Secrets of the Grave

Is This the Ancestor of a Homeric Hero?

The grave of the Griffin Warrior may unlock the mysteries of a Bronze Age era that precedes all written records.

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Over 3,500 years ago, when ­lions prowled eastern Europe and the Trojan War was still centuries off, a great hero walked the hills near Pylos, in southern Greece, and gloried in his enormous wealth and power. Today, thanks to one of the most important Aegean archaeological finds in decades, the Griffin Warrior is back.

It was on May 18 of this year, their very first day of digging for the season, that Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, the husband-and-wife team from the University of Cincinnati in charge of Pylos excavations, stumbled on a subterranean structure. It turned out to be a shaft grave, of the type used for the burials of early Greek lords and chieftains—and, against all odds, it was intact.

The find was kept secret until this week, to allow excavators to continue their work in peace. By now they have unearthed a spectacular array of grave goods, including gold and silver drinking vessels, ivory- and gold-adorned weapons, and an ivory plaque adorned with a griffin—a mythical beast resembling a winged lion with an eagle’s beak. This last object, found between the legs of the intact skeleton, has, for the time being at least, given the grave’s occupant his impressive nickname.

Jim Ottaway Jr., a retired trustee of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and a lifelong student of Greek archaeology, visited the dig in September, when some of the most impressive objects were still emerging. “Jack Davis showed us a beautiful box-weave gold necklace which had come out of the ground two hours before we arrived,” Ottaway told me. “They had simply washed away the dirt which it had been in for 3,500 years, and it looked like it had just came out of a black box at Tiffany’s—in perfect condition.”

The Greeks of the Griffin Warrior’s era, about 1600 B.C., were not yet capable of making such delicate objects. They either imported or stole their luxury goods from nearby Crete, where the more refined and wealthy Minoans, a non-Greek civilization, was then at its height. Historians have long puzzled over relations between these Minoans and the contemporaneous Greeks—dubbed Mycenaeans after their principal city, Mycenae—who first emulated, then invaded and dominated them. The grave goods found with the Griffin Warrior, many of clear Minoan origin, may help unlock the mysteries of an era that precedes all written records.

For classicists like myself, the announcement of the find calls to mind the moment, almost 140 years ago, when Heinrich Schliemann, a wealthy German financier obsessed with the poems of Homer, uncovered a set of intact shaft graves in the ruins of Mycenae, not far from Pylos. Schliemann hastened to link his spectacular finds to the heroes of his beloved Iliad and Odyssey. A golden cup, with two gold doves perched on its handles, got the label “Nestor’s Cup” because it resembled an object described by Homer, the goblet from which Nestor, the garrulous old monarch of Pylos, was said to drink his wine.

Were Schliemann alive today, he would no doubt claim that, in the Griffin Warrior’s grave, the remains of Nestor himself have been recovered. In fact the shaft graves at both Pylos and Mycenae predate by several centuries the civilization described by Homer, if the dates established by pottery sherds—the most reliable chronological markers found at such early sites—is correct. But a connection to epic poetry may not be completely fanciful. The occupants of the shaft graves may well have been kings, and most, including the Griffin Warrior, had finely-wrought bronze swords buried with them—a sign that their high social status, like that of the Homeric warrior-kings, relied on battlefield prowess.

Along with his cups and blades, interestingly, the Griffin Warrior also brought a mirror and six ivory hair combs with him into eternity. The young man (probably in his early thirties) was evidently concerned to maintain his appearance. Surrounding his skeleton, in a pattern suggesting that they were woven onto a grave shroud, were over a thousand beads carved out of carnelian, jade, and amethyst. Around his neck lay the astonishing golden box-weave necklace that took Jim Ottaway’s breath away, as it will no doubt do to countless future museumgoers. This unique object measures more than 30 inches in length and sports stylized ivy leaves, also of gold, at its ends.

Griffy’s grave also contained a vast number of finely-wrought seal stones and seal rings, important Bronze Age luxury items. These rings and stones have delicate scenes carved into their surfaces, designed to produce a raised image when pressed into wax or clay. Many bear typical Minoan motifs, including a Cretan pastime known as bull-jumping—perhaps a sport, or dance, in which athletic youths somersaulted over the backs of bulls. The same activity is depicted on a fresco recovered from the Minoan royal palace at Knossos, and perhaps some distant memory of it lies behind the later Greek myth of the Cretan Minotaur.

What such scenes and objects meant to a Mycenaean Greek of the mid-second millennium B.C., a man whose world was harsher, tougher, and more militarized than that of his offshore neighbors, can only be guessed. Scholars will be examining that question, and many others, as they explore this incredible trove of precious goods, the best window found in decades into the pre-Homeric Greek world.