Cypriot cult vessel ("bull" bowl).: Middle Bronze Age I-II : 2000 - 1800 BC

cult vessel ("bull" bowl).

This bowl was most likely made in the Karpass peninsular (North West Cyprus), perhaps at Ayios Iakovos, judging from the painted decoration. "Decorated vessels" - a term used for bowls or jugs with projecting  rim or shoulder mini vessels and/or animal figures or protomes - are normally Red Polished Ware and from the Early Cypriot period. Painted ones are very rare. As far as I can determine this one is unique in several ways and thus archaeologically important.

Handmade White Painted Ware such as this was dipped in a cream coloured slip and then painted with black, grading to dark brown or red lines, partly depending on the temperature of firing. The introduction of painted wares around 1900 BC defines the start of the Middle Cypriot period, though White painted Ware II was used as the marker and there was actually a rare White Painted (Philia) ware earlier.

Large and elaborate cult vessels such as this, which would be impractical for everyday use, are believed to have been made especially for funereal use and to go into tombs. However, although nothing of this sort has been found in settlements, the idea has been raised that they might sometimes have been kept (perhaps concealed), for use in more than one ceremony before finally being put into a grave.  This might explain the (very unusual) substantial handle sticking out from the body of this bowl, clearly for hanging it securely from a peg, as was probably common with domestic items, though in this case it would have been hung  face out from the wall, protecting the vulnerable rim. More normally a handle would be by the rim and the decoration concentrated on the outside, suggesting it would be kept with the underside visible. It is perhaps possible that a handle simply reflects a detail being imitated from domestic items, but the unusual size and placing make this seem unlikely.

These elaborate pieces are usually less well fired, presumably since they would not have to stand up to regular wear. Clearly ostentation was part of their intention, asserting the social position of the kin group, but their iconography presumably refers to the practice and symbolism of funeral ceremonies. It is thought that these ceremonies included feasting and drinking, as well as dancing and animal sacrifice, plus possibly the use of animal horns and hides for costumes. Clearly many small bowls were required for these ceremonies,  since many are found in tombs, along with jugs and animal shaped askoi: the latter possibly for pouring libations. Perhaps the tiny bowls around the rim represent this set of bowls, necessary for the ceremony. It is suggested that alcoholic beverages were involved (the representation of the brewing and wine pressing process is suggested as explaining some of the “scenes” modeled in Early Cypriot Bronze Age pottery and both a probable brewery and stone wine-pressing vats have been found).  However the depiction of a small vessel on a full size one became a continuing theme in Cypriot pottery, for example even in Archaic and classical times the spout of a jug was often made in the form of a mini jug.  The mini vessels depicted on many early Iron Age Geometric ring kornoi, which are still remarkably like the few Early Bronze Age examples, even though the presence of horned animal heads must no longer have held more than a shadow of its original significance. (Kernoi are conjoined small jugs or bowls for different offerings). Certainly when the interiors of the mini vessels are conjoined, such as in ring-kernoi, the original purpose of separate offerings has become a reference which is then explicitly subverted by the idea of unity.

Of course whatever social function the increasing ostentation of grave goods served, there must be an assumption of original beliefs that these gifts objects left in tombs were of some use to the spirits of dead, at least symbolically, which suggests the ancestors had some presence and power in the everyday material world. Christians believe in an afterlife but do not bury objects with the dead. (Indeed the absence of grave goods is one indication of an early Christian grave).

There seems to have been an increasing elaboration of multi-stage mortuary ritual, involving the later manipulation of the bones. This all seems to suggest an ancestor cult, as has been suggested in Crete, probably relating to rights of lineage, including perhaps to land. Cemeteries were normally several hundred yards from the settlement and consisted of rock-cut tombs consisting of a dromos (outdoor entrance ramp) leading to one or more chambers.   There was a gradual increase in the number of bodies in tombs deposited over a long period, probably by a family. The bodies were laid on rock cut benches, or in niches for children and infants (though both these groups are under-represented in tombs of that time), and others with the vessels and other objects and offerings were laid on the floor, often along with the bones of animals sacrificed and presumably eaten at the funeral feast. These cemeteries might also have been the site of other communal ceremonies since shrines or temples in settlements are only known from the Late Bronze Age. Our knowledge of such early Bronze age cemeteries derives particularly from Vounous and Lapithos on the North coast, excavated before the Turkish invasion, while our knowledge of settlements comes mostly from excavations since then in Central and Southern Cyprus.

