Life and death in a Cypriot Bronze Age society

Excavations in the Bronze Age cemetery at Hala Sultan Tekke, Cyprus, are shedding light on trade networks and complex burial practices, as Peter M Fischer and Teresa Bürge explain.

The Bronze Age city of Hala Sultan Tekke, which flourished between approximately 1650 and 1150 BC, covers an area of at least 23ha, as indicated by a large-scale magnetometer survey. It is situated on the south-eastern coast of Cyprus, close to Larnaca Salt Lake (near Larnaca International Airport), and represents one of the largest Bronze Age cities in the eastern Mediterranean. Back then, the lake – which today is cut off from the open sea – was connected to the Mediterranean and presented the best-protected harbour on the island. It was also the basis for intercultural trade and the wealth of Hala Sultan Tekke’s inhabitants. The city’s economy was underpinned by producing copper and purple-dyed textiles, as well as trade with cultures from a vast area stretching from Sardinia to Mesopotamia and from Anatolia to Egypt, all of which are represented by imported objects (see ‘Further reading’ box).

below Tomb SS contained the remains of 11 individuals, as well as many ceramic vessels.
Tomb SS contained the remains of 11 individuals, as well as many ceramic vessels.

The extramural cemetery

The Swedish ‘Söderberg Expedition’ directed by P M Fischer and, since 2019, co-directed by Teresa Bürge from the University of Gothenburg and the Austrian Academy of Sciences has been excavating at Hala Sultan Tekke each year since 2010. Excavations in the city have uncovered both domestic buildings and workshops for the large-scale production of copper and purple-dyed textiles. Just to the east of the densely built city, magnetometry and ground-penetrating radar surveys have indicated man-made structures at a depth of c.2m, as well as evidence of numerous ‘pits’, some of which have been sampled by test excavation and proved to be tombs.

Among them are the Chamber Tombs RR and SS, which have been the focus of our excavations for the past four seasons. They lie just 2m apart, yet display striking differences. While the former is shaped like a figure of eight, has two underground chambers, and measures 3.5m by 2.5m in total, the latter has a single, large, pentagonal underground chamber covering 4.5m by 4m. Tomb RR contained 76 individuals, some represented as complete and articulated skeletons, but most of them comprising mixed together bones. The larger Tomb SS held 11 skeletons, most of them articulated. All age categories are represented, from infants to mature adults. Both tombs preserved indications of ritual activities involving fire. In the central part of Tomb SS, large containers with drinking and eating vessels point to feasting in memory of the deceased. It is obvious from the find contexts that these tombs functioned not only as burial places, but also as spaces for worship, feasting, and commemorating the deceased.

Imports from a vast area

Locally produced and imported objects demonstrate that the two tombs were mainly used in the 14th century BC, over a span of roughly 100 years. This was the period when the Late Bronze Age civilisations in the Mediterranean reached their pinnacle and long-distance intercultural contacts were established. Ancient DNA and strontium isotope analyses are currently being carried out, and it is hoped that the results will offer insights into the genetic relationships between the individuals in the tombs, mobility patterns, and possible intermarriage with people from other areas and cultures.

Among the many ceramics found in Tomb SS was this hollow bovine figurine, which was made in Cyprus c.1350 BC

In total, the tombs contained more than 400 complete ceramic vessels, many of them imported. Most came from the Aegean, mainly from the Mycenaean and Minoan cultural spheres, and are decorated with geometric motifs and pictorial representations of plants, and various animals such as fish and birds, as well as sophisticated scenes featuring horse-drawn chariots and warriors. Others were imported from Anatolia, the Levant, and Egypt.

above Among the many ceramics found in Tomb SS was this hollow bovine figurine, which was made in Cyprus c.1350 BC. left Four of these bird-headed ceramic figurines, created in the local area c.1350 BC, were found in Tomb RR. below This bronze knife with an ivory handle, dated to c.1300 BC, was also found in Tomb RR.
Four of these bird-headed ceramic figurines, created in the local area c.1350 BC, were found in Tomb RR.

Five figurines were found in Tomb RR: one Minoan example that is partly preserved, and four that were locally produced and still intact. The latter depict females of different sizes and postures, all of which possess the same bird-shaped heads with beaked noses, large ears with two piercings on either side, and marked breasts. Two of them rest their hands on their belly, the third holds a bird-faced baby in her right arm, and the fourth raises her arms shoulder-high in front of her, perhaps once holding a child that is no longer preserved. No doubt, these figurines allude to fertility and maternity. Among other finds are rings and bracelets, hundreds of beads – mainly made of carnelian, faience, and various metals – and a bronze knife with an ivory handle. Additional objects of ivory, most likely from elephants, include a comb, several spindle whorls, and two distaffs that were used for spinning. The raw material was imported from Egypt or Nubia, but the artefacts might have been carved in the Levant.

Other important finds from Tomb RR are four Egyptian faience scarabs and five seals, including examples of both the cylinder and stamp varieties. Some of the seals were locally produced and others imported from Syria and Mesopotamia. Most interesting is an Old Babylonian cylinder seal made of haematite and depicting a king, a deity, and a three-row cuneiform inscription mentioning the king and his father’s names, and the god Amurru. The seal can be dated to the beginning of the 18th century BC. It was later recarved, most likely in the Levant, with added motifs of mythical creatures, before being deposited in the tomb. By then, the seal was 400 years old and almost 2,000km from its point of origin.

This bronze knife with an ivory handle, dated to c.1300 BC, was also found in Tomb RR.

Tomb SS was noteworthy for the hundreds of ceramic containers that covered the 11 burials within. In addition to fine tablewares, the tomb contained two cult vessels. The first, of Cypriot origin, is a painted hollow ceramic figurine – a so-called ‘rhyton’ – of a bovine. The term ‘rhyton’ implies that fluids could be poured into the bovine through an opening on its back and then poured out via its open muzzle. A second rhyton was imported from the Aegean. This large, unique vessel had a basket handle. In addition to elaborate painted patterns, the object is decorated with three ‘wheel-like’ applications and a model ram’s head.

All told, then, the finds from these two tombs reflect the extensive trade networks available to the prosperous inhabitants of Hala Sultan Tekke, underlining the importance of Cyprus as a centre for trade with copper and purple-dyed textiles in the second half of the 2nd millennium BC.

P M Fischer (2019) ‘Hala Sultan Tekke, Cyprus: a Late Bronze Age trade metropolis’, Near Eastern Archaeology (
P M Fischer and T Bürge (2017) ‘Tombs and Offering Pits at the Late Bronze Age Metropolis of Hala Sultan Tekke, Cyprus’, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (
ALL images: Peter M Fischer and Teresa Bürge.