There’s a sheep in that hole!

Did you ever have a bad day? I mean, a really, really bad day? Sure, we all have one, now and again, right? Well, for a certain sheep in western Cyprus, one particular September day turned out to be not only bad, but could have been fatal…except for a bit of luck and happenstance. Here’s the true story:

It was during early September 2018 that I had the great pleasure to meet Sally Miniel and Joe Lamm from Texas in the USA and guide them on a full-day Private Excursion aimed at looking at mainstream and off-the-beaten-track archaeological sites in western Cyprus. This was a day I shall not easily forget because one of the most unusual experiences I’ve ever had, either as an archaeologist or a professional tour guide, occurred about mid-way through the excursion.

We had just finished visiting a rather unique 14th Century painted church located down some isolated dirt track, miles from anywhere, when one of the excursion participants, Mr Joe Lamm, happened to mention that he was interested in prehistoric archaeological sites. I told him: “You’re in luck, because nearby there happens to be an excellent example of a Chalcolithic Period (ca. 3000BC) necropolis (burial ground), where dozens of shaft graves were cut into a soft limestone outcrop and it’s only a ten-minute drive from where we are now.” So that’s how it all started, as a sudden last-minute decision, we diverted our planned itinerary to include this special site. Under normal circumstances, we would not have visited this place on that day, but on these Private Excursions spontaneity rules, and we ended up at the right place at the right time, at least as far as the fate of a certain sheep is concerned.

General view of the necropolis site.

When we approached the site by 4×4 vehicle and then got out to walk the last section up to the tombs, I noticed a large flock of sheep and goats milling around nearby. I didn’t think too much about that initially. As I brought these two guests up to the rock outcrop and as I started to explain about burial practices and point out the shaft graves, suddenly there was a unexpected interruption: we were all stunned –shocked, really!– to hear the loud bleating of a sheep, as if it was coming from underground, definitely sub-terra. Consider the context and setting of this specific moment: Here we are standing on top of a prehistoric cemetery, a burial ground. All around us are tombs of people who died five-thousand years ago, and then suddenly a loud sound attacks our ears from below the ground! You might guess where your wild thoughts might take you, before logic sets in and you realize it’s the sound of a living animal.

We started to frantically search for the source of the sheep noise by checking inside each of the many dozens of holes and then, three or four minutes later: there it was! An adult sheep had fallen into one of the deeper graves and was undeniably trapped inside. There was no way this animal could move in any direction and clearly, it could not get out of the hole by itself. Beyond that, it was so deeply stuck –something like two metres below surface level– that it was beyond our reach, nor did any of us possess the physical resources necessary to pull the sheep up and liberate the poor creature by ourselves.

Oooops: I fell down this hole and can’t get out! Now what? (Photo: Sally Miniel)

I told my esteemed guests, Joe and Sally, that I knew they were paying top dollar for the tour day, but I would forfeit all the money if necessary just to interrupt our itinerary in order to drive back to a nearby village and get help to pull the poor bugger out. I thought to myself: I won’t be able to live with myself if I abandon this sheep in the hole. Of course, Joe and Sally were 100% on board and felt just as strongly as I did that we had to initiate a rescue mission, so I’d like to acknowledge that and offer them both my heart-felt respect and thanks. In full agreement, we stopped our tour, drove back into a village to get help. In fact, the small adventure that ensued in rescuing the sheep resulted in one of the most rewarding and bizarre excursion moments I’ve ever had; and the guests both told me in the end this was one of the best thing they’d experienced in three weeks of touring Greece, Turkey and Cyprus.

We returned to the nearby Kouklia Village* to seek help. First stop was the local Museum, but at first they just looked at me with sheep-eyes, ooops no pun! However, once the museum boss, Maro, saw the photos of the trapped sheep and understood the situation, she was quite helpful, very sympathetic, and offered several constructive suggestions. Unfortunately, they were unable to give immediate assistance, so we moved on. Then we went to a nearby Police station, but no luck there: our pleas for help were met with expressions of indifference and nobody seemed particularly interested to get involved. I thought: Where is the Love? Is there no heart left in a place that overlies the Sanctuary of Aphrodite, the ancient Goddess of Love? However, I was wrong:  there is heart, there is compassion in Kouklia Village, and we were soon to find it along one of the village side streets.

I had an idea: Let’s go local. I remembered the name of a sheep/goat farmer –a really nice guy named “Aspris”– who keeps most of his animals in the abandoned Souskiou Village, quite near the ancient necropolis where the sheep was stuck. I was not 100% sure the poor sheep in question was his, but it was a start, so I went driving through the village to find somebody who could point us to the house of Aspris.

