Skip to content

Polis Chrysochous.


TO KNIT DISCOVERY with comprehension is a difficult matter, particularly when that discovery emerges only after centuries of labor. Seldom do these nested difficulties crystallize so perfectly as they have in the case of two ancient Cypriot cities, Marion (Μάριον) and Arsinoe (Ἀρσινόη).

It was a mild summer’s day in 1983 and the dusty roads had just deposited William A.P. Childs, professor of archaeology at Princeton University, at Polis Chrysochous (“City of Gold”), a tranquil resort town on the northwestern coast of Cyprus. Childs served as lead investigator for the Princeton Cyprus Expedition (PCE), a team of archeologists and students all eager to begin excavations at a site that had yielded ancient relics so readily—yet offered explanations of them so very reluctantly.1 Above all, the PCE sought Marion, the former capital to an elusive ancient Cypriot kingdom. That city’s existence had been suspected since the nineteenth century. Though compelling corroborating evidence in the form of ceramics or statuettes would occasionally surface, these signs were unsatisfying traces that seduced with the promise of information while tauntingly withholding it.

For centuries, the possibility of a lost ancient kingdom brimming with riches had lured gentleman looters and professional archeologists alike to the region. But Childs and his team had ambitions at once greater and less glamorous. The PCE sought to create nothing less than a comprehensive map of the ancient Cypriot city. Ultimately, the PCE would determine Marion’s sprawl, mapping the courtyards, workshops and sanctuaries where ancient inhabitants had toiled, worshipped and died. It was a labor sustained not for days but for decades—active excavation efforts would conclude twenty-five years later, in 2007.

To the casual observer, their intent must have seemed half-realized before they began. The past had partnered with the present in Polis, quite literally. Column shafts and other architectural fragments lay strewn along the dusty roads like discarded limestone garlands; in the fields, farmers reaped strange harvests of tiny terracotta goddesses. Polis’ gardeners contended with impudent ceramics amidst their poppies. Yet, to assume that the presence of these remains made antiquity less remote would be as misguided as fancying that the possession of an odd volume could recall every entry from a lost encyclopedia.

Though the fragments that dotted the countryside were ancient, they belonged not to Marion but to Arsinoe, a younger city that had also occupied the Polis region. In fact, the area’s history began well before Marion was established, and would continue long after its fall.  Pottery sherds indicate that the region had been populated since the Bronze Age, perhaps as early as 2500 B.C.E. Marion assumed the trappings of a proper urban center around 650 B.C.E. and would prove a crossroads for merchants from the tips of Greece to the Levant until 312 B.C.E. when Egypt’s ruler, Ptolmey Soter I, breached the walls and razed the city.2 Phoenix-like, a new settlement, Arsinoe, sprang from Marion’s ruins only two years later and survived well into the late medieval period. Arsinoe remained under Egyptian rule until the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C.E., when Cleopatra was defeated by Octavian and the city passed from Egyptian to Roman hands—a change that inhabitants might have noticed, only incidentally, in the change of soldiers’ garments and the faces on their coins.3 After Rome’s fall, Arsinoe was absorbed by the Byzantine Empire. By 450 C.E., Christian basilicas had been built on the backs of classical sanctuaries that had once housed thousands of votive offerings to Mesopotamian fertility goddesses. As the PCE elucidated the spatial contours of these fallen sister cities, a narrative emerged, one full of the alternations born from centuries of temples built and destroyed, of potentates crowned and overthrown, of gods favored and forgotten, and of changing fashions as fickle as the fortune that weaned them.

All archaeological sites contain some version of archeology’s own development. In the case of Polis however, this process appears with cinematic magic.

AS ARCHAEOLOGISTS HAVE unearthed Marion and Arsinoe, they themselves have been inculcated into a narrative, one that grasps at the future rather than the past.4 To relay the history of excavations at Polis is also to unfold in brief the story of how archeology was made modern—a process inevitably inflected by changing attitudes about the worth of antiquity and the value of the past itself. Too often, enterprising nineteenth century antiquarians saw antiquities only as objects with material value and recorded their discoveries accordingly: with the crude generality that one might use to mark ‘finds’ on a Stevensonian treasure map. But by the early twentieth century, archeologists had begun to believe that antiquity’s worth outstripped any material terms. The precision and detail of later investigations reflected this attitude; it seems that excavators had began to sense the responsibility that they shouldered as the temporary custodians of a past bearing incalculable value.

