Thursday 13 April 2023

Islanders. A Panoply interview with Dr Anastasia Christophilopoulou

There’s a new show in town! Islanders: The Making of the Mediterranean is a major exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. We’re delighted to catch up with the exhibition’s curator, Dr Anastasia Christophilopoulou, Senior Curator of the Ancient Mediterranean at the Fitzwilliam Museum, responsible for the collections of Greece, Rome and Cyprus. Read on for a fascinating insight into what pottery can tell us about island identities and what it means to be a museum curator.
Above, Dr Anastasia Christophilopoulou, Senior Curator of the Ancient Mediterranean at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

1) What is the Islanders exhibition about?
Islanders: The Making of the Mediterranean is a major exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum between February 2023 and the 4th June 2023. The exhibition is the result of an interdisciplinary research project (‘Being an Islander: Art and Identity of the Large Mediterranean Islands’, 2019-2023) which together with a public engagement programme investigates island identities in the Mediterranean. Together, they explore how ‘insularity’– being of an island, affected and shaped art production and creativity, architectural evolution, migrations, and movement of people, using three of the Mediterranean’s large islands, Crete, Cyprus, and Sardinia as case studies. The exhibition brings together over 200 objects from the three Mediterranean islands, most never exhibited outside their respective museums in Crete, Cyprus and Sardinia, that tell exceptional stories of insular identity, over a period of 5000 years, from the Early Bronze Age to the Roman period.

Above, a walkthrough of the Islanders exhibition.

2) What role does pottery play in islanders’ identities – or how we understand them?
Pottery and craftsmanship of pottery plays a major role in the material culture production of island societies and ancient societies in general. Pottery is the number one medium in which ancient material culture survives to us and enables us to understand important facets of the islanders’ cultural identities diachronically, which makes it a capital area of our study of the ancient past. During the development of the Being an Islander project, we focused on several research strands oriented around ceramic production, workshops, mobility and dissemination of pottery, expression of hybrid identities as seen in pottery production, iconography and styles and more.

However the best opportunity we had to examine the role of island identities as part of the project, was through the creation of a documentary which investigates the theme of insularity as a social construct and as a form of social and cultural identity, using the island of Siphnos, the site of centuries-old pottery workshops. In the documentary we included several case studies, such as filming in the region of the ancient tower of Siphnos (‘phryctories’), a system of communication and signalling designed initially to protect the mining area of the island, but later also used to control agricultural landscapes, exemplifying the continuity of landscape use and resources in the island’s metal-rich regions. Another major case study included filming at the Atsonios pottery workshop, which has been active for centuries, with the master potter describing his craft, resources, and the long presence of Siphnian potters in the most engaging way. Pottery workshops, particularly those devoted to the manufacture of cooking pots is a centuries-old craft in Siphnos. The craft, entangled in the island’s connectivity, idiosyncrasies, and its resources, made a perfect episode of our documentary.
Above, Anastasia describes the construction of the wall of Kastro on the island of Siphnos for the Being an Islander documentary.

3) Could you pick out one item in the exhibition that you consider especially interesting?
Yes! it would be the statuette of a Sardinian type of mother goddess figurine, known as the perforated plate type. A short section of the neck is preserved, joining raised shoulders, with linear arms bent horizontally to join at the hips. On her trapezoidal bust, the breasts are depicted in a conical shape. The part of the body corresponding to the lower limbs has a flat ovoid shape, without the characteristic posterior swelling of the buttocks.

The figurine, excavated from the necropolis of Porto Ferro, Alghero, is made of white marble and belongs to the Filigosa culture on the island of Sardinia, which flourished from around 3000-2400 BCE. The populations of this culture lived mainly in parts of central-southern Sardinia. They still used obsidian to produce tools and weapons but copper objects, such as daggers were becoming common. Lead and silver were also smelted. Their economy was focused on pastoralism and agriculture and part of their identity included the worship of warrior ancestors and the creation of megalithic monuments.
Above, a marble figurine from the necropolis of Porto Ferro on the island of Sardinia. It was made c. 3000-2500 BCE and is now housed in the National Archaeological Museum, Cagliari, no: 62476.

