The Tomb-Diggers Club

All human beings are all animals, right? (Well, okay, each one of us knows certain individuals who might better be labled as “vegetables” but…) If somebody asked you to list some important characteristics that differentiate humans from all other animals, including other primates, there are many obvious choices. However, here is one that probably did not come immediately to mind:

Of all the animals that ever roamed this planet, we humans are the only one to develop distinct cultural responses to the way we approach, understand and manage our dead.

In other words, we are the only species on the planet to ever do something specific with our dead. You can say “funerary practices” or “burial customs,” whatever you want, but wherever one looks across the globe or historical timeline we find people taking deliberate and systematic actions to deal with dead human bodies. Can you name any country or region without a “nekro-culture?”


Enter the Tomb-Diggers


I cannot speak for every archaeologist or student or anybody who has ever been involved in excavating ancient burials, but for me, and a host of other people I used to work with during the 1980s in Kalavasos, Cyprus, the days we spent digging Bronze Age chamber tombs rate as the most thrilling and memorable experiences of our entire archaeological experience. During most of my digging years working on sites like Tenta and Ayios Dhimitriios, etc., I do not recall waking up (at ungodly hours, mind you!) with a particular spring in my step, chomping at the bits to get on site and into those excavation trenches. No, most of the time we were suffering from partial hangover from the previous night… However, when it came to excavating Bronze Age burials, I used to go to sleep at night hoping the alarm bell would ring early so we could get back to work. For me, tomb-digging was a giant adrenaline rush…and along with that rush you acquire a certain mindset, an attitude of focus, on being meticulous and gentle with all the materials within the tomb, a feeling of personal responsibility to collect as much data as you can and to record as many observations as possible. You feel responsible towards the study we today call archaeology, but also towards the person or persons whose bones you slowly expose, paint with chemical preservatives, draw, photograph and then remove from the chamber. I believe anybody who has shared this kind of experience, is part of a unique club, a club I call: The Tomb-Diggers Club.

Inside Tomb 54 (near Kalavasos Panayia Church): Unidentificed organic material was found lying in the interiors of several ceramic bowls within this Middle Bronze Age tomb. Here is a rare example of a chamber tomb that had remained sealed with an undisturbed burial deposit until excavation in 1985.

Every club has rules. If that applies to the Tomb-Diggers, then the first rule of the club would be: Everything you find in the tomb ultimately belongs, not to me, not to you or any individual, but to the Republic of Cyprus and its people as a whole. With a sense of pride and loyalty to the ideals of preserving cultural heritage, we collect, conserve and turn into district museums every artefact, bone, seed or scrap thereof for the benefit of all. That is the mantra of Tomb-Diggers.  In stark contrast to this, however, stands another movement with long history and tradition behind it.


The Tomb-Looters

I still cannot get out of my head the image of something I saw some thirty-odd years ago. It was the mid-80s in Kalavasos Village. The government had an island-wide project to upgrade all villages with modern telephone lines by using underground cables. They sent in backhoes to cut long, narrow trenches along nearly every street to accommodate the new cables. Anybody who knows Kalavasos knows that most of the modern houses stand right on top of something archaeological, which in most cases means Bronze Age tombs. In a few of the village, these cable trenches cut into the top portions of chamber tombs resulting in the exposure of tomb contents. Complete to semi-complete ceramic vessels of all shapes and sizes were clearly visible within these open trenches for all to see. I stood by in horror to witness a dozen or more fellow villagers kneeling down with arms outstretched to grab any pot they could get their hands on, and then make a rapid retreat home with their arms full of Red Polished Ware. It was a true frenzy.