To be sure, all archaeological sites contain some version of archeology’s own development. In the case of Polis however, this process appears with cinematic magic akin to the kind that can make Technicolor lilacs bud, bloom and wither in milliseconds. Even today, the site retains a certain purity—seek its antiquity as you might, you can find it only in material traces. Were we to rely solely on written sources, the history of Marion and Arsinoe would be consigned to vague references; their very existence would be suspended in the subjunctive. There is scant reference to Marion in any text from antiquity, with the cautious exception of a possible reference by Strabo,5 the Greek author of the seventeen-volume Geographica  (1st century B.C.E.), and before that, a dubious aside in 350 B.C. E. by the minor geographer generally known as Pseudo-Skylax.6

Clio’s negligence towards ancient Polis shifted the burden of discovery to mute objects and imparted a unique responsibility to those who unearthed them. Put differently, the task of discovering Polis, of fixing that ancient Cypriot culture’s place in time and memory, fell not to pages of Herotodus but to the spades of archeologists. Curiously, the story of ancient Polis’ discoverers unfolds like an Elizabethan masque, revealing glimpses of archeology’s transformation from disorderly antimasques of mercantile exploitation to orderly, sound scientific practice. There are three expeditions that capture pivotal moments in archeology’s development and mark its transformation from glorified prospecting to well-intentioned cataloguing to, ultimately, scientifically-grounded exploration.

THE STORY BEGINS in earnest in 1878, when the German-born Max Ohnefalsch-Richter surfaced in Cyprus as a reporter. By 1883—one year after the Cyprus Museum’s establishment—Ohnefalsch-Richter had become an excavation inspector. In 1885, he requested a permit to excavate in Polis “in the interest of diggings and Museum.”7

Yet, Ohnefalsch-Richter’s notations were hopelessly compromised, for he often assigned objects a scientific value based on what he imagined their material worth to be. In 1886, Ohnefalsch-Richter joined a British-backed team for a second excavation effort. The express goal of this later expedition was to locate jewelry and vases. Predictably, Ohnefalsch-Richter’s cursory notes on the tombs were distorted by his agenda: The market value of objects provided the most compelling argument for their inclusion in the excavation records. Tellingly, Ohnefalsch-Richter’s expedition was declared a success because it had “yielded abundantly.”8 It was far less successful in modern terms, though. Tomb locations in relation to each necropolis were not recorded; no map survives.

Ohnefalsch-Richter’s treatment of artifacts from ancient Polis suggests that for him, the weight of the past was commensurate with the weight of the purse. At times, objects were grouped together as ‘collections’ to attract potential buyers more readily. In May 1887, Ohnefalsch-Richter even held an auction of antiquities unearthed at Polis and sold them not just to the British Museum, but also to institutions in Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere. That objects were sold to buyers across Europe means that the contents of those tombs may forever remain a mystery.

In addition to his mercenary treatment of antiquities, Ohnefalsch-Richter urged private individuals to finance their own archeological endeavors in order to “unite” money with archeological pursuits. The enterprising archeologist’s scheme to encourage private excavations was not as fruitful as he had intended, for they often resulted in nothing more than the sale and export of recovered antiquities. But Ohnefalsch-Richter’s speculative archeology ultimately resulted in greater protections of antiquities though changes in official policy. In fact, private excavations were replaced by those supported by institutions. That practice is still the procedural norm for excavations.

Other excavators would arrive, with varying levels of commitment to scientific discovery and immunity to the promise of profit. Between 1916 and 1918, a new curator of antiquities at the Cyprus Museum undertook expeditions at Polis that would yield the first surviving photographic evidence of the site. In 1927, Rupert Gunnis, British historian and future Inspector of Antiquities for the Cyprus Museum, ventured to Polis and investigated several sites. His lack of formal training in archaeology proved no hindrance. Gunnis was driven by an overwhelming desire to discover objects—within three days, he had uncovered five hundred statuettes. Though he protected these antiquities to a certain degree, he had no scruples about identifying and selling what he deemed ‘duplicates’ to interested tourists.

Modern archaeology made official its arrival in 1929 as a beleaguered old Volvo, dutifully attended by camels and other pack animals, toiled along rough roads. It carried four members of the Swedish Cyprus Expedition (SCE) to Polis. In addition to the Expedition commander, archeologist Einar Gjerstad, the team included his student Erik Sjöqvist (judged by Gjerstad to be a “born archeologist”), who would later become a professor of archeology at Princeton University.9 Incidentally, William Childs, the leader for the 1983 Princeton Cyprus Expedition, was Sjöqvist’s student.

