The management of the archaeological heritage of Cyprus dates back to the British colonial period. In 1882 the Cyprus Museum was established after a petition was presented to the colonial authorities on behalf of all the inhabitants of the island by a delegation headed by the Archbishop, the Cadi, the Mufti and others. This petition was the locals' reaction towards the illicit excavations and the smuggling of antiquities from the island.
The British maintained the 1874 Ottoman Law on Antiquities for over twenty years after their arrival on the island. According to this law, one third of the excavated antiquities belonged to the Government, one third to the owner of the land and the remaining third to the excavator. During the 19th and the early 20th century, many people (including consuls and government officials) took advantage of the local poverty and ignorance by buying the land they intended to excavate. Holding therefore the double identity of landowner and excavator, they were entitled to two thirds of the finds. The Ottoman Law on Antiquities was also liberal towards the export of antiquities from the Empire's territories.
The first law on antiquities enacted during the British colonial period was the Antiquities Law of 1905. This law however, did not manage to prevent illicit excavations nor the smuggling of antiquities from the island.
In 1927, after an amendment of the law regarding the exportation of antiquities, the Swedish Cyprus Expedition arrived on the island. The Expedition systematically excavated a large number of sites throughout Cyprus and its results set the scientific basis of the archaeology of Cyprus. The Swedish Cyprus Expedition was entitled to half of the excavation finds, as a result of the aforementioned Antiquities Law amendment.
The Department of Antiquities was finally established in 1935, the same year that the new Antiquities Law was enforced. Until then, the Cyprus Museum was managed by a Museum Committee, presided by the British High Commissioner. The Archbishop, the Mufti and the Cadi acted as vice-presidents and there were also a few members elected by the subscribers of the Cyprus Museum. With the law of 1935 the Museum Committee was abolished and the Museum officially became a governmental organization under the jurisdiction of the newly established Department of Antiquities.
The law of 1935 set strict rules for the undertaking of excavations. The first Director of the Department of Antiquities was J.R. Hilton, who emerged from the diplomatic corps. Hilton was succeeded by A.H.S. Megaw, a 26-year-old architect, who maintained his post until the independence of Cyprus in 1960.
The years following the establishment of the Department of Antiquities until 1960, witnessed an increasing excavation activity (with the exception of the intervals 1940-44 and 1955-59), mainly on behalf of the Department but also of various foreign missions. Large scale excavations were undertaken in Egkomi, Salamis and Kourion. It is during this period that Porphyrios Dikaios, Curator and later Director of the Department of Antiquities, thrived. Dikaios associated his name with the prehistoric period of the island, and especially the Neolithic.
The independence of Cyprus gave a new thrust to the excavation activity on the island, under the directorship of Vassos Karageorghis. Large scale excavations in Salamis continued, while new ones started in Kition, Nea Pafos and elsewhere, both by the Department of Antiquities and by foreign missions. In 1964 the Antiquities Law was amended in order to abolish the division of the excavation finds between the foreign missions and the Department of Antiquities.
The Turkish invasion of 1974 brought great disaster to the archaeology of the island: every legal archaeological activity in the occupied areas came to a halt and the archaeological sites, the museums, the monuments and the churches remained neglected, while many of these suffered all sorts of violations. An unknown number of antiquities and works of Byzantine art was illegally exported from the island.
After 1974 an increasing number of foreign archaeological missions in the unoccupied areas of the island was noted, as a result of the international interest in the archaeology of Cyprus. A large number of excavations was undertaken at Choirokoitia, Kition, Amathus, Kourion, Pafos and elsewhere.
The importance of tourism in the recovery of the island's economy after the disaster of 1974 was vital. The Department of Antiquities played (and still plays) an important role in the achievement of this major economic and national goal.