Endangered coastscapes in Cyprus

A Weblog entry by Mari Yamasaki.
Cloudy, a light drizzle, and un-seasonally cold. I don't remember ever having to wear long sleeves in Cyprus in May ... and at noon no less! These were my thoughts as I waited for the project director, Prof. Oliva Menozzi, to pick me up at the bus stop on the day of my arrival on May 22nd. She arrived shortly after, we exchanged the customary Italian hugs and kisses and drove to meet the rest of the team at the "dig house" in Germasogeia. I looked around the place and almost failed to recognize what should have been a familiar neighbourhood. Professor Menozzi turned to me, easily guessing my thoughts: in less than one year they built at new nondescript cottage and around us I could see two construction sites for bigger, duller, holiday-apartment buildings (Fig. 1). Not too long ago, this area used to be a village of a few sparse houses near the city, now it is impossible to tell it apart from the sprawling outskirts of Limassol. Sadly, Germasogeia is not an isolated example. Urbanization and reckless development are a problem almost everywhere along the Cypriot coasts. Within the MPM Survey Project (Moni Pyrgos Pentakomo Monagroulli Survey Project, University of Chieti), the preservation of cultural heritage has always been a high priority on the agenda, and fieldwork was always carried out with an eye out for evidences of looting and suspicious activities by developers, which were always reported to the officer of the Department of Antiquities in Limassol.

Figure 1: Satellite photograph of the area surrounding the dig house in 2016 and in 2017 (Photo ©GoogleEarth).

I have been coming to Cyprus for some years now, cooperating with several projects with different objectives. Among these, MPM holds a special place in my heart for a number of reasons, both academic and not. I was first involved with this team because of my research interest in ancient Mediterranean coastscapes: their surveying strategies, and especially their underwater survey project, strongly appealed to me. Luckily, they were looking for a diving-archaeologist and I was offered to co-supervise the diving team and full access to all data. As if all these positives were not enough, the warmth and cheerfulness of the team and their director won me over, and I can now count myself as an established asset of the MPM Project. This time my stay in Cyprus was also made possible by the funding received from the Research Training Group 1876 of Mainz University. For this trip, I only stayed for a relatively short time to continue the underwater work on a site that we individuated the previous year.

After spending the first day setting up the "base" with all the necessary equipment, on 23rd of May we started the actual fieldwork – and not without setbacks. After we drove to the survey area covering the municipalities of Moni, Pyrgos, Monagrouli and Pentakomo, the land and the underwater archaeologists (among whom, myself - Fig. 2) split up to reach their respective fields. Unfortunately, due to the storms that rocked the island during the past few days, work proceeded slower than scheduled. The unusually unfavourable marine conditions hampered the underwater excavation, which could not take place as programmed. Our site is located on the collapsed cliff rocks at a very shallow depth, well within the reach of the wave undertow: working in such conditions could put both the material and the divers in danger and only limited test soundings were made when possible.

Figure 2: The diving and snorkelling team (Photo courtesy of MPM Survey Project, University of Chieti).

The weather improved after the first three days and thanks to the rise in outside temperatures and despite the strong current and cold water, it was at least possible to continue the aquatic survey for the full length of the bay, which was originally scheduled for next October, instead of the actual excavation. Due to the changes in plans of the underwater mission, the ground team also redirected their efforts to survey the cliffs and fields immediately facing the seafront. In the water, the anthropization visible on the land was not nearly as obvious, with the exception of a dock in the proximity of a quarrying site (Fig. 3) and, on my last day of fieldwork (as in the best archaeological tradition), we encountered a significant scatter of cultural material that may be consistent with an anchorage.

Figure 3: View from land of the quarrying site: the darker spot in the centre-right is the underwater dock (Photo by Mari Yamasaki).

Despite the relative misfortune of not being able to excavate as much as we had hoped, the survey nonetheless produced significant information. From the strictly archaeological point of view, the team was able to localize a complex system of settlements that connected the sea to the hinterland via the fluvial valleys of the Moni and Pyrgos rivers, changing through the different periods as the type of exploitation of the coastal resources changed.

A parallel objective of the survey was the appraisal of the risk represented by development and touristic exploitation of the coastal zones. In fact, both represent a heavy menace for this historically rich region. Between the eighties and the first decade of the third millennium, the coastal limestone has been massively quarried to produce cement. More recently, a new form of tourism based on massive all-inclusive resorts turned this potential ally into a menace for the local natural and archaeological heritage. Whilst the reasons behind the problem represented by industry are clear, it is harder to understand why touristic development would want to erase the potential source of income represented by archaeology. 

What we encountered during one of our days in the field is but a tiny example. During the study of the work done by earlier archaeological missions, whose area of interest happened to partly overlap with our own, we read that a previous survey from 2007 reported the presence of a Bronze Anchor embedded in one of the low stone walls at the end of the beach we were currently studying. The object was photographed and measured but at the time could not be removed due to jurisdictional conflict between the two regional districts of Limassol and Larnaca. Despite our best efforts in examining every bit of wall and all but combing the bay and the beach, we failed to re‑locate it. We asked the people working in the beach establishments only to receive a disturbing confirmation: there was indeed an object similar to the one in our photo, but no one had seen it since the construction of the new seafront restaurant. We returned to the car with strong suspicion that another piece of archaeology was lost to development, but all the more aware of that archaeology alone can only keep a record, and that the key to preserving the past is to maintain good communication between the parties involved.

Luckily things have changed greatly since 2007. Thanks to an ever growing degree of cooperation between foreign archaeological missions and the Department of Antiquities, some progress – however slow – has been made towards the integration of cultural heritage and economic development, and to prevent petty bureaucratic problems from stopping archaeological research and preservation. As far as the MPM Survey Project is concerned, a tight cooperation with the local authorities from the Limassol District resulted in the joint elaboration of protective measures for the area: the survey grounds are now under a strict surveillance for their archaeological potential, allowing for a more accurate mapping of the sites on the territory, and for prompt intervention against illegal construction and looting activities. It is our job, as archaeologists - regardless of nationality or affiliation-, to collaborate for the preservation of the unique cultural and natural heritage that lies on the beautiful island of Cyprus (Fig. 4).
Figure 4. Left: Wheat field in the Moni River valley. Right: Limestone cliffs at Agios Georgios Alamanos (Photos by Mari Yamasaki).