Archaeology in the Smallest Realm: Micro Analyses and Methods for the Reconstruction of Early Societies on Cyprus

Marialucia Amadio, ed., Archaeology in the Smallest Realm: Micro Analyses and Methods for the Reconstruction of Early Societies on Cyprus (Rome: Artemide Edizioni, 2021). 9788875753795.

Reviewed by Christine L. Johnston, Western Washington University,

This slim volume (166 pp.) presents ten studies of archaeological microanalysis, focusing in particular on the enhanced benefits of integrating macro- and micro-scale archaeological approaches to the study of early Cyprus. Originally intended as an in-person workshop before the coronavirus pandemic, the authors elected to publish this collection of short papers to present an overview of innovative “high resolution” archaeological methods employed in ongoing research in Cypriot archaeology. The diversity of scientific methods and analytical techniques applied to archaeological material and research questions reflects the growth in archaeometric research in Cyprus in the past few decades. Though scientific methods have a longer history of use in provenience and dating studies (discussed in chapter 1), the application of microanalytical techniques to broader social and environmental questions are highlighted in the research presented here. This growth reflects both the ongoing support of archaeological scientific study by the Cyprus Department of Antiquities, and the important contributions of the Archaeological Research Unit at the University of Cyprus and the Science and Technology in Archaeology and Culture Research Center (STARC) at the Cyprus Institute,[1] with which many of the volume contributors have been or are currently affiliated.

There is some variability in chapter content, as two (chapters 5 and 6) present projects that are currently incomplete, with data collected but not yet analyzed. These studies, presumably delayed due to the pandemic, present methodological overviews of the ongoing work. Other chapters provide syntheses of existing research (e.g., chapters 7, 8, 9), rather than presenting the results of new analyses. Though these chapters do not present new research, they do contribute to one of the stated goals of the volume, which is to demonstrate “the crucial importance of creating a synergic dialogue among disciplines, between different methodologies and techniques in order to fully comprehend possible limitations and expand the potential of archaeology” (Amadio, p. 9). The integrated approaches advocated for throughout the volume succeed in demonstrating the complementary nature of macro- and micro-scale analyses in addressing all types of archaeological and anthropological questions, from technology transfer to socio-economic organization to human migration and subsistence.

The first half of the volume (chapters 2–6) focuses on micromorphological studies of soil, plaster flooring, and surface finds in order to examine building construction and space-use in prehistoric Cyprus. This corresponds to the first stated goal of the volume, which is to demonstrate “the importance of the context not only as a ‘container’ of data but as evidence of analysis itself” (Amadio, p. 9). A variety of mineralogical and geochemical methods and techniques are used, reflecting the variety of analytical possibilities available in the field of micromorphology.

Chapter 2 presents a new method of micromorphological analysis, which is used to examine activity residues in communal building St10 at Ayios Tychonas-Klimonas, a pre-pottery Neolithic A site in the Limassol district of southern Cyprus. Thin sections taken from horizontal and vertical samples of the structure’s four phases were analyzed by Linear Discriminant Analysis (LDA) using both semi-quantitative and inclusion counting methods. Four categories of inclusions were examined: bones, shells, phosphate granules, and chert. The goal of the study is to test a new inclusion counting method, while—more broadly—examining the social and economic activities undertaken in this communal building. Although the intensity of activity varied between building phases, three phases (1, 3, and 4) are characterized by correspondingly high levels of bones, phosphate granules, and shells, indicating food preparation and consumption activities such as animal processing. Phase 2 differs, with primarily bone inclusions. Differences in activities across areas within the building are also identified for phase 3 through refined spatial analysis. The LDA and inclusion counting methods yielded similar results, providing preliminary support for the efficacy of the new inclusion counting protocol. As noted by the authors, further work is necessary to expand the small dataset and confirm the value of this new technique.