Elaborate bowls (and jugs) such as this, with horned animals and mini-bowls around the rim are particularly associated with the Early Cypriot periods I and II around Vounous.  They are normally Red Polished Ware with bulls, deer, goats, rams and birds (or simply their heads) depicted standing on the rim. Also projecting from the rim, usually on stalks, are small bowls - miniature versions of itself (or in the case of jugs there may be mini jugs, depicted with the other items on the shoulders of the jug). During the important period at the end of the Early Bronze Age and start of the Middle Bronze Age (EC III & MC I) when this bowl was probably made, such cult vessels spread across Cyprus, and the majority (70%) of the animals depicted become birds.  Previous to that, in the Early Cypriot I & II period the animals depicted on this type of vessel were all horned animals, roughly in proportion to the amount of meat represented by the animal bones found in tombs, presumably from sacrifice and consumption at funeral feasts.  Since this was a period when tombs were no longer cleared for re-use but there was considerable secondary funeral activity involving the handling of bones, it is suggested that the EC III and Middle Cypriot dominance by bird imagery might be a reference might be to de-fleshing of the bodies by scavenging birds (as in Tibetan "sky-burial" now) or they could just be a symbol of the spirit.  This delayed final ceremony allowed time for the collection of funeral materials and according to theories originally put forward by the anthropologist Robert Hertz allowed a liminal period in which the soul was separated from its social role and finally freed from the process of death and corruption could finally join the unchanging company of the ancestors. A good transitional example of such bowls is on the cover of the Desmond Morris book (now in the Metropolitan Museum NY).  Plank figures from the same period might be a domestic component of this ancestor "cult", constituting family shrines to contain the spirits of named recent ancestors (or, just possibly, generic, or perhaps heroic early ancestors.

The finish of these vessels is still normally the red slip of Red Polished Ware and until recently I had not come across any examples in White Painted Ware in museums and dealers' catalogues, or the online or printed literature. However there is a White Painted Ware bowl with 4 mini bowls around the rim, plus a WPW double-spouted jug with goat and bird heads and mini bowls (from as late as the start of the Late Bronze Age) in the Pierides Museum in Larnaka, and 2 other simpler version of the latter in the Athens Museum of Cycladic Art and (I have read) the Louvre, so I am sure there must be others. The latter 2 are in Proto White Slip ware and I am unsure if the Larnaka version might also be.

White painted wares are associated with high status tombs, rich in bronze items, and came  from the North, starting near the North coast and spreading into the foothills of the Troodos mountains and then the North West and East to the coast, including the Karpass peninsular. In other words the source is not far from the source of the earlier cult vessels. The patterns on this one, made almost exclusively from multiple parallel rows of wavy lines, most parallel with the rim, and all unbounded by straight lines, is very unusual. Also the fact that the decoration is inside the bowl is unusual, but explained by its ceremonial function: not being stored with the bottom visible, and not expecting the abrasion of much use and cleaning. It has been suggested to me that if genuine (see end of this article) the painted designs suggest it is probably from the Karpass area, possibly Ayios Iakovos in the Kyrenia range. I imagine this could be verified by a petrography test if anyone thought it worth it. I gather a slip like this, more buff than creamy white, tends to be characteristic of early White Painted ware.  However the varnish the last owner put on it will have darkened the appearance.

My example has a row of 4 abstracted bulls with a head at each end, alternating with 4 miniature bowls. The bulls (or at least one of them, it is hard to make out much with the others) have dots painted along the middle of their backs.  An incised form of this can be found on Early Bronze Age, red polished ware animals attached to vessels. Often there are also sets of dots on the body of those vessels and several interpretations have been put forward for the latter, the main ones, when they are within a broken circle, being that they represent the houses in a village or loaves in an oven. What they mean on an animal is unclear.                                                                                      

The most interesting feature of this bowl is the other (ninth) element on the rim. This is an upwardly projecting part of the rim with a hole through it. It must have a conventional meaning but what that is is unclear. I have not seen anything quite like it, but I was recently reading Louise Steels very interesting "The Social World of Early Bronze Age Cyprus: Rethinking the Vounous Bowl". The Vounous bowl is probably the most celebrated and interesting piece of Cypriot pottery. It contains within it a crude choroplastic (modeled pottery) representation of a communal, probably ceremonial space with penned bulls, standing and seated figures, and what appears to be a shrine with bucrania on top. Opposite the shrine is a hole in the side of the bowl that clearly represents a door, with lintel raised above the level of the rest of the rim.  Another similar bowl with a door with lintel cut into it contains a scene with figures around a hob.  Itl was found at Nicosia Ayia Paraskevy, tomb 50, along with another similar bowl without a door, showing a large plank figure on a throne in front of a shrine, surrounded by smaller, more naturalistic figures. Neither of these has yet been fully published. The idea is also found much earlier in a large Chalcolithic bowl from Kissonerga, which is turned into a house by the depiction of a hearth and the cutting of a “doorway” in the side (with hinged pottery door). However if this is a tradition there must be a whole series of intermediate steps which have never been found.

Could the hole in my bowl be a later, conventionalised and reduced representation of an entrance into a ceremonial space, and/or into the tomb and the world of the dead?  This would suggest that the whole bowl should be thought of, like the Vounous Bowl, as a representation of a sacred, social space: an area where the human world can interact with and influence the spirit world.  The bowl is not just an object to be used in a magical rite, but itself magical. Could it be that many or all of these bowls were seen as depicting a sacred space? A space in a cemetery,  delimited by rings of wooden posts has, indeed, been found and guessed to be such a sacred space, but also a few dromoi (entrance ramps outside tombs) have been found which have linked pilasters carved on their walls with, in at least one case, bucrania (bull heads) on top and a large jar in front, just like the models of shrines sometimes found in tombs, and like the shrines depicted in the bowls.

