The tomb of the Griffin Warrior is one of the richest found on mainland Greece in recent years. This Bronze Age burial belongs to the transitional period in European prehistory when the Minoan culture of island Crete gave way to that of the Mycenaeans on the mainland, and its lavish grave goods are not only some of the most spectacular to have been recovered in the last few years, but are also providing important new information about the emergence of mainland Europe’s earliest civilisation.
The grave sits on a hilltop in Messenia, near the village of Chora, overlooking the south-west coast of the Peloponnese. It was here, in 1939, that Carl Blegen of the University of Cincinnati and Konstantinos Kourouniotis, director of the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, discovered a Bronze Age palace – and though they were not to know it at the time, the palace turned out to be one of the finest and best-preserved examples of such a site in the whole of Greece.
They were searching for the palace of the legendary king Nestor, a wise old counsellor mentioned in both Homer’s Odyssey and his Iliad. However, the eve of the Second World War was not a good time to start an archaeological project, and as Europe erupted into conflict, investigations at the Palace of Nestor were suspended. Finally, in 1952, Blegen returned, and over the following 15 years, he and his team uncovered the fabulous remains of one of the most magnificent Mycenaean palaces on the Greek mainland. Destroyed by fire and abandoned in about 1200 BC, it had lain undisturbed for three millennia beneath an olive grove.
Blegen knew he had found the palace he was looking for on the first day of excavation, when he uncovered a collection of clay tablets baked – and thus preserved – in the final conflagration. The tablets were inscribed with Linear B script, the earliest form of written Greek, which descends from the as-yet undeciphered Linear A script famously found by Arthur Evans at the Minoan site of Knossos on Crete. Some of these tablets refer to the palace as belonging to the wanax (king) of Pylos, who controlled the surrounding region.
Though what we see at Pylos today reflects only the final phase of the palace’s existence, subsequent study of the stratigraphy uncovered by Blegen and his team revealed an unbroken sequence of deposits dating back to about 1900 BC. But, significantly, the results also provided evidence of strong influences from the more advanced Minoan civilisation that flourished on Crete: not only in the type of artefacts, but also in the construction techniques that employed cut-stone limestone blocks, and the use of Cretan-style masons’ marks.
During those early excavations, the team uncovered several beehive-shaped tombs, the most impressive of which is a large round monument called Tholos IV. Situated about 100m north-east of the palace, this tomb was built about 1650 BC, making it one of the earliest of its kind yet found in Greece. Though it had been robbed in antiquity, Blegen’s team recovered high-status grave goods missed by the thieves, including a gold signet ring, a gold seal, several gold cut-outs in the form of an owl, and beads made of imported semi-precious stones.
Such grave goods suggest this distinctive beehive-shaped monument was a royal tomb, the designated burial place of the high-ranking members of the palatial community. They also found evidence to suggest it accommodated multiple burials over a period of about 250 years. So it was with some surprise that, investigating the area in the adjacent field in 2015, we and our team from the University of Cincinnati made one of the most significant prehistoric discoveries on mainland Greece in more than half a century.
‘We’ve found bronze’
As we surveyed the area, we noticed several stones visible on the ground surface in a section of a field between the North-east Gateway of the palace and the dromos of Tholos IV. Our team opened up a test trench, and within a few days had traced the entire outline of a small rectangular structure. Could this be a tomb? If so, it was very different from Tholos IV and the other beehive-shaped tombs associated with the Palace of Nestor.
Excitement grew as the dig continued, for it swiftly became apparent that not only was this indeed a grave, it was one that had lain undisturbed by would-be tomb robbers since the deceased was interred. The subterranean stone-built chamber, which lay on a north-west/south-east axis, was constructed using well-dressed limestone slabs, some as much as 60cm high, with eight courses of dry-stone rubble masonry above. A few fragments of pottery and tiny pieces of bronze were recovered from the upper levels, but nothing to suggest that this was a burial of any significance. Until, that is, the tenth morning of excavation.