The SCE’s work at Polis marked a new level of precision—and a new direction for interests— in the science of archeology. They also connected with the modern inhabitants of Polis in a meaningful way, involving townspeople in their excavation, women digging alongside men. When one of the townsmen was killed tragically in a sudden tomb collapse, Sjöqvist became the foster father of the deceased man’s daughter and, with the support of other members of the Expedition, even secured a dowry for the orphaned girl.10

Material possession bears no guarantees of apprehension. In fact, discovering ancient Polis is an object lesson in how “discovery”—with all its connotations of epistemological finality—is inextricably linked to delitescence. Not all the secrets by which tongues are time-tied can be unraveled. Even the city’s full name, “Polis tis Chrysochous,” is an exercise in confounding understanding.11 It roughly translates to “city flowing with gold.” The attribute is more curious than conventional, however, for it defines Polis by something that it never possessed. The region’s prosperity never extended to gold mines. Yet, “the city of gold” is perhaps the best of epithets for a region the longevity and vast cultural exposure of which makes our inability to fully understand its culture keenly ironic.

THE SENSE THAT discovery is no guarantee to understanding became clear at the opening of the City of Gold: Tomb and Temple in Ancient Cyprus exhibition, which fell on an impetuous, expansive Indian summer day —one of the last of the season—on October 20, 2012 at the University Art Museum in Princeton, New Jersey. The first exhibition dedicated solely to the antiquities from the Polis region, the ambitious “City of Gold” represented a collaboration between the British Museum, the Musée du Louvre and the Cyprus Museum. It showcased one hundred ten objects discovered at Marion and Arsinoe—stone and terracotta statuettes, architectural remains, coins, seals and jewelry. Some of these—like a sprightly, tiny bird-shaped juglet— could be traced to the Late Bronze Age, around 1700 B.C.E., while a flock of bronze pectoral crosses were a youthful six hundred years old.

Visitors were greeted at the opening gallery with an arc of statuettes that once held vigil over Cypriot tombs; at the center of this funerary retinue was the torso of a kouros sculpted from Parian marble in Greece between 500-510 B.C.E. It was one of the thousands of items that ancient inhabitants of Polis had once imported from all corners of Greece—to say nothing of Egypt and the Levant. The crowds that coursed through the galleries pooled around that kouros  (discovered, incidentally, by Ohnefalsch-Richter) for decorous periods of time, gazing at it with wondering admiration. Though much of the ancient Cypriot statuary beside it had never before been shown publicly, most scurried beyond the mysterious, seated ladies and the crouching guardian lions to pay homage to the marble fragment that has numerous cousins in every reasonable antiquities department of museums across the globe.

This Hellenocentric prejudice was a lesson in the limits of discovery. The Cypriot antiquities on display served as a material synecdoche for a people and a past that had remained hidden for centuries. They were discovered in spite of time’s caprices and thanks to the evolution of archeology. The longer visitors gaped at that marble torso, the slimmer their chances of encountering Cypriot art on its own terms became. But those museum-goers were not to blame for their inattention; it was the consequence of a lifetime’s casual conditioning. Compared to the perfectly balanced Greek torso, the surrounding statuettes from ancient Cyprus seemed unsophisticated, even crude. They were much smaller than the torso, and fashioned not from marble but terracotta. Moreover, the Cypriot statues were outrageously disproportionate—seemingly huge heads were typically placed on puny, crudely-rendered bodies. If we are to judge artistic sophistication by skill in representing bodies mimetically (and the idealization of Greek sculpture has trained us to do just that), then the Cypriot sculptures seemed primitive, almost comical.

A WE PACED through the empty exhibition galleries just days before the opening, William Childs, the leader of the 1983 expedition (now a professor emeritus at Princeton) described how the distorted proportions of Cypriot art were not the consequence of a lack of skill.12 He explained with visible excitement how the conventions governing ancient Cypriot art emphasized facial expressions—even the heads of Cypriot statues are disproportionately larger than bodies. The Cypriot aesthetic did not subscribe to the Greek cult of the corporeal. Instead, they dispensed with the body in minimal details, denoting it with a conical shape and mere suggestions of appendages. It was in emotive facial expressions, Childs observed, that the Cypriots excelled—while their Greek counterparts turned out perfect bodies…and perfectly bland faces without a trace of affect. When asked about the kouros he snorted and dismissed it as “singularly uninteresting.”

