A Cypriot chariot in Amsterdam

The Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam features a reconstruction of a chariot found in a tomb on the island of Cyprus.

Josho Brouwers

The Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam has a room that is partly dedicated to Cyprus and whenever I toured people around here I pointed out the somewhat strange nature of the Cypriot artefacts, which seemed superficially Greek, but also featured influences from Anatolia and the Levant.

The island, of course, occupies a unique position, tucked away in the northeastern corner of the Mediterranean, so that these disparate influences need not surprise us. Indeed, Cyprus could serve as a warning to not even try to ascribe different elements to influences from outside. For even the ostensibly Greek traits in Cypriot material culture are curious from a modern perspective. Cypriot sculpture, for example, seems “old-fashioned” compared to contemporary developments in the Aegean. Better, then, to simply accept Cypriot material culture for what it is: the product of a particular people in a particular period of time.

The largest object in the room at the Allard Pierson Museum is a modern reconstruction of a four-horse chariot. It is based on finds from the so-called Royal Tombs at Salamis on Cyprus. These tombs date from the eighth and seventh centuries BC. In these tombs, the deceased were buried beneath an artificial hill, with horses – either with or without a chariot – being killed and buried in the dromos, the passageway that leads to the grave’s interior.

The tombs resemble the wealthy burials described in the Homeric epics. They are tumuli or burial mounds, which would have been conspicuous elements in the landscape. Indeed, we know from the epics that the point of these tombs was that they were supposed to be seen from afar: Elpenor, one of Odysseus’ companions, specifically asks him to raise a mound over his tomb and plant an oar on top so that people can see it from a distance (Od. 11.66).

Of course, in the Iliad, we also learn that a conspicuous tomb might do more than celebrate the dead: it can also serve to enhance the renown of that person’s killer! When Hector issues a challenge to the Greeks, he says that, after killing his opponent (Il. 7.84–91; transl. Lattimore):

his corpse I will give back among the strong-benched vessels so that the flowing-haired Achaians may give him due burial and heap up a mound upon him beside the broad passage of Helle. And some day one of the men to come will say, as he sees it, one who in his benched ship sails on the wine-blue water: “This is the mound of a man who died long ago in battle, who was one of the bravest, and glorious Hektor killed him.” So will he speak some day, and my glory will not be forgotten.

In the case of the Salamis burials, they are undoubtedly the tombs of wealthy members of society, including both men and women, who must have belonged to the group of people that translators of the Homeric epics denote as “princes” and “princesses”. Only they were wealthy enough to own horses and chariots and to have their cremated remains buried in such ostentatious fashion.