KHIROKITIA A place of mystery and intrigue
By Wendy Hughes
I don’t know about you, but I love finding a place of mystery and intrigue, and a visit to Khirokitia (sometimes spelt Choirokoitia), a magnificent Neolithic settlement situated on the foothills of the Troodos Mountains took my breath away. It not only revealed a place of habitation long before the light of ‘sophistication’ shone across the island of Cyprus, but through excavation has revealed a treasure trove of imposing remains within a settlement dating from around 5800 to 5500 BC. Situated about six kilometres from the south coast, it is bordered to the north and south-east by the Maroni River. Graded steps lead the visitor gently into the site and up to the top of the hill.
To appreciate its full beauty you should try to imagine how the landscape would have looked in the Neolithic period, ignoring the modern road below the site, and replacing the stony terraces with dense vegetation. From this vantage point the visitor can transport this image to the reconstructed round houses below, and imagine the people going about their daily tasks, farming crops, gathering fruit from the trees, tending to their sheep, pigs, deer and goats.
The site was first discovered in 1934 and excavated by Porphyrois Dikaios, then director of the Department of Antiquities. Further investigations were undertaken during the 1970s, but interrupted by the Turkish invasion.
It appears to have been a village cut off by a stone wall with several entry points. The houses are mostly staggered down the southern slope on both sides of a stone structure, uncovered for a distance of 185m and preserved to a height of 3.50 m. According to Dikaios this structure comprised of a central road along either side of which the village developed. However, recent excavations suggest that the settlement to the west of the ‘road’, was small compared with the large occupation to the east. It would appear that the centre of the settlement must have moved at some time, and the so-called ‘main road’ lost its central position. Excavations also prove that the houses to the west of the ‘road’ post date it. Who knows, perhaps due to an increase in population the settlement had to be extended beyond the perimeter wall and another wall built on the top of the hill? In 1981, more than 15 metres (49ft) of this wall became exposed, revealing a width of some 3m (9ft), and the reason for the wall are still unclear, but it seems the villagers would have taken full advantage of the natural protection offered by the river and the hill to protect them from the outside world. Such constructions would have taken a huge community effort and as no traces of violence or weapons have been discovered, we can assume the inhabitants lived a rather isolated peaceful life.
The houses, all circular in plan, vary in size, the largest having a diameter of about 10m, providing living space for between two to three people. Interestingly some are much smaller and may have only accommodated one person or used as a workshop. Organised activities such as grinding wheat or barley would have been performed outside the houses and it is possible that family units would have occupied several circular buildings grouped around a courtyard, with a door leading to the outside. Each of these huts had a specific function – one was probably used for living, and in some a kind of loft supported on stone pillars, whilst another has a hearth and was probably used to prepare food. The walls of the houses are made of stone or mud brick, with flat stone thresholds. Both sides of the walls were whitewashed, although sometimes the inner wall was painted with red ochre. The Cyprus museum in Nicosia exhibits a fine example of a painted wall. The floors of these houses were covered with a layer of plaster, which was periodically renewed, and in some up to ten layers were found. The dead were buried in a crouched position just under the floor, some with offerings, indicating a form of ancestor cult. The method of roofing is not clearly understood as there are no traces of postholes, and it is likely that the walls were the only means of support, but during recent excavations fragments of roofing containing branches may indicate that the roofs were made up of branches or reeds covered with mud.
The population of the village may not have exceeded 300 to 600 in all, and the people were short in stature, the average 1.61m (5ft 3) for men and 1.50m (4ft 11) for women, but most intriguing is the fact that their skulls were almost as wide as they were long, a feature exaggerated in many cases by artificial cranial deformations by binding a wooden board to the back of the head which flattened the back of the skull. It appears that infant mortality was very high and, on average men lived to the age of 35, and women 33.
An analysis of carbonised seed material taken from the site shows the settlement to be inhabited by farmers, who cultivated wheat and barley. The grain was harvested with flint sickles with wood or bone handles, but only the flint blades have survived. Fine stone bowls have also been found demonstrating a high degree of skill, and a keen artistic sense. All are made of igneous grey-green andesite, which was easily acquired from the banks of the river Maroni. Some of these fine objects can be admired in museums in Nicosia and Larnaca.
Meat from deer, sheep, goats and pigs was provided by hunting and stock breeding, but for some reason the inhabitants of Khirokitia neglected the sea as no hooks or remains of fish have been found on the site.
Nothing is known about the religion of these people as no shrines have been identified. Burial customs on the other hand, are well known. Regardless of sex or age the dead were usually buried inside the houses in a contracted position. They were placed in shallow pits and then covered with a layer of mud, which made up part of the floor. Sometimes ritually broken grave goods, such as stone vessels or jewellery, accompanied the dead and in some cases a large stone, such as a quern, was placed over the deceased. Who knows? Perhaps this was to prevent the spirit from returning to haunt the living?