Other Possible Phoenician Crematoria

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Hebrew University archaeologist Eilat Mazar reported in our September/October 2010 issue about excavations at the vast Phoenician cemeteries of Achziv and the presence of an ancient crematorium at the site in “Achziv Cemeteries: Buried Treasure from Israel’s Phoenician Neighbor.” Vassos Karageorghis, former director of the Cyprus Department of Antiquities, professor at the University of Cyprus, leading scholar of ancient Cypriot culture and current director of the Foundation of Anastasios G. Leventis, wrote in to tell us about other Phoenician cemeteries on Cyprus that may include crematoria similar to the one found in the Achziv cemetery in Israel.

Other Possible Phoenecian Crematoria
by Vassos Karageorghis

I wrote this short note after I read the very interesting article in BAR September/October 2010 by Eilat Mazar, entitled “Achziv Cemeteries: Buried Treasure from Israel’s Phoenician Neighbor.” The Phoenician cemetery at Achziv is of unique importance for Phoenician studies because it is properly excavated, unlike that of Tyre, which had been thoroughly looted before excavation. It offers an opportunity to study Phoenician burial customs on the Phoenician homeland, where not so much is preserved of Phoenician culture, unlike the abundance of evidence we have from the Punic West.

I am not going to enter into the hotly discussed question of infant sacrifice among the Phoenicians, nor the character of the “tophet,” whether it is a term to be used only for the Punic World and not for the Eastern Mediterranean.1 I will only confine myself to some supplementary information about crematoria in Phoenician cemeteries.

The circular structure found in the northern cemetery of Achziv has been convincingly identified by Mazar as a crematorium where the dead bodies of (first-born) adults were burned and then buried in large urns. It measures 14 feet in diameter. Mazar states that the Achziv crematorium is the only crematorium ever discovered in a Phoenician cemetery.2

Amathus, on the south coast of Cyprus, has long been known as an important harbor town from the 11th century B.C. onwards. The strong Phoenician character of its culture, especially from the eighth to the sixth centuries B.C., has been underlined by several scholars, some of whom went so far as to identify this city with the Qarthadast (New Town) of the inscriptions.3

In 1999 the bulldozer destroyed a very large portion of a cemetery along the coast of Amathus, for the construction of the Four Seasons hotel. The Department of Antiquities, having been informed about the discovery of “vases buried in the sand,” sent a team to collect them and carry them to the Limassol District Museum, thinking that they were hidden away by tomb-looters who had discovered them in the Amathus cemetery on the northern side of the Nicosia-Limassol highway. It was only when the bedrock was reached, with several urns placed in cavities and others placed above them in rows,4 that the Department of Antiquities realized that the vases were in situ. After that a proper excavation was undertaken. In the meantime, however, a large portion of this cemetery with funerary urns had been destroyed, together with any structures or stelae, which may now lie under the cement of the hotel. It is very unfortunate that almost twenty years after this unique discovery, there has not been any comprehensive study of this cemetery and the rich material it has yielded.

Soon after we received information in Nicosia about the discoveries of the bulldozer, we visited the site together with the then-director of the Cyprus American Archaeological Institute (CAARI), Dr. Stuart Swiny, and saw some of the pits in the bedrock where the funerary urns had been placed. In the excavation that followed, carried out by a member of the scientific staff of the Department of Antiquities, several funerary urns were found in situ, containing infant burials; there was a part of the cemetery, however, where large vases were found, which contained the incinerated remains of adults. In two separate articles, published in 1998, D. Christou, Director of the Department of Antiquities at the time of the discovery, and A. P. Agelarakis, A. Kanta and N. Stampolildes, described the excavated material, including the skeletal remains.5 These reports provide useful information about what was found, mainly the funerary urns of the Cypro-Archaic period, but the interpretation by Christou of the burial customs should be taken with caution. I have expressed my views on the cemetery of the Phoenician community of Amathus.6

It is interesting to note that both at Amathus and at Achziv we have infant burials as well as burials of cremated adults. At Amathus, however, there are cremations of very young individuals, whereas at Achziv only adults were incinerated.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this short note, my aim is to give information (already published but not widely known) of a possible crematorium at Amathus, not unlike that of Achziv. In his report about the cemetery, Christou described very briefly some structures excavated by him in 1980, lying at a distance of about 100m east of the cemetery with the funerary urns, which he rightly associated with the cemetery.7 They are situated in the vicinity of the east Amathus cemetery.

