One for the Road

Roundabout 1979, it was announced in Cyprus that a new motorway would be constructed between the capital Nicosia (okay, “Lefkosia” if you must) and Limassol. First reactions to this news were almost universally positive: no longer would it take a grueling 1.5 hours to drive between these two major towns, but instead, once completed, the new roadway would cut the travelling time approximately in half. However, while everybody was dancing in the streets in anticipation of this new motorway and the obvious benefits it would bring, few realised that there would be another, not-so-obvious bi-product of major road construction over such a large swath of landscape in Cyprus. Once the path of the road-line was set and the initial earth-moving machines were dispatched to do their thing, all kinds of antiquities from unknown and unrecognised archaeological sites started to come to light. Unfortunately, in the haste to get the new road underway and under pressure to meet construction deadlines, etc., a massive amount of archaeological material was severely damaged and/or destroyed. To the average person this was considered collateral damage, an unavoidable consequence in exchange for progress towards a greater common good. Today, most of us (including me) would agree with that line of thinking as we drive with ease across the island and take for granted the very existence of this road. Nevertheless, it might be instructive (or at least nostalgic) to go back and take another look at exactly what happened in one small section of the road line that intersected an archaeological “hot zone” in the western Larnaca District.


The Line of the Road

A few kilometres west of Khirokitia, the new road line was aimed westwards towards Limassol and was positioned to cut through the southern part of the Vasilikos River Valley. We are talking about a location approx. 2 kms south of Kalavasos Village and a similar distance north of Zygi. Since the 1930s, when construction of a railway line connected with the transport of copper ore from nearby mines had haphazardly resulted in the discovery of an Neolithic artifacts from the side of a hill called “Tenta,” this part of the river floodplain had already been recognised as an area with important archaeology. Initial “test excavations” by Porphyrios Dikaios were followed a few decades later by a full-fledged excavation project, the Vasilikos Valley Project (VVP), headed by Dr Ian Todd, who established that there was indeed an Aceramic Neolitic settlement at Tenta. Twenty-odd circular structures, or “round houses” made of stone and mud brick, were unearthed between 1976 through 1984. (These excavations, protected by a large yellow teepee-like shelter, are clearly visible on the north side of the Nicosia-Limassol highway.) The site at Kalavasos-Tenta was not directly impacted by the road works, but the road line itself passed through the valley less than 200m south of Dr Todd’s excavations.

View of Aceramic Neolithic excavations at Kalavasos-Tenta.

Unexpected Suprise: Rescue and Sacrifice

During the early summer of 1981, before any serious earth-moving activity took place in the Vasilikos Valley, a team of Civil Engineers was dispatched into the fields in front of Tenta to test the integrity of the soils and bedrock over which the projected road line would pass. Across this area, which locals called  Ayios Dhimitrios, the engineers cut several small rectangular trenches or “test pits” a couple of metres deep. Inside some of these trenches, small amounts of Late Bronze Age ceramics associated with short sections of rectilinear stone walls were observed by members of the VVP.

It soon became clear that the projected road works would pass directly through part of an ancient Late Bronze Age settlement, the existence of which was previously unknown. It was additionally clear that any road construction activity would result in the complete destruction of any archaeological deposits and associated architecture along the road line. A “rescue excavation” was hastily organised before the machines could obliterate the archaeology and to Dr Todd’s slight consternation, operations at Neolithic Tenta were seriously down-graded, while attention and resources shifted towards the Late Bronze Age material in the road line. Rescue excavations represent a bit of a compromise: In this case, the road builders get to construct their road, but first they have to wait for the archaeologists to dig up the buildings, take their notes and photographs, remove the artifacts and record whatever they cannot remove. The idea is to get in fast, do the work fast and out as fast as possible. Everybody understood that whatever we found would ultimately be sacrificed to the greater good, the road.

