Editorial Feature

Investigation of Ancient Topography of Skouriotissa Copper Mine in Cyprus

Recently, several studies have turned their focus toward the archaeological investigation of mining regions. Looking at Kassianidou, V. et al's paper published in the journal Antiquity, this article discusses the results of a project aimed at reconstructing the ancient industrial and cultural landscape of the Skouriotissa copper mine in Cyprus, which is the island’s last operating copper mine.

copper mine, ancient topography

A copper mine. Image Credit: Denis Zhitnik/Shutterstock.com

To date, the archaeology of mining mostly focused only on mine workings and the related technologies. However, the focus has widened in the past few decades.

The island has gained a long-established central place in metal extraction and production histories, but only very few articles report on the ancient mines of Cyprus. Such a lack of attention to mines in Cyprus is startling because the island was one of the most vital sources of copper during ancient times. Even today, it is regarded as one of the richest countries in copper by surface area.

Kassianidou, V. et al's study records the archaeology, history, and ancient environment of Skouriotissa, preserving a vital facet of Cypriot cultural heritage severely damaged by modern exploitation. The article reports on one aspect of the project: the study of the ancient mining topography of the region. This was performed with a combination of spatial data obtained from archival sources, recent fieldwork, and absolute dating. The dating specifically elucidates the pre-Byzantine history of the site.

The size of the disturbed area at Skouriotissa is calculated to be about 500 ha (see Figure 1) from high-resolution satellite images. Gaining insights into the pre-modern mining landscape and the topography of Skouriotissa requires the analysis of information recorded in historical accounts, maps, photographs, reports, and aerial photographs that pre-date the open-cast operations.

The modern open cast mine of Skouriotissa.

Figure 1. The modern open cast mine of Skouriotissa. Image Credit: V. Kassianidou, taken in 2014.

The richest and largest ore deposits in Cyprus are situated in the Solea Valley and mining district. The major mines in this region are Ambelikou, Mavrovouni, Skouriotissa, and Apliki (see Figure 2).

Map of Cyprus showing the Pillow Lava geological formation (where copper ore deposits are found), the location of the ancient slag heaps (triangles indicating size) and, inset, the area of the Solea mines.

Figure 2. Map of Cyprus showing the Pillow Lava geological formation (where copper ore deposits are found), the location of the ancient slag heaps (triangles indicating size) and, inset, the area of the Solea mines. Image Credit: Map by A. Agapiou using digital geological data provided by the Cyprus Geological Survey.

Methodology

The copper ore deposits of Cyprus were largely untouched since ancient times and were of great interest to the British Empire. The Colonial Office commissioned a report in 1921 about the island’s cupriferous deposits. This report offers valuable information on the location of ancient mines and slag heaps in the foothills of the Troodos Mountains. After a millennium’s gap, Skouriotissa was the only active mine on the island in the 1920s.

Modern exploitation at the Skouriotissa ore deposit led to the discovery of ancient galleries and adits. Well-preserved ladders, wooden supports, ropes, and even baskets were found. Radiocarbon dating of the well-preserved wooden supports indicates that mining at Skouriotissa dates back to the ninth century BC.

A previous article reported three hand-drawn plans indicating the location of ancient underground workings with respect to the outline of the Skouriotissa orebody. The key to facilitating georeferencing of these plans is to create accurate topographic maps of Skouriotissa. The topographic maps include the location of all earlier drill holes and buildings associated with the mining company.

These buildings served as geospatial control points to rectify an older map of the region with the most recent high-resolution aerial orthophotograph taken in 2014. Figure 3 illustrates the result of the georeferencing performed.

2014 aerial photograph with the location of mining adits and other places of interest indicated in Bruce and Cullis and Edge.

Figure 3. 2014 aerial photograph with the location of mining adits and other places of interest indicated in Bruce and Cullis and Edge. Image Credit: Figure by A. Agapiou; photograph courtesy of the Republic of Cyprus’ Department of Lands and Surveys.

The slag heaps, dumps, and ancient adits—including the pottery assemblage (labeled as “ancient bottle (pottery) dump” on Figure 4)—and several other remains such as stone walls and features that were still visible in the 1960s were recorded with great accuracy by a previous study.

All such spatial information has been georeferenced and manually digitized (see Figure 4). The precise location of 319 tombs—an entire necropolis—was also recorded by the previous study. This study georeferenced and superimposed the location of the tombs in the 2014 aerial photograph (see Figure 4).

Places of archaeological interest noted on Kortan’s map, overlaid on the 2014 aerial photograph of the area of Skouriotissa.

Figure 4. Places of archaeological interest noted on Kortan’s map, overlaid on the 2014 aerial photograph of the area of Skouriotissa. Image Credit: Figure by A. Agapiou; photograph courtesy of the Republic of Cyprus’ Department of Lands and Surveys.

The slag heaps are the most significant ancient anthropogenic landmarks in the Skouriotissa region (see Figures 5, 6, 7a, and 7b).

The Late Roman slag heap of Skouriotissa.

Figure 5. The Late Roman slag heap of Skouriotissa. Image Credit: Photograph by V. Kassianidou, taken in 2011.

Map of the Merra of Skouriotissa Monastery showing the two slag heaps in 1916.

Figure 6. Map of the Merra of Skouriotissa Monastery showing the two slag heaps in 1916. Image Credit: Courtesy of the State Archives of Cyprus; SA1/1036/1915.

(a) The Skouriotissa slag heap in 1929; (b–c) sports day at Skouriotissa, March 1929.

