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Cypriot site hints at early fertility rite.

Cypriot site hints at early fertility rite

For nearly 10 years archaeologists have been digging up remnants of Mosphilia, a settlement on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus dating to between 4000 B.C. and 2500 B.C. But their most exciting discovery came to light only recently. An exploratory trench has revealed an oblong, flat-bottomed pit containing fire-cracked and ochre-stained stones, stone tools, a triton shell, stacked pottery vessels and a group of 18 stone and pottery figurines.

Further investigation of the 5,000-year-old artifacts indicates they were used in a ritual ceremony that revolved around birth and fertility, project director Diane Bolger reported in Boston last week at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America. This is the earliest good evidence for ritual activity on Cyprus.

"These are significant and astonishing finds," says Bolger, of the University of Maryland at Baltimore. "A ceremony in which the objects were deliberately burned, broken and taken out of circulation apparently took place."

The location of the Mosphilia pit and the number of artifacts placed within it suggest the ceremony was a public occasion, Bolger adds.

Most of the stone and pottery figurines portray women. Some stand with folded or outstretched arms and others possess swollen bellies and sit on "birthing stools" used during the delivery of a child, Bolger notes. One figure, dubbed Bertha by the researchers, has a massive body and wide hips portraying pregnancy. Bertha's head and those of several other figurines were cleanly, and probably deliberately, broken off, Bolger asserts.

Another figurine includes a striking decoration, she adds. A child, rendered in red paint, emerges from between the broken legs of its mother.

Female figurines found at other archaeological sites on Cyprus are thought by some researchers to have been children's toys. However, Bolger argues, other objects in the Mosphilia pit suggest the 18 figurines played a role in a public ritual stressing fertility and childbirth.

For example, the researchers found the figurines in and around a large bowl whose shape resembles circular buildings of the Chalcolithic period, when copper was used in tool production. A swivel door opens on the side of the vessel, and inside are models of a rectangular hearth and radiating partitions. The artist was probably duplicating a similarly shaped building previously uncovered at Mosphilia, Bolger says. Ash in the pit and cracks on the outer surface of the building model indicate the vessel was intentionally burned before its burial.

Many prehistoric cultures produced building models, but these are usually found in human burials or with the general remains of a houshold. At Mosphilia, the model's placement in a pit with more than 50 other objects suggests the entire assemblage was part of an asyet poorly understood ritual activity, Bolger says.

Ethnographic records of later Cypriot cultures describe circular buildings with central hearths as birthing houses, she adds. The function of the Mosphilia structure on which the vessel is modeled is unclear. Painted decorations on its door are not traditional Chalcolithic designs, Bolger says.

The triton shell offers another sign of the ceremonial nature of the Mosphilia remains, she points out. These shells are found with ritual artifacts at other Mediterranean sites dating to the first and second millennium B.C.

Artifacts in the Mosphilia pit "may have been charms used during rituals of magic," Bolger suggests. Moreover, the figurines may have served several ceremonial functions. Detailed study of the figurines is now underway at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Unraveling the cultural meaning of the Mosphilia discovery is just one challenge facing investigators, Bolger contends. "We also need to consider why the social customs that led to ritual activities at this site were put to rest after the Chalcolithic period ended [around 2000 B.C.]."
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Title Annotation:Mosphilia
Author:Bower, B.
Publication:Science News
Date:Jan 6, 1990
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