Peer to Pier: Conversations with fellow travelers
Sophocles Hadjisavvas, 66, is the curator of the exhibit “Cyprus: Crossroads of Civilizations” which opened at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History on Sept. 29 and will be on view through May 1, 2011. The exhibition is presented on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the independence of the Republic of Cyprus from Great Britain. More than 200 artifacts are featured in the exhibit — covering nearly 11,000 years of history — which range from items from the earliest villages to masterpieces of medieval religious art. The challenges involved in choosing items to depict 110 centuries of history is one of the areas covered in this conversation with Sophocles. As the former director of the Cyprus Department of Antiquities and a past member of the World Heritage Committee, and someone has solved some of the island nation’s more intriguing historical puzzles, Sophocles was uniquely suited to the task.In visiting Cyprus this past summer, I spent days exploring sites where Sophocles had unearthed pieces of the country’s dramatic past as a stepping stone to three continents. At archaeological parks such as the Tomb of the Kings, Nea Paphos, and the Sanctuary of Aphrodite, I experienced the mystery, wonder and sense of humility that comes in connecting with the annals of humanity.
I hope you enjoy this conversation with Sophocles as he recounts his own history along with that of his homeland. Like the ancients he has studied, and most of us, his path has involved unexpected twists and turns that led to new discoveries and rewards.
Meg: You have been involved in the field of archaeology for more than 40 years. Can you tell me what first drew you to the profession, and whether the fact that you were born and raised in Cyprus was a factor in your career choice?
Sophocles: Born and raised in a country rich in cultural heritage is indeed a factor to formulate one’s future. I was always fascinated with the past and the standing monuments. As a pupil in secondary school I was impressed by the Tombs of the Kings at Paphos, never expecting that one day I was going to excavate them.
Meg: Your career has included field work, excavations and museum experience. Can you explain what each of these aspects of archaeology involves?
Sophocles: Field work means archaeological survey—the surface investigation for the location of archaeological sites. Excavation is the systematic work to uncover the secrets of past times. Museum work is the final destination of the discovered antiquities, presented in a way to understand them.
Meg: Can you offer a few memorable experiences of your work in each area?
Sophocles: The 1974 Turkish invasion put a violent end to the archaeological survey of Famagusta District initiated under my direction in 1973. We were in the middle of an important project: the establishment of a Protective Inventory in order to safeguard archaeological sites endangered from the tourist development of the district. We had to leave and resume our work in the Paphos District.
The consequences of the invasion for my personal life were the occupation of my house and the displacement of my family, neighbors and the whole village along with the remaining one third of our population. Above all is the occupation of a large part of my country and the changes that occurred in the demographic character of the island, which affects each one of the inhabitants, including the Turkish Cypriots.
My small team moved to Paphos to continue our work, aiming at the complete survey of the island. A few months of intensive work resulted in the discovery and mapping of a cluster of Chalcolithic settlements, and the presence of a culture otherwise unknown on the west coast of the island. The preliminary publication of the results of our work in 1977 led to the subsequent excavation of a number of sites by the University of Edinburgh and the investigation of one of the most important cultures developed on the island. A whole section of the Smithsonian Cyprus exhibition deals with these striking discoveries.
With regard to excavation work, a particularly rewarding experience was the investigation of the technology involved in the production of olive oil in antiquity. This opened up new horizons in understanding aspects of ancient technology and the important role played by olive oil in the ancient economy.
In 1990 I was excluded from some promotions in the hierarchy of the Cyprus Department of Antiquities due to my efforts against illegal smuggling of antiquities. The paradox in the case is that a member of the committee to decide on our promotion was directly involved in purchasing of antiquities from illegal sources, a matter which I brought to light, and for which I had to be punished, instead of being rewarded.
Following these unjust developments in the Department of Antiquities, I decided to dedicate myself to solving the mystery around a number of large perforated monoliths that existed in various locations around Cyprus, and had been the subject of speculation since the last quarter of the 19th century. In fact, in 1874 Luigi Palma di Cesnola, who later became the first director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, excavated a couple of these monoliths and considered them as part of a temple dedicated to Aphrodite. For more than a century, other scholars considered these stones as sacred, a notion accepted by some scholars of the end of the 20th century.
My suggestion that these perforated monoliths were simply parts of olive press installations was yet to be proved by excavation. My original plan was to excavate the couple of monoliths investigated earlier and then to excavate a few more, to provide enough statistic value of my interpretation.