In Depth: City of Gold

Cypriot, 6th century B.C.: Female Statuette.  Found by Princeton at Polis-Peristeries, in a votive pit in 1991. Terracotta with red and black paint, h. 16.3 cm (head), 22.9 cm (body). Polis Chrysochous, Local Museum of Marion and Arsinoe (Princeton Cyprus Expedition R11662/TC4681 [head], R11666/TC4683 [body]). Courtesy of the Department of Antiquities, CyprusThe form and presentation of art in Cyprus is independent of and at the same time deeply connected to the arts of its neighbors in Greece, Egypt, and the Near East. In City of Gold: Tomb and Temple in Ancient Cyprus, this duality is explored through the art and archaeology of the ancient city of Marion and its successor, Arsinoe, cities that lie below the modern town of Polis Chrysochous in northwestern Cyprus.

A case in point is the treatment of funerary sculpture at Marion, much of which was inspired by Greek artistic forms—if not actually made in Greece. In ancient Greece, funerary sculptures, including statues of kouroi (naked male youths), were placed prominently above graves to celebrate the deceased. At Marion, however, an imported Greek marble kouros (the only example ever found on Cyprus), along with locally made male and female terracotta funerary statuettes, representing either the deceased or mourners, set the stage for rituals enacted in tomb dromoi, the sloping passages that led to the entrances of tomb chambers cut deep into the ground. When a tomb was closed, the dromos and its contents were covered with earth, not to be seen again in antiquity unless the tomb was reopened for the burial of another family member.

The visually striking and often surprising remains that contribute to our understanding of the arts of Marion and Arsinoe are known almost entirely through archaeological excavations. A team from Princeton University, led by Professor Emeritus William A. P. Childs (Class of 1964, Graduate School Class of 1971) of the Department of Art and Archaeology, conducted excavations in Polis from 1983 to 2007. Of the 110 pieces on display in this exhibition, 60 were uncovered by the Princeton team. The remaining 50 were documented by German, British, Cypriot, and Swedish archaeologists, including Erik Sjöqvist (professor of classical archaeology at Princeton from 1951 to 1969), who excavated in Polis in 1929 when he was a graduate student. All of the pieces in this exhibition are on loan, courtesy of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus, the British Museum, and the Musée du Louvre.

Archaeological excavations in Polis began in 1885 when German xcavator Max Ohnefalsch-Richter, a newspaperman turned inspector of antiquities, received a permit for tomb exploration. He was drawn to this remote corner of the island by then recent studies of ancient literary sources that identify Polis as the location  of two ancient cities and, possibly, by the modern name of the town itself—Polis Chrysochous links the Greek word polis, meaning city, with the name of its fertile river valley containing the Greek word chrysos, meaning gold. In 1885 and 1886 Ohnefalsch-Richter excavated more than four hundred tombs. He and later excavators found splendid jewelry, much of it made of gold (see cover), and a wealth of other tomb gifts, including painted vases imported from Greece. The vases led scholars to consider Polis to have been the most Greek of the ancient cities on Cyprus. 

The tomb fields of Polis, explored by Ohnefalsch-Richter and the British, Swedish, and Cypriot excavators who succeeded him, revealed the funerary landscape of Marion. Founded by the eighth century b.c., Marion was destroyed in 312 b.c. when, in the aftermath of Alexander the Great’s death, the city’s last king, Stasioikos II, allied himself with the Macedonian king of Greece instead of with the Ptolemaic king of Egypt, Ptolemy I Soter. In approximately 270 b.c., Ptolemy II Philadelphus re-established the city and named it after his sister and wife, Arsinoe. The ruins of this city, which remained the seat of a bishop into the fifteenth century, were visible everywhere to the early excavators in Polis. Columns and capitals from the town’s Late Antique churches lined the streets, and limestone and marble blocks covering the ancient settlement were quarried for building stone. Yet the complexity and expense of excavating this “town site” were seen as obstacles both to its study and to the acquisition of museum quality pieces. It was only with the systematic archaeological excavations of the Princeton team that the city of Arsinoe and the settlement of Marion below it were uncovered.