Sacrifieced to the God of the Road: Plan of road line showing areas under rescue excavation and marking the different sections of architecture and tombs lost to the road works. Most of this work was accomplished within six weeks using an array of volunteers, including the Cyprus National Guard and members of the British Army from Episkopi Army Garrison. (This plan appears in: South, Alison 1980: Kalavasos-Ayios Dhimitrios 1979: A Summary Report. Report of the Department of Antiquities Cyprus: 22-53.)


Nightmare Volunteers: Bad Boys, Geordie Accents and Big Mick

The timing of all this was a bit unfortunate: It all happened towards the end of the summer-start of autumn, meaning that most of the VVP’s staff (archaeological students and lecturers) were headed back to their universities to begin the next academic year. So the work fell to just the few of us (four or five persons) who were staying behind and we were seriously short staffed. We considered the logistical problems at nights in the small “Tenta Cafe,” our chief watering hole in Kalavasos Village, and beer, wine and brandy produced several moments of inspiration. It was decided to call in a contingent of local soldiers from the Cyprus National Guard. A few phone calls with the Dept. of Antiquities in Nicosia were made to arrange this: two days later, a convoy of troop transport vehicles showed up to deposit roughly 100 young conscripts from the Cyprus Army. We only needed about 3 harrowing hours to realise that this would not work out, because the hoard of adolescent soldiers, under the leadership of only three officers, were completely uncontrollable: they would totally disregard (or not understand) our instructions of where and where not to dig, and they started digging anywhere and everywhere, throwing stones here and there and making a true mess of what should have been slow, steady work within specifically defined 5 x 5 metre trenches. They were laughing and joking around like it was play-time at kindergarten: a heard of hungry bulls in a china shop, comes to mind! By early afternoon, the whole adventure-experiment was called off and the boys were loaded back into the trucks to return to their base.

We shifted tactics slightly: it was decided to stick with the “military option,” but instead we called in a smaller group of slightly older soldiers from the British Army Garrison at Episkopi. We thought that being British there would be no serious communication problems and a smaller number, something like a dozen persons, would be easier to controll. The next morning, bright an early, two open Land Rovers with camouflage painting and British number plates showed up at the road line. Out came a group of ten “squadies” (that’s what they called themselves) under the command of a huge, muscle-bound Officer named “Big Mick.”(Later we found out he played Rugby and was a “Scrum Half.”) But we had miscalculated about the lack of communication problems: they were English all right, but Geordies from Newcastle, so they could understand us, but we had difficulties comprehending their heavy accents*. This was just the start of the problems, however. It soon became clear that these Geordie Squadie-guys were more interested in finding alcoholic beverages to consume than provide any help to our rescue excavations. The Officer, Big Mick, would take random and periodic counts of his men, and when one or two turned up temporarily absent, he got very angry. Mick asked me and another VVP staff member to accompany him into the nearby Kalavasos Village. When we arrived in the village centre we found the MIA squadies enjoying a bottle or two of KEO VSOP brandy with small bottles of Coke right at the village kapheneion (“coffeeshop”). They were quite drunk and laughing about everything. A small crowd of locals, mostly elderly men, had gathered at a respectful distance to observe the strange proceedings. Everybody observed that it was unwise to get Big Mick angry because he immediatly approached one of the squadies and abruptly head-butted him into a state of semi-unconsciousness. He then draped the inebriated body over his shoulder and hurled the poor guy into the back of the Land Rover. A loud “thud” was heard as the dead-weight body hit the metal. The next one, threw up his arms in surrender, still holding his glass of brandy-coke which spilled everywhere, and was in turn thrown unceremoniously into the Land Rover on top of his friend. Then we all hoped into the vehicle to return to the road line. The Geordies lasted another two days, because similar incidents with alcohol abuse, etc. kept occurring.

A Rich Ending

So it was that we bid poor Big Mick and his pack of Geordies goodbye. We decided to ditch the idea of volunteers and just work overtime by ourselves and risk upsetting the road engineers with possible delays. We did our best and did cause delays to the road operations, but by late October we had uncovered what we could. We found two distinct clustres of architecture and a group of Late Bronze Age chamber tombs inside and along side the road line. In one of these tombs we found some in tact painted ceramic vessels, skeletal remains of two bodies and a series of thirteen wonderful gold-foil beads, each made into the precise shape of a pomegranate, near the collarbone of one of the skeletons.

