THE ACERAMIC NEOLITHIC PERIOD
IN THE VASILIKOS VALLEY
The side of Tenta constitutes the most significant settlement of this period in the valley. The architectural remains excavated on the site and described below belong, at least predominantly, to the later phase of the period, in general contemporary with the settlement at Khirokitia. In view of the radiocarbon dates obtained by excavation at Tenta, some of which were unexpectedly early, and the evidence for ephemeral architecture in the form of post holes on the west side of the top of the site in its earliest phase, it is possible that Tenta was first occupied contemporarily with the Early Aceramic Neolithic phase now at Parekklisha-Shillourokambos (ca. 7500-7000 BC), but this can only be confirmed by further excavation at the site and additional radiocarbon dates.
While this guide is concerned with the excavated site of Tenta, brief notes should be included here about other Aceramic Neolithic sites now known in the Vasilikos valley. The exact chronological relationship between the various sites is uncertain, but it is clear that the settlement at Tenta was not the only village of this period in the valley. As mentioned in the introduction, part of the research in the Kalavasos area entailed an archaeological field survey of the valley from the area of the Kalavasos Dam down to the coast. As a result of the survey, together with information derived from the construction of the new Nicosia-Limassol highway, evidence of Aceramic Neolithic occupation is now known at four localities in the valley in addition to the settlement of Tenta.
The most southerly site, named Mari-Mesovouni and located 1.5 km SE of Mari village, comprised a village settlement on a steep-sided, flat-topped hill in a strategic position overlooking the coast at a distance of 1 km from it. Artifacts found on the surface of the site included fragments of stone vessels, one with incised lozenge patterns, and an enigmatic stone figurine of a quadruped whose nearest relative would seem to be a pygmy hippopotamus! The proximity of this site to Tenta is surprising, but the two sites may not have been occupied at exactly the same time. The site has unfortunately been destroyed in recent years and the hill quarried away.
During the construction of the bridge over the Vasilikos river for the new Nicosia-Limassol highway, 7-metre-deep rectangular trenches were excavated for the bridge supports. In the west section of the westernmost trench a small ash-filled pit was revealed, together with a small quantity of undiagnostic chert flakes at a dept of 5.5 m below the present flood plain. A radiocarbon date from the pit suggests use of this part of the river bank in a late phase of the Aceramic Neolithic or possibly in the ensuing phase. The extent of the site is un known.
Evidence of Aceramic Neolithic settlement has also been found north of Kalavasos village, on the east side of the valley, at a site called Ora – Klitari. It lies on a gently sloping spur overlooking the Vasilikos valley just below the abandoned village of Dhrapia. The location is not as strategic as those of Tenta or Mari-Mesovouni, but it does command a good view over much of the surrounding area, and has ready access to good arable land. Fragments of stone vessels and other domestic equipment were found on the surface of the site. The lack of pottery sherds suggests that the site was not reoccupied in the Ceramic Neolithic phase, in contrast to the sites of Khirokitia and Tenta.
Further north, also on the east side of the valley, probable evidence of Aceramic Neolithic occupation has been found towards the village of Parsata at the locality Paleodhrapia, but the survey of this site remains to be completed.
From this brief survey it can be seen that Aceramic Neolithic settlers had penetrated the northern part of the Vasilikos valley well to the north of Kalavasos village, and occupation of this phase was by no means restricted to the coastal zone. No doubt more sites will be discovered if further survey is undertaken in the broken terrain which constitutes the upper reaches of the valley.
THE EXCAVATIONS AT KALAVASOS-TENTA
According to local informants, the locality Tenta is so called because St Helena mother of Constantine the Great, pitched her tent on the site when she returned to Cyprus in AD 327 from Jerusalem bearing the Cross of the Crucifixion, prior to the construction of the Stavrovouni Monastery ca. 20 km NE of Tenta. She is said to have landed at Vasiliko and journeyed up the valley to Tenta, hence the ‘Royal’ name for the locality where she landed and the river itself. The site is named Tenta on Kitchener’s 1882 map of Cyprus.
