Grif­fin War­rior

De­cod­ing a Bronze Age mys­tery in the gilded grave of a Greek war­rior

All About History - - CONTENTS - Writ­ten by Re­becca Ford

It is the stuff that ar­chae­o­log­i­cal dreams are made of – a dig that un­cov­ered the in­tact grave of a Myce­naean war­rior who was buried around 1500 BCE, his tomb filled with an ex­tra­or­di­nary range of trea­sures in­clud­ing sil­ver cups, a sword, golden rings, pre­cious stones and even a bronze mir­ror. Not only that, but the dis­cov­ery is con­sid­ered to be of such im­mense his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance – with the po­ten­tial to deepen and in­form our whole un­der­stand­ing of the an­cient world – that it has been hailed by the Greek Min­istry of Cul­ture as the, “…most im­por­tant tomb to have been dis­cov­ered in 65 years in con­ti­nen­tal Greece.” The grave is sit­u­ated in a field near the famed Palace of Nestor at an­cient Py­los – which is near the mod­ern day town of Chora in Messinia – how­ever, it pre­dates the palace by sev­eral hun­dred years.

The ear­li­est ad­vanced civil­i­sa­tion in Europe is said to date back to around 2600 BCE with the Mi­noans of the is­land of Crete. Named af­ter the myth­i­cal King Mi­nos, they de­vel­oped Lin­ear A – an early script, traded widely across the Mediter­ranean and Aegean – and were skilled artists, met­al­work­ers and mak­ers of ceram­ics.

They are widely por­trayed as gen­tle mer­chants and agri­cul­tur­al­ists who revered fe­male deities and built so­phis­ti­cated cities with stone roads, sewage sys­tems and grand palaces. The largest known Mi­noan site is the palace of Knos­sos, on Crete. How­ever, by around 1450 BCE, their in­flu­ence seems to have given way to that of the Myce­naean cul­ture of the main­land – per­haps, many schol­ars think, af­ter the Myce­naeans in­vaded and con­quered Crete and the palace of Knos­sos was burned.

The name Myce­naean de­rives from the for­ti­fied palace of Myce­nae in the Pelo­pon­nese, which was ex­ca­vated in the 1870s by Ger­man ar­chae­ol­o­gist Hein­rich Sch­lie­mann, a pi­o­neer who also un­cov­ered Troy. Un­cov­er­ing a wealth of arte­facts

“Most im­por­tant tomb to have been dis­cov­ered in con­ti­nen­tal Greece”

in­clud­ing weapons, pot­tery and trea­sures made of sil­ver and gold, he iden­ti­fied Myce­nae as the palace of King Agamem­non, who was cel­e­brated by Homer as the ruler who led the Greek forces in the Tro­jan War.

The dis­cov­er­ies at­tested to the wealth and pros­per­ity of Myce­nae, which Homer had re­ferred to as “rich in gold”. Sch­lie­mann also un­cov­ered a num­ber of shaft graves – deep rec­tan­gu­lar tombs that have tra­di­tion­ally been viewed as typ­i­cal of early Myce­naean prac­tice, later su­per­seded by their char­ac­ter­is­tic bee­hive tombs.

The Myce­naeans built other strongholds across the Greek main­land at Tiryns, Thebes and Athens as well as at Py­los. Their cul­ture, which has tra­di­tion­ally been por­trayed as more war­like, male dom­i­nated and less ar­tis­ti­cally so­phis­ti­cated than that of the Mi­noans (one aca­demic once de­scribed them as “bar­bar­ians” in com­par­i­son with the Cre­tans), spread from the Pelo­pon­nese across the eastern Mediter­ranean.

They traded ex­ten­sively – prob­a­bly in com­modi­ties such as oil and wine, as well as ceram­ics – and ap­pear to have been skilled en­gi­neers, build­ing bridges, for­ti­fi­ca­tions and both drainage and ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tems. Their civil­i­sa­tion flour­ished un­til around 1100 BCE when it rapidly

de­clined – per­haps, most schol­ars think, due to waves of in­va­sion dur­ing which Myce­naean sites were de­stroyed and plun­dered. How­ever, it was Myce­naean cul­ture that pro­vided the roots of Classical Greece, the civil­i­sa­tion im­mor­talised by Homer in The Iliad and The Odyssey.

