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People-friendly green archaeology
IF A tourist company had its way in 1981 a small, unpopulated spit of land off the Paphos coast near Peyia would be home to a glitzy casino and resort hotel, linked to the mainland by a causeway.
Now Yeronisos promises to be a major attraction for the more discerning visitor that Cyprus has long hankered after - one keen to explore the history of a country imprinted with the mosaic of many ancient civilisations.
The barren islet, which locals call St George’s island, has already attracted the likes of Bill Murray, the Hollywood actor, who came on an archaeological dig in 2006.
This week Yeronisos, also known as the Holy island, made headlines when archaeologists from New York University revealed a wealth of fascinating artefacts.
These, touchingly, included 2,000-year-old amulets inscribed with the names such as Minas and Diophantes, who were thought to be toddlers worshipping at the island’s famed sanctuary of Apollo. There were also inscribed sherds apparently used by boys practising their Greek letters, indicating the sanctuary housed a school.
There are hopes for an archaeological and ecological park on Yeronisos that will be linked to a museum at Agios Georgios-tis-Peyias on the Paphos mainland. Also envisaged is a footpath connecting sites of ecological and cultural interest along the western coast of Cyprus.
“The project aims to preserve the natural and cultural resources of Cyprus through an active programme of exploration, public outreach and education,” said Professor Joan Breton Connelly, leader of New York University’s Yeronisos island expedition. “And we intend to increase our efforts in engaging the local community with our work.”
Ironically, the hopes of the tourist development company to bring high-rolling gamblers to Yeronisos three decades ago may have helped save the islet as a cultural treasure.
The department of antiquities was called in to check whether any archaeological riches lay beneath the barren and uninspiring surface.
There were strong suspicions it did. After all, Yeronisos had entered the history books as early as the first century BC when it was mentioned by the Roman writer, Pliny, who called it “Hiera”.
But the islet had remained virtually undisturbed since Byzantine times due to its inaccessibility. Its littoral is a bank of steep cliffs which, coupled with strong currents, discouraged visitors from landing.
The first modern account of Yeronisos was published in 1936 in a guidebook to Cyprus by Rupert Gunnis, an inspector of antiquities for the Cyprus museum during the British colonial era.
He documented Neolithic flints and pottery along the southern edge of Yeronisos, as well as the foundations of a Roman building, which he suspected was a lighthouse. He also noted remains of defensive walls, a cistern, a millstone and other materials relating to the Roman period.
In 1982, excavations led by Dr Sophocles Hadjisavvas of the department of antiquities uncovered a wealth of material dating back thousands of years, from Chalcolithic-era stone tools to shards of fine Hellenistic and Byzantine pottery. The expedition also found extensive remains of cisterns, walls, kitchens, and other buildings.
Yeronisos was promptly expropriated by the government as a national heritage site of enormous cultural significance.
That significance has been now been highlighted by the Connelly’s team. She first visited Cyprus in 1989 and was awarded the licence to excavate Yeronisos a year later.
Her first dig, a week-long venture, was launched in 1992. “People from all sorts of backgrounds enjoyed their time with us and worked alongside students from the field school,” she wrote in an email to the Sunday Mail.
In the same year the Cyprus Land Survey Office of Paphos set a brass plate in a concrete column at the highest point on the island, marking an elevation of 21.65m above sea level.
Connelly’s interest, faith and perseverance have been amply rewarded.
Her project is financed almost entirely through private donations.
“The Friends of Yeronisos now comprises over 300 generous donors, they also join us for lectures, conferences, fundraisers and parties in both New York and Cyprus,” said Connelly.
A donation of $10,000 is required to take part in the excavations and distinguished participants have included Citcorp’s Bill Rhodes, gallery owner Martha Sutherlund, and author Barnaby Conrad
Connnelly added: “The actor Bill Murray came out to dig with us as part of our Exec-U-Dig program for 2 weeks in 2006. It’s a great way to experience the wonders of field archaeology first hand.”
Continued erosion by the elements, along with earthquake tremors, are endangering the foundations of buildings on the edges of the island and accurate recording and mapping of these ancient works are urgently needed.
In May, Connelly was invited to give a lecture at an International Conference held at the New Acropolis Museum in Athens.
“Our work is being recognised internationally for its innovations in combining ecological and archaeological fieldwork,” she said.
“Yeronisos is an important model for methodologies that can be employed at other sites. We have been using this approach for 22 years.”
Her team’s website insists the preservation of Agios Georgios area from over-development is essential, describing it as “one of last unspoiled stretches of coastline on western Cyprus”.
“It is our sincere hope that the current building of villas and hotels and restaurants will not spoil this place of invaluable natural beauty and cultural significance.”
The Akamas Peninsula “provides a rare insight into an ancient landscape, unchanged since the first men and women came to Cyprus over 10,000 years ago”.
For more information www.yeronisos.org