The lower reaches of the Vasilikos catchment around Tenta are under lain by sedimentary rocks of Lower Miocene to Upper Cretaceous age which overlie igneous rocks that form part of the Troodos massif. The site of Tenta comprises an Aceramic Neolithic village on a small oval hill approximately 150m to the west of the present course of the Vasilikos river. The hill is composed of a central core of gypsum and is capped by 2 m of hard compact secondary calcrete/gypcrete.
The area enjoys a classic Mediterranean climate with maximum temperatures exceeding 30°C in the summer, dropping to about 7°C in the winter. In recent years a maximum temperature of 43°C was recorded by the Project in Kalavasos, with a minimum of just below freezing. The average annual precipitation is near 40 min; considerable variation occurs from year to year, but in most years dry farming is possible. At the time of the Neolithic occupation of the site, the Vasilikos river probably only flowed seasonally, but it is possible that there was another seasonal stream to the west of the site in the area now occupied by terraced fields. The digging of shallow wells could have provided the inhabitants of the site with a water supply during the period when the river was not running, but no evidence for wells was found by excavation. Thus, despite the present rather arid nature of the region, there would have been anadequate water supply available to the Neolithic inhabitants, together with good agricultural land suitable for farming.
In addition to these circumstances favourable for early prehistoric settlement, the Tenta hill is strategically located astride the route from the Troodos mountains down to the coast and, probably more importantly, on the major -west route running parallel to the southern coast of the island. The site commands a fine view up and down the valley, and is located at a point where the Vasilikos river can be crossed with comparative ease. The hill itself is also naturally defensible, and this must have been an important factor in the choice of the location for the village. It can hardly be a coincidence that there is evidence of earlier prehistoric occupation (Aceramic Neolithic, Ceramic Neolithic and for Early Chalcolithic) on all of the eminences overlooking the point at which the old Nicosia-Limassol road crosses the Vasilikos valley, in addition to the site at Tenta, and this part of the valley must always have been of strategic importance.
Apart from the metallurgical resources of the Vasilikos valley which were not utilized in the Neolithic period, the main natural resources of the area the gypsum deposits which can be seen from Tenta on the east side of the valley, beyond the main access road to Kalavasos village. Gypsum was used in the Neolithic settlement for small areas of floor paving and for the manufacture of floor and wall plaster. Limestone and diabase stones were also locally available for the construction of the houses and for the manufacture of many of the stone tools. Extensive limestone deposits occur in the area surrounding the site - a disused limestone quarry is visible south of Kalavasos on the west side of the valley. Diabase blocks are available in the Vasilikos river bed and to the south of the site in raised beach deposits. Chert was also locally available for chipped stone tools. It occurs in the region in primary deposits interbedded with chalk, as well as in the form of loose nodules in the river bed. Red ochre, used as a colouring material, was available in the more northern reaches of the valley.
The site of Tenta was first reported in 1940 when a stone vessel and several other artifacts were found during the construction of the mining railway line from the Kalavasos mines down to the coast. The railway line used to run along the foot of the scarp on the east side of Tenta where there is now a dirt road. Initial excavation of the site was undertaken by the late Pophyrios Dikaios (the first excavator of Khirokitia, then Curator of the Cyprus Museum in 1947, his excavation was brief, and no full report was ever published. Dikaios provided an architectural plan of his excavations in his conspectus of ancient Cypriot architecture, and, in notes in other excavation reports, he assigned the architecture to the Aceramic Neolithic phase, likening it to the buildings at Khirokitia. Dikaios’ excavations were centred mainly on the southern slopes of the site where he uncovered a considerable stretch of the outer settlement wall (Structure 1) together with some of the adjacent architecture. He also excavated a small trench on the top of the site, but he appears to have penetrated only a few centimeters before the work ceased.