Along the way: I found a pick-up truck with a driver inside, window open, chatting with another villager. On the side door of the pick-up: the logo and lettering of the Village Council of Kouklia. Bingo! The driver was a bearded fellow in his late 20s, maybe early 30s. We showed him the photos of the trapped sheep that Sally had just taken on her phone. Mid-way through the conversation he interrupted me, asking: “Hey: Aren’t you David, the Archaelogist?” I said: “Yeah, that’s right, but how do you know me?” He then went on to explain that his name was Spyros Petrides** and when he was a young kid he and his mates used to hang out at the village Demotic School***, where we archaeologists were staying and we had played football together, back in the old days. I really had no memory of this or this even this specific kid, now a grown man, but I pretended to remember and went “Oh, yeah, of course: Spyros! I remember you now!”

After we exchanged handshakes, Spyros took total control of the situation. He organised a rescue party! He told me to wait 5 minutes and then he would come back and follow us in my jeep to the necropolis site. Spyros went into his office first and produced a few bottles of cold water which he offered us as refreshment. You see, in Kouklia Village, no matter what happens, the guests are King, so philoxenia (“hospitality”) is always offered. Our new Animal Rescue Leader disappeared for a short time, maybe 4 minutes, whilst we drank the cold water. (It was a hot day, and we were indeed thirsty.) He then reappeared with two of his pals, one of them bearing a rope.

As promised, he followed behind us as we drove back to the Necropolis site. We all expected that when we re-located the trapped sheep, one of these strong guys would climb down and attach the rope to the trapped animal. However, as soon as we arrived at the outcrop and found the sheep stuck in the hole, the rope became immediately irrelevant. We all marveled as one of Spyros’ mates, some giant guy named Yiorkis with huge forearms, just bent down (exposing his massive “cheeks” and “crack” flowing over his underwear in the process) and simply grabbed the sheep by its fleece –you know, kind of the way you pick up a cat by its neck—and yanked the poor animal out of the hole! Mission accomplished! We all gave the Spyros-Yiorkis team a rousing applause as we watched the now free sheep high tail it down the dirt track to join the rest of his flock. Great story, all true!

Mr Spyros Petrides of the Village Council of Kouklia: A true Cypriot Hero.

When I look back on it now, almost a year later, I recognize it was a completely accidental and spontaneous experience. It sure worked out well for the unfortunate sheep who fell into the whole that day, because it was just by chance (following Joe Lamm’s random comment about interest in prehistoric archaeology) that brought us to the site that day in the first place. I also see how fantastic and empathetic the Cypriot people generally, and the inhabitants of Kouklia Village specifically, can be, even in these modern times. Spyros and his assistant Yiorkis showed great determination and genuine compassion to help a fellow living creature of this Earth get out of a bad situation that day. To all of us who witnessed the events described above, these two gentlemen stand out as true Cypriot heroes…


* Kouklia Village, located about 16kms east of Paphos, is the modern village that overlies the remains of the original capital settlement of Cyprus, the first Paphos, and now called “Palaipaphos.” The ancient city encompassed the Sanctuary of Aphrodite within its precinct. Even though not too much of the ancient temple buildings survive today, it is historically one of the most important archaeological sites in Cyprus with one of the island’s most unique museums housed in a Frankish Period Chateau or Manor House. Subjected to periodic excavations since the late 19th Century, in recent years the site of Palaipaphos has seen renewed excavation works and other investigations in the area carried out by Dr Maria Iakovou and team, the Dept of Archaeology, University of Cyprus.

** Spyros’ father, Christakis Petrides , ex-Mukhtaris (Mayor) of Kouklia, was the guy employed by the archaeological projects  back in the early ‘80s to do the all electrical work needed, for lighting and other installations for our base camp. Later in time: he became Mukhtaris. Spyros’ uncle, Konstantinos (“Costas”) Petrides (i.e. Christakis’ brother) was an extremely accomplished individual and a village VIP, because President George Vassileou appointed him as Minister of Finance for the Republic of Cyprus.

