An ancient eye for design: Bronze Age ceramics from Lapithos, Cyprus

November 21, 2013

Black polished juglet
Black polished juglet

Prehistoric potters from Cyprus had a keen eye for design. Concentric circles, diamonds, and zig-zag patterns make some of the tiniest vessels come alive. I am Sara Levin, Kress Fellow in conservation, performing a condition survey of artifacts from Lapithos Vrysi tou Barba. This site in the north of the country is home to Bronze and Iron Age tombs that were excavated by the Penn Museum under the leadership of Bert Hodge Hill from 1931-2. The majority of finds are stored here at the Museum, although some remain in Cyprus.

Many of the vessels are red and black polished wares, which were principal techniques during the Early and Middle Bronze Age on the island (2300-1650 BC). They are handmade, covered with slip (a suspension of clay in water), and often incised with designs. Burnishing gives the surface a fine lustre. Some vessels are dual-colored, with exteriors that are red, a black rim, and black interiors. This dual-colored technique may have been accomplished by firing the vessels upside down in sand, allowing the exterior to oxidize to a red color during firing and the interior to fire black. Many of the incised designs were filled with white material after firing to make patterns stand out, like the juglet above and bowl below.

Red polished III black-topped bowl.  http://www.penn.museum/collections/object/170214
Red polished III black-topped bowl.

Some vessels resemble animals, like this bird-like askos below with zig-zags, lines and dashes accentuating its form.

Zoomorphic vessel
Zoomorphic vessel

Although there are well-known examples of terracotta figurines on Cypriot Bronze Age pottery, such as one which was exhibited at the Smithsonian in 2010, anthropomorphic examples in the Lapithos collection are few. However, I came across a fabulous one recently. It is a jug that features a tiny face emerging out of its bulbous body!

Detail of the incised face and surrounding decoration.
Detail of the incised face and surrounding decoration.

With its high eyebrows, wide eyes, and what appear to be two hands next to its cheeks, I like to think of this little lug as The Scream of the Lapithos collection.

Linear and geometric patterns remained dominant throughout the Bronze Age. In a later characteristic type of pottery, white painted wares, decoration is painted with a dark pigment on a pale surface rather than incised. Here is a fine example with criss-crossing, cross-hatching and snake-like patterns, not to mention a beautiful form:

White painted III juglet
White painted jug

I hope you’ve enjoyed taking a peak into the Lapithos collection. If you would like to read more about Cypriot motifs here at Penn, see this blog post by Tessa de Alarcon from September about artifacts from Kourion. And if you would like to see more examples of Cypriot ceramics, a website from the Harvard Semitic Museum allows you to search objects from the Cesnola Collection by type.

I am now moving on to surveying metal artifacts, so stay tuned for ancient daggers and swords from this prehistoric necropolis.

My work on the Lapithos collection is the focus of a Kress Fellowship. This Fellowship is supported by a grant from the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation, funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation