Archaeologists who uncovered a 3500-year-old warrior’s tomb in Greece say it is probably the field’s best discovery since the 1950s.
The find is so extraordinary that UC’s Shari Stocker, senior research associate in the Department of Classics, McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, states: “This previously unopened shaft grave of a wealthy Mycenaean warrior, dating back 3,500 years, is one of the most magnificent displays of prehistoric wealth discovered in mainland Greece in the past 65 years.”
Stocker co-leads the team that unearthed the undisturbed shaft tomb, along with Jack Davis, UC’s Carl W. Blegen Chair in Greek Archaeology. Other team members include UC faculty, staff specialists and students, some of whom have worked in the area around the present-day city of Pylos on the southwest coast of Greece for the last quarter century as part of the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project. That UC-based effort is dedicated to uncovering the pre-history and history of the Bronze Age center known as the Palace of Nestor, an extensive complex and a site linked to Homeric legend. Though the palace was destroyed by fire sometime around 1200 B.C., it is nevertheless the best-preserved Bronze Age palace on the Greek mainland.
It was UC archaeologist Carl Blegen, along with Konstantinos Kourouniotis, director of the National Archaeological Museum, who initially uncovered the remains of the famed Palace of Nestor in an olive grove in 1939. Located near the present-day city of Pylos, the palace was a destination in Homer’s “Odyssey,” where sacrifices were said to be offered on its beaches. The king who ruled at the Palace of Nestor controlled a vast territory that was divided into more than 20 districts with capital towns and numerous small settlements.
Explains Stocker, “This latest find is not the grave of the legendary King Nestor, who headed a contingent of Greek forces at Troy in Homer’s ‘Iliad.’ Nor is it the grave of his father, Neleus. This find may be even more important because the warrior pre-dates the time of Nestor and Neleus by, perhaps, 200 or 300 years. That means he was likely an important figure at a time when this part of Greece was being indelibly shaped by close contact with Crete, Europe’s first advanced civilization.”
Thus, the tomb may have held a powerful warrior or king – or even a trader or a raider – who died at about 30 to 35 years of age but who helped to lay the foundations of the Mycenaean culture that later flourished in the region.
Davis speculates, “Whoever he was, he seems to have been celebrated for his trading or fighting in nearby island of Crete and for his appreciation of the more-sophisticated and delicate are of the Minoan civilization (found on Crete), with which he was buried.”
Potential wealth of information
The team found the tomb while working in the area of the Palace of Nestor, seeking clues as to how the palace and its rulers came to control an area encompassing all of modern Messenia in western Greece and supporting more than 50,000 inhabitants during the Bronze Age.
Davis says that researchers were there to try and figure out how the Palace of Nestor became a center of power and when this rise in power began, questions they now think the tomb may help answer.
Given the magnitude of this find, it may be necessary to rethink when Plyos and the wider area around it began to flourish. It may have been earlier than previously thought since, somehow, whether via trade or force (e.g., raiding), its inhabitants had acquired the valuable objects found within the tomb.
Many of the tomb’s objects were made in nearby Crete and show a strong Minoan style and technique unknown in mainland Greece in the 15th century BC.
The same would likely have been true of the warrior’s dwelling during this lifetime. He would have lived on the hilltop citadel of nearby Englianos at a time when great mansions were first being built with walls of cut-stone blocks (vs. uncut rock and stones) in the style then associated with nearby Mediterranean Island of Crete and its Minoan culture, their walls decorated with paintings influenced by earlier Minoan wall paintings.
Wealth of jewels and weaponry
A remarkable store of riches was deposited in the tomb with the warrior at the time of his death. The mere fact that the vessels in the tomb are of metal (vs. ceramic pottery) is a strong indication of his great wealth.
“It is truly amazing that no ceramic vessels were included among the grave gifts. All the cups, pitchers and basins we found were of metal: bronze, silver and gold. He clearly could afford to hold regular pots of ceramic in disdain,” according to Stocker.
This member of the elite was accompanied in the afterlife by about 50 seal-stones carved with intricate Minoan designs of goddesses as well as depictions of bulls and human bull jumpers soaring over their horns. Four gold rings in the tomb contain fine Minoan carvings. A plaque of carved ivory with a representation of a griffon with huge wings lay between the man’s legs. Nearby was a bronze mirror with an ivory handle. Archaeological conservator Alexandros Zokos was essential partner in the removal, cleaning and preservation of the finds from the grave.
The weapons of bronze within the tomb include a meter-long slashing sword with an ivory handle, several daggers, a spearhead, along with the already-mentioned sword and dagger with gold pommels.
Other grave gifts originally rested above the dead warrior atop a coffin of wood which later collapsed, spilling a crushing load of objects down on the skeleton – and making the job of excavation difficult and slow.
The gifts atop the coffin included bronze jugs; a large, bronze basin; thin bands of bronze, probably from the warrior’s suit of body armor; many wild boar’s teeth from the warrior’s helmet.
In combination with this weaponry, the discovery of so much jewelry with a male burial challenges the commonly held belief that these apparently “feminine” adornments and offerings accompanied only wealthy women to the hereafter.