The area around Pylos, on the southwest coast of Greece, has long been a hotspot for Bronze Age artifacts. This week, a husband-and-wife team from the University of Cincinnati announced the latest major find from there: an intact 3,500-year-old warrior tomb filled with weapons and jewelry. Bling factor aside, this treasure trove provides key insight into the ancient civilization immortalized by Homer.
The earliest advanced civilization in Europe dates back to roughly 2000 B.C., when kings on the Mediterranean island of Crete constructed a series of palaces to serve as their power hubs. Known as Minoans, after the mythical King Minos, these Cretans thrived for centuries, developing the first European systems of writing, trading with their neighbors and excelling at ceramics, metalworking and road building. By around 1500 B.C., however, their influence had been eclipsed by the Mycenaeans of mainland Greece, who likely invaded Crete (and, at any rate, replaced Minoan writing with their own). Though it too disintegrated by 1100 B.C., Mycenaean civilization provided roots for the “classical Greece” of Socrates and Hippocrates.
Mycenaean remains were first discovered in the 1800s at Mycenae, the Greek site from which the civilization gets its name. Knowledge of the Mycenaeans then took a big step forward in 1939, when archaeologists unearthed the fabled Palace of Nestor in an olive grove near the towns of Pylos and Chora. Located on the coast about 100 miles from Mycenae, the palace was mentioned by Homer in the “Odyssey” and “Iliad,” as was King Nestor himself, who supposedly fought in the Trojan War. Despite having burned down around 1200 B.C., the palace was found to contain, among other things, several hundred inscribed clay tablets.
In the decades since, there has been no shortage of digs at the site. Yet University of Cincinnati archeologists Sharon R. Stocker and Jack L. Davis, who are married to each other, decided to try their luck there anyway, gathering a team of some three-dozen colleagues from 15 countries. Immediately after work began in May, the team noticed three stones sticking out of the ground in a field near the palace, only 130 feet away from where a so-called beehive tomb had previously been excavated. “We got lucky,” Davis said. “We weren’t planning on digging this field at all this year. We were going to buy an adjacent field, but the purchase fell through at the last minute.”
Originally, the archaeologists believed they had located an ancient house. They penetrated three feet into the structure without finding much more than a few pottery fragments. But perseverance paid off: more than a week in, they hit a layer of bronze that turned out to be a grave shaft 5 feet deep, 4 feet wide and 8 feet long. Inside, a 30-to-35-year-old Mycenaean warrior—who, according to Stocker, may have also been a trader, priest or king—lay on his back, surrounded by some 1,400 artifacts. “It’s still absolutely mindboggling that we found an unlooted grave,” Stocker said in a phone interview from Greece. “It was a complete shock.” Davis concurred, calling the discovery “pretty incredible” and “totally unexpected.” He quoted a colleague, who said “this will put an end to the stupid questions people ask if there’s anything left to be found in Greece.”
The warrior certainly did not lack in possessions. Several weapons, including a bronze sword with a gold-covered ivory hilt, were at his side, as were four solid-gold rings, a gold necklace and hundreds of precious stone beads. Other items inside the tomb included a bronze mirror with an ivory handle, six ivory combs, gold and silver cups, more than 50 intricately carved seal stones and an ivory plaque showcasing a griffin, the mythological creature with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. Notably absent was any ceramic pottery. “Our guy was so rich that all of his stuff was [made] of metal,” Stocker said.
Stocker called the tomb, which was buried in about 1500 B.C., right when the Mycenaeans were overtaking the Minoans as the dominant force in the region (and at least two centuries before the time of King Nestor), one of the most magnificent displays of Greek prehistoric wealth to be discovered in recent times. It shows, she said, that rich people lived in Pylos and Mycenae alike, and that Mycenaean civilization was a “widespread mainland phenomenon” that perhaps flourished earlier than previously thought. At the same time, since many of the tomb’s artifacts were Minoan, she inferred that the Cretans still held great cultural influence.
The tomb is also notable for what it says about gender roles. Most excavated Mycenaean graves held multiple bodies, which resulted in archeologists assuming that the weapons belonged to the men and the jewelry belonged to the women. But, as Stocker explained, it’s now clear men enjoyed both weapons and jewelry. “I suppose you could say these are gifts for the goddesses,” she said, “but at any rate, it’s in a male burial.”