After twenty years of excavations, archaeologists working in Cyprus have uncovered not only the oldest Classical age theatre on the Mediterranean island, but also significant infrastructure such as roads and colonnades in the surrounding urban area that was built by Romans. Nea Paphos was the capital city of Cyprus – where the ancients believed the goddess Aphrodite was born – during the Hellenistic and Roman period that extended from 300 B.C. to 400 A.D.
Aerial view of the amphitheatre at Nea Paphos
In addition, the team of Australian experts from the University of Sydney also succeeded in mapping the 8,500 seat theatre and the surrounding with pole photography and photogrammetric technology. Nearby sites include the Agora, Odeon, Roman villas with mosaic floors, and the Byzantine fortress known as "Saranda Kolones": Forty Columns. The columns of the ruined fortress, which was built in the 7th century A.D., are believed to have been repurposed from the Agora.
According to head archaeologist Craig Barker of the University of Sydney, “The work now is to position the theater within its ancient urban context.” The 3-D map his team developed has revealed massive granite columns found around the theater once lined two main roads during the Roman period. The first of these ran on a north-south axis from the harbor to the theater, while the second ran east-west and behind the theater. “The scale of the Roman trade in monumental architectural elements was massive. As the capital city of Cyprus at the time, it is not surprising Nea Paphos would be adorned with this architectural demonstration of Roman civic order,” said Barker in a statement.
Stone finial from the stage building at the amphitheatre
The Department of Antiquities of Cyprus advised in an official statement, "The Australian team has uncovered the oldest theatre in Cyprus: a structure that was used as a venue for performance and spectacle for over six and a half centuries, from c. 300 BC until its final destruction in the earthquakes of AD 365." The site is named among UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. It was central to the cult of the goddess Aphrodite.
Byzantine-era ceramic bowl of the type once exported to the Holy Land
The University of Sydney team has been excavating at Nea Paphos for two decades under the auspices of Cyprus’ Department of Antiquities. Using GPS mapping, the team recently recorded over 160 fragments of granite columns from finds across the urban area. The granite used for the columns was imported by Roman engineers from quarries in the Troas area in what is now northwestern Turkey. Troas is the region that encompasses ancient Troy, the city that figures in the Greek classics “The Iliad” and “The Odyessey.” The Romans counted themselves descendants of the Trojans who, when defeated by the Greeks fled to Italy and founded Rome. The granite used for the columns in Cyprus is believed to have been brought from Troas during the 2nd century AD where it was used to build the above-referenced colonnades along the main roads. The columns would have weighed several tons. Four of the surviving columns are more than 22 feet tall.
Stone building fragment from the Nea Paphos site, bearing a Greek inscription
The diggers from Australia will now turn their attention to the urban area around the theater, along with the roads and a water fountain known as a nymphaeum. “The work now is to position the theatre within its ancient urban context,” said Barker.
“The scale of the Roman trade in monumental architectural elements was massive,” said Barker. “As the capital city of Cyprus at the time, it is not surprising Nea Paphos would be adorned with this architectural demonstration of Roman civic order.” Even after the devastating earthquake of the 4th century, the area continued to have an influence in the region as evidenced by the considerable Medieval and post-medieval period finds uncovered there. It was also a major trading port at the time of the Crusades.
In Roman times, the theater district was central to life in Nea Paphos. Barker said that theater architecture was adapted over the centuries according to changing tastes.
While it was first rediscovered 20 years ago, the ancient theatre at Nea Paphos was recorded with pole photography and photogrammetric programs for the first time in September of this year. This technology assembled more than two thousand disparate individual high resolution photos with an accuracy of +/- 10mm. The technology used was able to create a correct 3D image of the ancient theatre and surrounding areas that will aid researchers to plan future excavations and understand the ancient urban environment.
An aerial view of the Nea Paphos site
Polish archaeologists have also contributed a great deal to understanding Nea Paphos, having begun excavating there in 1965. Poles have dug there uninterruptedly since then, aside from 1974 when Turkey invaded Cyprus. The country has been divided ever since the invasion, while Turkey occupies the eastern sector. Polish excavations contributed a great deal to understanding the site. It was proven, for example, that Nea Paphos was designed along the lines of the Hippodamian city planning system which imposed a grid-system, emulating other important cities of the Hellenistic period.
Carved Corinthian-style capital from one of the columns at the Nea Paphos site
The excavations also uncovered luxurious villas, such as the House of Theseus and the House of Aion, as well as the so-called Hellenistic House. In addition, other significant buildings were found besides impressive artifacts that demonstrated a high level of artistry at the ancient city. Archaeologists were able to show how important the city was in the economic, commercial and military world of the ancient eastern Mediterranean.
Coin bearing the likness of the Emperor Constantine on the obverse and a symbol of Rome on the reverse
A recent exhibition at the Cyprus Museum displayed artifacts uncovered after years of excavations, including coins, sculpture, figurines, and vessels. The highlight of the current exhibition is the armed Aphrodite (Hoplismene), which is unique to Cyprus.