4) How did you become interested in archaeology and the ancient world?
From an early age, I was enthusiastic about training in a profession with a physical element to it. Archaeology drew me as I find the element of fieldwork and exploration of physical and cultural landscapes fascinating. Both my parents had a love of ancient culture and heritage and as a child I spent a lot of time travelling with them visiting archaeological sites and museums, it became part of my formation. As an archaeologist I enjoy working in the field and I enjoy the sensory experience of the discipline. I studied in Greece as an undergraduate and then spent time in Paris as a graduate student, before joining as a doctoral student the Faculty of Classics in Cambridge. I gained my PhD in Classical Archaeology at the Faculty of Classics, in 2008 and was a postdoctoral researcher at the Topoi Excellence Cluster, Freie Universit├Ąt Berlin between 2009-2010, prior to joining the Fitzwilliam Museum. I have also lectured for the University of London, Birkbeck College and I'm currently an external collaborator to two interdisciplinary research networks in Cyprus and Germany.
Above, a ceramic centaur figurine from the Agia Eirini cemetery on Cypurs, made c. 750-600 BCE. Beside it is a clay model of a chariot, found in the same cemetery.

5) You have worked on a lot of excavations – what was that like?
I have worked in archaeological excavations and field surveys for over 20 years, and I’m currently the co-Director of the West Area of Samos Archaeological project (WASAP), a 5-year intensive survey project on the Greek island of Samos, under the auspices of the British School at Athens. Prior to that, I conducted rescue excavations of a Roman burial site in Marathon, and the excavation of the Hellenistic Acropolis of Dymokastro in Thesprotia (NW Greece), for the Greek Ministry of Culture. I have been a research associate to the Azoria excavation project, and the Vrokastro Archaeological Survey project both directed by the ASCSA, as well as the Praisos Intensive Survey project and the Karphi Settlement Condition Survey project directed by the British School at Athens. I worked as a research assistant to the Gaudos Intensive Survey (2006-09) and the Eretria excavations (1998-99), directed by the Swiss Archaeological Mission in Greece. These experiences gave me invaluable understanding and confidence in managing archaeological projects and working in collaboration with international teams and local communities.
Above, a Cypriot bichrome style vase, made c.750-600. This bichrome style – made with two colours – was found across Cyprus and in West Asia and Egypt – a sign of how interconnected those communities were.

6) What does your job as Senior Curator of Mediterranean Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum involve?
As Senior Curator of Mediterranean Antiquities the Fitzwilliam Museum, I am responsible for research and exhibition projects and permanent displays in the fields of Greek, Cypriot and Roman collections. Currently I’m focusing on the delivery of the 4-year research project ‘Being an Islander’: Art and Identity of the large Mediterranean Islands aiming to re-examine the concept of island life through material culture. My core interests are in the Archaeology of the Aegean Bronze and Iron Age cultures, the Archaeology of the Mediterranean islands and the Archaeology of Cyprus. I engage with questions of island identity, mobility and migration in the Ancient World, as well as with anthropological perspectives to interpreting material culture. I have worked widely in Public Archaeology and Public engagement with Mediterranean collections.

Previously I curated an interdisciplinary exhibition on the history of codebreaking, in collaboration with the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge. My work is really exciting and varied at the museum, a week’s ‘to do list’ could include teaching undergraduate groups and supervision of doctoral students, researching the collections of Ancient Greece, Rome and Cyprus, working with our collections management and conservation teams on improving accessibility, storage and management of the collections, or presenting in research seminars on the research themes I lead. I’m also very proud of the work we carry out in the field of public engagement as part our curatorial and research practice. My work at the museum is also enhanced by collaboration with other academic departments, the Faculty of Classics and the Department of Archaeology and the Mc Donald Institute in Cambridge as well as by serving as a member of the Managing Committee of the Cambridge Centre for Greek Studies (CCGS) and the Management Committee of the Society for Aegean Prehistory.
Above, Anastasia with a Nuragic Sardinian archer figurine (1000-700 BCE) during the installation of the exhibition. Photo by Joe Giddens.

7) Who’s your favourite ancient Greek?
My favourite ancient Greek is the ancient Greek historian Thucydides! Thucydides wrote a History of the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens and has long been considered the father of both scientific history and political realism. I am fascinated by his histories because he was writing a strictly contemporary history of events that he lived through and that succeeded each other almost throughout his adult life. He endeavoured to do more than merely record events, he attempted to write the final history for later generations. His work has an extensive influence on the modern world.

Many thanks to Anastasia for these insights into the creation of an exhibition of this scale and such a broad ranging project.

The Islanders exhibition is open until 4th June 2023. Book your free tickets here:

In the meantime, read more about Being and Islander project research here, and enjoy the Being an Islander trailer and a brief video interview with Anastasia in the exhibition:

Above, the trailer for Being an Islander.

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