An Archaeological Site: Is it or isn’t it?

Looking-Down Syndrome

Always look at the ground you walk over: That’s what I habitually do, a natural condition resulting from doing archaeological survey for several years in the 1980s. Survey archaeology does not often involve excavation. It’s all about surface reconnaissance: walking over the landscape, ideally over freshly plowed, cultivated fieds, but often just over raw untouched lands, and recovering artifacts and other residue of past human activity that are visible on the surface. Cultivation and other activities churn up lots of archaeological material, which can sit exposed to the elements for years until a pair of observant eyes takes notice. Fragmented ceramic pieces (“pot sherds”) are sometimes the most obvious and easy things to notice and recover. But you also look for lithic (stone) materials, which could be: 1) Chipped stone objects (or fragments) from blades, flakes, cores or even percussion debris. In Cyprus this is frequently made from chert (often mistakenly called “flint”), but can also be from other stones as well. 2) So-called “ground stone” objects like axes, stone bowls or stone bowl fragments, pestles, mortars and grinding stones (“querns”). 3) If your lucky you will occasionally come across pieces made from a blue-green stone called “picrolite” and if you’re really lucky you’ll find a complete cruciform figurine! Picrolite objects are almost always associated with prehistoric sites (Neolithic or Chalcolithic). 4) Architectural fragments like stone blocks, cobbles, etc. In addition you also come across materials made from bone, glass, plaster and carbonised organics.

The proper term is chert, not flint.

Ground stone artifacts (in this case axes) are often easily visible in the plow zone of cultivated fields.

Finding an incised pebble on the surface of Kholetria-Ortos (Aceramic Neolithic) during archaeological survey. Notice the vineyard setting: perfect landscape for finding artifacts in the summer.

Incised pebbles recovered from the surface of Kholetria-Ortos: Nobody knows exactly what these stones represent or how they may have been used.

If lucky you can find picrolite figurines on the surface of unexcavated Chalcolithic sites.

October 1984: The moment the picrolite figurine (photo above) was found on the surface of an unexcavated Chacolithic site in the central Dhiarizos river valley. ( Note the perfect vineyard setting for finding artefacts.)

But even worked or unworked pieces of picrolite are welcome surface finds.

During the early-mid 1980s I used to do this walking-while-looking-at-the-ground every summer to find and map archaeological sites as part of the Canadian Palaipaphos Archaeological Survey Project. The project surveyed parts of the four major river valleys in western Cyprus. I was a member of a team of archaeological students that surveyed various landscapes within the catchment areas of western Cyprus’ four major river valleys: Khapotami, Dhiarizos, Xeros Potamos and Ezousas. Sometimes the landscapes were easy, like flat plains with plowed fieds, but on other occasions we were severely challenged by steep slopes, thick thorny vegetation and deep ravines or wadis. But probably the most difficult aspect of all was keeping your concentration going as you navigated across whatever landscape was there and looking at the ground with analytical eyes all the time. This was especially tough given hot, energy-draining conditions. But when you do it long enough and get used to it, the result is that for the rest of your life when you walk across landscapes you look for artifacts by instinct.

Fast-Forward to 2019

For years I’ve been walking up steep hills and sea cliffs, just for the sheer thrill and also as a work-out exercise to stay in shape. There are areas east of Paphos that provide perfect opportunities. I have been frequently taking the same or very similar routes up steep sea-facing chalk cliffs for about five or six years now. Sometimes I walk for one hour, sometimes for up to two-three hours. I just keep going up and up until I reach the top. Then I crest the summit and keep on going, across ridgetops, down slopes and uphill again to scale another cliff. It’s hot, it’s sweaty, it’s fantastic! To me, far more interesting than running around a track or riding a cycle.

The walking route over sea-facing chalk cliffs.


It’s hot, it’s sweaty, it’s fantastic! Keep going until the top is reached.

During these walks: Do I look at the ground habitually? Yeah, sure. But I don’t always process accurately what comes into my line of sight. It’s been maybe three or four years that I’ve noticed a stone quern (grinding stone) sitting innocently by itself in an isolated location. I always would look at it and use it as a guide to tell me I was on the right track and was so far along the walking route, etc. I must have walked by the quern 20 or 25 times and never gave it much of a thought.  Until last year, that is. Suddenly I said to myself: Hang on! What’s a quern doing up here in the middle of nowhere? I started to put my archaeological survey hat back on and then gave the area a thorough analytical walk-over. I began to look at the surface adjacent to the quern and then, a few metres away, I suddenly saw it: a circular line of stones sticking out of the surface soil. And then I looked again more carefully. What? Was that the arc of a second structure just next to the first one? It couldn’t be…or could it?

General view of the “site” showing the first circular wall with an arc of a second wall at top of photo.

Another view showing two distinct arcs of circular architecture.

View of one round house.

Close up of stone wall.

Further scrutiny and continued walking-looking-at-ground turned up additional artifacts: some pot sherds, a few very battered and worn stone axe fragments, a well preserved diabase axe or chisel, several small pieces of high quality chert debitage and a strange fragmented circular stone with part of a circular depression in its centre. After washing the pottery, it was clear that at least four pot sherds were decorated with red slip, and one of these appeared to bear the very distinctive linear decoration of “Combed Ware,” which is one of the most diagnostic characteristics of the Ceramic Neolithic Period in Cyprus.

High quality chert debitage (percussion debris from the production of stone tools) was visible on the surface soil within the stone structures.

A well preserved diabase axe or chisel (bottom right section of photo) was found on the surface near one of the circular stone walls.

Close up of diabase axe.

The Axe is of small size, it’s length slighly exceeding that of a AAA battery.

Two of the stone artifacts found adjacent to the circular architecture: At left the quern (grinding stone) and at right the fragmented stone with circular depression.

Combed Ware: This pot sherd, found on the surface next to one of the cirular stone walls, is diagnostic of the Ceramic Neolithic Period.

Both these ceramic fragments (“pot sherds”) suggest a date for this site inside the Ceramic Neolithic Period (ca. 4000 B.C.)

Sample of the various materials collected from the surface next to/within arc of circular stone walls.

During the spring of 2020 revisits to the site continued to turn up new material, mainly more ceramics, some with traces of red linear designs against a lighter background. A visit in May, 2020 yielded a very exciting find: a small fragment of worked picrolite with a drilled circular depression.

Fragment of picrolite with a ciruclar drilled depression found on the surface a few meters away from the round stone walls.