Although the Myce­naeans might ap­pear to be very dif­fer­ent peo­ples to the Mi­noans, there was a de­gree of cul­tural in­ter­change – though to what ex­tent is un­clear. It is an is­sue that schol­ars have long de­bated. “We have known for a cen­tury that peo­ple on the main­land started im­port­ing ob­jects from Mi­noan

Crete,” said Pro­fes­sor John

Ben­net, di­rec­tor of the Bri­tish

School at Athens and pro­fes­sor of Aegean ar­chae­ol­ogy at the

Uni­ver­sity of Sh­effield.

Con­clu­sive ev­i­dence for Mi­noan in­flu­ence on

Myce­naean cul­ture came when

Carl Ble­gen of the Uni­ver­sity of Cincin­nati dis­cov­ered King

Nestor’s Palace, An­cient Py­los, in

1939. The clay tablets he found, on which Lin­ear B script were in­scribed, proved sim­i­lar to ones found in Knos­sos, demon­strat­ing a strong cul­tural link.

In Lin­ear B script, each sym­bol stands for a syl­la­ble. It formed the ba­sis for the Greek al­pha­bet, where a sym­bol rep­re­sents a vowel or con­so­nant. Now, the dis­cov­ery of the Grif­fin War­rior’s tomb looks set to shed new light on this as­pect of the his­tory of the an­cient world.

The tomb was dis­cov­ered in May 2015 by Jack L Davis, pro­fes­sor of Greek ar­chae­ol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cincin­nati, and Sharon Stocker, his wife and fel­low ar­chae­ol­o­gist who rep­re­sents the Uni­ver­sity of Cincin­nati in ex­ca­va­tions at the Palace of Nestor.

They as­sem­bled an in­ter­na­tional team of ex­perts, with the ini­tial in­ten­tion of search­ing a field near the palace for ev­i­dence of set­tle­ment, per­haps do­mes­tic dwellings.

They be­gan to dig where some stones were stick­ing out of the ground and soon re­alised that they had not un­cov­ered a house, but un­ex­pect­edly a grave. Work com­menced in earnest and it was not long be­fore Davis and Stocker re­ceived a text, “Bet­ter come. Hit bronze.”

The bronze arte­facts dis­cov­ered were just the start. The shaft grave – around 1.5 me­tres deep,

1.2 me­tres wide and 2.4 me­tres long – con­tained the well-pre­served skele­ton of a man in his early 30s. The war­rior was ly­ing on his back and had been buried in a wooden cof­fin, which had long de­cayed, but the grave was oth­er­wise un­dam­aged. The as­ton­ished ar­chae­ol­o­gists soon re­alised the grave also held a daz­zling trea­sure trove, for the skele­ton was sur­rounded by an ex­tra­or­di­nary ar­ray of arte­facts: weapons to his left and at his

“The dis­cov­ery of the Grif­fin War­rior’s tomb looks set to shed new light on this as­pect of the his­tory of the an­cient world”

feet, jew­ellery to his right.

Pitch­ers and other items that had orig­i­nally rested above the body were on his chest.

The re­searchers dated the burial to around 1500 BCE, sev­eral hun­dred years be­fore Nestor’s palace was built and in the early years of Myce­naean civil­i­sa­tion. Among the weapons was a large bronze sword, with a gold and ivory hilt, and a golden-hilted dag­ger.

There were cups and pitch­ers – un­usu­ally th­ese were all made of gold, sil­ver and bronze (no mere ceram­ics for him), del­i­cately etched seal stones (a sort of amulet) and jew­els that in­cluded a golden chain and pen­dant, and four gold signet rings.

Thou­sands of beads made from ma­te­ri­als such as amethyst, am­ber, car­nelian, jasper and gold lay be­side him, many drilled with holes sug­gest­ing

that they would once have been strung to­gether to form neck­laces. Per­haps to en­sure that the war­rior looked his best for his pas­sage to the next world, the grave also con­tained a bronze mir­ror with an ivory han­dle and six ivory combs.

The fi­nal touch – which gave the man his nick­name – was an ivory plaque em­bel­lished with the image of a grif­fin, which lay be­tween his legs. The grif­fin, a mytho­log­i­cal beast with

a lion’s body and ea­gle’s head, was as­so­ci­ated with power. Most Myce­naean graves ap­pear to con­tain more than one body. “It’s ex­tremely un­usual to find an undis­turbed tomb of a sin­gle burial,” ex­plained Pro­fes­sor Ben­net, who added, “We have also all been as­ton­ished by just how many ob­jects it con­tained.” What makes the find­ings par­tic­u­larly sig­nif­i­cant is that although buried on the main­land, the vast ma­jor­ity of

“We might well have ques­tioned their au­then­tic­ity had they not been found in an in­tact grave”

them ap­pear to have come from Mi­noan Crete – or at least have been made in Mi­noan style. They there­fore pro­vide ev­i­dence for ex­ten­sive cul­tural in­ter­change and a strong Mi­noan in­flu­ence on early Myce­naean so­ci­ety.