About a week later, I saw one of the men who was involved in removing ancient materials from the cable trenches sitting at the coffee shop. I sat down next to him and asked why he felt so compelled to take these ancient artefacts. His answer was long and fascinating.  He spoke about a long-standing family tradition, going back generations, to find and open up tombs –“spilious” he called them. He told me stories of his youth and how his grandfather had taken him along with his father and brothers on night time expeditions outside the village to a place known by locals to possess spilious me arkhaia (literally “caves with ancient artefacts”). He explained that during these outings they would deliberately bring along young boys because the adults were too large to fit through the narrow looting tunnels and get into the tomb chambers. The boys would go in, grab pots, most of which were intact, and hand them up to their fathers and grandfathers waiting above. The adults would then systematically smash the ceramic vessels into pieces because they were absolutely convinced there would be gold coins stashed inside the pots. When I pressed him, he admitted with a wry smile that he never saw any coins, gold or otherwise. He stressed that these looting episodes usually occurred at night under cover of darkness, so they would bring lamps or lanterns with them. From his description, it seemed he was talking about a locality called Mitsingides, site of a large limestone outcrop about a kilometer outside the village to the south. The Vasilikos Valley Project, which conducted a thorough survey of archaeological sites in the valley (1976-1979), had already catalogued this location as a cemetery site of the Middle Bronze Age. Even today, if you know where to find them, you can still access some of these looters tunnels and enter the chambers through openings smashed into the rear of the tombs. In some cases, the stone slabs are still in their original positions from when the tombs were first sealed back in the Bronze Age.

Personal Note: I did not write the above to point the finger of accusation or blame towards those villagers I saw helping themselves liberally to what those telephone cable trenches offered. They were simply reacting to what has been in-grained culturally on the population of this island for thousands of years. You take a random sample of tombs excavated by archaeologists since, say, 1927 or so, when the Swedish Cyprus Expedition commenced what many regard as the first modern archaeological mission to Cyprus. A high percentage of tombs, perhaps as high as 90%, showed signs of having been looted at some point in the past, quite often hundreds or more years ago. This “looting culture” does not just involve tombs, it involves reusable building materials from settlements and individual ancient buildings as well. Go to the Sanctuary of Aphrodite at Kouklia (Palaipaphos) and you see how large blocks of stone migrated around three separate temples from the Bronze Age to Roman periods. Go to Bellapais Abbey and you see stones such as column shafts or capitals from Roman and Byzantine architecture incorporated into the 13th Century walls. Look at the iconic Theatre at Kourion and observe how many cut stone slabs were systematically and periodically removed from (mostly) the upper seating rows. Ask Alison South, chief excavator of Kalavasos-Ayios Dhimitrios (Late Bronze Age), how many looters’ trenches she found in and around the walls of Building X containing Ashlar masonry. Is it looting or “re-cycling?” Whatever, this kind of behaviour has been around forever. It can be seen even today, for example, when people remove roof beams or gypsum slabs from old stone houses in many of the abdandoned villages across the island.

Alison South shows one of the few Ashlar blocks not taken by ancient looters in the “Pithos Hall” section of Building X at Kalavasos-Ayios Dhimitrios.

Tomb Distribution and the Geological Setting

The bedrock in the central sections of Kalavasos consists of a thick deposit of soft, friable “havara” (secondary limestone) capped in places by a thin layer of very hard “kafkalla” (a petro-calcic horizon). Havara occurs widely across the elevated parts of Kalavasos, and it characterises all parts of the village where tomb locations have been recorded. Being a paralithic material –it can be excavated with a shovel—havara provided Bronze Age inhabitants with an excellent medium for the construction of underground burial Chambers. One might assume that the site now occupied by the modern village was originally selected for use as a burial ground at least partly because of the favourable qualities of the bedrock. The distribution of havara may thus give an indication for limits of the burial ground. It is significant that no tombs have been reported outside the havara deposits, such as in the zones of chalky marls and limestone, which surround the village on its southern, southwestern and western sides, or in the mainly alluvial eastern and extreme northern parts of the village, which stand on the river terrace.


What’s under your house?