We were alerted by an urgent call from trench supervisor Alison Fields: ‘You’d better come quick,’ she called, ‘we’ve found bronze.’ This was the moment we knew we had discovered that rare phenomenon: an unplundered Mycenaean tomb.
As the day progressed, the team exposed several bronze artefacts, including a large basin and a spouted bowl, along with what appeared to be the remains of wooden planks that ran the length of the grave.
Excavation was impeded by two large chunks of rock. One of the grave’s cover stones that had lain across the top of the tomb had broken in two. Unsupported by the walls of the chamber and held in place only by the surrounding earth, the pieces had fallen into the grave at some point. It was too risky to move the larger of the two slabs, for fear of destroying whatever lay around it, so for the time being it was secured in place and excavation concentrated on the less-obstructed parts of the tomb.
We could see that grave goods had once been placed on top of a wooden coffin. However, as the wood decayed, the weight of the soil that had accumulated in the grave after the slab fell had caused the top of the coffin to collapse and the grave goods to fall inside, onto the human remains, damaging the skull and upper spinal column.
Digging in the tight confines of the grave was also hampered by the sheer number of grave goods that constituted the 60cm-deep deposit. Not only was there an impressive number of artefacts, but the wealth of the collection signalled to the team that this burial must belong to a person of high status. The grave goods include a bronze mirror with an ivory handle, two gold cups, a large granulated gold bead, and a stunning 80cm-long gold chain necklace. Our team also painstakingly recovered bronze fragments that probably belonged to a suit of armour, along with pieces of a helmet made of boar’s tusks – the first clues that this might be the burial of a warrior.
Many of the smaller items were found in a bronze basin that had rested on the top of the coffin before it collapsed onto the deceased’s chest. Beneath the wood of the coffin lid, we recovered large quantities of precious grave goods: gold, silver, and bronze vessels; about 50 sealstones; more than 1,000 beads of amber, amethyst, carnelian, glass, and gold; weapons; and four intricately decorated gold signet rings.
The depiction of a griffin on one of the sealstones and another carved on an ivory plaque gave the individual his nickname ‘Griffin Warrior’.
It is rare to find so many gold rings in a single burial, and, interestingly, all four were found on the warrior’s right side, in close proximity to the beads and seals. On his left side were his weapons, including a bronze spear, a bronze battle-knife with a terminal ring, and a sword with a gold pommel and hilt. This sword was another surprise: the gold of the pommel and hilt was worked using a rare technique known as gold embroidery, a method that so far has been found at only two other sites in Greece, Dendra and Mycenae. Interestingly, a gold and silver vessel recovered from the grave also has parallels at Dendra.
The Griffin Warrior had been placed on his back, with his legs extended and his arms by his side. He lay in a wooden coffin that rested on a prepared earthen floor on top of bedrock within a stone-lined shaft just over 1.5m deep. He was about 30-35 years old when he died, a robust individual who would have stood about 1.7m tall – though post-burial damage to his lower limbs make it difficult to make an exact measurement.
The poor condition of the skeletal remains also make it difficult to assess how he died, so investigations are ongoing. However, do we have some idea of what he looked like: though his skull was crushed beneath the deposition of heavy metal vessels, Tobias Houlton and Lynne Schepartz from the University of the Witwatersrand were able to make a facial reconstruction, while examination of contemporary Minoan and Mycenaean iconography gives us a pretty clear idea of his style of hair.
The damage caused by the collapsed cover stone and the subsequent displacement of artefacts also complicates our picture of precisely how the grave goods were arranged at the time of burial. However, it appears that there was a deliberate zoning of types of offerings. Bronze vessels and body armour were placed on banks of earth around the coffin, while all the weapons and artefacts associated with combat were arranged on his left-hand side, with the most valuable having been put in the grave first.
Rings, the necklace, and sealstones were placed on the warrior’s right-hand side. Again, it is interesting to note that neither signet rings nor sealstones were used as seals during this period, yet they had been placed in close proximity to each other, suggesting their purpose and function were understood to be similar and their grouping together a deliberate act.