Here is Christou’s description: “The remains uncovered clearly belong to two separate constructions adjacent to each other, but they actually seem to comprise an indivisible complex in use and function (see here fig. 1). The first part of this complex consists of a circular compact construction of hewn limestone blocks and rough stones (3.70m. in diameter) and a square construction in two parts (2.90 x 1.80m.), both enclosed by a thick circular wall of ashlar blocks, of which only two parts were preserved. The second part of the complex is a rectangular open pyre (5.10 x 3.30m.) at ground level, the interior part of which was dressed with mudbricks, its exterior part built of limestone blocks and rough stones. Three successive layers of ashes mixed with reddish soil (thickness 0.35m.) covered the earth floor of the pyre. The entire pyre was enclosed by a rectangular wall of limestone blocks. 0.80m in thickness, of which two parts on the south and west were preserved” (p. 214).

Christou interprets this complex as “an open temenos enclosing a miniature temple and altar and a rectangular pyre that most probably could be identified with the ritual place in which certain rites were performed … It seems likely that these architectural remains constitute the exact location where the cremations and their accompanying rites were performed” (ibid.). No proper stratigraphic observations have been published.

A second circular structure, 18 meters in diameter, is now being excavated near the east necropolis of Amathus by the Cyprus Department of Antiquities, under Yiannis Violaris, who kindly showed me plans of his excavations and allowed me to publish this information in this report.

The similarity between the cemetery and crematorium at Achziv with the paralled phenomena at Amathus described above is no doubt important and should be taken into consideration in the study and publication of both sites. It is no doubt important that the Amathus round structure excavated by Christou in 1991 should now be completed and published in detail.


1. For a bibliography see note in Eilat Mazar “Achziv Cemeteries: Buried Treasure from Israel’s Phoenician Neighbor,” BAR, September/October 2010, p. 43; see also S. Moscati, “Non è un tofet a Tiro,” Rivista di Studi Phenici 21, no. 2 (1993), pp. 147–152.

2. Mazar, “Achziv Cemeteries,” p. 43.

3. See V. Karageorghis, “Amathus between the Greeks and the Phoenicians,” in Atti del II Congresso Internazionale di Studi Fenici e Punici, vol. 3 (Rome: Consiglio nazionale delle ricerche, 1991) and V. Karageorghis, “Cyprus and the Phoenicians: Achievements and Perspectives,” in I Fenici: Ieri Oggi Domani. Ricerche, scoperte, progetti. Roma 3–5 marzo 1994 (Rome: Gruppo Editoriale Internazionale, 1995), p. 329.

4. See D. Christou, “Cremations in the Western Necropolis of Amathus,” in V. Karageorghis and N. Chr. Stampolidis, eds., Eastern Mediterranean, Cyprus-Dodecanese-Crete 16th-6th cent. B.C. Proceedings of the International Symposium held at Rethymnon-Crete in May 1997 (Athens: University of Crete and A.G. Leventis Foundation, 1998), p. 209, fig. 7 and Vassos Karageorghis, Early Cyprus: Crossroads of the Mediterranean (Los Angeles: Getty Museum, 2002), p. 153, fig. 319.

5. D. Christou, “Cremations in the Western Necropolis of Amathus,” in Karageorghis and Stampolidis, Eastern Mediterranean Cyprus, pp. 207–215; A.P. Agelarakis, A. Kanta and N. Stampolidis, “The Osseous Record in the Western Necropolis of Amathus: an Archaeo-anthropological Investigation,” in Karageorghis and Stampolidis, Eastern Mediterranean Cyprus, pp. 217–232.

6. Karageorghis, “Cyprus and the Phoenicians: Achievements and Perspectives,” pp. 329–330 and Karageorghis, Early Cyprus, p. 153.

7. Christou, “Cremations in the Western Necropolis of Amathus,” p. 214.

Vassos Karageorghis is former director of the Cyprus Department of Antiquities, a professor at the University of Cyprus, a leading scholar of ancient Cypriot culture and current director of the Foundation of Anastasios G. Leventis.

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