Scholia Reviews ns 19 (2010) 13.

Louise Steel, Cyprus Before History: From the Earliest Settlers to the End of the Bronze Age. London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd, 2004. Pp. xvii + 279, incl. 29 black and white plate illustrations and 70 black and white figures. ISBN 0-7156-3164-0. UK£18.00.

Philippa M. Steele
Lumley Research Fellow, Magdalene College, Cambridge, England

Cyprus Before History is a valuable and comprehensive account of the state of knowledge and scholarship on ancient Cyprus from the earliest period of settlement up to the end of the Bronze Age (and Early Iron Age transition). By synthesising information from a wide range of archaeological treatments and covering a long time span, Steel has created a book that acts as a useful reference work and teaching tool, setting out the current arguments and debates with admirable clarity and in such a way as to make them easily understandable to the non- specialist. In this sense, her aim to elucidate ‘the prehistoric foundations of Cypriot culture, from the earliest evidence for human activity on the island to the end of the Bronze Age’ (p. 1) has been realised successfully.

For the most part the structure is quite strictly chronological, but the first chapter gives an excellent overview of the geography, topography, flora and fauna of Cyprus, as well as an introduction to the history of scholarship on the island’s ancient past. The discussion of chronological analysis found in this chapter (pp. 11-18) is particularly insightful, including a welcome cautionary postscript concerning absolute dating, though it would have been useful to have a larger and clearer tabulation (cf. Table 1.1, p. 13) and/or some further explanation of the dating scheme Steel chose for this book, which in some cases is not straightforward.

The rest of the work is arranged into chapters that deal with individual periods, beginning with the earliest ‘colonisation’ (p. 19) and proceeding through the Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Prehistoric Bronze Age (EC-MC) and Late Bronze Age. In each chapter, the archaeological record for that period (which may be broken into sub-groups within the chapter) is divided into various interpretive categories, for example (domestic) economy, ceramics, mortuary evidence, material culture, and so on. Each section features a balanced and analytical discussion of the existing literature, thereby fulfilling with a good degree of success the aim ‘to critically review the major issues and debates that currently are being played out in the archaeological literature’ (p. 1).

Overall, the chronological structure works well, especially given that the general aims are descriptive and critical, rather than introducing an innovative analytical framework; one might compare the rather different aims of Knapp’s more recent work on pre- and proto-historic Cyprus, which is ordered according to a more thematic structure to serve its own interpretive purposes.[[1]] In a few places, Steel’s structure results in repetition, for example where the various hypotheses regarding the end of the aceramic and beginning of the ceramic Neolithic are cited twice under different sections on the same page (p. 63), but this is a very minor complaint.

Although this book has gone to great lengths to achieve a broad and representative overview of scholarship on ancient Cyprus, it seems to me that some opportunities were missed to point out in what areas further work needs to be carried out, and to suggest ways in which this might be achieved. For example, the possibility that, in the Neolithic, the absence of cultural elements on Cyprus that were present in contemporary nearby societies might be due to a deliberate choice (rather than some sort of ‘cultural isolation’) is marked out as an area that has not yet been explored (p. 50), but the idea is taken no further. Similarly, the motivation behind recurrent shifting settlement patterns and site dislocation at the end of archaeological phases (p. 62; also p. 82), the duration of occupation in villages in the ceramic Neolithic and correspondingly the chronological relationship with Chalcolithic settlement (p. 81), and the possible presence of a sense of group identity in various periods (for example, p. 173), are all marked out as areas where further research is needed, without further comment as to how this might be achieved. Some thoughts on these, or at least some pointers or ideas for future research, would be welcome.

The title chosen for the book, Cyprus Before History, is itself of interest, because divisions into ‘prehistoric’, ‘protohistoric’ and subsequent periods are often based (sometimes very generally) on the advent of literacy: as a rule of thumb, ‘history’ begins when we have extant writings. However, Steel barely mentions literacy on Cyprus, with only two exceedingly brief discussions (p. 161 and p. 182) of the Late Bronze Age inscriptions that are termed in scholarship ‘Cypro-Minoan’; even here, she does not generally make reference to epigraphic specialists, citing an article by Keswani[[2]] when suggesting that Cypro-Minoan was used for a ‘rudimentary bureaucratic system’ (p. 182). The often assumed link between Cypro-Minoan ‘documents’ (which are of a very disparate nature and extremely difficult to interpret even contextually, especially considering that we cannot read them) and administration is based on very weak evidence, and must be re-examined critically. Meanwhile, it is nonsensical to make reference to Cypro-Minoan without a good grounding in current epigraphic scholarship,[[3]] and it is equally nonsensical to give the potentially important role of literacy in Late Bronze Age society such inadequate treatment. Steel’s study is by no means the only archaeological treatment to feature such an oversight, but if the context of literacy in Late Bronze Age Cyprus is to be understood, it will be through collaborative research on the part of epigraphists and archaeologists.

The book’s most significant flaw, although this was emphatically not the fault of the author when it was published in 2004, is that its references have quickly become out-of-date. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that Cypriot archaeology is such a thriving field and also given the breadth of Steel’s work, but if the book is to remain an important resource for the study of Cypriot prehistory and protohistory then an updated second addition would be desirable, making use of recently published material that in some cases may have a significant bearing on Steel’s discussions and conclusions. There is not space here to cite all the relevant articles, monographs and conference volumes that have appeared since Cyprus Before History was published but especially important are the previously mentioned work by Knapp,[[4]] as well as, for example, Bolger’s 2003 treatment of gender in ancient Cyprus,[[5]] Keswani’s recent study of Late Bronze Age mortuary evidence,[[6]] and a number of specific site studies such as Frankel and Webb’s work on Early/Middle Bronze Age Marki Alonia.[[7]] If up-to-date information of this sort were added, it would enhance what is already a well balanced and informative work that forms a welcome and important contribution to the study of ancient Cyprus.


[[1]] A. B. Knapp, Prehistoric and Protohistoric Cyprus. Identity, Insularity and Connectivity (Oxford 2008).

[[2]] P. S. Keswani, ‘Models of local exchange in Late Bronze Age Cyprus’, BASOR 292 (1993) 73-83.

[[3]] The most recent work that will give a collective account of the current state of knowledge on Cypriot scripts is P. M. Steele, Syllabic Writing on Cyprus and its Context. Proceedings of the Conference held in Cambridge, 12th-13th December 2008 (forthcoming).

[[4]] Knapp [1].

[[5]] D. Bolger, Gender in Ancient Cyprus: Narratives of Social Change on a Mediterranean Island (Walnut Creek, California 2003).

[[6]] P. S. Keswani, Mortuary Ritual and Society in Bronze Age Cyprus. Monographs in Mediterranean Archaeology 9 (London 2004). [[7]] D. Frankel and J. M. Webb, Marki Alonia: An Early and Middle Bronze Age Settlement in Cyprus. Excavations 1995- 2000. Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology 123.2 (Sävedalen 2006).