Following the 1947 excavation, the site of Tenta received little attention until the summr of 1976 when the Vasilikos Valley Project commenced the most recent series of excavation campaigns. Excavations were carried out each summer from 1976 though 1979, and a final summer season took place in 1984. The excavations were funded for the first four reasons by the National Science Foundation (USA).
All of the architecture visible at Tenta belongs to the later phase of the Aceramic Neolithic, the earliest Neolithic period prior to the use of pottery. The excavations were undertaken mainly on the top of the site and on the lower south slopes. Scattered soundings (some now backfilled) were made on the NW, NE and SE flanks of the hill in the hope of finding architectural remains of the Ceramic Neolithic or Early Chalcolithic periods, but the only evidence of utilization of the site in these later phases consists of pits and some deposits containing ceramics, part of which may have been washed down from the higher elevations of the site.
The Tenta site comprises a small village with houses clustered around the upper part of a small natural hill. With the exception of piers within structures and buttresses, virtually all of the architectural elements at Tenta are curvilinear, if not circular, and rectilinear domestic structures are unknown on the site. As elsewhere in this period, structures are built of mudbrick, stone or a combination of both materials.. at least the early phase settlement was surrounded by a stone outer settlement wall, whether this be regarded as defensive in character or merely a clear limit to the settlement area. No evidence was found in the excavated areas for a definite gateway through this wall. Within the area bounded by the wall, the settlement was quite densely built up with rows of basically domestic structures occupying the whole of the eastern side of the top of the site. And a building or complex of structures of unusually large size or elaborate plan taking up the whole of the preserved area on the west side of the top of the site. In the lower southern area of the site, the structures within the boundary wall of the settlement appear to have been more spaced out.
Accurate estimation of the size of the settlement is impossible because of the terracing of the northern and western parts of the upper reaches of the site. It is also unclear whether the surface spread of artifacts is an accurate reflection of the size of the settlement or whether some may have washed down from higher up. It has been estimated that the settlement may have grown from an area of ca. 1,600 m² or more early in its life to 2,500-3,000 m² in the later part of its existence. Bearing in mind the varying size of the excavated dwellings and of the spaces that separate them, the uncertainty concerning the original line of the outer settlement wall, as well as the fact that some major areas might have been open and free of buildings, it may be suggested that the settlement within the boundary wall consisted of approximately 40-45 buildings. Despite all the uncertainties inherent in population estimates, it seems likely that the adult population of Tenta never exceeded about 150 persons.
The variety visible in the domestic architecture of Tenta is one of the most notable features of the site. All of the major structures are curvilinear, but the shape, size and internal layout of the buildings, and their construction methods vary widely. The state of preservation also varies greatly; at best the complete plan of the building has been revealed, the walls are standing to 1m or more in height, the piers are preserved to a sufficient height to provide evidence about the nature of their upper parts, and features such as platforms, benches and seats are preserved on the floors.
The plan of the domestic buildings at Tenta usually comprises a single curvilinear structure, although it is quite possible that several buildings belonged to the same family and that they should be considered together as a domestic unit. Groups of structures have been recognized at Khirokitia surrounding open courtyards or areas, but such units are not so easily recognizable amongst the structures on the east side of the top of Tenta. It is possible that the larger structures with internal piers and features such as platforms and benches on their floors represent domestic buildings, while the smaller buildings with no internal features served as ancillary structures for storage or other purposes. However, a larger area would have to be excavated in this part of the site for the pattern to become clearer. The diameter of the domestic structures varies from 2.40 m to 3.60 m. The smallest building, Structure 34, has a diameter of only 2.00 m, but it may have served as a granary. The occurrence of much larger buildings on the site is shown by Structure 17, with an internal diameter of ca. 8.00 m.
With regard to construction methods, Structure 1 (the outer settlement wall) constitutes the most massive wall found on the site. As with other stone walls at Tenta, it was built of a mixture of unshaped blocks of limestone, diabase and banded chert, sometimes with fairly thick layers of mud mortar in between. The blocks employed are somewhat larger than those commonly used in domestic construction, but the basic building method is the same. Although no evidence was found of the deliberate shaping of blocks, stones were intentionally chosen with roughly flat surfaces, and the overall appearance of the wall is neat and indicative of careful building.
