Thinking back over my early years in Cyprus working in Cypriot Archaeology, one of the standout moments happened when I literally stumbled upon a unique artifact: a fist-sized stone with incised diagonal decoration on one side and the clear sculpted features of a human face on the other. It was a stone head carved out of hard volcanic stone approximately 8000+ years ago.
Background on the Site of Ortos
In early 1980s, Canadian archaeologist Bill Fox identified the plateau called “Ortos” in the lower Xeros Potamos river valley as the location of a large Aceramic Neolithic settlement. (Bill Fox was one of the senior investigators brought in by Dr David Rupp to design the sampling strategy used by the Canadian Palaipaphos Survey Project during its archaeological survey of four river systems in western Cyprus.)
Part of this identification process involved intensive surface reconnaissance of the vineyard at Ortos during which thousands of stone artefacts were collected including: extremely large and high quality chert blades, flakes and cores, numerous stone bowls and bowl fragments, dozens of axes, chisels and adzes, plus an array of other types of ground stone, examples of “incised pebbles” amongst them (Fox, 1988). About one decade later, Dr Alan Simmons of the University of Las Vegas conducted limited excavations at Ortos (Simmons, 1996).
In May 1988, I was making a routine inspection visit to Ortos along with Dr A. Bernard Knapp, who had come down from Nicosia specifically to visit the site. We were walking over the plough zone of the vineyard when I noticed at my feet a stone with lots of diagonal grooves on it. At first, as I bent down to pick it up from the soil, I thought it was another one of those weird “incised pebbles,” several examples of which had already been collected from the surface of this same vineyard during previous archaeological survey work. (These objects, the exact use and meaning of which remains unknown, are alternatively called “engraved pebbles” by A. Bernard Knapp. Thus far examples of these enigmatic artefacts have only been found at two Aceramic Neolithic sites in Cyprus, Khirokitia and Ortos. See: Knapp, 2013: 135-136.) However, once I turned the stone over and saw chiselled eyebrows, a flat vertical nose and a prominent chin visible on the other side, I quickly realised this was no simple incised stone, but rather a representation of a human head carved out of a small diabase river cobble. What I did not fully comprehend until later was that this object now joins a group of other carved stone heads previously found at several Aceramic Neolithic sites across the island. (Many of these other heads are on display in Room 1 of the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia.) Collectively they give us the earliest representations of human faces known in Cyprus. The Ortos Head may be the earliest representation of a human face known from the Paphos District. Like all the other stone heads thus far known from the Neolithic in Cyprus, this Ortos example was broken off just below the chin, and was probably part of a larger object such as a small statue or figurine. However, this cannot be confirmed absolutely given that no additional pieces were recovered.
Upon initial examination, the head was seen to be encrusted with soil-derived calcium carbonate. The face side was most severely affected, with thick encrustation obscuring the surface above the eyebrows and around the nose; strangely, the back side showed little encrustation, as if the object had been lying face-down in direct contact with the soil for an extended period of time. Subsequent cleaning and preservation treatment conducted by Mr Andreas Geogiades of the Cyprus Museum’s artefact conservation laboratory successfully removed all the encrustation, revealing a surface that had once been ground to a polished smoothness. Despite severe battering along the top of the head as well as surface wear and plough marks elsewhere, the head survives in remarkably good condition.
Description and Specifications
Material: grey diabase river cobble. Dimensions: Height: 8.5 cm. Width: 9.2 cm. Thickness: 3.3 cm (at chin); 1.6 cm. (at crown).
Front: Raised strips represent eyebrows and nose, the nose being wider at the bottom. The face, rendered on a separate plane above the rest of the head, terminates in a pointed chin immediately below which the neck is broken off. The lower plane, detailing non-facial features, bears a pierced projection at each ear, the outer side broken; these ear-holes appear to have been made by drilling halfway into the stone from front and back. A series of engraved diagonal lines (representing hair) runs parallel to the jaws and into the fractured throat area.
Back: On a single plane, engraved diagonal lines (representing hair) run to the sides and bottom of the head. These lines are strongly engraved and emerge from a vertical panel formed by two weakly engraved vertical lines at the centre of the head. The bottom portion of the vertical panel is not visible due to surface wear, but inside the preserved upper section, two short inclined dashes (and perhaps a second pair below them?) are discernible. This arrangement at the centre might possibly suggest hair in “pony tail” with some type of hair clasp(s).
Sides: Below the ears, the sides of the head become narrower to indicate the neck. The sides of the neck bear short engraved diagonals that run at opposite angles to the engraved lines on the front and back. As viewed from the face, the right side is traversed by three diagonal lines, the left side by one diagonal line.
The front side, with its strong facial features rendered in bold relief, is very clear and presents few problems for interpretation: two eyebrows, a vertical nose and pointed chin. Surrounding the face, engraved diagonal lines indicate long, straight hair combed forward from the scalp. The use of engraved lines to represent hair also occurs on the sides and rear surface of the head. Interpretation of the back side, where decorative elements are more complex, is hindered slightly by the poor condition of the central bottom portion, where surface wear has removed all traces of the original engraving. Nevertheless, the rear decorative scheme can easily be identified as representing an elaborate hairstyle.
