The case for Cyprus; SAFE Interviews Dr. Pavlos Flourentzos, Director of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus

full text plus photographs:


In light of the recent decision to include ancient coins on the list of import restrictions, Jessica Dietzler conducted the following interview with Dr. Pavlos Flourentzos, Director of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus, about the significance of the decision and why it is important to safeguarding the cultural heritage of Cyprus.

The Government of Cyprus has ratified several international binding treaties in order to safeguard its cultural heritage. In 2002 (Federal Register Vol. 67; 139), the Governments of the United States and Cyprus entered into a bilateral agreement concerning Import Restrictions Imposed on Pre-Classical and Classical Archaeological Material Originating in Cyprus. As recently as July 16, 2007 (Federal Register Vol. 72; 134), the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was extended another five years and includes an amendment for the addition of ancient coins to the list of import restrictions.

It should be noted that the inclusion of coins on the list is the first of its kind in the history of bilateral agreements between the United States and a foreign government. The State Department’s decision has met with heated reactions. Some leaders of the coin dealer lobby believe that it heralds the eventual end of dealing and collecting activities. Recently, the American Coin Collector’s Guild (ACCG) has filed suit against the US State Department.

For those who are interested in learning more about why coins are important in the archaeological record, please see Coins and Archaeology and a recent SAFE feature article by Nathan Elkins.

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JD: Dr. Flourentzos, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to participate in this interview. The recent renewal of the MOU between the United States and Cyprus is a significant development for both countries. The inclusion of ancient coins figures prominently in the renewal, and has been the subject of intense debate. Clearly, coins occupy an important space in the corpus of scientific archaeological data. When scientifically excavated, they have the potential to help us reconstruct ancient political, economic and social environments. Why are Cypriot coins so important, to include them on the list of import restrictions? Is it because textual evidence regarding the island’s history is so rare, or are there other reasons?

PF: First of all, allow me to thank you warmly for the opportunity you are giving me to communicate with your readers. We deeply appreciate the decision of the Department of State to include ancient Cypriot coins in the MOU. This act shows sensitivity to the importance of preserving world cultural heritage, a principle highly esteemed by the international scientific community.

You have very rightly pointed out that coins are an essential part of the corpus of the archaeological data. Actually, there is no scientific reason to set coins apart from the rest of archaeological finds. And it is important to understand that there is no way of retrieving coins without destroying the stratigraphy of a site.

You would be surprised, but the truth is that coins are of much greater historical importance for Cyprus, than maybe other countries like Greece and Italy. The reason for this is that Cyprus lacks the abundance of rich ancient written sources other areas of the Mediterranean and the Near East enjoy. The plethora of texts of Classical Greece, for example, that have come down to us range from philosophy and science to everyday life problems. These are valuable sources for the history of this area. Cyprus is not that rich in such texts, so the Cypriot coins are especially important for the attempts of reconstructing the history of ancient Cyprus.

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JD: Critics of the recent agreement with Cyprus contend that there is no substantive proof of significant looting of coins on the island. Have ancient coins been looted from Cyprus to any significant degree?

PF: Only a few days ago (first half of October 2007) the police of the Republic of Cyprus in collaboration with the Department of Antiquities managed to arrest a group of five smugglers who had a significant number of Cypriot antiquities in their possession, including several dozens of coins. According to the testimony police managed to gather, two of the smugglers were foreigners and they were planning to export and sell the antiquities outside the island.

The Department of Antiquities has collaborated with the police in quite a few cases in arresting people with metal detectors in archaeological sites, excavating for coins. I am referring to just a few cases of the recent years.

JD: Can you cite any specific instances of ancient Cypriot coins being looted and smuggled out of the island?

PF: On June 2002 in Italy the police managed to arrest a civilian who illegally had in her possession a hoard of 149 silver coins of the ancient Cypriot kingdom of Amathus, a city- state of the southwestern coast of the island of Cyprus. The Italian government returned these coins to the Republic of Cyprus. This case helped also the Italian police to trace an enormous amount of Roman coins excavated unlawfully in Italy.

JD: The collecting of ancient coins is a very popular hobby; ancient coins are also incredibly valuable, monetarily, in the worldwide antiquities market. Some supporters of coin collecting have proposed “responsible” collecting. Do you think it might be possible for coin collectors to collect ancient coins “responsibly” without contributing to the irreversible and destructive process of looting?

