Averett Helps Lead Archaeological Project in Cyprus

Averett Helps Lead Archaeological Project in Cyprus

On the island of Cyprus, tucked away near the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, a Creighton University educator is guiding new generations of archaeologists as they unearth ancient treasures.

Erin Averett, PhD, associate professor of archaeology in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at Creighton, serves as assistant director of the Athienou Archaeological Project (AAP), an archaeological field school that explores the rich history of the Malloura Valley in central Cyprus, with a recent focus on excavating an ancient religious sanctuary. At the school, Averett and her colleagues teach undergraduate students the basics of archaeological survey and excavation, training them in the field as they uncover artifacts that illuminate the island’s long history.

“We work with undergraduate students rather than hired excavators, and it goes more slowly because our main mission is education rather than speed,” Averett says.

Run by director Michael Toumazou, PhD, at Davidson College in North Carolina, AAP has been active on Cyprus since 1990. Averett joined the project in 1997 and has been assistant director since 2003.

Excavation takes place in a fertile agricultural plain in the center of the island. The project selected this site, Averett says, because it was far removed from the coastal urban centers where scholars had traditionally focused much of their attention.

The main focus of the excavation for the past 15 years has been a large religious sanctuary that was in use from about 800 B.C. to 400-500 A.D. The sanctuary, Averett says, was an open-air enclosure where, for centuries, worshippers performed animal sacrifices and other rituals and left offerings to various gods and goddesses.

“We’ve found the altar with the burnt animal bones on and around it,” Averett says. “We’ve also excavated votives that depict the types of activities that happened in the sanctuary, the worshippers, and the deities venerated here. So archaeology really illuminates our image of the past.”

As a field school, the program accepts 10-18 undergraduate students each summer from colleges and universities nationwide. The students live in Cyprus for six weeks, gaining excavation and survey experience at the site, while also learning about the entire process of archaeology (from recording to processing to conservation at the lab). They also explore the history of Cyprus in lectures and weekly site tours all over the island.

Students study the basics, such as how to walk around the site without damaging ancient walls or artifacts, while also mastering modern techniques, such as digital imaging and other new technologies.

Though the project is open to students nationally, several of Averett’s students at Creighton have been accepted over the years.

“It was the coolest thing ever. It’s honestly exactly what you see in movies,” says Grace Bryant, a junior art history and cultural anthropology major who spent last summer in Cyprus participating in AAP’s field school. “There was so much going on all the time, and it was really cool to actually see how archaeologists do things.”