New York.- By Vicki James Yiannias
In 1989, Joan Breton Connelly, Professor of Classics and Art History at New York University, heard about the work of Dr. Sophocles Hadjisavvas’ work on Yeronisos and looked at the material he had excavated from the island, which was by then held in the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia. “It knocked the socks off of me,” says Professor Connelly. “What impressed me was the narrow chronological range of the material—all very late Hellenistic—the richness and variety of the imported fine ware pottery, and the presence of ostraka, inscribed potsherds. The only Ptolemaic ostraka found in all of Cyprus, they point to the fact that something very specific and unique was happening on Yeronisos.”
Professor Connelly has been Director of the Yeronisos Island Expedition and Field School since 1990. Yeronisos, an island beyond an island—280 m. off the shores of western Cyprus (some 18 km. north of Paphos), uninhabited since the 14th or 15th century, and with no natural source for drinking water, is also a unique laboratory for employing a new sort of archaeology that follows guidelines for ecological and cultural preservation issues. Connelly and her team are currently preparing a book, The Island Beyond the Island: Eco-Archaeologies of Yeronisos Off Cyprus.
Professor Connelly, who has excavated on Cyprus at Kourion, Paphos, and Polis tis Chrysochou; in Greece at Nemea and Corinth; and in Kuwait at the Seleucid fortress on Failaka Island, established by the successors of Alexander the Great, digs only on Yeronisos at present (involving two months a year on the island), took time from this “full time job!” to tell the Greek News more about the project.
GN: Why is “Holy Island” the toponym of Yeronisos?
JBC: The toponym “Holy Island” is a very ancient one. Pliny speaks of an island called “Hiera,” near Paphos, and Strabo speaks of a place called “Hierocepis” nearby Paphos and Akamas….clearly it was known by this name by the 1st century A.D., probably based on the Apollo sanctuary that stood here in the 1st century B.C.
GN: Your finds on Yeronisos are impressively extensive, but our space is limited, so please tell us something about the Hellenistic period.
JBC: The Golden Age of Yeronisos was in the Hellenistic period, the time following the death of Alexander the Great when the Ptolemies of Egypt ruled Cyprus. By then the land bridge had fallen away and Yeronisos was an island. In the first century B.C., someone committed very substantial resources to initiate a vast building program. Construction was intense over a very short number of years, falling mostly between 50-30 B.C., during the reign of Cleopatra.
GN: I have read that you have found limestone amulets that point to ritual activity.
JBC: Yes, precisely the kind of stamp seal talismans shown worn by little boys on statues dedicated in Cypriot sanctuaries of Apollo….Especially fascinating is the fact that our amulets show iconography that derives directly from Alexandria in Egypt, the Ptolemaic Eagle, the Sun Disc, a portrait of a fat Ptolemaic ruler, each of these motifs can be matched in clay seal impressions found at the temple of Horus in distant Edfu in Egypt. This old Egyptian sanctuary was further adorned by Cleopatra who associated the birth of her son Caesarion, by Julius Caesar, with the birth, and rebirth of Horus, child of the gods Isis and Osiris. We cannot know with certainty whether Cleopatra herself founded our sanctuary on Yeronisos, but the opulence of its building, the amulets and charms evoking fertility and motherhood, and the preponderance of finds pointing to directly to Cleopatra and Caesarion suggests that this may be so.
Paphos held special importance for the father of the boy, Julius Caesar, since it was the birthplace of his ancestor, Venus. The association of the birthplace of Venus with the birth of the prince Caesarion would go a long way in solidifying the little Caesar’s claim as legitimate heir, not just to Egypt, but to Rome. By playing up the association with Paphos, the administration of Cleopatra would have made brilliant use of myth, allegory, and political propaganda in promoting the cause of Caesarion.
GN: What are some of the ecological guidelines for NYU excavations that were set up by the naturalist and island ecologist Peter P. Blanchard III of the Nature Conservancy of Mt. Desert Island, Maine, in
JBC: The guidelines include scheduling our dig seasons between nesting seasons; sequencing our dig seasons with study seasons, during which island flora can grow back; back-filling our trenches with earth; wearing “earth-tones”, camouflage type clothing; using buckets and equipment that are in earth tones only—green, brown, sky blue; building a temporary shelter and temporary landing each year, which is taken down when we leave. Not building anything permanent on the island; always having an ecologist on staff to monitor our impact on the island and to keep us alert to environmental concerns.
From the start of our work at Agios Georgios Peyeias, the team has picked up every piece of garbage or refuse that crosses our path. This has had an impact over twenty years, as those who see us doing this tend to follow suit. We have thus tried to keep the beaches and swimming areas of Agios Georgios relatively pristine.
Joan Breton Connelly is the author of “Portrait of a Priestess, Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece, and Votive sculpture of Hellenistic Cyprus, among other works.
PDF’s of publications on the project are on the Wikipedia page of Joan Breton Connelly and will be on the soon to be completed website www.Yeronisos.org.
How the public/Greek News readers can further the Yeronisos excavations:
Promote the project through news articles, documentary film, and television interviews.
Become Friends of Yeronisos, and enroll in the email list for Newsletters, events, etc. (send email address to Jason@Yeronisos.org.)
Donate much needed financial support (donations are fully tax deductible)
Donate gifts in kind: computers, cameras, vehicles, etc. Those living in Cyprus can help with local transportation, housing, and food.
Help sponsor a student’s participation in the project.
Members of the private sector can dig with the team on Yeronisos for a week in the “Exec-U-Dig” program for a donation of $10,000.
An outline of excavation activity on Yeronisos:
Dr. Sophocles Hadjisavvas undertook a 5-week excavation season in 1982, when a company called Ulysses Island Tourist Enterprises was seeking to develop Ulysses’ Palace a hotel-casino there.
The finds from Dr. Hadjisavvas’ brief season were enough to establish Yeronisos as a site of great importance for the Cultural Heritage of Cyprus. The Republic of Cyprus expropriated the island as an archaeological site protected under Cypriot law and plans for casino-building were halted. No work was carried out on the island from 1982-1990.
In 1989 Professor Connelly heard about Dr. Hadjisavvas’ work on Yeronisos, saw the material he had excavated (held by then in the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia) and knew instantly that Yeronisos was a site of unique character that called for further investigation.
She applied for the license to excavate Yeronisos on behalf of New York University and work there began in May 1990 with the visit to Yeronisos of John Brademas, then President of NYU. NYU has been working on Yeronisos—in survey, excavation, and study — from 1990-2010.