Griffin Warrior, grave of
Griffin Warrior, grave of
- Sharon R. Stocker
- and Jack L. Davis
The Grave of the Griffin Warrior is the name that has been attached to the un-looted Mycenaean Warrior burial that was discovered by a team from the University of Cincinnati to the northeast of the Palace of Nestor at Ancient Pylos, Messenia, Greece. The grave contained the remains of a single male individual who was approximately 1.7 m (5′6″) tall and 30–35 years old when he died. The cause of death is unknown. The “Griffin Warrior” was buried with an incredible wealth of objects, including two gold cups, several silver cups, and multiple bronze vessels. The grave also contained items related to warfare, including a boar’s-tusk helmet, a bronze sword with a gold hilt, a bronze dagger with a gold hilt, and a bronze suit of armour. The name derives from the military kit and an ivory plaque with the image of a griffin.
- Greek Material Culture: Bronze Age
Pylos: The Grave of the Griffin Warrior
The Grave of the Griffin Warrior is nestled between two rows of olive trees in a field close to the later Mycenaean Palace of Nestor at Ancient Pylos in Messenia, southwestern Greece. It was discovered in 2015 by a team from the Department of Classics at the University of Cincinnati under the direction of Sharon Stocker and Jack Davis. Although some of the objects might be a bit older, the burial itself dates to LH IIA, c. 1450 bce. The Griffin Warrior was named after an ivory plaque depicting a griffin in a rocky landscape that was found between his legs and was perhaps originally part of a piece of furniture. As with most of the objects from the burial, the plaque itself was badly damaged when one of the slabs covering the grave collapsed and the chamber filled with soil.
The grave is in close proximity to a large tholos tomb (Tholos IV) excavated in 1953 by Lord William Taylour as part of Carl Blegen’s research programme at the Palace of Nestor. That tomb, which was in use from 1650 bce to roughly 1425 bce, had been employed for multiple burials but was looted already in ancient times. The Cincinnati team was exploring the surrounding field in 2015 to determine what activities had taken place in the area between Tholos IV and the Palace. In 2018 the University of Cincinnati excavations discovered two new tholos tombs to the east of Tholos IV. It is now clear that the tholos tombs and the grave of the Griffin Warrior belonged to an important Early Mycenaean cemetery.
On the first day of excavation in 2015, a trench was placed over several stones visible on the surface of the earth that turned out to be the south corner of the grave of the Griffin Warrior. The tops of several bronze objects that comprised an upper layer of grave goods were soon exposed (figure 1). It took an additional five months to remove all the objects from the grave.
Preliminary skeletal analysis indicates that the individual buried in the grave was a relatively young man, about 30–35 years old. He was approximately 1.7 m (5′6″) in height and of robust build. The cause of his death has not been determined. There is no physical evidence to suggest that he died in battle. DNA samples have been analysed by the University of Vienna and Harvard University as part of a larger study of skeletal material recovered from Mycenaean graves in close proximity to the Palace of Nestor. He most likely was born on the Greek mainland.
The Griffin Warrior had been interred on his back in an extended position. He had been placed in a wooden coffin that rested on a prepared earthen floor laid on clay bedrock within a stone-lined shaft that was 2.3 m (7′6″) long and 1.1 m (3′7″) wide. Walls of the burial chamber were preserved to a height a little more than a meter and a half (5′). The lowest course consisted, in part, of well-dressed limestone slabs, probably repurposed from earlier structures on the acropolis of the Palace of Nestor. Above this foundation course there remain eight courses of rubble, dry-stone masonry.
Some years after the burial, when the body had already decomposed, one of the large cover slabs broke and fell into the grave. It smashed through one side of the coffin, displacing grave goods and the upper part of the skeleton. The earth from the low mound that was covering the grave washed into the chamber. Soon afterwards, the coffin collapsed under the weight of the fallen cover slab, the artifacts on top of the coffin, and the accumulated earthen fill. All the objects that had rested on the coffin then fell onto the skeleton of the warrior. Grave offerings were thus found entangled not only with each other, but also with the bones of the skeleton, densely compacted within a deposit of artifacts that was in its entirety less than a half meter (1′6″) deep.
The Griffin Warrior was the only skeleton in the grave, presenting the unique opportunity to study a complete set of grave goods intended for a single individual, something that is impossible in most Mycenaean tombs, where bones and objects are mixed because of the multiple burials.
Finds from the grave include metal vessels, combs, weapons, body armour, and a boar’s-tusk helmet, beads, necklaces, gold rings, furniture, a bronze mirror with an ivory handle, and many sealstones. The objects were made of bronze, silver, gold, amethyst, amber, agate, carnelian, ivory, glass, and perhaps lapis lazuli. In addition to the materials that survive, traces of wood and textiles have been found, indicating that many other valuable objects placed in the grave have decayed through time.
The fact that the Griffin Warrior was buried with combs, necklaces, and rings helps override some of the simplistic gender assumptions that have been present in past archaeological literature, whereby such objects would invariably be assumed to have been associated with females. Based on the number of combs found in the grave, we can surmise that the Griffin Warrior had long hair, as seen in many representations in contemporary Minoan and Mycenaean iconography and recalling literary descriptions of Classical Spartan warriors.