PF: There is no way for non-professionals to excavate coins at a site without destroying the archaeological context and the stratigraphy of the site. In the Antiquities Law of the Republic of Cyprus there is a special article for the protection of the stratigraphy of every archaeological site. In contemporary archaeology the ultimate value is context and not any isolated artifact. Thus, destroying stratigraphy to retrieve a coin is equal to destroying archaeology.

I am afraid that arguments about “responsible” collecting are based on the nineteenth century—and thus completely out of date—tradition when it was thought that archaeology is a pleasant pastime that anyone could “enjoy”. In the decades that have elapsed, the gradual transformation of archaeology from a pastime to a science has proved the essential difference between looting and scientific excavation.

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JD: The UNESCO International Code of Ethics for Dealers in Cultural Property states in Article 1 that “Professional traders in cultural property will not import, export or transfer the ownership of this property when they have reasonable cause to believe it has been stolen, alienated, clandestinely excavated or illegally exported.” What if, let’s say, a dealer decides that there is no “reasonable cause” to believe a certain item is illegal. With all of the multilateral and bilateral ratified treaties in place to safeguard cultural heritage, should we still depend on the personal discretion of individual dealers, whose attentiveness may vary?

PF: Your remarks are of great importance. It is obvious that the international archaeological community in collaboration with political authorities should continue their efforts to create and enact multilateral and bilateral treaties so that the world’s cultural heritage is not left at the mercy of just anyone. In this sense, I would like to thank once again the Department of State which agreed that coins should be included in the MOU.

JD: Are dealers’ activities monitored? If not, should they be?

PF: In the Republic of Cyprus yes, the dealers´ activities are monitored. There is a special article in the Antiquities Law [see section 31.VII.26] about dealers. I should stress that during the last decades our policy is to grant no new license for antiquities dealing.

JD: Many coin dealers and collectors assert that they are the protagonists disseminating historical information to the public, claiming that the public needs to understand the importance of ancient history and artifacts through lively and colorful presentations that ‘narrow,’ ‘dead’ academics and archaeologists cannot provide. Another claim is that coin collectors offer the public the chance to experience ‘hands-on’ study of ancient history, a “cultural contribution” that museums cannot make. What is your opinion of this?

PF: It is true that there is a need for some museums to become more lively, more visitor-friendly. The “hands-on” learning method is part of the methodology of modern museology and it has been applied in many European museum programs. The dissemination of archaeological knowledge to the public is one of the main objectives of the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus and we try to do this with many ways and methods.   One should honestly admit that private collecting does not help bring historical information to a wide audience. Museums accessible to the general public are better at spreading historical and archaeological knowledge. So the real need is to transform museums to lively organizations. People who are really interested in contributing to the dissemination of knowledge could do this through support of museums.

I should add here that the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus, recognizing the need to monitor private antiquities collections, has granted the opportunity to collectors to declare their collections two times in the past, in 1973 and 1996. It should be stressed that the Cypriot Antiquities Law acknowledges possession but not ownership of antiquities.

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JD: What sorts of problems does the occupation of northern Cyprus in 1974 by the Turkish army pose for the Department of Antiquities? Has the Department been able to exercise its authority in the northern occupied territory?

PF: The northern part of the island is illegally occupied by the Turkish army since 1974. This occupation is illegal according to all UN resolutions. The occupied part is still part of the Republic of Cyprus. When the Republic of Cyprus was accepted as a member state of the European Union in 2004, the northern part of the island was considered to be still part of Cyprus. The so-called “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” is recognized only by Turkey, the invading and occupying force. The Republic of Cyprus is the only legal and internationally recognized entity on the island. Any archaeological action on the island should be under the authority of the Department of Antiquities of the Republic of Cyprus. As of 1974, the Department of Antiquities cannot exercise its authority towards the preservation and protection of the cultural heritage in the northern part of the island. As a result of these conditions, any archaeological activity or intervention on cultural heritage monuments in the occupied area is illegal.

JD: Enkomi, Salamis and Soloi are only a few of some of the most important sites on the island that have suffered damage due to destructive pillaging by looters. Are there any other sites (in the North or South) that are still in great danger?