If you could go back in time and walk over the area now occupied by Kalavasos Village, what would you see? This would be before there were any houses clustered around a plateia (“village square”), before there was a church or mosque built, and before there were any paved streets. If you went back far enough, you would be walking over a steep limestone hill or outcrop littered with hundreds of tunnel-like holes leading into rock-cut subterranean burial chambers, all or most of them sealed with stone slabs. You would be walking over a giant cemetery stretching from the riverbank at the bottom of the hill (the bridge at the southern entrance to the modern village today) up a steep rocky slope to the summit of a small plateau. In other words, there is a vast Bronze Age burial ground beneath the southern, central and western parts of the modern Kalavasos Village.


Long History of Haphazard Exposure

From more than eight decades of archaeological activity inside Kalavasos, we see the following picture emerge as regards the location and distribution of tomb clusters at specific locations within the village:

  • In the 1940s, the digging of air-raid trenches and the foundations for new buildings uncovered eleven Middle Bronze Age Tombs and one early phase Late Bronze Age tomb (Tomb 2) near Panayia Church at the village centre.
  • Two middle phase Late Bronze Age tombs (Tombs 10 and 11) came to light in 1950 when water pipes were installed below a street on the steep western fringe of the village (the so-called Mavrovouni neighbourhood), and another tomb of the same date (Tomb 22) near the Mosque in 1951.
  • Discovery of tombs continued during the 1960s, this time towards the southern end of the village (not far from the banks of the Vasilikos River) when a total of ten Middle Bronze Age tombs were excavated in and around the foundations of a large new structure that would become the village Cinema. Later on, during the mid-1980s, renovation works to turn the same structure into a small factory revealed additional Middle Bronze Age tombs, which were then excavated by the Vasilikos Valley Project.
  • Thirteen Middle Bronze Age tombs were “salvaged” in 1978 during the construction of new shops (including the village Synergatiko (“Co-Op grocery/post office) just below and next to Panayia Church. During these rescue excavations, administered jointly by members of the Vasilikos Valley Project and the Department of Antiquities, Cyprus (they came down from Nicosia!), one tomb yielded a truly remarkable find: a large ceramic crater with small sculpted figures of clay demonstrating the various phases of wine-making. (This important artefact, perhaps one of the most impressive objects to come from excavations within the Vasilikos Valley to date, is now on display in the Larnaca District Archaeological Museum.)
  • 1980-81: Towards the low-lying northern end of Kalavasos, on the flat terrace of the river bank, construction of a circular cess pit revealed a small section of rectangular stone architecture with a hard-packed earthen floor surface about 1.5 meters below current ground level. A small quantity of Late Bronze Age ceramics was found associated with this structure, giving strong indications that a Bronze Age settlement of unknown size probably existed along the western banks of the Vasilikos River.
  • The digging of trenches and other earth-moving activity for underground telephone cables (1984-1985) necessitated the excavation of five tombs: The early phase Late Bronze Age tomb (Tomb 51), which we present in detail below, and four additional tombs of the Middle Bronze Age (Tombs 52-55). Tombs 51-53 were situated on a narrow street fronting the southern side of the Mosque; Tombs 54 and 55 (also discussed in detail below) were located in the courtyard area on the southern side of Panayia Church.

To summarize: Between 1940 and 1985, forty-three tombs (37 Middle Bronze Age and 5 Late Bronze Age) were excavated with the confines of Kalavasos Village, each having been discovered more or less fortuitously during building operations. The indication of Late Bronze Age architecture at the northern end of the village, although admittedly based on a small sample of evidence found beneath the courtyard of an old stone (early 20th Century) house, is intriguing. It conjures up the image of a riverside settlement with a large sprawling burial ground extending up a rocky hillside on its western side. Any future finds and investigations in this part of Kalavasos will either confirm or deny this picture.

Bulldozing next to Kalavasos Panayia Church resulted in the discovery of Tombs 54 and 55.

Members of the Vasilikos Valley Project begin rescue excavations of freshly exposed Bronze Age chamber tombs. Most of the central part of modern Kalavasos Village seems to overlie a giant Bronze Age burial ground.