Chapter 3 focuses more directly on the composition of building floors rather than surface activities. This study examines fifteen buildings from the Chalcolithic settlement at Chlorokas-Palloures, including both conventional round structures (Buildings 6, 7, 10, 11; Building 11 is monumental in size), as well as more unusual buildings, including the stone-built Building 12 and dug-in Building 13. Floor samples were taken from the seven buildings that yielded clearly recognizable floor strata. Thin-sections of these floor samples were categorized based on composition, texture, and microstructure in order to identify different construction techniques and distinguish between layers acting as floor surface, base, and fill. Shifts in building use are also identified through this analysis. For example, the thick lime floor of the first phase of Building 1 is followed by massive and platy compact floor layers, representing later habitation. This progression from a primary lime layer to subsequent compacted-soil flooring of Building 1 is the reverse of the change seen in Building 12, which has an initial compacted floor followed by lime layers. Klinkenberg concludes that the variation in floor layers used in superposition may signify shifts in building function during the life of these structures, some of which also appear to have had periods of disuse as indicated by deposits of soil and sand between floors (e.g., Buildings 1, 12, and 13). This study demonstrates the value of high-precision micromorphological methods for understanding long-term processes of building use and abandonment.

A similar topic serves as the focus of chapter 4. Written by the volume editor, this chapter examines plaster floor sequences at Middle Bronze Age Erimi-Laonin tou Porakou through micromorphological and spectroscopic analyses. The goals of this study are to assess change and continuity in plaster floor production techniques and to examine the impact of human and environmental forces on long-term spatial use. The plaster floor samples were analyzed using Fourier-transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FRIT) to assess the atomic order or disorder of the calcite, which indicates whether the calcite-based plasters were geogenic (naturally occurring plasters of mud or pulverized limestone/chalk and water) or pyrogenic (those created through the processes of heating, slaking, and aging). The results indicate a high degree of technical expertise and craft-specialization in the preparation of floor plaster at the site. Amadio concludes that the task organization required for production suggests that plaster manufacture may be an important reflection of supra-household production in the Middle Bronze Age. The integration of micromorphological and spectroscopic methods here presents a highly refined and promising approach for the study of technological and socio-economic activities.

Chapters 5 and 6 similarly employ micromorphological methods, but do not present final results as analysis is still ongoing. Chapter 5 examines three sites in the Kalavasos-Maroni area of southern Cyprus, each with different research goals. At Kalavasos-Ayios Dhimitrios, micro-scale analytical methods are used to examine urban space and manufacturing in conjunction with macro-scale activities such as terracing and damming in order to understand landscape use and socio-environmental interactions—especially water use. The goal is to turn a more focused lens on resiliency and short-term adaptation to environmental pressures at the site level. At nearby Maroni-Vournes, the project aims to address the socio-economic relationships between communities in the Maroni Valley. Samples were taken from around the large wall to the northwest of the main settlement (LC Wall 10) in order to identify construction and post-depositional processes. The final site under examination is the first-millennium BCE site of Kalavasos-Vounaritashi, which provides evidence for socio-environmental relationships and agropastoral practices following the abandonment of Late Cypriot centers in the Kalavasos and Maroni regions. Though the chapter outlines important goals, the small sample, with single structures or contexts sampled across three sites of different areas and periods, will make it challenging to extrapolate and assess potential variations in social and environmental processes (even with the proposed incorporation of additional environmental proxy data).

Chapter 6 presents an interesting study using micromorphological methods to investigate the earthquake-caused destruction of fourth century CE structures at Kourion along the south coast of Cyprus. Archaeoseismology, the study of seismic activity in archaeology, usually centers on evidence of building damage or collapse, which is limited in its dependence on proximity to geological fault lines and its potential confusion with other destructive factors (such as warfare). This ongoing project will incorporate soil micromorphology in order to identify seismically-triggered soft sediment deformation structures (SSDS), which are geological alterations and deformations caused by ground shaking and liquefaction and are common indicators of earthquakes. This promising research seeks to expand the methods available for studying the impact of seismic activity on both built structures and “human-geological environmental relationships” in antiquity.

The final five chapters shift to other avenues of archaeometric analysis, including material studies, bioarchaeology, and zooarchaeology. Chapter 7 surveys previous studies of surface wear and spatial distribution of stone tools at three pre-Pottery Neolithic sites: Ayios Tychonas-Klimonas, Parekklisia-Shillourokambos, and Khirokitia-Vouni. These sites represent different phases of the period and provide evidence for tool use and production as part of domestic crafting. Astruc has previously demonstrated, based on scratch tests, friction experiments, 3D imaging, and statistical analysis, that it is possible to distinguish the wear patterns on lithic tools based on their use. This can include the working of different stones (picrolite or diabase) or the use of different techniques (sawing, engraving, boring, picking, or abrading). The paper surveys the various insights provided by lithic studies into social and economic activities, though does not present new findings or substantial discussion of the analyses previously undertaken by the author.