Domestic structures may be built entirely of stone, entirely of mudbrick, on a stone footing, or the may consist at least in part of a double wall composed of both stone and mudbrick. In the last case the outer wall may be of stone and the inner wall of mudbrick, although the reverse can also occur. Double stone wall footings were also occasionally employed. In some cases it is difficult to classify a wall either as mudbrick or stone since both materials were clearly employed in the same wall.
Mudbrick walls are usually one brick thick, but the piers within Structure 27 in the lower southern area were two bricks wide. Structure 17 on the top of the site is wider than most mudbrick wals, and it too is composed of two lines of mudbricks side by side with a considerable thickness of mortar in between. The colour and size of the bricks in the various structures varies considerably. Μudbrick walls are generally 30-40 cm in width, although the maximum width of Structure 17 is 55 cm.
The stone walls of domestic structures may be fairly solidly constructed of two rows of larger stones with smaller stones in between (width 50-66 cm) or more lightly built with two thicknesses of smaller stones (width up to 34 cm). Structure 10 is exceptional in having a double stone wall, an outer strengthening thickness of masonry having been added to the original inner wall. In some cases the well-preserved fairly flat-topped stone walls suggest that the extant walls served as the footings for mudbrick superstructures, but elsewhere it is possible that the walls were of stone to the full height of the building.
Single or double rectilinear piers often occur in the medium-sized and larger structures at Tenta, no clear correlation can be established between size of building and number of piers, although two piers were usual in the larger buildings with an internal diameter of 3.10 m or more. The piers may be freestanding or attached to the outer wall of the building. When they occur singly they are not always centrally placed. Pairs of piers may be parallel to each other or aligned at a distinct angle to one another. Much discussion has centred on the purpose served by the piers, but it seems most likely that they were used to support an upper wooden floor, which would have increased the floor space of the building to an appreciable extent. However, it must be noted that no artifacts were ever found in structures in a position suggesting that they had fallen from an upper floor, and no material likely derived from such a floor was found.
The configuration of the superstructure of the buildings and the nature of their roofs have also been debated at length. The inward curvature of some of the walls has been taken to indicate the existence of domed roofs, and past reconstructions of Khirokitia have shown all of the domestic buildings with domed roofs. The frequent occurrence of basically vertical walls without any trace of inward inclination would seem to indicate flat roofs. Unambiguous evidence for roofing was usually absent at Tenta, but remains of a flat roof were found at khirokitia collapsed in a building which had been burnt. It seems most likely that many of the structures at Tenta would have had flat roofs, but building such as Structure 22, the wall of which shows clear inward inclination, could have been domed.
Windows, doorways and niches were found in the walls of a number of structures at Tenta, and there was sometimes clear evidence that the location of the various features had been changed during the life of a particular building. In some cases apertures had been carefully blocked up, but the original plaster face on each side of the aperture could be seen running through the wall. Doorways usually seem to have required a step down into the building from the level of the threshold, which was also raised above the exterior ground level.
Floors of buildings varied from finely rendered plaster surfaces to beaten earth; occasionally no clear floor level could be recognized at all. The most impressive plaster floors are the red painted floors associated with Structures 17 and 36, and the series of floors found in the sounding under the floor of Structure 76. Four separate surfaces were associated with Structure 17, each quite thick and painted with a soft powdery layer of red ochre. The plaster floor curved up noticeably at the junction with the wall. The earliest floor of Structure 17 was laid over several layers of small stones, and careful preparation seems to have preceded the laying of the first floor. Red painted plaster floors were clearly reserved for buildings of special significance, and such floors were not found in any of the buildings on the east side of the top of the site or in the lower southern area. Here, where the floors of buildings were plastered at all, the plaster varied from a thick cream-coloured gypsum plaster layer to a rather fugitive and thinner whitish layer.