The Evolution of Tomb Architecture in Cyprus

Following the current evidence available in the archaeological record of Cyprus, we can trace a distinct evolution in the approach and morphology of grave architecture through time. The first permanent residents of the island (during the so-called Aceraminc Neolithic Period) practised a burial custom that all of us today would find surprising, even repugnant or unthinkable: they buried their dead in shallow pits directly below the hard dirt or gypsum-plaster floors of their houses.

That general form of burial, with some variations of individual burials outside but still near houses, seems to have prevailed for several thousands of years until eventually we see, starting mainly in the Chalcolithic Period, clustres of vertical rock-cut shaft graves positioned outside the settlement perimeters. Classic examples of these Chalcolithic shaft grave nekropoli occur at two locations on opposite sides of a deep canyon outside Kouklia Village in the Paphos District. Chisel marks are clearly visible on the sides of these shafts indicating how the graves hollowed out of relatively soft secondary limestone (local name “havara”) using pointed tools like antler tips, hard stone implements or even crude metal objects. Often these vertical shafts were sealed with stone slabs or “cap stones” that were placed into pre-cut depressions over the top of the graves. Various forms of grave goods, ceramic vessels and stone objects, including the iconic picrolite cruciform figurines, were placed inside and around sometimes even on top of the skeleton(s), which were normally folded into a contracted positions.

Vertical rock-cut shaft grave from the Chalcolithic Period.

Plan and cross-section of a typical Chalcolithic shaft grave.

Turning to the Bronze Age, we see the development of more spacious, almost cave-like rock-cut chamber tombs capable of holding multiple skeletons and a large range of objects. This chamber tomb form seems to remain dominant throughout the Bronze Age and well into the Iron Age. In addition, the trend towards extra-mural burial (placing the necropolis sites outside the perimeter of settlements) becomes firm and widespread across Cyprus. Indeed, this same trend continued throughout later periods of history and is, of course, the normal practice today.

Like their vertical Chalcolithic counterparts, many Bronze Age tombs were sealed with stone slabs. The chambers were most frequently cut into soft secondary limestone and many exhibit chisel marks from the pointed implements used during the construction phase. Several, but not all, Bronze Age chamber tombs display an entry feature or “dromos” beyond the simple stone slab. Sometimes small horizontal passageways or even rock-cut steps drop down from surface level to the mouth or “stomion” of the chamber where the stone slab seal is found…that is, if you’re lucky. More often than not, one finds only a partial slab or no slab at all. Almost always the absent or smashed up slabs represent clear evidence of prior entry and looting activities subsequent to the original burial(s) and sealing(s) of the tomb. These tomb looters, regardless of when they looted, usually were looking for what they considered most valuable, which often meant they targeted metal objects. There’s always quantities of the original grave goods left behind, particularly ceramics and quite often it seems the looters conducted their activities without great care (or in haste?), leaving even valuable objects (or scraps) of metal, ivory or other precious materials behind.

Seldom seen: An unlooted Middle Bronze Age chamber tomb with the stone slabe still in place, indicating the tomb had not been entered after it was last sealed. In this case somebody seems to have left a ceramic vessel in the dromos outside the tomb entrance subsequent to the burial.

View of the dromos, stomion and stone slab of a Late Bronze Age chamber tomb. This was another rare example of an unlooted tomb. This photo was taken just after the stone slab was removed from its original sealed position over the tomb mouth.

Once inside the chamber mouth, it is most typical to find a vertical section cut directly below the entrance, whilst the rest of the chamber walls are curved to concave. Some tombs have small niches in the walls as well as rock ledges or “benches”, but in most cases the floor of the chamber is roughly flat and uninterrupted.

Cross-section of a typical Bronze Age chamber tomb.

Plan of a Late Bronze Age burial showing three distinct skeletons laid onto two raised benches or “beds” within the tomb chamber. Partial remains of three additional skeletons are seen grouped together on the floor towards the centre.