Chapter 8 surveys existing geochemical and petrographic studies of Red Polished ceramics, the most prominent ware group of the Early and Middle Cypriot periods. The goal of the paper is to demonstrate the efficacy of multidisciplinary methods in ceramic analysis, and in particular emphasizes the need for dialogue between traditional and scientific study. As noted by Dikomitou Eliadou, an important prerequisite for microanalytical study is “a thorough understanding of the assemblage(s) to be sampled and a well-defined sampling strategy” (p. 110). This contribution to the volume is important in that it shows how microscale analyses are not only illuminating but are most effective when thoroughly embedded in the broader overall project design. To quote the author, “before embarking on an analytical trip to the microcosm of material characterisation, it is essential to have a well-documented and thorough grasp of the macrocosm, from where the sample has derived, and of what it is actually representative” (p. 111). This survey provides useful overviews of both the “macrocosm” and previous microanalytical work on Red Polished ceramics.

Chapter 9 overviews the state of the field in isotopic paleodietary research on Cyprus, including a summary of previous work on Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Bronze Age faunal and human remains. Changes in collagen and enamel δ13C values for sheep and goat between Neolithic and Bronze Age contexts indicate changes in herding practices and land-use strategies, including the use of higher-altitude habitats for Bronze Age herds. The small sample of Neolithic and Chalcolithic Human δ13C and δ15N values supports previous archaeobotanical and archaeozoological research that indicated that people in these periods subsisted primarily on C3 terrestrial-based diets with little reliance on marine resources. The Late Bronze Age samples, by contrast, indicate the increasing importance of secondary livestock products following the reintroduction of cattle to Cyprus. As Scirè-Calabrisotto acknowledges, the small sample size (four individuals from three sites in the pre-Bronze Age, fourteen from three sites in the Bronze Age) limits the comparative regional and diachronic conclusions that can be made; however, future studies can continue to assess changing reliance on livestock products during the Bronze Age.

Chapter 10 presents preliminary results from a pilot study of three individuals from Erimi-Laonin tou Porakou using target-enrichment paleogenetic analysis. The goal is to examine gene flows in Cyprus during the Neolithic through the Bronze Age and their connection to migration and the adoption of agropastoral technologies. Sampling was conducted on both the dentine and cementum of teeth, yet of the three individuals studied, only one yielded a limited sequence of mitochondrial DNA, of which the content was not sufficient to perform phylogenetic analysis. The poor state of preservation of biological material is a well-noted issue on Cyprus due to environmental conditions, and the authors conclude by proposing an alternative methodological approach (single-stranded libraries) for future analysis.

The final chapter of the volume includes an overview of iconographic evidence for the potential presence of zebu cattle (Bos indicus) in Cyprus. Despite connections to mainland regions in which zebu cattle were present and through which they migrated, Cyprus has not generally been considered a home for this subspecies. Drawing on morphological distinctions between zebu and taurine cattle, including the zebu’s upright horns, prominent dewlap, and characteristic hump, Spyrou presents figurines and weights from the Late Bronze Age that seem to indicate that local craftspeople were familiar with the subspecies, and that zebu or zebu-hybrid cattle may even have been present on the island. Addressing this latter possibility will require future osteological and aDNA analyses, for which Spyrou advocates as part of addressing important questions relating to subsistence and socioeconomics. Most importantly, the connection between agropastoral practices—and the presence of zebu cattle more specifically—and climate change and aridification is emphasized. Spyrou concludes that “understanding the mechanisms of how heat and drought events affected the genetic structure and management practices for domestic livestock in the past is critical for the future” (p. 163).

Overall the contributions work fairly well as a cohesive volume, though some chapters provide more thorough discussion of methods than others. It would have benefitted the reader to include some resources in the frontmatter of the text, including a map indicating the sites referenced in the volume and a chronological table. It is unfortunate that the illustrations are not in colour, especially the photomicrographs of ceramics and micromorphological thin sections.

