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Aphrodite's Island: Australian Archaeologists in Cyprus


28 November 2012

Two ovoid vases with typical Iron Age geometric decoration: (Larger) Bichrome IV Ware jug, Cypriot-Archaic I (c. 750-600 BC), NM 47.34. (Smaller) White Painted III Ware barrel-shaped juglet, Cypro-Geometric III (c. 850-750 BC), NM 47.295.
Two ovoid vases with typical Iron Age geometric decoration: (Larger) Bichrome IV Ware jug, Cypriot-Archaic I (c. 750-600 BC), NM 47.34. (Smaller) White Painted III Ware barrel-shaped juglet, Cypro-Geometric III (c. 850-750 BC), NM 47.295.

The unlikely connection between Cyprus, Australia and the Greek goddess of love will be explored in a free exhibition at the University of Sydney's Nicholson Museum, opening on 29 November.

Aphrodite's Island: Australian Archaeologists in Cyprus celebrates Australia's long-standing archaeological connections with Cyprus. The exhibition will feature items from the Nicholson's impressive collection of more than 1500 Cypriot artefacts, the largest in Australia and one of the most significant outside of Cyprus.

Though the small island nation in the eastern Mediterranean Sea may not loom large in people's minds when they think of international archaeology, Cyprus is hugely significant for our understanding of Mediterranean history and for the trajectory of Australian archaeology. The first Australian-led international archaeological digs were in Cyprus, and Australians have been researching there for more than 80 years.

"Cyprus is a country of enormous archaeological significance, and was believed by the ancient Greeks to be the birthplace of the goddess Aphrodite," says Dr Craig Barker, Manager of Public Programs at the University of Sydney and curator of the exhibition.

"Given its location at the crossroads of three continents - Europe, Asia and Africa - Cyprus' geographical position has given it unique cultural wealth. The military, social, cultural and political influence of all of the major Mediterranean powers can be seen in Cypriot archaeology, including the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Assyrian and Persian Empires, and the Greek, Roman and Byzantine empires."

Aphrodite's Island coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the death of James Stewart, who conducted Australia's first international archaeological dig in Cyprus in 1937. A passionate advocate of Cypriot archaeology, Stewart was a curator of the Nicholson Museum and the University's first professor in Middle-Eastern archaeology. He was also a strong supporter of developing archaeological study in Australia more generally.

Two White Painted V Tankards with animal form handles, Middle Cypriot III-Late Cypriot IA (c. 1750-1600 BC), NM 53.101 and NM 53.100. Both excavated from Stephania Tomb 10, excavated by Australian Basil Hennessy in 1951. The handles of both vases are shaped like dogs.
Two White Painted V Tankards with animal form handles, Middle Cypriot III-Late Cypriot IA (c. 1750-1600 BC), NM 53.101 and NM 53.100. Both excavated from Stephania Tomb 10, excavated by Australian Basil Hennessy in 1951. The handles of both vases are shaped like dogs.

Many of the items in Aphrodite's Island, which include amphorae, figurines, coins and other ancient artefacts, are from Stewart's own excavations and collection.

"As an indication of Stewart's love for his work, he chose to enlist in the Cyprus Regiment in World War II, and when captured as a prisoner of war traded food parcels for books and gave lectures on archaeology to his (literally) captive audience," Dr Barker says.

"His house at Mt Pleasant, near Bathurst, was legendary among his University of Sydney students for its rooms full of Bronze Age pottery, extensive research library and many cats, which he grew fond of during his time as a prisoner of war."

"Stewart's influence lives on not only at the University of Sydney, but in archaeology in Australia, Cyprus, and internationally. Ahead of many archaeologists of his time, he believed antiquities museums should be not just collections, but places of learning and hands-on experience," says Dr Barker.

The University of Sydney's strong connection with Cypriot archaeology continues to this day - Dr Barker now leads a team of archaeologists, students and interested members of the public as they excavate a theatre in the Hellenistic-Roman period city of Nea Paphos.

One of the very few ancient theatres to be excavated using modern techniques, Nea Paphos has become a training ground for a new generation of archaeologists.

Aphrodite's Island: Australian Archaeologists in Cyprus will be opened by University of Sydney Chancellor, Her Excellency Professor Marie Bashir AC CVO, at 6pm on Thursday 29 November.

The exhibition is presented by the Nicholson Museum and the High Commission of the Republic of Cyprus, with the support of major exhibition sponsor the Beirut Hellenic Bank.


Event details

What: Aphrodite's Island: Australian Archaeologists in Cyprus 

When: Launch at 6pm, Thursday 29 November. Exhibition runs until December 2013.

Opening hours 10am to 4.30pm Monday to Friday

12pm to 4pm, first Saturday of the month

Where: Nicholson Museum, southern entrance of the Quadrangle, Camperdown Campus. See map and directions 

Cost: Free


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Media enquiries: Katie Szittner, 02 9351 2261, 0478 316 809, katie.szittner@sydney.edu.au