Figure 7. (a) The Skouriotissa slag heap in 1929; (b–c) sports day at Skouriotissa, March 1929. Image Credit: Photographs from the J.L. Bruce archive, courtesy of members of his family.

In the past two decades, the slag heap remains have been investigated systematically by two field projects that involved the authors of this study.

The two heaps can be clearly seen in a 1957 aerial photograph taken by the Department of Lands and Surveys (see Figure 8a). During that period, the mine was still running through underground galleries, and the topography of the region had not yet been modified much.

Open-cast mining advanced well by 1970, when another aerial photograph was captured, and large spoil heaps were created (see Figure 8b), completely covering the earlier (red) slag heap and considerably reducing the extent of the larger (black) slag heap.

The latest aerial photograph taken in 2014 by the Lands and Survey Department illustrates a totally modified industrial landscape, with the size of the larger (black) slag heap reduced considerably (see Figure 8c). The scale of destruction has been depicted by overlaying the slag heap outlines in 1950 and 1970 onto the 2014 photograph (see Figure 8d).

Collage of aerial photographs. The two slag heaps in (a) 1957; (b) 1970; (c) 2014; (d) combination of the outline of the slag heaps superimposed on the 2014 aerial photograph.

Figure 8. Collage of aerial photographs. The two slag heaps in (a) 1957; (b) 1970; (c) 2014; (d) combination of the outline of the slag heaps superimposed on the 2014 aerial photograph. Image Credit: Figure by A. Agapiou; 1957, 1970, and 2014 aerial photographs courtesy of the Republic of Cyprus’ Department of Lands and Surveys.

The main goal of this study is the absolute dating of the smelting activities and the slag heaps at Skouriotissa. A part of the road was removed using heavy equipment to reveal further lower levels. Photogrammetry was used to document the stratigraphy (see Figure 9).

Section of the slag heap recorded in 2016, indicating the location of the samples used for radiocarbon dating (the location of the section is shown in Figure 8).

Figure 9. Section of the slag heap recorded in 2016, indicating the location of the samples used for radiocarbon dating (the location of the section is shown in Figure 8). Image Credit: Figure by A. Agapiou & A. Georgiadou.

In one part of the section (shown in the lower part of Figure 9; see also Figure 10), six charcoal samples (two pinecone scales and four wood or wood charcoal) were obtained from several layers. The radiocarbon dating results of these samples provide calibrated calendar dates between 172 BC and AD 21 (at a probability of 95.4%, using OxCal v4.4.1 and IntCal20; see Figure 10).

The dating places the activity either in the decades immediately before the annexation of Cyprus by Rome (from the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt) in 58 BC, or in the early decades of Roman control.

Radiocarbon dates from the slag heap section in Figure 9 using OxCal v4.4.1 and IntCal20: (A) the six dates modeled as a uniform probability phase. Dates in brown are on wood/charcoal and are assumed to include some in-built age (OxCal Charcoal Outlier model applied). Dates in green are on shorter-lived samples (pine cone scales) (OxCal General Outlier model applied). Light-shaded distributions indicate the non-modeled calibrated probabilities; dark distributions indicate the modeled posterior densities. The 68.3% and 95.4% ranges are indicated; (B) the date estimate query from A; (C) an interval query for the phase in A.

Figure 10. Radiocarbon dates from the slag heap section in Figure 9 using OxCal v4.4.1 and IntCal20: (A) the six dates modeled as a uniform probability phase. Dates in brown are on wood/charcoal and are assumed to include some in-built age (OxCal Charcoal Outlier model applied). Dates in green are on shorter-lived samples (pine cone scales) (OxCal General Outlier model applied). Light-shaded distributions indicate the non-modeled calibrated probabilities; dark distributions indicate the modeled posterior densities. The 68.3% and 95.4% ranges are indicated; (B) the date estimate query from A; (C) an interval query for the phase in A. Image Credit: Figure by S. Manning.

Conclusion

An analysis of different archaeological, historical, and topographical data allowed the reconstruction of Skouriotissa. Georeferencing helped reconstruct the location of ancient mining galleries and adits rediscovered and then destroyed by modern mining operations. The study results indicate that ancient mining focused on the ore deposit of Phoukasa.

Absolute dating of a newly unraveled section of a red slag heap between Phoukasa and the Late Roman slag heap illustrates that extensive copper production occurred during the Late Hellenistic period or the Early Roman period.

However, the most extensive exploitation of this rich copper deposit was found to be in the Late Roman/Early Byzantine period. An analysis of the historical aerial photographs helped trace the actual extent of the slag heaps and perform dating of part of the earlier red slag heap.

The location of an ancient amphora dump and that of a previously unknown necropolis were also recorded. Both of these are likely to date to the Roman to Late Roman/Early Byzantine periods. The successful combination of ancient archaeological, topographical, and historical data will form a pilot for gaining insights into other mining regions of Cyprus and beyond.

Journal Reference:

Kassianidou, V., Agapiou A., Manning, S. W. (2021) Reconstructing an ancient mining landscape: a multidisciplinary approach to copper mining at Skouriotissa, Cyprus. Antiquity, 95(382), pp. 986–1004. Available at: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2021.33.

References and Further Reading

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  4. Bourgarit, D (2019) Mineralogy of slags: a key approach for our understanding of ancient copper smelting processes. EMU Notes in Mineralogy, 20, pp. 203–231. doi.org/10.1180/EMU-notes.20.5.
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