But those viewers’ inattention to the very culture whose rediscovery was being trumpeted made obvious the vagaries of ‘discovery’. To unearth material evidence of the past neither calls back time nor secures comprehension—even glossy posters and interpretive videos offered no guarantees. In this case, the history of ancient Cyprus remained so ghostly that a single marble torso could dispel it, though so much had transpired to make its rediscovery possible.

Yes, the discoverers have discovered ancient Polis, have mapped Marion and Arsinoe to the square meter. Thanks to decades—and centuries—of excavations, we have gained insight into how inhabitants of the region worshipped their gods and buried their dead. And yet, thousands of terracotta votives later, we still are ignorant of how these ancient Cypriots represented power, what their interactions with other cultures meant to them or whether a nine-foot colossus was intended as an offering to a god or a representation of a king—or a god. As Childs declared, shrugging “we have no idea what was important to them, not a clue about how these objects [votive offerings] were organized and why. The system is entirely mysterious.” Pointing to the limestone head of garlanded youth, a piece partially covered with an onyx blush, a reminder of Marion’s fall he uttered, in a voice caught between exasperation and admiration: “We have no sense of how power was shown. This might be the king of Marion…or just another youth.” Ultimately, discovery does not mean satisfaction.

The very name of the Princeton exhibition –…Tomb and Temple in Ancient Cyprus – reveals a simple truth: beyond alabastrons and statuettes, what we know most about those ancient Cypriots is linked to how they bridged realms they could never understand, death and deity. Strange, because these are two realms that refuse to be mastered, even by modernity. It is strangely fitting that we know the most about those ancient inhabitants of Marion and Arsinoe through the very things about which we ourselves know the least. Perhaps our greatest bond to antiquity is not what we know but what confounds all knowing—uncertainty is arguably antiquity’s surest link to us. And, finally, antiquity’s greatest gift does not lie in promoting a single cultural identity. Indeed, its very strangeness can inspire a bond across national allegiances, can unite us in shared incomprehension. Perhaps the knowledge of not knowing is the greatest gift of discovery, and though not the last, it is the loveliest.

Alana Shilling is a writer who resides in the New York City area. She is currently engaged in a project about the history of modern conceptions of cultural inheritance. Shilling has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Princeton University, and a special interest in Latin literature and the Italian Renaissance.


  1. A detailed account of the Princeton Cyprus Expedition, its prehistory and its findings, can be located in the collection of essays, City of Gold: The Archaeology of Polis Chrysochous, Cyprus (Princeton University Art Museum, distributed by Yale University Press, 2012), to which the current account is indebted. City of Gold also served as the catalogue for an exhibition of the same name, held at the Princeton University Art Museum (October 20, 2012-January 20, 2013) in honor of Cyprus’ 2012 presidency of the Council of the European Union. My debt extends to the principal archeologists of the Expedition, William A.P. Childs and Joanna Smith, both of whom granted personal interviews on several occasions.
  2. See A.T. Reyes (Archaic Cyprus: A Study of the Textual and Archeological Evidence, Oxford and New York, 1994) as cited in City of Gold (2012).
  3. Tina Najbjerg (City of Gold. 242).
  4. For an exhaustive account, see Joanna S. Smith’s “Histories of Archaeology at Polis Chrysochous” (Ibid. 26-43). The details that follow rely heavily on Smith’s outline.
  5. Strabo. Stadiasmos Maris Magni. XIV.6.
  6. Pernile Flensted-Jensen, “Pseudo-Skylax: Use of the Term Polis” (In: More Studies in the Ancient Greek Polis, M.H. Hansen and K. Raaflaub, eds. Stuttgart: 1996, 137-167).
  7. As quoted in Smith (City of Gold. 30).
  8. Ibid. 30.
  9. Ibid. (35-39)
  10. Alfred Westholm (The Wonderful Years on Cyprus: Illustrated Extracts from Alfred Westholm’s Letters to His Parents, 1927-1931, A. Wohl and I. Brylde, trans. Nicosia: 2012, Letter begun April 27, 1929) See also Smith (36).
  11. City of Gold (11).
  12. Childs, William A.P ( Interview with author, Princeton, New Jersey, October 16, 2012).

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You can add images to your comment by clicking here.