Hybridity in Cyprus

I’ve just managed a quick read of Bernard Knapp’s new book, Prehistoric and Protohistoric Cyprus.   He employs a whole range of different approaches in an effort to grasp the complexity of the Bronze Age and early Iron Age Cyprus.  In particular, he appeals to concepts of insularity and connectivity to frame the development of Bronze age culture on the island.

Of particular interest to me was his use of post-colonial theory, particularly the idea of hybridity to reposition discussion of cultural interaction on Cyprus.  Rather than relying on older, but still prevalent discussions of invasion, colonization, and acculturation, Knapp reads the complex material record of the Cypriot Bronze Age as the product of a hybrid society where Cypriot identity is continuously renegotiated against the backdrop of a wide range of influences.  This approach works well with his overarching emphasis on island archaeology in that Cyprus’ insular position, while clearly exposed to outside influences, offers a geographically delimited zone of interaction which has obvious, if only implicitly defined, cultural analogs.  More importantly, Knapp does a good job of tying the idea of hybridity to identity.  The hybrid confounds preconceived notions of cultural identity (both in the past and in our own academic discourse) in an effort to gain advantage, to subvert repressive cultural regimes, or to enable mobility between groups with divergent sets of cultural expectations.  (As an aside, it was curious that Knapp did not apply the concept of hybridity to the architecture of particular sites.  In his discussion of Pyla-Kokkinokremos he continued to appeal to rather functional interpretations of the site’s architecture and consequently its place within the Bronze Age settlement hierarchy on the island.  A hybrid interpretation might propose that the inhabitants of the Pyla-Kokkinokremos employed aspects of architecture — like the casemate design of the site’s outer wall — in ways that were quite distinct from their function, say, in a Near Eastern or Aegean context.  E.g. there are several “Mediterranean style” homes here in Grand Forks, North Dakota, that reflect neither the presence of a Mediterranean community in the town, nor some kind of functional advantage to Mediterranean architecture in the local environment.  Is it possible that the curious architectural choices at Pyla-Kokkinokremos are intended to distinguish the site and its inhabitants from other centers on the island?)

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Such an approach becomes more difficult in later periods, I think, but still holds remarkable potential.  By Late Roman times, for example, the island of Cyprus is part of a vast, multi-cultural empire.  Its position as an island astride busy sea lanes provides it with an exceptional level of connectivity (to use Horden and Purcell’s term) with surrounding regions.  Thus, identifying specifically “Cypriot” practices, becomes an exercise in recognizing explicit links between the communities on Cyprus and sources of power or authority both on the island and elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean.  In some contexts, like Early Christian architecture, the willingness to combine various features common to buildings in Asia Minor, the Levant, and the Aegean in different ways results in a bewildering array of church forms and types.  The diverse forms of Early Christian architecture presumably represent some part of the diversity of liturgical practice on the island and, as I have argued elsewhere, this variation while still incomprehensible to me, most likely provides insights into a whole range of aspects of Early Christian life ranging from the patronage of ecclesiastical architecture, to the existence of immigrant, heretical, or monastic groups, to the rivalry between episcopal sees both on the island and elsewhere in the region.

At the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project, we have considered the productive tension between hybridity and connectivity in the ceramic assemblage produced by our coastal site.  The similarities and differences between the material present at our site and on contemporary site’s elsewhere in the region could well represent the efforts of individuals at our site to negotiate a distinct cultural identity.  The particular assemblage of Late Roman finewares at the site could reflect the effort of the inhabitants at Pyla-Koutsopetria to distinguish themselves from the inhabitants of surrounding communities.  Any similarities between the assemblages can be understood as both their similar place within the larger economic network of the Eastern Mediterranean as well as the need for present identity in a way that was broadly understandable in the region.  A hybrid reading of even subtle variations in such things as ceramic assemblages and architecture at even “mid sized” sites like Pyla-Koutsopetria and Pyla-Kokkinokremos enables us to understand these places as “locations of culture” and further undermine the essentialized, urban monopoly on cultural production proposed by earlier generations of scholars.

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