The interior faces of the walls of domestic structures were also extensively plastered with layers of cream-coloured gypsum plaster. Evidence of painted decoration was only found on the pier within Structure 11, but small fragments of burnished reddish-brown painted plaster occurred in a number of contexts, these were never found in their original position, thus it is unclear whether they derive from walls, floors or the surface of particular types of features. In view of the wide expanses of plaster surface suitable for painting within the buildings, it is perhaps strange that greater use was not made of painted decoration, and that the only evidence for a painted composition was found in a rather unpretentious structure.
A total of 14 human burials containing a minimum of 18 individuals was excavated either below the floors of buildings (presumably domestic in character: Structures 9 and 10) or outside buildings in open areas. The burials under house floors include adults, children and infants, usually buried singly, but the remains of four infants were interred in a shallow pit inside Structure 10 on its SE side close to wall. A series of five burials was found under the floors of Structure 9 in pits close to the house wall (two adults, two young children and one newborn infant). The skeletons are usually contracted on their sides or backs; the pits are just large enough for the bodies, although adult bodies had to be tightly contracted to fit into the space provided. In contrast to the custom at nearby Khirokitia, grave goods were very rarely deposited with the dead, and the only artifact found at Tenta in association with a burial was a small lump of worked red ochre found with a child buried on the north side of Structure 9. Also in contrast to the burial customs at Khirokitia where all of the dead are below house floors, half of the burials at Tenta occur in open areas outside the buildings. While some of these skeletons were found between buildings in association with layers of rubbish, seemingly buried with a distinct lack of ceremony, they were generally found anatomically intact, and the bodies could not have lain exposed for very long. Burial within or outside structures seems to have been selected equally for interment of the dead regardless of age or sex. The status of the people buried outside buildings is unknown, but it is clear that a wide variety of contexts was utilized for the disposal of the dead. No evidence was found for elaborate ritual connected with burial. Ηowever, in the case of one young adult, the body had been placed with the head propped up above the level of the rest of the corpse. The body was interred in a layer of rubbish and there was evidence of burning on the skull and in the adjacent area, whether the burning was ritual or incidental is unknown.
Despite the rather poor state of preservation of the skeletal material, and the difficult problems involved in the conservation of the bones, physical anthropological analysis of the skeletons has provided important data concerning the population of Tenta and their pathologies. The adult crania have been tentatively classified as brachycephalic as at Khirokitia. The infant: child: adult death ratio reveals the occurrence of fewer children than would have been expected and more infants, but the reasons for this are unclear. The average age at death for males is 30.5 years, but 36.5 years for females; this latter figure is considerably higher than expected, and may be the result of small sample size rather than a reflection of reality. The average adult stature attained by males is 162.9 cm and 153.8 cm for females. Dental and osseous pathology was infrequent, and the evidence generally indicates and adequate diet and nutrition. The skeletal remains did not provide any evidence for infectious or degenerative disorders, or osseous fractures indicative of trauma, but the Tenta inhabitants did suffer from thalassaemia or sicklemia and/or iron deficiency anaemia. Perhaps one of the most important features to emerge from the analysis of the skeletal remains is that at least a degree of artificial cranial deformation was practiced, and approximately 11% of the skeletons provide evidence of occipital flattening. Such deformation is also known from Khirokitia and other sites in the prehistoric Near East; it is also evidence in Cyprus in later periods, for instance the Late Bronze Age.
Artifacts and Economy
A selection of artifacts excavated at Tenta, including the best preserved part of the wall-painting, is on display in the Cyprus Museum, Nicosia. Other objects are displayed in the Larnaca District Museum in Larnaca.
The various categories of artifacts found throughout the Aceramic phase levels at Tenta are, in general, similar to those found at Khirokitia and other Cypriot Aceramic sites. The frequent occurrence of stone vessels, sometimes of quite sophisticated shapes with spouts and other features, clearly indicates the mastery achieved in the working of hard stones such as diabase, as well as in softer limestone. Complete vessels have rarely been found, but fragments occur frequently on the surface of the site and in excavated deposits.