Representations of horned male animals (almost always bulls) or bucrania were very common in Bronze Age Cyprus and believed to be associated with a fertility cult, as in Crete. Symbols of fertility are often also symbols of  rebirth after death, an example being the planting of corn in the ground. Large abstracted bucrania known as “horns of consecration” are found in Late Bronze Age temples.  Even now, in modern Cyprus, bulls heads are set up on top of barns etc. as noted by Desmond Morris 

I am making the assumption that the creatures on my bowl with head at each end are specifically bulls, but some of the creatures represented on such cult vessels are deer with antlers and one assemblage on a jug could be interpreted as deer being milked into bowls. Certainly there is much evidence of deer being eaten in the ceremonies associated with these funeral sites, along with cattle, sheep and goats. Perhaps only the idea of a horned male animal was needed. Processing round a rim in either direction they emphasise that it is a circle, an ancient and continuing symbol of eternity. Does this in any way relate to why the bulls have heads facing both ways? To the modern eye the mini bowls seem like offspring, suggesting an infinite regression or infinite continuation, perhaps another symbolic suggestion of rebirth. 

It has been suggested to me that the long, abstracted, two headed bulls are quite like Mycenaean examples (which I have not seen).  I have also seen a Mycenaean figurine in the Allard Pierson Museum depicting a table with 2 conical bowls and a cat(?) on it. The bowls are very similar to the 4 on mine and are painted with radial lines in the same way. In that case the bowl would be from the Cypriot Late Bronze Age, relating to the Mycenaean influence from the 12th and 13th century BC. However there are many precedents for earlier Cypriot two headed horned animals, such as my own EBA III "pushmi-pullyu" and the similar one in the Ashmolian Museum, plus a small figurine in the Metropolitan museum. So although I know of no other example of two headed bulls on a Cypriot vessel I will be very surprised if this proves correct. Even though the bowl shape is unlike the tall cult bowls of the EC I, the piece fits more credible as an extension of that tradition into the Middle Cypriot, than as part of the Late Cypriot, contemporary with the Mycenaean influence on Cyprus.

The rounded underside of the bowl shows the marks of an organic ring of some kind, possibly twisted or plaited straw, which must have supported the bowl while it was wet. 4 strands of this have clearly impressed their shape on the bowl. This suggests to me that such rings might also have had day to day use to stand round-bottomed pots in.  Without it the bowl is tipped a little to one side by the weight of the handle.

The bowl is fairly crudely repaired from about 30 pieces, without significant in-filling. Breaklines are visible but smear-filled on the handle and interior and the design painted-over darker than the partially masked or eroded original lines. Also a pale coating has been added to much of the underside to conceal the breaks. Some of the figures on the rim are reattached using blobs of some red substance I cannot identify, but is similar to the restored sections on my Philia jug. Along with other pieces in the last owner’s collection, the bowl has unfortunately been varnished. I am told collectors commonly used to wax or varnish antiquities to “protect” the surface.  The slightly brown varnish has dribbled and pooled. It might be possible to remove this (with acetone?).  Colin Bowles are investigating the similar varnish on another piece from this source for me, to identify it and see if it can be removed without damaging the underlying paint lines. However they are worried it may have bonded too well with the paint for this to be done safely. The paint on Middle Bronze Age handmade White Painted ware tends to flake off rather easily in any case. This is the start of investigation to see if more of these crude restorations can be redone less crudely or removed, especially the over-painting which might just be removed or could be re-done in a more sympathetic way. In any case, a piece of this importance deserves expert and conservative care.                                               

There is, though, one other possibility to be considered.  Rather than being a unique and very important bowl, this might be a fake. It was collected in Cyprus in the 1960s and experts have said that this and its current state makes it unlikely to be a fake.  However, it may be necessary to do a TL (Thermo-Luminescence) test just to make sure (as had been done to my RPW Goat jug).  This method gives the date to within approximately 20% on each side, which makes it unsuitable to establish date but useful to detect fakes.  This does involve drilling small holes in the fabric,  so I might begin with confirming the main bowl is Bronze Age, by drilling the base of the handle now (the one place the bowl is thick enough to do easily), and investigate the rim figures later if it seems necessary. One mini bowl seems not to have needed to be been reattached.

Size: 15 x 37 x 34cm

(Collection General-Surgeon Dr. Josef Mayer-Riefenthaler, Vienna. Acquired in Cyprus in the late 1950s, but mostly in 1965-7, during his deployment as UN soldier. Many of his pieces were bought from Cypriot Galleries, which was still legal then, and still bear their accession numbers, but probably not this one.)

(Aquired Christoph Bacher Archaeologie, Vienna, February 2016)