Laona, the mystery mound and the Palaepaphos Urban Landscape Project

Maria Iacovou (University of Cyprus)

When we initiated the Palaepaphos Urban Landscape Project (henceforth PULP) (Iacovou 2008; 2013) in 2006, nothing could have been further from our mind than the identification and excavation of a man-made tumulus. See Figure 14. Small artificial mounds are extremely rare in Cyprus and mega-mounds are almost unknown. In fact, tumuli have not been registered as place-making artefacts in any period of the island’s cultural history (contra Carstens 2016). The only known exceptions come from the east coast of Cyprus: Salamis Tomb 3 dates to the Cypro-Archaic period (Karageorghis 1967, 25; Vitti 2019) and Salamis Tomb 77 dates to the early Hellenistic period (Κarageorghis 1973-1974, 128-202; Bourazelis 2013, 297).

Figure 14. Map of the Paphos catchment (hydrological basin), which is the maximum spatial extent of PULP’s landscape analysis (drafted by A. Agapiou) with inset of surviving corner of temenos (3D by V. Tringas).

The hillock of Laona is prominently visible from the megalithic ashlar blocks of the famous Late Bronze Age temenos. Constructed circa 1200 BC by the polity of Paphos, it was from early on (e.g. the times of Homer; see Odyssey 8.363) identified as the cult centre of Aphrodite (Karageorghis 2005). It takes less than a quarter of an hour on foot to reach Laona from the centre of the modern village of Kouklia (originally the Medieval hamlet of Covocle), which continues to grow around “the sanctuary with the longest unbroken cult tradition in Cyprus” (Maier 2000). See Figure 15. But even the Kouklia community never thought of Laona as anything other than what its toponym implies: a natural bump amid cultivated fields. See Figure 16. Laona does not feature in local legends or mythical narratives. However, even though it had never undergone excavation, Laona was identified as an artificial mound in the reports of the first (1888), as well as the second (1950) British expeditions to Kouklia (see Maier 2004 for the history of research at Palaepaphos).

Figure 15. Aerial RGB orthophoto map over the Palaepaphos area, indicating sites mentioned in the paper (source: Department of Land and Surveyors of Cyprus, map compiled in GIS by A. Agapiou)

Figure 16. Laona from the north before excavation. Photo by M. Iacovou.

Figure 17. Orthophoto of the tumulus in Laona. The periphery of the tumulus has been mapped through Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR). Three-dimensional Electrical Resistivity Tomography (ERT) was employed to reconstruct the subsurface of the interior of the tumulus. The color maps show GPR slices within a depth of 1-2m and the ERT slice at the centre within a depth of 7-8m below the ground surface. The reddish colours in the GPR slices depict strong reflectors, while in the ERT slice they depict high soil resistivities (A. Sarris and IMS Forth Hellas).

Figure 18. Facing staircases on east side of rampart under excavation. Photo by M. Iacovou.

Following geological confirmation of Laona’s man-made character in 2011, PULP developed a multifaceted research approach and created a digital record of the different methods and practises we employed in exploring the monument. See Figure 17. Thus far, our research has produced unexpected results on an almost annual basis (Iacovou 2017). The first and most surprising discovery was the presence of an earlier structure: a monumental rampart that was completely buried under the 13,700 m3 of soil sediments which recent estimates suggest would have been required for the construction of the tumulus (dimensions are 100 × 60 × 10 m). Two facing staircases were discovered in the course of the excavation of the east side of this rampart. See Figure 18. They were founded at 107.20 m.a.s.l. and the foundation trenches contained sherd material dating from the 6th to 5th c. BC transitional phase. A third staircase discovered this year close to the summit of the mound (i.e., the highest surviving section at 114.20 m.a.s.l.), terminates at 113 m.a.s.l. Given that the use layer of the rampart at the base of the north side was located at 105 m.a.s.l., the maximum surviving height of its wall is estimated to be 8m.

