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 help 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.
Fox, William A. 1988
Kholetria Ortos: A Khirokitia Culture Settlement in the Paphos District. Report of the Department of Antiquities Cyprus, 1988: 29-42.
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.