Art and Archaeology: Creative arts on an archaeological site

Emma Conroy and Craig Barker explain a unique relationship between contemporary artists and the Paphos Theatre Archaeological Project

For more than two decades the Paphos Theatre Archaeological Project has been excavating the theatre and surrounding Hellenistic, Roman, Late Antique and Medieval infrastructure of the World Heritage listed site of Nea Paphos with the Department of Antiquities of Cyprus. As well as a team of archaeologists, architects, excavators, surveyors, students and volunteers, from its beginnings the Paphos team has included Australian contemporary creative artists who create work in response to the site, its objects and its archaeological processes. Artists have been integral to the workings of the excavation throughout the life of the project, up to the present. Working as artist-in-residence, as excavators, in drawing, photography, and digital media. In these ways the Paphos Theatre Archaeological Project provides a unique opportunity for creative artists to work alongside archaeologists at a living, breathing archaeological excavation.

Excavators working on the cavea of the Paphos Theatre during the 2016 fieldseason. Photo by Dr Bob Miller.

Since the excavation’s inception in 1995, the project’s founder Emeritus Professor J. Richard Green and the project’s artist-in-residence Emeritus Professor Diana Wood Conroy wanted to marry visual and performative artists into the archaeological process. The site was of course, a theatre – steeped in a six-century tradition of performance, and decorated with wall paintings, frescoes and marble sculpture during its Roman phases of use. But this wasn’t just an echo of the site’s creative past; this process was to be an academic journey too. “Including artists in the excavation was an experiment to widen the parameters of research”, wrote founding director Richard Green at the commencement of the Paphos Theatre Archaeological Project. On the occasion of the first Paphos Theatre exhibition Images, Vestiges, Shadows held in 1996, and curated by Diana Wood Conroy, Richard Green suggested that artists produced results “of a different order” in the exhibition catalogue.

Diana Wood Conroy, Flower for Aphrodite, 1998-2012, woven tapestry fragment: wool and silk on cotton warp, 25 x 25 cm framed. From the exhibition Travellers from Australia, exhibited at the Pailia Ilektriki, Ktima Pafos, Cyprus, 2-15 October, as part of the official program of the Pafos2017 European Capital of Culture.

In the intervening years, the relationship between excavators and creative artists has only strengthened. The succession of artists who have joined the team has given the archaeological excavations an imaginative dimension where potters, photographers, sculptors, weavers, composers and writers demonstrate the lineage of technologies from ancient to contemporary. In addition, it has allowed archaeology to embrace inter-disciplinary practice; and provided inspiration and examination for a range of artists. The creative linking of antiquity and the contemporary has provided enormous benefits to both disciplines.

The connection between visual arts and archaeology is long and complex. In the late 18th and early 19th century, many proto-archaeological expeditions included artists whose works spread around Europe rapidly and influentially, promoting a vision of antiquity updated from Renaissance depictions of the Classical past. Paintings and drawings by David Roberts (1796-1864) and by James Stuart (1713-1788) and Nicholas Revett (1720-1804) of respectively Egypt and the Holy Land and of Greece, had a profound impact upon architecture, art and colonial politics and ideologies of the past. Art movements including Neo-Classicism, Romanticism, French Realism and Art Deco were all influenced by contemporaneous archaeological discoveries to some degree or another.

View of the Doric Temple of Hephaestus or Hephaisteion (Ἡφαιστεῖον) at Theseion or Theseum (Θησεῖον) close to the Acropolis of Athens, by James “Athenian” Stuart, painted in 1751. Victoria and Albert Museum SD145/8. Public Domain.

By the 20th century, however, archaeology as a discipline had become very focused on objective observation and detailed evidence-based analysis. Archaeological illustration and architectural plans in the form of technical drawing replaced creative work, and archaeological photography developed clear standards for accurate recording. Any creative and emotive response was pushed aside.

In more recent decades, however there has been a renewal of the relationship between the scientist and the artist. Numerous museum exhibitions have included installations or interventions by contemporary artists to allow new ways of seeing historical and archaeological material. The 18th century cabinet of curiosities has become a (pardon the pun) treasure trove for contemporary artists searching for meaning in materiality and confronting colonialism. For example, in 1999 Mark Dion, used archaeological finds from London as the basis of his work Tate Thames Dig, arranging found objects in a cabinet for display.