Did the Grif­fin War­rior him­self come from Crete? Was he a Myce­naean who had looted goods from the is­land or had he had them cus­tom-made lo­cally in Mi­noan style? Had the items been im­ported by traders, sup­ply­ing main­land mar­kets with de­sir­able Mi­noan goods?

As yet, no one can be sure. While the pres­ence of mar­tial items, such as the sword, sug­gests he was a war­rior, the vast amount of jew­ellery con­fuses the pic­ture, as it was com­monly be­lieved that such trin­kets were only buried with wealthy women. One ex­pla­na­tion could be that the jew­els were of­fer­ings to a de­ity.

Then there are the many seal stones, small gems used as amulets, which might sug­gest he was a re­li­gious leader. He was how­ever, cer­tainly wealthy, and cer­tainly im­por­tant.

The ex­tent to which the grave goods ex­hibit Mi­noan im­agery, and show­case Mi­noan art, is fas­ci­nat­ing. “The four rings bear scenes of such dis­tinc­tively Mi­noan iconog­ra­phy that we might well have ques­tioned their au­then­tic­ity had they not been found in an in­tact grave,” said Pro­fes­sor Ben­net. One ring, for in­stance, shows a leap­ing bull – a mo­tif com­monly as­so­ci­ated with Mi­noan cul­ture and one that gave rise to the le­gend of the Mino­taur. Thenwe comet to the seal stones, which are in­tri­cately dec­o­rated with typ­i­cally Mi­noan scenes – god­desses, li­ons, bulls and men in­dulging in their favourite Mi­noan sport of leap­ing over a bull’s horns.

Although we know lit­tle about him, we do have some idea of the ap­pear­ance of this 3,500-year-old man, as spe­cial­ists at the Uni­ver­sity of Wit­wa­ter­srand have per­formed a fa­cial re­con­struc­tion, re­veal­ing the war­rior was dark and hand­some with strong fea­tures and a pow­er­ful neck. Re­searchers will soon carry out DNA anal­y­sis on the skele­ton of this mys­te­ri­ous man. His teeth are in good con­di­tion and so they may yield in­for­ma­tion about his ge­netic back­ground, while tests should also pro­vide an in­sight into his diet and help to de­ter­mine the cause of death. If plant ma­te­rial is found, it might be able to be used to pro­vide a ra­dio­car­bon date for the burial. The grave has now been sealed over and the arte­facts taken away for care­ful sci­en­tific anal­y­sis.

As Pro­fes­sor Ben­net ex­plains, though, the grave is not just sig­nif­i­cant for its con­tents but also for the very na­ture of the tomb it­self.

It has tra­di­tion­ally been thought that the early Myce­naeans buried their dead in shaft graves but that the prac­tice was later su­per­seded by the use of bee­hive tombs.

How­ever the Grif­fin War­rior is buried in a shaft grave not far from a bee­hive tomb that was ex­ca­vated by Carl Ble­gen in the 1950s – and that bee­hive tomb was built be­fore the Grif­fin War­rior was laid to rest. It seems that this dis­cov­ery will cause schol­ars to ques­tion much of what is known about this pe­riod in Greek his­tory. It will also likely pique pub­lic in­ter­est in the iden­tity of the swarthy stranger from an­other age; a man who was cer­e­mo­ni­ally buried with pos­ses­sions that even he – pow­er­ful though he un­doubt­edly was – could not take with him when he died.

A fa­cial re­con­struc­tion of the Grif­fin War­rior by the Uni­ver­sity of Wit­wa­ter­srand

Ex­ca­va­tions at the site have con­tin­ued to yield fas­ci­nat­ing ob­jects since the first dis­cov­ery

Wil­helm Dörpfeld (peek­ing through a hole) and Hein­rich Sch­lie­mann at the Lion Gate at Mycene

The ex­ca­vated skull of the Grif­fin War­rior

A neck­lace with two gold pen­dants and jew­els, found in the grave

A dec­o­rated ivory comb found in the grave with the Grif­fin War­rior

The team delve fur­ther into the site in search of fresh trea­sures

The progress that had been made on the ex­ca­va­tion by late May 2015

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