The second exciting surprise was the discovery of a small stone-built structure in the centre of the southern half of the mound. Initially, everyone thought that we had located a burial chamber (a logical conclusion at the time). However, the curious edifice turned out to be a shell filled from top (109.50 m.a.s.l.) to bottom (106.10 m.a.s.l) with worked marl; the structure does not even have a proper roof made of other materials! A handful of tiny, mostly unidentified sherds were the only artefacts found in the marly matrix. Although the stonework on the external faces gives the impression of nicely-worked blocks, internally the self-same blocks are unworked; they are fixed against the marly filling with red clay. See Figures 19-20. The west side of this anomalous structure had been destroyed, and the dislocated blocks were left in situ. We know of no parallel for this problematic building. The destruction of its west side leads us to suggest that prospective looters may have attempted to enter it, only to discover (as we did, as well) that the building contained neither interior space nor other contents. We have, therefore, named it a ‘pseudo-grave’, which we imagine may have been meant as a decoy to turn looter’s attention away from a real chamber.

Figure 19. The ‘pseudo-grave’ exposed from under the mound’s soil sediments; view of worked blocks of the east wall. Photo by M. Iacovou.

Figure 20. The excavation team inside the ‘pseudo-grave’ with a section of marly matrix left in situ. Photo by M. Iacovou.

It took four years to liberate the four sides of the ‘pseudo-grave’ from the strata of the mound. For obvious security reasons, the north side (which rises vertically above the small edifice) was excavated in a stepped fashion. This created one of the best E-W sections from which samples were taken for a micromorphological analysis. A long N-S section was also cut to the east of the structure for the same purpose. See Figure 21. Even a macroscopic observation of the impressively colourful lenses reveals deposits of marl alternating with clay‐rich sediments. The latter were likely collected from the surrounding landscape. Τhey contained a relatively small number of sherd material dating from the Late Cypriot to the Cypro-Classical period.

Figure 21. Soil sediments exposed against E to W section of mound excavated in a stepped fashion and corner of N to S section under study for geoarchaeological analysis. Photo by M. Iacovou.

Figure 22. Οrthophoto map over Laona generated from high-resolution low altitude nadir and oblique drone images. Vectors over the mosaic highlight the course of the rampart on the north side of the mound. Compiled by A. Agapiou and F. Poullos.

Figure 23. On the north side of Laona the rampart takes a NW course and descends diagonally the slope from 113 to 105 m.a.s.l. Photo by J. Tabolli.

The continued absence of ceramics dating to the Hellenistic or later periods allows us to suggest that when the tumulus was built, pottery of the mid-3rd c. BC (or later periods) had not spread around the landscape of Laona. By contrast, marl (the predominant source material used for the construction of the tumulus) was quarried from under the bedrock of the region before it could be transported and used for building the mound. A geoarchaeological study of Laona shows there was nothing random about either the collection or placement of the soil sediments. Rather, it confirms that the tumulus was not a product of earth accumulation over an earlier monument (i.e. the fortress), but that it was instead an accomplished architectural artefact designed to remain intact (Gkouma et al. 2021).

The third surprise came as a result of the 2022 excavation campaign. Beyond the third (north) staircase, the rampart takes an unexpected north-western course and descends the north side of the mound until it meets the edge of the natural plateau of Laona. See Figure 22. The orderly manner in which the east and north sides of the rampart were lowered is certainly puzzling. See Figure 23. We think that they were most probably made to serve as access ramps to assist the workforce in building and repairing the summit of the tumulus (see Gkouma et al. 2021, 12-13 for the four construction stages).

In the ten years since the inception of its excavation, Laona has become the site of two superimposed mega-monuments. The first and earliest is a five-meter-wide rampart of which we have now exposed 160m of its east and north sides. It was built with stacks of thousands of mould-made mudbricks (Lorenzon & Iacovou 2019) placed between parallel walls of unworked stones. The agency responsible for the construction of the rampart must be the dynasty that ruled Paphos during the early 5th c. BC (Iacovou 2019). The rampart is, in fact, spatially and chronologically closely related to the monuments on the citadel terrace of Hadjiabdoullah (Iacovou & Karnava 2019) which lies just 70m to the south of Laona. See Figure 24.

Figure 24. Oblique aerial view taken over the sites of Palaepaphos Hadjiabdoulla and Laona looking towards the west (Sanctuary) at the height of approximately 100m above ground level. Aerial photo taken by K. Themistocleous and figure compiled by A. Agapiou, the Eratosthenes Research Centre, Cyprus University of Technology, ©PULP.

