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The Curious Case of Cypriot Pottery

Cypriot pottery from the Archaic Period. On loan from Peter Mitrakas and Mary Ann Savas.

Ancient Cyprus and its pottery have not entered into the public consciousness of ancient history like Greece, Egypt or Mesopotamia have, but its culture is just as rich and complex.

Cyprus, located in the eastern Mediterranean, sat on the crossroads of the major empires and cultures of the ancient world, including Minoan Crete, Mycenaean Greece, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Anatolia. In spite of the influence of its neighbours and the time it spent under Assyrian, Egyptian and Persian rule, it retained its own distinctive style.

Settlement on Cyprus dates back at least to the Neolithic Period (Stone Age), around 10,000 BCE. It was during the latter part of this period, known as the Ceramic Neolithic (4400/3900 - 3700 BCE) which moved into the Chalcolithic Period (Copper Age, 4000 - 2600 BCE) that we see the emergence of early pottery on the island. In the island’s north, east and west, Red-on-White decorative pottery was predominant, while in the south it was either monochrome red or monochrome red which was then combed while wet to reveal the pale clay underneath. Unlike the pottery seen on the mainland during this time, which was marked by greater regional variations, Cypriot pottery was uniquely uniform in appearance and type.

Cyprus’ transition into the Bronze Age (2600 - 1050 BCE) was accompanied by its emergence as a trading power. Its strategic location opened the island up as an economic middleman between the Egyptians, Hittites and Mycenaeans, and allowed Cyprus to amass wealth. The pottery wheel had, by this point, been invented and was in widespread use, but Cypriot potters continued to hand-craft ceramics up until 1500 BCE. This, combined with its high quality, resulted in Cypriot pottery becoming a popular commodity throughout the Mediterranean.

From the early Bronze Age, Red Polished Ware appeared and is characterised by a red or red-brown slip (liquid clay) and incised motifs, mottling or relief decorations. They appeared in a wide variety of forms that ranged from standard jugs to zoomorphic forms.

On the other side of the colour spectrum is White Painted Ware, which continued into the Iron Age (1050 - 700 BCE). Bronze Age White Painted Ware was also made through the coil technique (i.e. not wheel made) and from red or brown clay which was then covered in a pale slip. The vessels were then decorated with black, red or brown geometric or linear patterns. The vessels of this ware varied during the Iron Age in that they were now wheel-made from brown clay and then covered in a buff, brown or greenish slip.

Red Polished Ware gourd jug (2100-1800 BCE).

© The Trustees of the British Museum

The White Painted Ware juglets and flasks were particularly popular, predominantly for their contents, and would have contained perfumes and oils. Red (or monochrome) and White Painted Ware are two of the three main types of pottery found throughout Cyprus during the Bronze Age; the third is Base Ring Ware. Base Ring is characterized by a thin and metallic fabric (clay composition), and is red-orange, brown, grey or black in colour.

Bilbil found in a tomb from the reign of

Tuthmosis III (1481-1425 BCE).

National Museum of Ireland.

White Painted and Base Ring juglets, known as bilbils, were shaped in such a way that it has been suggested they were made to resemble opium poppies. The comparison is also drawn from the decorative stripes on the vessel body, which have been said to look like the cuts on poppy heads that were made to draw out the sap. Limited tests have been carried out on the vessels, but some have yielded trace amounts of opium found within - whether this meant opium itself was contained inside the juglets or an emollient with the ingredient remains unclear.

Collection of juglets (bilbils) on display at the Hellenic Museum. On loan from Peter Mitrakas and Mary Ann Savas.

Between 1200 - 1050 BCE, the Bronze Age Mediterranean powers (Mycenaeans, Egypt, Hittites) were in large-scale decline or had, to some degree, collapsed. Following the decline, people migrated, taking with them their traditions and techniques; this period is known as the Geometric Period, or the early Iron Age. Pottery on Cyprus now begins to be exclusively wheel-made and becomes more standardised. White Painted and Bichrome Ware are typical of this period.

Bichrome Ware, which was also produced in the Levant and imported into Cyprus to a degree, was made from brownish clay onto which a white or buff slip was applied before being painted in red or black. Stylistically, the ware does bear a resemblance to earlier Mycenaean pottery and broadly features more human and animal figures, typical of the Geometric Period. The distinctive Black-on-Red pottery also appears, identified by their burnished appearance and simple yet striking geometric decorations.

Bichrome War amphora (750-600 BCE).

© The Trustees of the British Museum

White Painted Ware on display at the Hellenic Museum. On loan from Peter Mitrakas and Mary Ann Savas.

From here, Cyprus’ distinct pottery styles continued, even as it fell under the control of the Assyrian (708-608 BCE), Egyptian (608-546 BCE) and consequently Persian (545-499 BCE) Empires. It wasn’t until the Hellenistic period (333 BCE) that Cypriot pottery became part of a larger Hellenic style corpus, losing its earlier, and longstanding distinctiveness.

The pottery in the Cypriot Pottery collection at the Hellenic Museum are on loan from Peter Mitrakas and Mary Ann Savas.


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