3,500-year-old Grave Filled With Exotic Valuables Found in Cyprus

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Thutmosis III scarab: Gold-mounted scarab of steatite with the cartouche of Thutmosis III (1479-1425 BCE), with traces of blue.
Thutmosis III scarab: Gold-mounted scarab of steatite with the cartouche of Thutmosis III (1479-1425 BCE), with traces of blue.Credit: Peter M. Fischer

A tomb containing a treasure of Egyptian scarabs, diadem, exotic luxuries and pearls and earrings set in gold has been discovered in a 3,500-year-old grave excavated in Hala Sultan Tekke, a Bronze Age city in Cyprus.

The gold objects and the more than 100 richly ornamented ceramic vessels found in the grave and in a nearby offering pit attest to Cyprus' importance as a commercial hub, with trade connections sprawling as far north as Sweden.

A family grave containing eight children and nine adults was discovered in an older city quarter of Hala Sultan Tekke, an important trading hub from 1600-1150 BCE. Now archaeologists from Gothenburg University have discovered one of the grandest graves from the Late Bronze Age ever found on the island of Cyprus. The burial contained numerous magnificently worked gold objects, including the diadem, pearls, earrings and scarabs, and the richly ornamented ceramic vessels, originating from various cultures, confirming Cyprus' central role in long-distance trading of the time.

"We discovered an older city quarter from around 1250 BCE, and outside the city we found an incredibly rich grave, one of the richest in Cyprus from this period, and an offering pit next to it," Prof. Peter Fischer, head of the excavations, told Haaretz.

The excavations are part of the Swedish Cyprus Expedition, an archaeological investigation of early Cypriot history that began in 1927. Fischer, a professor in Cypriot and Near Eastern archaeology, has led the excavations since 2010 and considers this excavation season to be the most successful to date.

Peter M. Fischer, head of the Swedish Cyprus Expedition.Credit: Peter M. Fischer

Ancient Cypriots didn't live long

The area where the grave was found is exposed due to erosion caused by farming. Before starting the dig, a geophysical survey was performed using radar and other equipment, able to identify items hidden in the ground down to a depth of two meters.

The surveying revealed almost 100 underground pits, some of which turned out to be wells, some offering pits and – as of this year – a grave.

“Wells are usually one meter in diameter, but this structure was 4 x 3 meters. The grave is a family tomb for eight children ages 5–10 years and nine adults, of whom the oldest was about 40 years old. The life expectancy was much shorter back then than it is today,” says Fischer.

Other discoveries include gemstones and five cylinder seals, some produced locally and some possibly from Syria and Mesopotamia, and a bronze dagger.

The archaeologists assign the greatest importance to the more than 140 complete ceramic vessels, most of which were spectacularly decorated, for example, with people sitting in a chariot drawn by two horses, and a woman wearing a beautiful dress. Some vases bore religious symbols or animal illustrations, for instance of fish.

Mycenaean (Greek) vessel depicting a female (goddess? princess?) dressed in Minoan fashion.Credit: Peter M. Fischer

Many of the vessels had been imported from nearby Greece and Crete but some hailed from Anatolia, in present-day Turkey, and others from the Levant.

“The pottery carries a lot of archaeological information. There were for example high-class Mycenaean imports, pottery from Greece, dated to the 15th century BCE. The motif of the woman, possibly a goddess, is Minoan, which means it is from Crete, but the vase was manufactured in Greece. Back in those days, Crete was becoming a Greek 'colony',” Fischer told Haaretz.

According to Fischer, the painting of the woman’s dress is highly advanced and shows how wealthy women dressed around this time. A similar motif can be found on frescos, for example in the Palace of Knossos in Heraklion, Crete.

Fish Krater: Mycenaean (Greek) vessel with fish motifs, c. 1300 BCE, found in rich grave discovered in Halla Sultan Tekke, Cyprus.Credit: Peter M. Fischer

Missing city

Other finds originated in Egypt. Two of the stone scarabs are gold-mounted and one features hieroglyphs spelling "men-kheper-re" next to an illustration of a pharaoh. This has given the archaeologists a unique opportunity to tie the roughly 3,500-years-old find to a historic person. The inscription refer to Egypt’s most powerful pharaoh Thutmosis III (1479–1425 BCE), during whose reign Egypt peaked in size and influence as he conquered both Syria and parts of Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq.

“We also found evidence in the city of large-scale manufacturing and purple-dying of textiles. These products were used in the trade with the high cultures in Egypt, Anatolia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, Crete and Greece, which explain the rich imported finds,” Fischer says.

Faience amulet of the Egyptian dwarf god Bes, found in rich 3500-year-old grave discovered in Hala Sultan Tekke, Cyprus.Credit: Peter M. Fischer

Clearly the family buried there had been of great importance and wealth. But oddly, while the archaeologists have found these persons’ last resting ground, they haven't found the older part of the city where they lived.

“It must have been rich (or a rich period), judging from the grave we found this year. It is most likely located closer to the burial site in an area that still has not been explored,” says Fischer.

This year’s excavation period is over. Until next year’s on-site work begins, the researchers have intense processing of their finds to look forward to.

Egyptian faience button found in 3,500-Cypriot grave, in the city of Hala Sultan Tekke. Credit: Peter M. Fischer

"In spring 2017 we’ll continue uncovering of parts of the city and the burial site," Fischer sums up. "As the integrity of both areas is threatened by agricultural activities, there is a need for quick action to secure our shared cultural heritage before it is destroyed forever.”