It is often that I am called to assist in the excavation of scattered skeletal remains from archaeological sites. A seasonal expertise in bioarchaeology is a necessity on the island of Cyprus where currently more than 50 foreign archaeological expeditions are active betwen the months of May and October. Although these projects are primarily non-bioarchaeological, there is an abundance of animal bone discovered every year that requires the attention of a bioarchaeologist. Amongst these however, human remains are regularly recovered. This has been puzzling archaeologists in Cyprus for quite some time and therefore such remains are rarely seen to be funerary per se, or yet to be determined.
For about 15 years, archaeologist Dr.Alan Simmons, who holds the rank Distinguished Professor, at the University of Las Vegas, Nevada (UNLV) was directing a project in the foothills of the Troodos Mountains in the Paphos region, tucked away from sight and definitely off the beaten track. The Neolithic site of Kretou Marottou-Ais Yiorkis dates to the Cypro-PrePottery Neolithic B (PPNB: 7500-7800 BC). Professor Simmon’s long-term investigations produced findings of extraordinary importance including large assemblages of tools, artefacts and animal bones, suggestive of this site probably being a seasonal settlement and of industrial than habitational use.
On these premises nobody expected the discovery of a complete and undisturbed skeleton to be found at Ais Yiorkis. However, always expect the unexpected. Until 2013, there were only limited indications as to the presence of human remains at the site. However, in 2013, a human cranium was exposed, and further excavation in 2014 showed that this was a complete human burial. What originally looked like it may have been another “unstratified” discovery of “discarded or disturbed” human bone in a pit could actually be one of the earliest human burials ever discovered in Cyprus. Cyprus is well-known for its archaeology of this period, but burials of such an apparent ancient date are rarely preserved due to the island’s highly acidic soil composition.
The skeleton was buried in a crouched position. Lying on his right side, the individual was placed within a grave-cut pit, dug into a larger earlier pit. Surrounded by numerous animal bones and chipped stone that apparently was not related to the burial, the body was found in-situ and undisturbed, therefore most likely reflecting the original funerary setting and burial practice.
Despite preservation concerns, initial analysis of the skeletal remains suggests an adult male of a robust built, typical of the sexual dimorphic physique of Neolithic populations from the eastern Mediterranean. No evidence of disease or trauma were observed. There were no artefacts that could be directly associated with this burial.
The site is now backfilled, but the materials recovered are undergoing analysis. Future plans for this skeleton include staple isotope analysis for diet and origin, including aDNA analysis. Diet analysis would help shed light to dietary habits and could help link with some of the species identified on the site. Biodistance analysis is extremely important as it could shed light to migration patterns between Cyprus and nearby regions during early colonisation periods in Neolithic times.
Both a confusing, yet an extraordinary find, the discovery of this skeleton could prove to be of significant value to Cypriot archaeology and potentially the one to contribute further to our understanding of the first permanent colonization of the Mediterranean islands.