Aphrodite’s Island: Australian Archaeologists in Cyprus

Last week saw the opening of Aphrodite’s Island: Australian Archaeologists in Cyprus – a free exhibition at the University of Sydney’s Nicholson Museum, which explores the unlikely connection between Cyprus, Australia and the Greek goddess of love.

The exhibition is curated by Dr Craig Barker, Manager of Public Programs at the University of Sydney, and features items from the Nicholson’s collection of more than 1,500 Cypriot artefacts – the largest in Australia and one of the most significant outside of Cyprus.

Cyrpus was the site of the first Australian-led international archaeological digs, and Australians have continued to research there for more than 80 years, making Cyprus hugely significant for our understanding of Mediterranean history and for the trajectory of Australian archaeology.

Of Cyprus’ unexpected archaeological significance, Barker explains: “Given its location at the crossroads of three continents – Europe, Asia and Africa – Cyprus’ geographical position has given it unique cultural wealth. The military, social, cultural and political influence of all of the major Mediterranean powers can be seen in Cypriot archaeology, including the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Assyrian and Persian Empires, and the Greek, Roman and Byzantine empires.”

Aphrodite’s Island coincides with the fiftieth anniversary of the death of James Stewart, who conducted Australia’s first international archaeological dig in Cyprus in 1937. A passionate advocate of Cypriot archaeology, Stewart was a curator of the Nicholson Museum and the University’s first professor in Middle-Eastern archaeology. Many of the items in Aphrodite’s Island, which include amphorae, figurines, coins and other ancient artefacts, are from Stewart’s own excavations and collection.

“Stewart’s influence lives on not only at the University of Sydney, but in archaeology in Australia, Cyprus, and internationally. Ahead of many archaeologists of his time, he believed antiquities museums should be not just collections, but places of learning and hands-on experience,” says Dr Barker.

The University of Sydney’s strong connection with Cypriot archaeology continues to this day – Dr Barker now leads a team of archaeologists, students and interested members of the public as they excavate a theatre in the Hellenistic-Roman period city of Nea Paphos, which has become a training ground for a new generation of archaeologists.

The exhibition is presented by the Nicholson Museum and the High Commission of the Republic of Cyprus, with the support of major exhibition sponsor the Beirut Hellenic Bank.

Nicholson Museum, University of Sydney
Until December 2013

Image: Bichrome III Ware duck-shaped askos, Cypro-Geometric III (c. 850-750 BC), NM 47.32
Cyprus lies on major bird migration routes between Africa and Europe. Hundreds of species of birds fly over the island annually, and birds were a popular motif in Iron Age ceramic design