The second and more recent monument of Laona is the tumulus under which the rampart was buried. This structure begs a number of questions. For example, who was the political leader that possessed the extraordinary power to order such a monumental enterprise on an island on which there were no tumuli builders? How did potentially non-local engineers with expertise in tumuli building come to direct a local workforce of masons, who had an intimate knowledge of the properties of locally-available earthen construction materials? Although the initiation of its construction cannot be dated with precision, the tumulus of Laona is chronologically and culturally associated with the period of the wars of the Macedonian successors of Alexander the Great, specifically with the years of the conflict that took place in Cyprus between Antigonus I Monophthalmus and his son Demetrios Poliorcetes, and Ptolemy I Soter in the last couple decades of the 4th c. BC. That conflict was concluded during the first decade of the 3rd c. BC in favour of Ptolemy.

Unlike the Salaminian tumuli that were raised in established burial grounds, the mound of Laona was not part of a mortuary environment. From the start, the site of Laona was included in a royal investment programme that shaped a citadel landscape 1 km east of the sanctuary. Whether or not the mound does in fact contain a grave may well be solved during the forthcoming field campaigns. However, how and why the memory of such a gigantic enterprise was lost remains enigmatic. According to Papadopoulos (2006, 84) the construction of a monument such as a tumulus is an historical event that transforms the physical and social landscape. In this respect, the tumulus of Laona appears to have failed, since it did not dominate the landscape with its permanence as a monument to memory (Papadopoulos 2006, 78, 83). Unlike what is believed to be the norm for tumuli, it had but one very short life; it did not become a ‘time travelling’ tumulus (Alcock 2016). As a cultural artefact, it had no established ancestry on the island, and it did not introduce a new cultural behaviour as a place-making monument. It is our hope that PULP’s continuing fieldwork at this intriguing site and also in the urban landscape of Palaepaphos will provide answers regarding the mystery mound of Laona.


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The World’s largest Gold Bracteate: A brief presentation of the Migration Period gold hoard from Vindelev, Denmark

Morten Axboe (Independent researcher, Copenhagen)

In December 2020, metal detectorists found a Migration Period gold hoard at Vindelev in East Jutland. Vindelev is c. 10 km north of the city of Vejle and c. 8 km northeast of the well-known site of Jelling with its royal monuments from the tenth century AD. Subsequent excavation by VejleMuseerne (Laursen and Ravn 2022; Ravn 2022) established that the gold objects which had been uncovered were all found in the plough layer. Although the finds had been moved by agricultural activities, most of them were found within a restricted area relating to a Migration Period long-house. Most likely the objects were deposited as a single hoard.

The find consists of four Roman medallions (multipla), 13 bracteates, a pendant with glass inlays, and a scabbard mount; together these objects count for 794 g gold (Axboe 2021). See Figure 25. The Vindelev hoard counts as the first find in Scandinavia with more than one Roman medallion. In addition, apart from the Polish Zagórzyn hoard, the Vindelev hoard is the first recorded hoard which has included both medallions and bracteates. During the period 335-36 to 383 AD, three of the medallions were issued in Trier by Constantine I, Constans, and Gratian, respectively, while the fourth medallion was issued in Thessaloniki by Valentinian I (Horsnæs 2022).

Gold bracteates are generally divided into four types: A-bracteates imitating the imperial portraits of Roman coins, B-bracteates showing one or more persons in full, C-bracteates with a large human head over a more or less horse-like quadruped, and D-bracteates featuring a highly stylized dragon-like creature. Alongside the main motif, A-, B-, and C-bracteates may also show smaller animals, human figures, and symbols (like swastikas and triskelions), as well as inscriptions with runes or imitations of Roman letters.

The central motif of a bracteate was struck with a matrix die (Axboe 2007: 14-25, 142). On many bracteates this was framed by punched border zones. Several bracteates could be produced using the same die. Therefore, when die-identical (or closely-related) bracteates occur in different finds, they form important evidence of connections between them.

