On a cold and rainy morning in January 1997, I received a phone call from Orthodoxos Liasides, the foreman of a maintenance crew working on the monumental tombs of Tamassos, 15 miles southwest of Nicosia. The men were insulating the tombs from the destructive effects of dampness in the soil, and they were digging a trench from which they would apply the protective coating.
“Mrs. Marina, you need to come to Tamassos. I think we have found two statues,” he said. “Stop work immediately,” I told him. “Just wait for us. We’ll be there soon.”
We arrived at the site by 10:30 a.m. The workmen had already covered the area with a plastic cloth to protect it from the rain. In the trench was the large head of a lion. Next to it was what appeared to be the back of an animal with a tail. This proved to be another lion, even bigger than the first, but broken into four parts.
The Tamassos tombs, dating to the late sixth century B.C., reflect the prosperity of the city, which once grew wealthy from nearby copper mines. The three tombs, of which two are extremely well preserved, were discovered in 1889 and 1894 by a colorful Prussian journalist-turned-archaeologist named Max Ohnefalsch-Richter. He arrived on the island in 1878, the year Cyprus passed from Ottoman to British rule. Within a year he had grown weary of reporting politics and pursued his new interest in archaeology, excavating in the area of ancient Kition.
Ten years later, Ohnefalsch-Richter directed a dig at Tamassos on behalf of the Berlin Royal Museums; there he uncovered the first of the sixth-century B.C. subterranean tombs. He returned to Tamassos in 1894, once again with imperial backing, and excavated a second well-preserved tomb 65 feet east of the first tomb. (The third tomb had been destroyed in the past by villagers in search of building material.)
After recovering the lions, we continued excavating. Only a few inches away, we discovered another large statue—this time a sphinx. All this in one day! We were so excited by the work that we didn’t feel the cold or the rain. Before we knew it, late afternoon had arrived, time for the workmen to go home. We left the site in the hands of the guard, Gregoris Ioannou, who stayed there all night.
That evening we arranged for a bulldozer to remove the pile of debris we had created so that we could continue the excavation. The three statues were transported to the Cyprus Museum in Nicosia. I remained at the site to continue digging.
There is a Greek expression: “The 037earth gives birth.” As we continued to excavate, it did indeed seem that the land was giving birth. I vividly remember workmen shouting, “Mrs. Marina, there’s another one on the way!”
The fourth statue to come to light was the head and, unfortunately, only the front part of a large lion. A fifth statue was also a lion. About 20 feet from one of the tombs was the final statue, another sphinx, identical to the first.
We continued the dig for another nine days in the hope of uncovering more statues, but all we found were some animal bones and pottery sherds.
All the statues are quite large. The lions vary from about 2 to 2.5 feet high and 2.5 to 4 feet long, and they are similarly carved (see photos of limestone lions). The first lion we excavated is recumbent, seemingly relaxed, with its head fully turned to its right toward the viewer. The left hind leg is tucked under the body so that the paw is visible above the right hind leg. The tail coils up over the creature’s right haunch. The sculptor even rendered bones beneath the flesh. The forepaws are crossed, left over right.
In contrast to the lion’s calm pose, its head is menacing, with a wide open mouth, a broad tongue and four long canine teeth, visibly larger than the other teeth. The open mouth and sharp canines suggest a creature ready to attack—surely suggesting that the lion is a kind of guardian figure. Here the realism of the body gives way to the symbolism of the head: This creature is an apotropaic figure, meant to scare away evil.
The lion’s whiskers are rendered as four incised lines that curve upward beneath its broad, flat nose. Its eyes are large and rounded, and the artist, with a touch of endearing naturalism, has chiseled tear ducts into the inner corners of the eyes. The lion’s small, rounded, erect ears protrude from its large triangular-shaped head. So determined was the sculptor to produce a realistic image that he even rendered the hair inside the lion’s ears as small rounded protrusions. The mane is shown by short parallel incisions, creating a sort of collar around the head. At the top of the head, these incisions form a decorative motif in the shape of a flower with open petals. The mane then continues down onto the back, chest and shoulders.
The lion also still has traces of its original painted decoration: red on the tongue, gums, ear, nostrils and body, and blue on the mane.