Recently the Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney hosted an exhibition by Daniel Boyd titled Pediment/Impediment in which explored the relationship between Classical Western traditions and Indigenous Australia through the lens of 19th century Classical reproduction casts and dot paintings created in lights and mirrors. Ursula K. Frederick, who has a background in archaeology, explores the aesthetics of car cultures in Australia, Japan and the US in her work; and Izabela Pluta’s photographs explore ruin and place. Anne Ferran has examined the links between archaeology and photography, her work over many years of practice looking at excavated objects and sites from Hyde Park Barracks and the ‘female factory’ in Ross, Tasmania. Artists as diverse as Andy Warhol, Alexandra Grant , Ai WeiWei and Cy Twombly with his Leaving Paphos Ringed with Waves series of paintings of 2009 have used the ancient world as a source of inspiration, beyond the more traditional mythological allegory of previous centuries of European artists. Installations have been hosted in museums and on archaeological sites, such as Cai Guo-Qiang’s 2019 Explosion Studio in the amphitheatre of Pompeii.

From the perspective of the Paphos Theatre project, the work of the artists over two decades has enabled a range of responses and thoughts, some of which have been explored in a series of curated exhibitions. Most recently,  the exhibition Travellers from Australia which was held in Cyprus in 2017 to mark Paphos’ role as European Capital of Culture that year, explored responses from 15 artists to the Paphos Theatre site and its archaeology. The responses of artists have enabled ways of thinking that archaeologists had not previously considered. Media artist Brogan Bunt, for example, speaks of the irony of ephemeral digital platforms: new technologies he used in 2006 on his first visit to the site were unusable a mere decade later. For Brogan, the ancient theatre site has maintained its identity for millennia, while digital virtual heritage is far more fragile than the places it sets out to document and preserve.

Artists at Paphos Theatre

– Front Cover of the exhibition catalogue Travellers From Australia (2017)

The artists responses to the site over the years are many and varied, but all are deeply informed by archaeological material and/or processes. To think about a few of these responses, let’s briefly consider some of the creative artists involved in the Travellers exhibition and how the archaeology of the ancient theatre and its environment has inspired their work.

Angela Brennan’s contemporary ceramics are composite interpretations influenced by early Cypriot shapes and motifs, and her drawings inspired by floor mosaics encountered during her time on the dig. Jacky Redgate is driven by the idea of archaeological typologies and the geometric patterns of the Paphos Roman and Byzantine mosaics in her photographic work with mirrors and shadows. Hannah Gee’s playful looped animations are directly influenced by objects excavated from the Paphos Theatre, such as ‘scraffito’ ware sherds and terracotta sculpture, as well as materials and tools used in the archaeological process. Penny Harris’ cast bronze objects are influenced by metal small finds and slag from the site, these fragments of the everyday, for Penny, creating a connection as a bronze worker to the long lineage of bronze, copper and tin in Cyprus; Penny‘s cast vertical drops of fabric in bronze also influenced by the frescoes and fillets of the Paphos Theatre. Lastly, in the composition ‘Akou’, composer Stephen Ingham takes scanned rubbings of various theatre surfaces to create haunting sound textures through merging innovative computer programs with musical thinking. And there are many, many more examples of how the archaeology site and its surrounds has inspired individual creative artists that have visited the site over the years.

Images and Shadows

This 25 years of rich contemporary artistic activity and curated exhibitions generated through the excavation of the Paphos Theatre Archaeological Project has recently been brought together and preserved in a new website, the construction of which was made possible through the generosity of the J. Permsew Foundation, whose foundation was set up to encourage aspects of the arts that fall outside the mainstream. We were fortunate to secure their warm support to create the website Images & Shadows: Artistic Outputs from the Ancient Theatre at Nea Paphos. This website preserves the history of creative artists’ work at the site, and forms an accessible online archive of the rich body of creative art and curated exhibitions generated in response to the Paphos Theatre site since 1995, and into the future.

Screenshot from the website, showing work by Diane Epoff-Goodman

Explore the archive at

When the Paphos Theatre Archaeological Project returns to the field in a post-Covid world, the artists program will be revived again to allow more Australian and Cypriot artists to explore the rich ground of archaeology and creative arts practice.

Dr Craig Barker is a Mediterranean archaeologist and museum educator. He is Head of Public Engagement at the Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney.

He is the Director of the Paphos Theatre Archaeological Project, and has extensive fieldwork experience in Cyprus, Greece, Turkey and Australia. He appears monthly on ABC Radio on the ‘Can You Dig It’ segment.

Emma Conroy is an archaeologist and museum professional with experience spanning twenty years in these sectors. She has worked on excavations and projects in Cyprus, Greece, Turkey and across Aboriginal and historical Australia, and has worked at museums including the Nicholson Museum and the Australian Museum before joining the Chau Chak Wing Museum.  Emma is a senior core team member of the Paphos Theatre Archaeological Project in Cyprus; and is Museum Registration Officer, Documentation at the Chau Chak Wing Museum, The University of Sydney.


Dr Stavros Paspalas – Director
Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, Room 480, Madsen Building (F09), University of Sydney NSW 2006 Australia
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