PF: In the part of the island that is under the control of the Turkish military forces, Christian churches, which are ancient monuments have been destroyed or transformed into mosques or abandoned and neglected to collapse in ruins. Other holy sites have undergone a change of use and become military camps, storerooms, animal shelters etc.

JD: What types of preventative measures (conservation, salvage and rescue excavations or otherwise) are being taken, if any, by the occupying regime to safeguard the cultural heritage of the island? Does anyone monitor the programs (if any)?

PF: The first thing to note is that whatever act concerning antiquities takes place in any part of the island should have the permission and monitoring of the Director of the Department of Antiquities of the Republic of Cyprus. Otherwise this act is illegal.

Only recently, a Neolithic site on the Cape of St. Andreas, which had been excavated before 1974, was destroyed by the Turkish military during leveling operations in order to install a pair of flag posts for the flags of Turkey and the so called “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”. I think this incident is eloquent about the quality of the monitoring of cultural heritage, exercised by the authorities of the so-called ” Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” and the Turkish army.

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JD: What obstacles currently face the Republic as far as looting in the South is concerned?

PF: The greater danger for cultural heritage on the part of the island controlled by the Republic of Cyprus is the looting of tombs which takes place in remote rural areas. The recent incident I referred to above brought to our hands antiquities that had been looted in the rural areas of the southwestern part of the island.

JD: Does the pace of development and tourism on the island (both in the North and the South) present any challenges for the Department of Antiquities?

PF: Tourism in Cyprus poses of course the same problems and dangers for cultural heritage that all Mediterranean countries are facing. In this part of the world, the duty for protecting a rich archaeological heritage has to be balanced with a galloping development of tourism. The Antiquities Law is the main tool for the Department of Antiquities to implement a monitoring mechanism towards a viable development. We are trying to turn tourism to an ally, by highlighting how a sensible management of cultural heritage could result to a tourist product of higher quality. Towards this end, we are cooperating with the Cyprus Tourism Organization.The most recent product of this collaboration is the implementation of a cultural route about Aphrodite, which promotes the idea of cultural tourism. The Cyprus Tourism Organization included the improvement of the archaeological sites in its strategic plan for the next ten years.

JD: What, in your opinion, are the biggest problems currently facing academic archaeologists and scientists working in Cyprus?

PF: The most serious problem and obstacle against a healthy development of Cypriot archaeology is the occupation of the northern part of the island by the Turkish military forces. The archaeological investigation on the northern part of the island has been paused since 1974. The Department of Antiquities of the Republic of Cyprus right from its early days has kept an open policy towards foreign archaeological missions which wished to excavate on the island. After the invasion of 1974 the foreign missions which had been working on the north part of the island were forced to abandon their excavations. Many of them lost even their written archives and scientific notes. Since then, they have not been able to go back and resume their work because any archaeological work, on the occupied part of the island is illegal according to international law, treaties and scientific ethics. Greek Cypriot archaeologists cannot go and work in the north either. Turkish Cypriot archaeologists remain isolated from the international archaeological community for the same reasons.

JD: Are these problems also jeopardizing Cypriot cultural heritage? If so, how?

PF: The inability of the scientific community to intervene in the northern part of the island poses great dangers for the preservation of cultural heritage, especially nowadays that a galloping building development is taking place in the occupied northern part of the island.

JD: Besides the return of the Kanakaria Byzantine Mosaics, what are some of the other major repatriations that Cyprus has received (in general or recently)?

PF: We have managed to repatriate a considerable number of antiquities which had been illegally exported from the island, namely a part of the Chr. Hadjiprodromou collection. Part of it was looted and illegally exported from the island and found in auction houses in Europe. Moreover we succeeded to repatriate several Byzantine icons from Europe and USA.

JD: What are your hopes for the future of archaeology, either on the island or in general?

PF: My deepest hope is that the two communities of the island could soon reach a political agreement for the re-unification of the island. Cyprus is too small to be divided. The archaeologists who work on the history of this island know very well that the cultural history of the island has been one and the same for its inhabitants throughout the millennia. In our days, when Europe is tending to unite under one entity, it would be a historical anachronism to have two separate states in Cyprus. Cypriot archaeology would be a major victim of such a development.

JD: Dr. Flourentzos, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you on behalf of SAFE and the international community, for answering these questions.

PF: Please accept my sincere thanks for the opportunity you have given me.

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