Across the rear surface, engraved diagonal lines run towards the sides and bottom of the head. The lower lines run off the back side at ear level and reappear on the front side beneath the chin. They follow the same angles as on the back of the head, suggesting that the hair has been combed forward over the shoulders, though the transition from back to front is not indicated, as short diagonals occurring on the sides do not correlate with the number and angle orientation of the main diagonal lines appearing on the front and back. On the preserved upper portion of the back, the engraved diagonals emerge from a centrally placed pair of vertical lines. The pair of short inclined dashes inside the vertical lines perhaps indicates braiding. The overall arrangement suggests a braided ponytail overlying strands of long scalp hair. However, it is also possible to interpret the vertical elements as some sort of headdress or hair ornament.
Stone heads comparable to the Ortos Head are known from other (excavated) Aceramic Neolithic settlements: Khirokitia (Object No. 1, No. 1068, No. 1093; Dikaios 1953: Pl. CXLIII and CXLIV), Kalavasos-Tenta (Object No. K-T 660; Todd 1982: 50) and Petra tou Limniti (Object No. 27; Gjerstad et al. 1934; Pl. VIII). These specimens share some or all of the following attributes with the Ortos example:
- Manufactured from igneous rock (Troodos Diabase) river cobble;
- Prominent pointed chin;
- Facial features (eyebrows and nose) in relief;
- Drilled ear-holes;
- Indication of hairstyle on the back of the head.
Additional Notes: Khirokitia No. 1068 bears the additional feature of eyes represented by two round cavities, and the back is plain; Diaios 2953: 298). As regards K-T 660 from Tenta, the object uses a small oval cavity for the mouth.
None of the other stone heads exactly matches the type of hairstyle depicted on the Ortos Head. The sun-baked (?) clay head from Khriokitia (No. 1063), with its single centrally placed incised vertical lines and short incised diagonal lines at oblique angles, is perhaps the closest to the Ortos example (Dikaios 1953: 299, Pl. CXLIV). Engraved diagonal lines are altogether absent from other heads, such as Khirokitia No. 1093 and the one from Tenta cited above (K-T 660). Instead, a single raised veritical band with horizontal incisions runs down the center of the back of the head, which may (or may not) represent hair. The Tenta head has this decoration on both the front and back of the object, as does another fragmentary stone vessel from Khirokitia (No. 929; Dikaios 1953: 298-299, Pl. CXLIII).
The closest parallel by far to the Ortos Head is Khirokitia, Object No. 1 (Dikaios 1953: 342). Both heads share all the afore-mentioned attributes. The uncanny similarity between the two, in terms of facial features and selected raw material, is striking. The major differences between the two heads concerns the hairstyle. On the Khirokitia specimen, engraved lines on the front side descend vertically from the chin, as if representing facial hair like a beard, whilst on the back, a concentric square pattern, rendered in engraved lines, might indicate hair turned up in a bun. The Ortos Head shares one other important attribute with Khirokitia, Object No. 1: They are both broken off at chin level. Objects of this type have previously been considered part of a larger object, perhaps the upper part of a small statue or figurine. However, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, it seems equally plausible to suggest that these heads were created as independent objects. They may have been designed to serve some unknown purpose by themselves, or they may have been attached to a separate stone or even non-stone object. Regarding the clay head from Khirokitia (No. 1063), Dikaios notes a small hole on its underside and proposes that it was “evidently for fastening the head on to a separate body or wooden pole” (Dikaios 1953: 299). While none of the stone heads possesses even the smallest suggestion of a fastening apparatus, they could easily have been suspended from the ear-holes.
The small sample of stone heads known from Aceramic Neolithic sites in Cyprus does not allow for a comprehensive discussion concerning their function and significance in early Stone Age society. Until we get beyond the fundamental stage of describing their physical characteristics and dividing them into typological categories, it is pure speculation to attempt to explain how these heads were used or what they meant to the people who manufactured them. At present, we may conclude that these stone heads are one of the most recognizable features of what several Neolithic experts in Cyprus refer to as the “Khirokitia Culture.” In the case of as site like Kholetria-Ortos, the occurrence of such an artifact as the Ortos Head will strongly indicate, if indeed it does not confirm, such an cultural affiliation.
Dikaios, P. 1953: Khirokitia. Final Report on the Excavation of a Neolithic Settlement in Cyprus on Behalf of the Department of Antiquities, 1936-1946. Mongraphs of the Department of Antiquities of the Government of Cyprus No. 1. Oxfort: Oxford University Press.
Fox, William A. 1988
Kholetria Ortos: A Khirokitia Culture Settlement in the Paphos District. Report of the Department of Antiquities Cyprus, 1988: 29-42.
Gjerstad, E., Lindros, J., Sjoquist, E., and Westholm, A. 1934: The Swedish Cyprus Expedition. Finds and Results of Excavations in Cyprus 1927-1937. Vols. 1 and 2. Stockholm.
Knapp, A. Bernard. 2013
The Archaeology of Cyprus: From Earliest Prehistory through the Bronze Age. Cambridge University Press.
Simmons, Alan H. 1996
Preliminary report on multidisciplinary investigations at Neolithic Kholetria Ortos, Paphos District. Report of the Department of Antiquities, Cyprus: 29-44.
Todd, I.A., 1982: Vasilikos Valley Project: Fourth Preliminary Report, 1979-1980. Journal of Field Archaeology 9: 35-79.