Despite the incomplete state of some projects, the volume provides an important contribution to Cypriot archaeology. The case studies effectively showcase the extensive possibilities of microanalytical methods, including discussion of the opportunities and limitations of different techniques. Each chapter represents an important contribution to its subfield and will be appreciated by material specialists and scholars working on prehistoric Cyprus. In addition, the volume presents a compelling introduction to microanalytical methods for students of archaeology and persuasively demonstrates the importance of micro-scale data and analysis as a complement to traditional archaeological research design.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Integrating Macro and Micro Data for the Analysis of Early Societies in Cyprus / Marialucia Amadio (7–14)
2. Exploring new Spatial Analysis Method for Earthen Buildings: A Combination of Statistical Analysis and Soil Micromorphology / Pantelitsa Mylona, Jean-Denis Vigne, and Julia Wattez (15–31)
3. Building Function through Micromorphology of Floors at Clorakas-Palloures, Cyprus / Victor Klinkenberg (32–49)
4. New Evidence on Plaster Manufacture at Middle Bronze Age Erimi / Marialucia Amadio (50–60)
5. Urbanism from the Ground Up: Investigating the Socio-Environmental Dynamics of Bronze Age and Iron Age Cyprus using Soil and Sediment Micromorphology / Rachel Kulick (61–80)
6. Applications of Soil Micromorphology to Archaeoseismology Investigations in Cyprus / Amanda Gaggioli (81–97)
7. Once Upon a Time in Micrometers…Tools, Activities, and Living Spaces during the Pre-pottery Neolithic in Cyprus / Laurence Astruc (98–109)
8. Getting Under the Slip: Technological and Compositions Studies of Red Polished Ware from Early and Middle Bronze Age Cyprus / Maria Dikomitou Eliadou (110–26)
9. Paleodietary Reconstructions through the Lens of Stable Carbon and Nitrogen Isotope Analysis: A Synthesis of Current and Recent Data from Prehistoric Cyprus / Caterina Scirè-Calabrisotto (127–39)
10. A Paleogenetic Study from Erimi-Laonin tou Porakou: Preliminary Results and Future Perspectives / Francesco Fontani and Elisabetta Cilli (140–53)
11. From South Asia to the Eastern Mediterranean: The Appearance of Zebu Cattle in the Iconography of Bronze Age Cyprus and Some Considerations for Future Research / Anna Spyrou (154–66)


[1] The Archaeological Research Unit (ARU) of the University of Cyprus was founded in 1991 and is a multidisciplinary program that incorporates humanistic and scientific approaches to Cypriot archaeology. The Science and Technology in Archaeology and Culture Research Center (STARC) at the Cyprus Institute, founded in 2009, is “devoted to the development, introduction and use of advanced science and technologies in the field of archaeology, cultural heritage and history of the region.”


1. One of the stated goals of the volume is to demonstrate the complementary nature of macro and micro analytical techniques and to advocate for integrated research design. As many of the chapters highlight, microanalytical methods often require collaboration with specialists trained in archaeological science. Since many of these techniques may fall outside of the expertise and experience of individual archaeologists, what suggestions would you give to researchers in developing their fieldwork program in order to preserve and collect data for microanalysis?

When approaching the analysis of an archaeological context, it is important to bear in mind that archaeology involves solving difficult problems that require the application of all possible sources of investigation to develop reconstruction based on solid data. Indeed, many analytical techniques that may be applied to an archaeological context fall outside the expertise of individual archaeologists. For this reason, I think it is extremely important to establish synergic dialogues with specialists in different discipline, in order to refine the research questions and consequently define the most appropriate methodological framework to be applied. Because every archaeological question starts in the field, it is important – when possible – to involve specialists in different disciplines in fieldwork activities. This would support a more effective sample collection, thus fostering the reliability and accuracy of laboratory analyses. When the specialists cannot participate in archaeological fieldwork, archaeologists should agree upon an appropriate sampling strategy with them that may be able to support the research questions. Equally important for archaeologists is establishing constructive discussions with the specialists in the post-processing of the data and during the interpretation of the results. Archaeological reconstruction should take into consideration all the data retrieved and analysed. When independent lines of evidence point to the same conclusions, then the real benefit of integrating all data is obtained, and the conclusions reached are well grounded (Weiner 2010: 2).

2. You note in chapter 1 the relatively slow adoption of science-based applications in archaeological fieldwork on Cyprus. One related theme touched on in a number of chapters was the challenge inherent in using certain archaeometric methods in Cyprus as a function of environmental and post-depositional conditions. Can you elaborate on what you view as some of the challenges of undertaking micro-archaeological analysis on Cyprus, and if possible, outline some of the ways that these challenges can be addressed?

