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But northern sites such as Akanthou
remain rare, and mostly outside current
archaeological efforts. The Department
of Antiquities in the south forbids excavation in the north, and condemns journals
or meetings that present research on northern sites. Few publications have been willing to risk censure. “The north [of Cyprus]
has been in a vacuum for the last 40 years
because of the unfortunate political situation,” says archaeologist Alan Simmons of
the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who
has excavated sites similar to Akanthou in
Şevketoğlu is among the few archaeologists to defy the Republic of Cyprus. For
2 decades Şevketoğlu, who is affiliated with
Cyprus International University in Nicosia,
has been digging here, surveying around
it, and campaigning to protect it and other
northern sites from development.
“She’s defined and helped to save much
of the prehistoric archaeology of north
Cyprus from destruction by development and agricultural damage, and she’s
faced a great deal of criticism and ignorance for doing so,” says Ian Hanson, an
archaeologist at Bournemouth University in
the United Kingdom who has worked with
Şevketoğlu at here. Her efforts to protect
sites have even occasionally put her at
odds with the Turkish-Cypriot authorities,
who often lack the resources and expertise
needed to safeguard archaeological sites.
The most recent peace talks between the
north and south collapsed this summer, and
the political stalemate is likely to continue.
But Şevketoğlu and some other frustrated
archaeologists still hope to find ways to
jump-start work in the north. “How long
can archaeological sites wait?” she asks.
“We need to find a way of working this out.”
AS SPRING ENDS AT AKANTHOU, it’s easy
to see why some of the earliest visitors to
the island tied up their boats and dropped
their sacks here. The landscape overflows
with abundance. Wild artichokes send
flashes of purple through the high grass.
Partridges stamp their prints into the dirt.
In the north, limestone cliffs flank secluded
harbors. On a clear day, the hills of
Turkey cling to the horizon. And yet for years,
archaeologists thought that people didn’t
arrive here until after farming and settled
life had fully developed on the mainland.
Back in the 1970s, when Şevketoğlu was a
child in northern Cyprus, the earliest known
settlement on the island was the UNESCO
World Heritage Site of Khirokitia, in the
south, which dates back 9000 years. Today,
other sites in the south show that people first
visited Cyprus at least 3000 years earlier.
At Aetokremnos, a cache of burned dwarf
hippo bones suggests seafaring hunters voy-
aged to the island as early as 12,500 years
ago and may have helped kill off the island’s
native “mini-megafauna,” including dwarf
elephants. Later sites such as Shillourokam-
bos, a 10,400-year-old farming settlement
famous for its burial of the world’s oldest
pet cat, are contemporary with agricultural
sites in Anatolia, and even earlier than some
on the eastern Mediterranean mainland.
“Groups of people were deliberately
stocking the island with cereals—as early
as anyone was cultivating cereals on the
mainland—and [with] animals, such as wild
boar, cats, fallow deer, as well as sheep, goat,
and cattle,” says Trevor Watkins, a professor
emeritus of archaeology at the University of
Edinburgh who advised Şevketoğlu when
she did her Ph.D. work there.
“The Neolithic on the island is now as
early as the mainland,” Simmons says. “That
means that these guys were going back and
forth all the time.” Their seafaring prowess
opens the possibility that farmers spread
into Europe by sea as well as by land, an
idea bolstered recently by DNA studies.
Where did these early sailors land? Akanthou may hold one answer. Radiocarbon
dates from the site show it is at least 10,200
years old, perhaps one of the oldest settlements on Cyprus. And Şevketoğlu’s findings
suggest it had far-flung connections.
As she walks through the high grass near
Akanthou’s coastline, wielding a stick to ward
off vipers, she points out the former chicken
farm where, in the late 1990s, she found arti-
facts in churned-up agricultural waste. Since
then her rescue excavations have revealed
mudbrick and stone houses decorated with
red, black, and brown plaster. Animal bones
indicate the people living here herded sheep,
goats, and cattle, and also hunted deer. Ten
intact turtle remains, lacking any marks of
butchery, could shed light on ritual life.
Şevketoğlu has also uncovered abundant
clues to ancient trade networks, including
shiny obsidian tools and pendants made
of the pale-green mineral picrolite. The
jewelry suggests links to central and southern Cyprus, where picrolite occurs. And
some artifacts are reminiscent of those at
Shillourokambos, indicating connections to
that early Neolithic settlement.
The 4000 obsidian artifacts— 10 times
more than any other Neolithic site on
the island—also point to a more distant
connection. Through chemical and stylistic
analysis, Şevketoğlu linked the blades to
a specific workshop site on the mainland:
Kömürcü-Kaletepe in Cappadocia in Turkey.
Akanthou may have been the gateway for
these Anatolian tools to be traded throughout Cyprus, Şevketoğlu says. She now hopes
to extract ancient DNA from the newly discovered skeleton, which might reveal the
origins of these early Cypriots.
THANKS TO TODAY’S POLITICS, Şevketoğlu
has managed to publish only some of her
results. (She did publish a book version of
her dissertation in 2000, and, in what she
describes as a “fluke,” a 2015 journal article
on excavation results from Akanthou.) The
south’s Department of Antiquities, resisting
any trend toward normalizing what it considers an invasion, won’t approve northern
excavations unless they are “strictly required
Archaeologist Müge Şevketoğlu created a replica of
a 10,000-year-old roundhouse in northern Cyprus.
12,500 B. P.
10,800 B. P.
10,200 B. P.
~8000 B. P.
10,600 B. P.
U. N. bufer zone
Modern politics split an ancient island
The oldest dates for archaeological sites show that some of the world’s
first farmers once traded tools and artifacts across Cyprus more
than 10,000 years before present (B. P.). But since 1974, a political rift
has limited archaeological exploration in northern Cyprus.
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