Another excavated Tamassos lion is the mirror image of the first one. This lion looks to its left toward the viewer, and its paws are crossed right over left. Both of these lions are meant to be seen only on one side; the back of the statues remain unworked. Clearly they were paired, perhaps at either side of a portal.
The bodies of the two sphinxes—which, like the lions, are mirror images of one 038another—are almost identical to those of the lions, with their tails coiling up over the haunch and their crossed forepaws. However, the sphinxes have wings and human heads. The large curving wings consist of two bands of incised feathers and a decorative band with spiral motifs.
The sphinxes’ human heads wear the royal double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt and the Egyptian nemes, or royal headdress. As with the lions, the heads are turned toward the viewer, one to the right and the other to the left. The eyes are large and almond-shaped. The mouth is closed and sculpted in a discreet smile, which is more clearly visible on one sphinx than on the other.
Like the lions, the sphinxes are not worked on the back and retain traces of their original painted decoration—blue and red on the wings, the nemes and the crown, and black on the eyes to render the iris.
In some ways, our lions and sphinxes are unique. This uniqueness stems principally, and paradoxically, from their syncretism; they are the product of a variety of different cultures. In this sense they are typical of Cyprus, which has for millennia been a crossroads of cultures, often creating an amalgamation all its own. That is what appears to have occurred here.
The iconography of lions in ancient art has been intensively studied.a Suffice it to say that as the “king of 039beasts,” the lion is often a symbol of strength, power, royalty, courage and sovereignty in the art of the eastern Mediterranean and Near East. Although lions never roamed Cyprus, native sculptors could easily find models in nearby lands. The Tamassos lions (and sphinxes), though made of Cypriot limestone and presumably sculpted by Cypriot artisans, reflect a mixture of influences: Syro-Hittite, Ionian, Phoenician and Egyptian.
The Tamassos sphinxes also show this multi-culturalism. We all know about Egyptian sphinxes, but there were also sphinxes in other countries, such as Greece, Syria and Phoenicia. In Egypt, guardian-sphinxes were placed in rows on either side of the main avenues leading to sanctuaries and palaces. Often we find sphinxes placed in pairs in front of entrances. Monumental Greek and Asian sphinxes usually guarded temples and tombs, but we also find smaller sphinxes sculpted in ivory or metal and incised on seals.
Like the lions, the sphinxes had an apotropaic character—they protected against evil. The combination of a sphinx’s theriomorphic (beast-shaped) and anthropomorphic aspects made it a symbol of supernatural power; it fused the intelligence and imagination of mankind with the speed and strength of beasts.
Clearly, the Tamassos lions and sphinxes were guardians of the tombs. They were probably placed in pairs at the entrances of the three monumental “royal” tombs of Tamassos, as suggested by the fact that their back sides were not worked (and therefore not visible).
In this respect, our figures are somewhat distinctive: When such lions or sphinxes appear in a funerary context, they tend to 059be found on sarcophagi or on top of funerary columns. The practice of placing a lion or sphinx on a tomb to guard the dead seems to have had its origins in Ionia, on Anatolia’s Aegean coast. The concept of guardian lions was imported into Cyprus probably via north Syria and Anatolia. The principal iconography of the Tamassos carvings, however, comes directly from Egypt, where the lion and the sphinx served as guardians of funerary monuments and sacred avenues of Egyptian temples. That the bodies of the sphinxes are so similar to those of the lions is further evidence of Egyptian influence, although this influence was combined with the influence of Egyptianizing Syro-Phoenician art.1
I leave the reader with some final mysteries: How did it happen that these lions and sphinxes were not exposed by Max Ohnefalsch-Richter at the end of the last century? Is it possible that he simply didn’t notice these large lions and sphinxes? Or did he see them and just leave them where they were, rather than taking them back to Germany, as he did with so many other finds? Did he have to rush back home for some reason? Unfortunately, I have no answers.
On a cold and rainy morning in January 1997, I received a phone call from Orthodoxos Liasides, the foreman of a maintenance crew working on the monumental tombs of Tamassos, 15 miles southwest of Nicosia. The men were insulating the tombs from the destructive effects of dampness in the soil, and they were digging a trench from which they would apply the protective coating. “Mrs. Marina, you need to come to Tamassos. I think we have found two statues,” he said. “Stop work immediately,” I told him. “Just wait for us. We’ll be there soon.” We arrived at the […]