Rich tombs reveal who ruled Cyprus’ copper trade hub

Detail of the ”Bull Diadem” (c. 1350 BCE). (Image by P.M. Fischer, University of Gothenburg).

An archaeological expedition from the University of Gothenburg discovered the tombs of the rulers of the Bronze Age trading metropolis Hala Sultan Tekke in Cyprus.

The city was a center for the copper trade in the period 1500–1300 BCE and the tombs recently unearthed rank among the richest ever found in the Mediterranean region.

“Considering the richness of the grave goods, it is a reasonable assumption that these were royal tombs, even though we do not know much about the form of government practiced in the city at the time,” Peter Fischer, leader of the expedition, said in a media statement. “Undoubtedly those buried here were part of the city’s government.”

The tombs, located outside the 50-hectare Bronze Age city, consist of underground chambers accessed via a narrow passage from the surface. The chambers varied in size, measuring up to 4 x 5 meters.

Precious metals and gems

The Swedish Söderberg expedition, which has been excavating in Hala Sultan Tekke near the city of Larnaca on the south coast of Cyprus since 2010, has previously found chamber tombs with valuable grave goods. What distinguishes the newly discovered ones from those excavated before is the sheer quantity of artifacts and their superb quality.

“We found more than 500 complete artifacts distributed among two tombs. Many of the artifacts consist of precious metals, gems, ivory and high-quality ceramics,” Fischer said.

About half of the artifacts were imported from neighbouring cultures. Gold and ivory came from Egypt. Precious stones, such as blue lapis lazuli, dark red carnelian and blue-green turquoise, were imported from Afghanistan, India and Sinai respectively. The tombs also contain amber objects from the Baltic region.

To get to the tombs, Fischer and his team used magnetometers, a type of instrument that can produce images showing objects and structures up to two metres beneath the surface.

“We compared the site where broken pottery had been plowed during farming with the magnetometer map, which showed large cavities one to two meters below the surface. This led us to continue investigating the area and to discover the tombs,” the researcher said.

The well-preserved skeletons in the tombs include that of a woman surrounded by dozens of ceramic vessels, jewelry and a round bronze mirror that was once polished. A one-year-old child with a ceramic toy lay beside her.

Fancy jewelry

“Several individuals, both men and women, wore diadems, and some had necklaces with pendants of the highest quality probably made in Egypt during the 18th dynasty, at the time of such pharaohs as Thutmose III and Amenophis IV (Akhenaten) and his wife Nefertiti,” Fischer noted.

Embossed images of bulls, gazelles, lions and flowers adorn the diadems. Most of the ceramic vessels came from what we now call Greece, and the expedition also found pots from Türkiye, Syria, Palestine and Egypt.

The grave goods also included bronze weapons, some inlaid with ivory, and a gold-framed seal made of hematite with inscriptions of gods and rulers.

“The vast wealth of the entombed individuals came from the production of copper. Nearby mines in the Troodos Mountains produced copper ore, which was refined in the city. This port city then exported the refined metal in large quantities to neighbouring cultures. Copper was an important commodity because, combined with tin, it becomes the hard alloy bronze, which gave its name to the Bronze Age,” Fischer said.