms were
copied as early as circa thirty five hundred years BC, and remained the
basic inspiration for household pottery until the end of the Early Iron Age
in circa one thousand BC. Later, at the end of the Iron Age, the Cypriot
potters were the first to attempt large-scale sculpture out of clay. These
pieces were larger than life human figures that were made in such numbers
that they could have comprised whole armies.

The piece that is the subject of this report is a Cypriot wine
pitcher. It is dated to be of the Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age
approximately twelve hundred to six hundred BC. It was found in Hebron,
probably getting there through ways of trade. The height of the pitcher is
thirty-three centimeters and the diameter of the spherical bottom is
seventeen centimeters. It is a hand built coil pot since wheels were not in
use until later times on Cyprus. The clay was a highly refined gray ware,
kiln fired to a very high temperature. The piece was then covered with a
thin matte cream slip with matte brown and black decoration. Since the
pitcher was a domestic piece used for culinary purposes of every day life,
the shape itself is not very imaginative and is hardly representative of
the outrageous shapes that Cyprus is famous for. It is however of good
quality since it held out through the ages and is symmetrical in shape. The
glazes used to decorate it are assumed to be of a copper-lead base since
the island was rich in those minerals and those were popular glazes of the
time. The pottery of ancient cultures is highly valuable right now and this
piece in particular is being sold at the moment for three and a half
thousand dollars.


Works Consulted
Avery, Catherine B. (ed.). The New Century Classical Handbook. New York:
Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1962.

Cary, M.J., and T.J. Haarhoff. Life and Thought in the Greek and Roman
World. London: Methuen ; Co. LTD, 1940.

Charleston, Robert J. (ed.). World Ceramics: An Illustrated History from
Earliest Times. New York: Crescent Books, 1968.

Cottrell, Leonard (ed.). The Concise Encyclopedia of Archaeology. New York:
Hawthorne Books Inc., 1960.

Vermeule, Emily. Greece in the Bronze Age. Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1964.

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