The Vindelev hoard includes nine A-bracteates (of which two are die-identical) and four C-bracteates (of which one—Vindelev x11—is die-identical with a bracteate found near Odense on Funen (IK 31 Bolbro-C)). Central and eastern Funen are the areas in Denmark which are richest in gold from the Migration Period, and may possibly have been the area where the gold bracteates were invented. There are, however, several other connections between Funen and the Vindelev find, which may modify this assumption.

Normally, an A-bracteate features only one ‘imperial’ bust. Nevertheless, a small group of very early dies show double portraits with the two ‘emperors’ sharing cloaks and brooches. Two of the Vindelev bracteates (x10 and the fragmented x12+x20+x22) are of this type, which had previously been known only from central and eastern Funen (Axboe 2021, Fig. 7-9). See Figure 26.

Figure 25. The Vindelev hoard. Photo by Vejlemuseerne.

Figure 26. Vindelev x20. X-ray by Signe Nygaard, Konserveringscenter Vejle. Not to scale.

Figure 27. Vindelev x9 with mail and drinking horn. Photo by Vejlemuseerne. Not to scale.

Several of the Vindelev bracteates present new and innovative designs. The A-bracteates x9 and the two die-identical A-bracteates x3 and x14 all show the bust with an unusually patterned dress, possibly representing a chain or scale armour. See Figure 27. On x9 the ‘emperor’ has a drinking horn in his hand, paralleled only on bracteates found in England (Behr 2011 and unpublished finds). Vindelev x1 features an unusual, beaded dress, possibly inspired by the embroidered consular robe (Figure 28), the ‘braided’ fingers in x1 and the knotted ring in x9 and x14 being Nordic interpretations of the consular mappa (comp. Axboe 2021 Fig. 3 right and Laursen 2022a Fig. 3b).

Figure 28. Vindelev x1. Photo by Vejlemuseerne. Not to scale.

Figure 29. At left, Vindelev x 7 (Photo by Vejlemuseerne). At right, IK 691 Kristianslund (Photo by Nationalmuseet).

Vindelev x7 presents a rather enigmatic design (see Figure 29, left), dominated by a large human bust with two arms. Under the chin there is an open ring with knotted ends, comparable to the Celtic torques used by the Romans as military distinctions. One hand holds a quadruped with a very long tongue, while the other brandishes a T-shaped object crowned by a small creature with a humanoid head, arms and legs affixed to a fish-like body. The small creature has an open ring in one hand and a small ball in the other. Placed in front of it is a small tree with six branches. A very close parallel was found 2018 at Kristianslund near Odense (Figure 29, right). Otherwise, the torques is known only from a find from Zealand (IK 299 Maglemose/Gummersmark-A). More generally related are some bracteates from east Zealand which also exhibit a dominate person holding up smaller figures (Axboe 2017).

Figure 30. Vindelev x4. X-ray by Signe Nygaard, Konserveringscenter Vejle.

The C-bracteate x4 forms a very important link to Funen and a valuable contribution to the interpretation of the bracteates. See Figure 30. It is very similar to the bracteate IK 58, which was found somewhere in Funen before 1689; only minute details reveal that the bracteates are not die-identical. Under the head of the quadruped, they both have the runic inscription houaR, which can be read as ‘The High One’, a praise name used for Oðinn in later sources, thus linking the motif to this god, who is central in Karl Hauck’s interpretation of the gold bracteates (e.g. Hauck 2011,1-2; Heizmann 2012; critical Laursen 2022b; Wicker and Williams 2013). Although the other Vindelev inscriptions have not yet been studied closely, they may eventually present more links with Oðinn.

According to Hauck, Oðinn is the dominating figure in bracteate iconography. On the A-bracteates, he is shown as the lord of the gods, his position embellished by Roman imperial regalia like the diadem, the circular brooch, and the consul’s robe. All of the large human heads on the Vindelev bracteates wear diadems, while the consular dress may be seen on x1 and possibly x19. Circular brooches are found on x19 and with the double busts on x10 and x20. Germanic insignia may be found in the long hair (which may be plaited or knotted), as seen on x4, x9, x13, and x17 (Axboe 2007: 100-103, 152).