Each object chosen for this exhibition speaks to a compelling aspect of Cypriot art, including how artists represented the human form; how the human body was adorned; how images signified human and divine authority; and how spaces were designed for the living, the dead, and the gods. Contexts of discovery, including the sometimes-fragmentary conditions of the objects, preserve valuable information about the ways that these works would have been experienced—and both revered and feared—in the past. For example, a female terracotta statuette of the sixth century b.c. was buried in a pit after the fire destruction of the  Cypro-Archaic period sanctuary. Within the sanctuary, such statuettes could serve as permanent worshippers, acting as conduits for communication with the gods. To destroy its power, the statuette was “killed” before it was placed in the ground, its head twisted and pulled out of the body. 

Cypriot, late 6th century b.c.e.: Head from a colossal male statue. Polis Chrysochous, Local Museum of Marion and Arsinoe. Courtesy of the Department of Antiquities, Cyprus.

Today we can appreciate the statuette’s formal features, such as the differences in scale and detail between the head and the body. When considered in light of the statuette’s condition at the time of burial, we can begin to access ancient views about the power of art even though there are no ancient written documents describing them.

City of Gold displays objects from Marion and Arsinoe in ways that encourage the museum visitor to appreciate and learn from the objects’ formal details and conditions of discovery. A tomb dromos is evoked in the first gallery, drawing attention to the Greek kouros and its Cypriot context. In the city of Marion display, a male statue head, possibly of a royal figure, looks out on objects that illustrate Marion’s connections with Greece, Assyria, Phoenicia, Egypt, and Persia. The placement of objects and photographs begins to recreate the sanctuaries of Marion, including a colossal, nearly three-meter-tall Egyptianizing male votive statue that once stood in the Cypro-Classical sanctuary. Upon entering the Arsinoe gallery, the viewer encounters a polychrome column capital from a monumental porticoed building of the Hellenistic period. It was possible to reconstruct the capital in spite of the generations who quarried the site’s ancient building stones. The Late Antique to medieval churches uncovered by the Princeton team are echoed by the design of this gallery, which takes the form of a three-aisled Byzantine church. Photographs of the modern village of Polis, taken by Elisabeth Childs, are displayed in the firstfloor corridor of the Department of Art and Archaeology adjacent to the Museum.
To further enhance the display,  3-D virtual walkthroughs were created of the four principal buildings featured in the exhibition: the Cypro-Archaic period sanctuary, the Cypro-Classical sanctuary, the Hellenistic porticoed building, and a Late Antique church. Created by students in a seminar cross-listed among Art and Archaeology, Computer Science, and Hellenic Studies, these building models form the basis for the exhibition’s short film, on view in the galleries and online. Through this combination of archaeology and exhibition, Cypriot art is presented to the museum visitor, revealing its interconnections and sometimes  surprisingly independent visions.


Joanna S. Smith, Class of 1987
Associate Professional Specialist,
Department of Art and Archaeology

City of Gold: Tomb and Temple in Ancient Cyprus has been made possible by major support from the A. G. Leventis Foundation; from an anonymous donor; and by the Department of Art and Archaeology and the Stanley J. Seeger, Class of 1952, Center for Hellenic Studies at Princeton University. Additional support has been provided by the Leon Levy Foundation; Hicham and Dina Aboutaam; Jonathan and Jeannette Rosen; Frederick Schultz Jr., Class of 1976; Michael and Judy Steinhardt; the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund; Ross and Carol Brownson; Mr. and Mrs. Edward Boshell Jr.; and Donna and Hans Sternberg, Class of 1957. The publication has been made possible by the Barr Ferree Foundation Publication Fund, Princeton University, and by Annette Merle-Smith. Further support has been provided by the Partners and Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum. 


Captions (from top to bottom):

Cypriot, 6th century b.c.: Female Statuette. Found by Princeton at Polis-Peristeries, in a votive pit in 1991. Terracotta with red and black paint, h. 16.3 cm (head), 22.9 cm (body). Polis Chrysochous, Local Museum of Marion and Arsinoe (Princeton Cyprus Expedition R11662/TC4681 [head], R11666/TC4683 [body]). Courtesy of the Department of Antiquities, Cyprus.


Cypriot, late 6th century b.c.e.: Head from a colossal male statue. Polis Chrysochous, Local Museum of Marion and Arsinoe. Courtesy of the Department of Antiquities, Cyprus.



 City of Gold: The Archaeology of Polis

 Chrysochous, Cyprus 
 Edited by William A.P. Childs,
 Joanna S. Smith, and J. Michael Padgett
 360 pages, 9 1⁄4 x 11 1⁄4 inches
 250 color and 30 b/w illustrations
 Softcover with flaps

 Available at the Museum Store
 Retail $55, Friends members $49.50