***In the 1970s – 1990s, it was standard practice that foreign archaeological expeditions based in rural Cypriot villages would use the local public schools as base camps to house their staff personnel and utilize some of the class rooms as work/processing areas. It was a good arrangement because most foreign archaeological projects conducted their operations in Cyprus during July and August, exactly the time when these schools were empty and hence available to the archaeologists. Dr David Rupp from Brock University in Cananda and Dr Lone Soerensen of University of Copenhagen based the Canadian Palaipaphos Survey Project in the Demotic School of Kouklia Village during the early 1980s. Whilst we archaeologists were staying at the school (we used to sleep at night on folding beds outside in the football field), we became a magnet for all the village kids to “hang out” with us. Sometimes it was tough to get any work done, but it was loads of fun –and for some of us: that’s how we learned to speak Greek– and very good public relations to interact with these local kids, often even joining them in ad hoc football matches.

Some Informational Background on Chalcolithic Burial Grounds in Cyprus

There are several Chalcolithic cemeteries known in Cyprus. Some have been excavated systematically by authorized archaeological projects (the University of Edinburgh, spear-headed by the late archaeologist Dr Edgar Peltenburg and his associates, has in particular been quite pioneering in this area of research within western Cyprus), but many other necropolis sites have been subjected to looting activities over decades in the early/middle parts of the 20th Century and/or earlier. The site we visited on this day consisted of many dozens of shaft graves, cut into an exposed outcrop of relatively soft secondary limestone material (local name: khavara), shaft depths varying between 0.5 to 2.0+metres. The typical grave is distinctly bell-shaped in cross-section, meaning narrower at the top and widening as you reach the lower section and floor. Vertical striations or “chisel marks” are often visible along the shaft grave walls, traces of the tool marks preserved in the now indurated limestone from the original cutting of the shafts some five thousand years ago. Several of the graves show chiseled indentations at the top opening of the shafts, evidence that they may have been sealed with a limestone slab or “capstone.”

There is no uniform size to these graves: Some really small sized graves were clearly for infants and small children, but the majority of them were built to accommodate adults, many of whose bodies were inserted into the shafts in contracted (or “fetal”) positions and accompanied by “grave goods,” ceramic vessels and stone objects which were gifts (?) or personal belongings of the deceased (?) and/or of ritual nature (?). (Note: There may well have been a host of perishable organic materials –food stuffs and liquids?– deposited inside the graves next to the bodies, but there is not secure and consistent physical evidence for this in most cases.)

Several of the skeletons had small stone cruciform figurine objects near or on the collarbone, which suggests they were placed as necklace-type decoration around the necks of the dead prior to burial. These figurines are quite characteristic of the island’s Chalcolithic culture, and seem to occur mainly in burial contexts in southern and western Cyprus (or is this just a false impression based on research opportunities post-1974?). In most cases, they are made from a rather unique material: a blue-green soft stone called picrolite, whose few known primary sources are located in/nearby serpentinite deposits in elevated zones  in the Troodos Mts. There is also some research that postulates the existence of a picrolite exchange system. (Note: There also is some picrolite visible in serpentinites along the road cut leading into the Akamas Forest just adjacent to the so-called “Baths of Aphroditie.” However, this Akamas material is too thin in section to have been usable for construction of objects like the figurines or other jewelry.)


A cruciform figurine made of picrolite found on the surface of an unexcavated Chalcolithic site in the Dhiarizos Valley, Paphos District.

These cross-shaped figurines are today quite iconic of Cyprus’ rich prehistoric culture. Perhaps the best-known example, and one of the largest and best preserved, is on display in Room 1 of the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia. It was selected as the decorative motif to appear on one side of the 1-Euro and 2-Euro coins for Cyprus, the coin that won 1st prize for the most beautiful coin of 2010 during an international conference in Berlin, Germany. The image of this same figurine also appears in our own CEU logo, designed for us by the gifted graphic designer David Ayres from London, UK.

A personal note: During my early years in Cyprus (late 1970s – late 1980s) as an archaeologist (student/supervisor), I was lucky enough to be involved with the excavations of dozens of tombs. As I look back on it today, those times digging Bronze Age chamber tombs rate as some of my most exciting and fondest experiences in Cyprus. Most of these tomb excavations were “rescue digs,” where roads were being cut across virgin landscape, exposing ancient burials in the road-line, or new buildings were going up and the building works would truncate the top portions of tombs; or in a few cases in the mid-1980s, the installation of telephone lines along narrow village streets struck ancient tombs. Today, whenever I approach the subject of tombs and necropolis sites, I always remind myself: The whole concept of burial and burial practices is one of the characteristics that sets human beings apart from all other mammals. No other animal buries its dead. Yeah, we humans (so-called “homo sapiens”) do several things (many very unfortunate and destructive) that no other animals do…

Middle Bronze Age Chamber Tombs often produce lots of intact ceramic vessels, some containing organic material.