Bronze Age art of Cyprus comes alive
A current exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum of Art showcases ancient Cypriot ceramic art held by the University of Melbourne
Ancient Cypriot ceramic art is prized around the world for its unique vibrancy and quality. The University of Melbourne is fortunate to hold one of Australia's most vital collections of such art, discovered and transported to Australia by the late Professor James R Stewart from the 1930s to the early 1960s.
Dr Jennifer Webb, Research Fellow in the Archaeology Program at La Trobe University, along with Dr Andrew Jamieson from the Ian Potter Museum of Art, have taken these ancient treasures and created a superb exhibition entitled 'Ceramic Art of Ancient Cyprus' to recognize Cyprus' Presidency of the European Union in the second half of 2012.
The exhibition features ceramic art from the Early and Middle Bronze Age periods, which dates from around 2000 years after pottery-making began in Cyprus in the Neolithic period (around 5000 BC).
Before the 4th century BC, when the island was officially Hellenised, the pottery was distinctly Cypriot in appearance. It was during this earlier period that this art was in high demand.
"Pots were produced in very large quantities, for domestic and industrial purposes and for burial with the dead. In the Late Bronze Age Cypriot pottery was exported in large quantities to Egypt and the Levant, where it was highly prized," she tells Neos Kosmos
This period produced ceramics that are hand-made, polished and red-brown in colour. Some have been engraved with fine decorations, and some with images of animals or humans.
There is also ceramic art originating from the Iron Age in this exhibition. These pieces differ from the other artworks because they are made using the wheel, not made by hand.
These contain more detailed embellishments, including geometric designs, as well as flowers, animals and hunting scenes.
Most of these valuable artworks came from the work of Australian James R Stewart, who - when Professor of Middle Eastern Archaeology at the University of Sydney - carried out extensive excavations in Cyprus. In 1937 and 1938, this occurred at a Bronze Age cemetery at Vounous, near Bellapais, and in 1961 he discovered more rare pottery in Bronze Age Karmi cemeteries in the Kyrenia mountain range.
At the time Stewart carried out this work on the island, archaeologists working in Cyprus were permitted to keep half of what was discovered. This, added to the fact that Ancient Cypriots were buried with various wares, meant that Stewart was able to source numerous priceless pieces of ancient ceramic art during these visits, which he then gave to various organisations that had supported him during his career.
One of these was the University of Melbourne, which resulted in the large number of Cypriot antiquities currently held by their affiliate gallery, the Ian Potter Museum of Art. The particular importance of many of these works in this exhibition is that many are from an area of the island not open to archaeologists since the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Thus, their presence in Australia, a country with strong ties to Cyprus, is significant.
There are also two films screening as part of the exhibition - one of Professor Stewart while working in Karmi in 1961, and the other of curator Dr Jennifer Webb's own excavations with Professor David Frankel at Marki in the 1990s.
Indeed, Webb has had a long involvement in the archaeological history of Cyprus. She studied at the British School of Archaeology in Athens after gaining her first bachelor's degree at the University of Melbourne. Her specialty in Cypriot history and archaeology began during this time, as she worked on archaeological sites in Cyprus, Crete and Jordan before completing her PhD on the archaeology of ritual practice in Cyprus in the Late Bronze Age.
For over thirty years, Webb has been pursuing her interest in ancient Cypriot pottery, working as an archaeologist on the island and co-directing many extensive excavations for La Trobe University with Professor David Frankel. This has resulted in the publication of several Cypriot pottery collections and many other objects appearing in Australian museums and galleries.
"David and I have long had a particular interest in the Early and Middle Bronze Age, dating from about 2400 to 1700 BC," Webb explains.
"Our excavations have uncovered an important settlement at Marki and several cemeteries dating to these periods."
This explains, then, the specialization of this exhibition at the Ian Potter Museum of Art.
Although staff at the Ian Potter Museum of Art selected the pieces to be displayed, Webb's role in the exhibition was to provide the historical and archaeological context for the works displayed. Her expertise in Bronze Age Cyprus was essential when writing the accompanying wall panel text which allows visitors to understand the relevance of the history to these pieces of ceramic art.
According to Webb, this exhibition gives the Ian Potter Museum of Art the opportunity to display their impressive collection of Cypriot antiquities. It has also created an opportunity for Dr Giorgos Georgiou, from the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus, to come to Australia and speak on the subject of Cypriot archaeology. This will take place at a special reception at the Ian Potter Museum of Art in July, which will be hosted by the High Commissioner of the Republic of Cyprus, His Excellency Mr Yannis Iacovou and sponsored by the Bank of Cyprus Australia.
Since its opening on 21 April, the exhibition has already attracted a lot of attention.
"We are very pleased with the response to date and are hoping that it will attract both people interested in ancient Cyprus and those with a broader interest in ceramic art," she says.
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