The most spectacular finds from the grave include four gold rings (figure 2); a gold necklace with agate beads (figure 3); and a bronze finial for a staff in the shape of a bull’s head, a sword with a gold hilt and pommel made in a rare technique called “gold embroidery,” and the Pylos Combat Agate, an exquisitely carved sealstone displaying a duel (figure 4).
The largest of the gold rings (figure 2), which was probably made on the island of Crete, depicts a religious scene with two groups of women on either side of a shrine at the edge of the sea. The shrine is flanked by palm trees. To the left of it are three dancing figures. The largest figure is likely a goddess and she is flanked by two young girls. On the right side are two women with one hand raised to their mouths. They are probably singing.
The necklace is approximately 75 cm (29.5 in.) long (figure 3). The chain is composed of links of thick gold wire. Stylized ivy leaves make up the clasps and are affixed to the chain with pins that act like hinges. Three large beads are in the centre of the gold chain, two of them agate; the third, now white, was originally blue. All the beads have gold caps that are decorated with gold granulation.
The Pylos Combat Agate (figure 4) is a unique sealstone. It shows a combat scene with two warriors engaged in a deadly struggle. A fallen warrior is on the ground at their feet. The “hero” is shown striding forward wearing only a loin cloth. The other two warriors wear plaid kilts that identify them as comrades. The detailed musculature of the human figures and the intricacies of the facial features, costumes, and weapons are not seen on other Bronze Age Aegean works of art. Some of the carved lines are only slightly thicker than a human hair.
No ceramic vessels had been deposited with the burial as funerary offerings. The Griffin Warrior was apparently so wealthy that all his vessels were instead made of bronze, silver, and gold. The inclusion of only metal vessels in a grave seems to be an extreme example of the tendency for the wealthiest graves of this time to favour metal over clay containers.
Many of the objects buried with the Griffin Warrior were imported and/or made elsewhere: the amber for beads came from the Baltic region, the amethyst and glass from Egypt, the lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, and the ivory from Africa. The rings, gold cups, and the sealstones are likely of Cretan manufacture. The exact origin of the carnelian and the agate is as yet unknown. The silver is the only precious metal likely to come from mainland Greece.
The position of the burial goods within the grave reflects a conscious plan of deposition. Bronze vessels and body armour comprised the highest layer of grave goods and were placed on and around the coffin. The weapons were placed inside the coffin at the Griffin Warrior’s left side. Most of the sealstones, the gold rings, the gold necklace, and many of the beads were also placed inside the coffin on his right side.
The Griffin Warrior probably held multiple roles within his society. He was certainly a leader who deserved great respect. He was buried with the complete warrior kit of the time: sword, dagger, spear, armour, and helmet. Some objects in the grave have a religious connotation, suggesting he also played a role as a priest.
Specialists have used ground-penetrating radar and magnetometry to determine if there are more graves in the vicinity, but none has come to light. It appears that the Grave of the Griffin Warrior was one of a kind.
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- Blegen, Carl W., Marion Rawson, Lord William Taylour, and William P. Donovan. The Palace of Nestor at Pylos in Western Messenia, Vol. III: Acropolis and Lower Town, Tholoi, Grave Circle, and Chamber Tombs: Discoveries Outside the Citadel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press for the University of Cincinnati, 1973.
- Davis, Jack L., ed. Sandy Pylos: An Archaeological History from Nestor to Navarino. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.
- Davis, Jack L., and Sharon R. Stocker. “The Lord of the Gold Rings: The Griffin Warrior of Pylos.” Hesperia 85 (2016): 627–655.
- Davis, Jack L., and Sharon R. Stocker. “The Gold Necklace from the Grave of the Griffin Warrior at Pylos.” Hesperia 87 (2018): 611–632.
- Davis, Jack L., with Sharon R. Stocker. A Greek State in Formation: The Origins of Mycenaean Pylos. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2022.
- Lolos, Yannos G. The Late Helladic I Pottery of the Southwestern Peloponnesos and Its Local Characteristics (SIMA Pocket Book 50). Göteborg, Sweden: Paul Åströms Förlag, 1987.
- Loy, Michael P. A., Sharon R. Stocker, and Jack L. Davis. “From Archive to GIS: Recovering Spatial Information for Tholos IV at the Palace of Nestor from the Notebooks of Lord William Taylour.” Internet Archaeology 56 (2021).
- Stocker, Sharon R., and Jack. L. Davis. “An Early Mycenaean Wanax at Pylos? On Genii and Sun-Disks from the Grave of the Griffin Warrior.” In Current Approaches and New Perspectives in Aegean Iconography. Edited by Fritz Blakolmer, 293–299. Aegis 18. Louvain, Belgium: Presses Universitaires de Louvain, 2020.
- Stocker, Sharon R., Calla McNamee, Salvatore Vitale, Panayiotis Karkanas, and Jack L. Davis. “The Grave of the Griffin Warrior at Pylos: Construction, Burial, and Aftermath.” Hesperia 91 (2022): 211–250.
- Stocker, Sharon R., and Jack L. Davis. “The Combat Agate from the Grave of the Griffin Warrior at Pylos.” Hesperia 86 (2017): 583–604.