PAPHOS (Chypre) - House expected to reveal hidden secrets of an ancient city


House expected to reveal hidden secrets of an ancient city

Bejay Browne

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WHAT is believed to be the most ancient house in Paphos has been uncovered amid excavations to discover the extent of walls of the ancient city of Nea Paphos.

For Dr Claire Balandier, the head of the French archaeological team which uncovered the house, complete with wall paintings, last year’s find was one of her most exciting during 20 years of excavating in Cyprus.

She believes the house is probably the oldest known of in Paphos, along with the first phases of the houses of Theseus and Dionysos, which date to the beginning of the Hellenistic period (fourth century BC). But, she pointed out that the latter two are underneath much later Roman houses.

“The importance of our discovery is that the house is on Fabrika hill.

This hill, which is the highest point of Paphos, must have been important in the urbanism of Nea Paphos,” Balandier told the Sunday Mail in an interview.

Balandier said that little is known about the hill, situated north of the harbour area and close to the Tomb of the Kings, apart from its Hellenistic theatre on its southern slope, which was excavated for 15 years by an Australian expedition. Balandier added that Fabrika hill was initially a necropolis, around the time of the foundation of the city at the end of the fourth century BC.

“I think this was then quickly abandoned, and the tombs then used for quarrying activities in the Hellenistic period.” The expedition leader said that the house was built at the bottom of an abandoned quarry with the area north of the hill becoming a residential area a few decades after the city had been established.

The French Archaeological Expedition began excavating in Paphos in 2008 and, as work began, they found a terraced wall of ashlar, or dressed stone blocks north of Fabrika hill.

They have since excavated that wall for more than 40 metres north and south. Balandier said that this wall, which was built at the very end of the first century BC, was an important find in helping to understand the ancient topography of the area.

“It was as we were looking for a possible return of this wall to the east that we found the back wall of the house,” she said.

In front of the terraced wall was an area of wild undergrowth and rubbish, which needed to be cleared.

“I had asked the municipality of Paphos for help to remove it during the summer. We then found another wall, three metres to the north of the previous one, which had some wall paintings on it.”

The exciting discovery meant that Balandier had to return to Cyprus in November, long after the season’s dig had ended, to ensure the frescoes were properly preserved before the rains arrived.

She said that two different kinds of wall paintings, which are both frescoes - made on quicklime and not on plaster - were found in the rooms around the house. Some walls were decorated with simple paintings, which consisted of a white background with red crossed lines.

“We still have to study the stratigraphy, but it seems that these paintings belonged to a phase of the house which is older, so the house could date to the third century BC. Indeed, it appears that the southern room had been blocked up after the back wall had partly fallen,” she said.

“In the courtyard, however, the wall paintings are much more colourful. The colours used are red, purple, and yellow panels with green frames,” she said.

“It is only the beginning of our study, but these drawings look very much like the so-called first Pompeian style, so they should date from the second century BC. But a non-expert hand has made them.”

According to Balandier the paintings are very similar, but better preserved, to wall paintings in houses found by a Polish expedition to the nearby Maloutena area in the 1980s.

Balandier believes that Fabrika hill became a residential area with terraces, with the upper part in the south and the lower one to the north and that this discovery has an important bearing on understanding the extent of the ancient city.

During the Hellenistic period, the residential area was usually always inside the city wall and the presence of a Hellenistic house on the northern part of Fabrika, close to the existing Agioi Arnagyroi avenue, could mean that the city wall is further to the north.

“So, the city was probably larger than supposed by scholars, and as I also thought until recently,” she said.

The discovery of the courtyard decorated by wall painting and surrounded by three or four rooms was significant for other reasons too.

“We have started to excavate two of the rooms, whose walls are preserved to three metres in height, which is very rare on the island, where ancient buildings have been destroyed and stones reused through the centuries.”

The archaeologist believes that the house, at least the back room, seems to have been abandoned before the first century AD, according to the material which now fills it.

The discovery of the house is one of the most exciting in a career that includes being part of the team that uncovered the northern city gate of Amathus in 1992.

“IT was a fantastic experience, especially when the wall paintings appeared in front of us. It was something very special and does not happen very often in the life of an archaeologist,” she said.

Balandier is certainly well qualified to lead the team working at Fabrika hill. She studied History and Archaeology at the University of Aix-Marseille and then in Paris at the Sorbonne. She completed her PhD on the fortifications and defence of the territories of Cyprus and she is currently the Maître de Conférences in Ancient Greek History and Archaeology at the University of Avignon, in France.

She has also undertaken a number of published studies from the city-wall of Apollonia in Albania, as well as in Georgia, to the defensive policies of the Achaemenid Persian and of the Ptolemies in Palestine. She is currently preparing the publication of her study of the ancient fortifications of Cyprus and will organise an international conference about ancient Paphos at the University of Avignon in 2012.

Balandier has led the French Archaeological Expedition in Paphos since 2008, and says she is grateful to the Department of Antiquities who granted them the permission to undertake their work. The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs finances the expedition.

“I proposed to the Department of Antiquities to work in Paphos, and when I asked permission to create the French Archaeological Expedition, Dr Pavlos Flourentzos, the then director of the Department of Antiquities, asked me to try to find where the city wall on Fabrika hill was.“

Balandier will return to Paphos next June when the excavation of the house will continue, and its walls will be resorted. “We hope that the house will be restored quickly and protected by a roof, in order to be presented to the public. But all the area of Fabrika hill has to be preserved.”

Balandier said there are still many antiquities to uncover and discover in Paphos.

“Many antiquities could still be found in Paphos. Unfortunately, despite the hard work of the different curators, evidence has disappeared under the tourist area,” she said.

“Sometimes it is important to remember that our identity and wealth is also our cultural heritage. To go on, any generation has to understand where it comes from.”