Thus, it seems obvious that, like other A- and C-bracteates, the Vindelev bracteates depict a ruler by means of well-established Roman imperial iconography. Though it may be debated whether said ruler was divine or mundane, I tend to follow Hauck in associating him with Oðinn. But what, then, about the double busts? Though some attempts have been made, thus far there seems to be no convincing Nordic parallel for the Dioscuri (the Divine Twins) found in many other religions (Andrén 2020). Do these bracteates represent earthly rulers – shared kingship is known from the early Viking Danish kingdom – or possibly (semi)divine ancestors? After all, we are near the alleged homelands of Hengist and Horsa, the mythic leaders of the Anglo-Saxon invasion (Laursen 2022a: 13). Be that as it may, the double-bust bracteates belong to the start of bracteate production and seem to have rapidly disappeared from the bracteate iconography repertoire.

The weight of an average bracteate is between 2 and 7 g. The weight of the 13 Vindelev bracteates is 576 g, equalling about 100 ordinary bracteates. This illustrates the unusual size and weight of the Vindelev bracteates. Actually, the folded-up bracteate (x10) is the largest bracteate yet known with a diameter of 13.8 cm and a weight of 123.7 g. In this it indisputably surpasses the previous champion IK 11 Åsum-C from Scania, whose diameter was 12.3 cm and weighed in at 100.3 g. In fact, of the 10 largest bracteates known, five belong to the Vindelev hoard: x10, x17, x20, x9, and x19. This larger size makes room for intricate punched borders with unusual designs, including birds, animals and human faces. Also, six bracteates and the large pendant have large and exquisite ‘deluxe’ loops with bulbs, ridges and filigree added to the tube. This again is extraordinary! Previously, only two bracteates with ‘deluxe’ loops were known from present-day Denmark. The original quality is very high, and it is astonishing to find rather clumsy repairs on some of the bracteates, including patches roughly riveted to the disc which were also (in some cases) even placed on the front of the bracteate. It seems as if the artistic and economic ambitions of the bracteate makers and their patrons were greater than their workmanship.

Thus, the Vindelev bracteates are larger, heavier, and more richly adorned than most other finds. Both they and the extraordinary number of Roman medallions must have been in the possession of people of very high status. This surmise is further supported by two objects which have not yet been discussed: the circular pendant x8 and the scabbard mouthpiece x18. The pendant is larger than usual, has a large ornamental triangle below the ‘deluxe’ loop and red inlays in the triangle and around the centre (where a larger inlay has been lost). The scabbard mount is an excellent piece of work with intricate interlacings with animal heads (Laursen and Høilund Nielsen 2022). Only 17 other such mounts are known—all with exquisite workmanship—and they must have belonged to the absolute upper echelons of Migration Period society.

Chronologically, the hoard is enigmatic. As mentioned, it seems to be a closed deposition, and yet the objects span around 200 years. The medallions were minted during the middle half of the fourth century AD. The bracteates are all rather early (some very early!); I would date them c. 450-490 AD. The scabbard mount can only have been made some decades into the sixth century. Thus, the objects fall into three separate chronological groups. Only the scabbard mount may indicate a deposition in connection with the events of 536 AD and the following years (Axboe 1999, 2007: 117-123, 156-158). This leaves us still in a bit of a conundrum. Why, then, are there no D-bracteates or late C-bracteates, like in so many other late hoards from Jutland?

The place-name of Vindelev is of a type which is older than the Viking Age and may be interpreted as “Winde’s estate” (Ravn 2022: 8). Until the hoard was found, there were no indications of any special finds in the area. The elite character of the hoard immediately raises the question of whether Vindelev was a predecessor of the 10th c. royal site at Jelling, which lies only a short 8 km away. Also, the relationship to the well-known central place at Gudme in east Funen, which was established around 200 AD and which flourished into the 6th c. (Jørgensen 2011), calls for further discussion. Vindelev obviously was a site with great wealth and an imaginative iconographic spirit, as evidenced by the early and innovative bracteate designs, as well as far-reaching connections, especially to Funen, but also to continental gold hoards (Horsnæs 2022). Was Vindelev a superregionally important centre of power? Was it an ally or a competitor to the Gudme centre? The investigations at Vindelev have only just begun and will hopefully be continued via collaboration between VejleMuseerne, the National Museum of Denmark and other institutions.


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