There is a diffused misconception in archaeological studies and especially on prehistoric archaeology that if a certain context is not well preserved the chance to retrieve good data from integrated analytical approaches is more limited. However, as Karkanas and Goldberg (2018) and Goldberg and Macphail (2006) have pointed out there is no good or bad context because the stratigraphy always preserves the whole history of the site. Our ability to read the stratigraphy and take from it all the information needed is not connected to what the stratigraphic context actually records. The major limitation is based on the lack of understanding of the fundamental aspects of a deposit and the processes that bring it to its formation and transformation through time. In this vein, geoarchaeological approaches, including micromorphology, are valid integrative methods to couple stratigraphic observations conducted at the naked eye. The cultural-historical approach, which prevailed until recently in the studies of Cypriot archaeology, mostly focused attention on artefacts and objects, hence limiting the importance of depositional contexts as fundamental units of investigation. As a consequence, the role of deposits in the archaeological interpretation and the recognition that every context can bear crucial information to reconstruct the settlement history and micro-history have been underestimated. This, however, is shifting: one of the main aims of the volume was to stress this shift towards a more integrated approach to archaeology in the studies of Cypriot prehistory and protohistory. The main demonstration of this change is the increasing integration of micromorphological analysis in the study of past Cypriot context and the growing application of integrated analytical approaches to the study of past communities on the island. I think that big steps are being taken by archaeologists working in Cyprus, which are producing a large amount of interdisciplinary data in support of archaeological interpretations and reconstructions. 

3. In your discussion of the benefits of integrated archaeological research design you note that microanalytical methods enable the retrieval of classes of data that were previously unattainable, and that this data “can correct and integrate previously established observations and broaden our understanding of various issues” (Amadio, p. 12). There are some examples in the volume of microanalysis challenging previous research conclusions (e.g., refuting the perceived inferiority of Middle Bronze lime plaster versus the Late Bronze plaster in chapter 4; the potential presence of zebu or zebu-hybrid cattle on Cyprus in chapter 11). Can you elaborate on some of the important contributions of microanalytical research in Cypriot archaeology and speak to some of the research topics that you believe will benefit from integrated archaeological research in the future?

The first important contribution of microanalytical research to the study of Cypriot prehistoric and protohistoric sites is the increased attention to deposits and to mineral, artefactual, and bioarchaeological remains as critical sources of socio-cultural and environmental information. The increasing application of micromorphological analysis to the study of depositional sequences fostered archaeological interpretation and reconstruction by permitting simultaneous examination of a diverse range of materials within their precise depositional and post-depositional context. In the last decades, studies in Cypriot archaeology developed a major consideration of the importance of combining macro- and micro-analysis to improve the informative potential of the archaeological record. This new attention is exemplified by the increasing number of interdisciplinary projects endorsed by local institutions, generally involving foreign partners. These include the PlaCe-ITN project, promoted by the Cyprus Institute and the Archaeological Research Unit of the University of Cyprus and aimed at training the next generation of archaeological scientists, with particular focus on the study of pre-modern plaster form Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean; the Palaeomobility in the Eastern Mediterranean project: the osteoarcheological dimension, directed by Dr. E. Nikita of the Cyprus Institute of Cyprus-STARC and aimed at examining human mobility in the Eastern Mediterranean through the combined study of dental morphology and isotopic analysis from different skeletal assemblages from Neolithic to Byzantine times; the Archaeobotany in the Eastern Mediterranean Project, directed by Dr. Evi Margaritis of the Cyprus Institute of Science-STARC, aimed at examining agriculture, diet, food consumption and production in Cyprus, Greece, Jordan, and Turkey; and the Metal Place project, conducted by Prof V. Kassianidou, A. Sarris, A. Charalambous, S. Hadjipanteli, E. Philippaki with the aim of protecting, enhancing, and promoting as well as valorizing ancient mining and metallurgical remains covering the last 5000 years, which have not received the recognition they deserve. The application of these integrated analyses to different research topics concerning and involving the study of ancient Cyprus is greatly contributing to fostering the current state of the art about integrated analytical applications in archaeology. 

Thank you for these thoughtful responses! The contributions in this volume—along with the additional projects listed above—do an excellent job of showcasing the benefits of employing cross-disciplinary and multi-scalar approaches to sociocultural, economic, and environmental questions. With the breadth of methods and tools used by the chapter authors, the book will undoubtedly prove helpful to students and field archaeologists working in Cyprus by illustrating the potential of (and techniques for) the collection and analysis of microscale archaeological data!

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