Dates obtained from pottery fragments found in the building trenches and fill around and beneath the coffin show that the burial took place in the first part of the 15th century BC, probably about 1450 BC. It is interesting to note that no complete ceramic vessels of any sort were found in the grave, only bronze, silver, and gold. Such a conspicuous display of riches is a typical feature only of the wealthiest graves during the Early Mycenaean period, suggesting the warrior enjoyed high social status during his life. But this leads to another intriguing mystery: single burials are unusual during this Late Helladic era, and it is probable that Tholos IV was still being reopened and used for burials during this period, so why was the Griffin Warrior not buried in the royal tomb nearby?
The answer may lie in the nature of the grave goods. The rings, in particular, are interesting and might offer the strongest clues to the identity of the Griffin Warrior.
Gold signet rings are scarce in the Aegean world, and it is exceedingly rare to find more than one or two rings of such quality in a single burial, but here we have four. During his entire excavation in the 1950s and 1960s, Blegen’s team recovered a single gold signet ring (from Tholos IV); the only other from this area was the famous Ring of Nestor – purchased by Arthur Evans, famous for his excavations at Knossos on Crete – which was supposedly found to the north of Pylos, on the western coast of the Peloponnese.
All four of the warrior’s rings are made of several sheets of gold welded together over a central core, and three have identical trapezoidal sections. This method of metalwork is typical of rings made on Crete during the Minoan period. Significantly, too, the iconography of all four reflect Minoan stylistic forms.
The biggest, and perhaps the most impressive, of the four rings depicts five elaborately dressed female figures: they stand, two on one side and three on the other, either side of a seaside shrine flanked by date palms. Their distinctive costumes have parallels in Minoan art, and possibly represent a Minoan cultic scene of a goddess and two singers accompanied by two acolytes.
Another ring, the first to be found, depicts a bull-leaping scene, reminiscent of the famous wall painting discovered by Arthur Evans at the Minoan palace at Knossos. The third ring shows a goddess, accompanied by two long-tailed birds, holding a long staff topped by ornamental bull’s horns. This clearly defined staff-head resembles a similarly styled bronze bull’s head, also with prominent horns, that was found in the warrior grave and which also would have capped a wooden staff – a recognised symbol of authority.
The fourth ring depicts a seated goddess holding a long-handled mirror that bears an uncanny resemblance to the mirror found with the warrior’s remains. Mirrors are more common in female burials than male, yet when associated with a male, it is almost exclusively a warrior burial. It, surely, is no coincidence that a ring with such an image should be placed within a burial with an example of the luxury item itself, and therefore whoever placed these grave goods in the Griffin Warrior’s tomb was making a conscious connection between them, and recognised their symbolic significance.
So, who was the Griffin Warrior? We can only speculate. Perhaps he was an outsider, someone who excelled in combat, and who married into the royal family, taking up his position in the community as a prince of Pylos. When he died, perhaps in battle, he was buried not in the royal tholos – designated for the wanax and his heirs – but in a single grave close by, with a funeral ceremony that recognised his honoured status, and accompanied by funerary gifts that reflected his origins.
This rich cache of artefacts gives us a unique insight into the mindset of the people of Pylos at a critical moment in the development of their society. The parallels between the grave goods and the representational elements on the rings that illustrate aspects of Minoan cult-practice and belief, show that the mainlanders at Pylos at the start of the Late Bronze Age attached symbolic meaning to the rings. Yet it does not necessarily follow that they interpreted the iconography in the same way as did the people on Crete. What we can say is that Minoan works of art were being imported into mainland Greece during this period, but once here, they were recontextualised – as in the grave of the Griffin Warrior – as foundations for the emergent Mycenaean civilisation that was destined to take over.
Jack L Davis and Sharon R Stocker, University of Cincinnati, and co-directors of the University of Cincinnati Pylos Excavations.
ALL images: Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati, unless otherwise stated.