Decoding a Bronze Age mystery in the gilded grave of a Greek warrior
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shaft graves – deep rectangular tombs that have traditionally been viewed as typical of early Mycenaean practice, later superseded by their characteristic beehive tombs.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