As the road works progressed things started to kick into high gear towards a ridgetop forming the eastern bank of the valley. One day, immense machines –we called them “Dinasaurs”– turned up and began preperations to cut away the entire top of a plateau. This was place, about 200 metres east and uphill from Ayios Dhimitrios (on river floodplain),  was called  Ayious (“at the Saints”) by locals about 250 metres away from Bronze Age buildings. Surface reconnaissance in previous seasons had established that this location was rich in Chalcolithic remains (ca. 3000 BC) and that almost certainly a settlement belonging to that period lay below the fields. Long story made short: Another rescue operation was organised to quickly excavate a series of Chalcolithic  houses, some them partially built below ground level and connected to subterranean tunnels. The man in charge of this rescue operation, Paul Croft, became known as “the pit house man” because he discovered all the underground tunnels single-handed and virtually excavated the whole site on his own! The foreman of the road works was quite overjoyed when excavations at Kalavasos-Ayious was finished, and eventually the entire area was obliterated by machines. (See photo above)


Aerial view of Kalavasos-Tenta (with roof near centre) and Kalavasos-Ayios Dhimitrios (bottom right).

Close up of Kalavasos-Ayios Dhimitrios “Building X” and relationship to line of highway. (Both aerial photos courtesy of the Vasilikos Valley Project)

Everything reported above is true and really happened. After the new highway was finished and opened, the VVP split into two operations, with Dr Todd concentrating on Neolithic Tenta, while Alison South, previously the assistant director of the VVP, became chief investigator and field director of new excavations at Kalavasos-Ayios Dhimitrios. During the middle 1980s and beyond, excavations continued to unearth sections of a large ancient settlement, especially in the fields immediately adjacent to the new road. Today, as drivers zoom past this location, hardly anybody notices what is visible outside their windows. The next time you drive on this section of the highway as it passes through the Vasilikos Valley take a careful look at the field in between the road and Tenta: you will see a sizable fenced-off area where parts of a sprawling Bronze Age town, complete with large stone structures, open-air courtyards and actual streets has been excavated. This northern area produced some very significant finds, including the celebrated “Building X” with its important “Pithos Hall” and a very important burial: The so-called “Tomb 11” was completely unopened (it was sealed with a stone slab!) where three female skeletons were found stretched out on stone-cut benches inside a single chamber. The overall assemblage of artifacts recovered inside indicated extreme wealth and came from various corners of the east Mediterranean and beyond (Mainland Greece, Turkey, the Syro-Palesetinan coastline, Egypt) and beyond. Some have called Tomb 11 at Kalavasos-Ayios Dhimitrios “the richest burial excavated in Cyprus for the past 30 years.” (See publications by A. South and the Vasilikos Valley Project, e.g.: South, Alison 1980 Kalavasos-Ayios Dhimitrios 1979: A Summary Report. Report of the Department of Antiquities Cyprus: 22-53.)

Alison South gives a private tour of the Late Bronze Age excavations at Kalavasos-Ayios Dhimitrios in 2019.



Inside the “Pithos Hall” of Building X: Many generations of ancient stone-robbers have taken away tons of material, but a few impressive bits of Ashlar Masonry still remain in situ.

View of Building X looking North, 2019: A doorway may have led through rooms into an open-air courtyard paved with gravel floor. Just inside the wall at bottom left of photo: two clay cylinders bearing written symbols in the “Cypro-Minoan” script were found. (See photo below)

These fragmentary texts (documents?) were found inside Building X at Kalavasos-Ayios Dhimitrios’

The plan of Tomb 11 showing distribution of skeletons and grave goods: “Some say it is the richest burial found in Cyprus over the past 30 years.”