Reconstruction of University Witwatersrand in Johannesburg
Centuries before the destruction of the Mycenaean palaces, a warrior died and was buried alone near the site of the later “Palace of Nestor at Pylos.” His burial was accompanied by one of the most magnificent displays of wealth discovered in Greece in recent decades.
The character of the objects that followed him to the afterlife prove that this part of Greece, like Mycenae, was being indelibly shaped by close contact with Crete. This was the time of the very birth of European civilization.
The warrior’s tomb was discovered and excavated in summer 2015 by a team sponsored by the University of Cincinnati: students, professors, and professional archaeologists from a dozen different universities, representing as many different nationalities. Project co-directors Sharon R. Stocker and Jack L. Davis of the University of Cincinnati note: “The team did not discover the grave of the legendary King Nestor, who headed a contingent in the Greek forces at Troy. Nor did it find the grave of his father, Neleus. They found something perhaps of even greater importance: the tomb of one of the powerful men who laid foundations for the Mycenaean civilization, the earliest in Europe.”
Overlooking the bay of Navarino, high above the sea on the ridge of Englianos, sits the “Palace of Nestor at Pylos,” the most completely preserved of all Bronze Age palaces on the Greek mainland.
Archeologists say they have discovered the ‘real’ ‘Lord of the Rings’, after a 3,500 old ancient warrior’s skeleton was unearthed amid a treasure trove of ancient artifacts in Greece.
The grave was discovered in the spring of 2015 by Jack L. Davis and Sharon R. Stocker, a husband-and-wife team at the University of Cincinnatiwho have been excavating at Pylos for 25 years.
What he and Dr. Stocker had stumbled on was a very rare shaft grave, 5 feet deep, 4 feet wide and 8 long. Remarkably, the burial was intact apart from a one-ton stone, probably once the lid of the grave, which had fallen in and crushed the wooden coffin beneath.
The coffin has long since decayed, but still remaining are the bones of a man about 30 to 35 years old and lying on his back. Placed to his left were weapons, including a long bronze sword with an ivory hilt clad in gold and a gold-hilted dagger.
On his right side were four gold rings with fine Minoan carvings and some 50 Minoan seal stones carved with imagery of goddesses and bull jumpers.
An ivory plaque carved with a griffin, a mythical animal that protected goddesses and kings, lay between the warrior’s legs. The grave contained gold, silver and bronze cups.
The top of the warrior’s shaft grave lies at ground level, seemingly so easy to find that it is quite surprising the tomb lay intact for 35 centuries.
Archaeologists expressed astonishment at the richness of the find and its potential for shedding light on the emergence of the Mycenaean civilization, the lost world of Agamemnon, Nestor, Odysseus and other heroes described in the epics of Homer.
The warrior’s grave belongs to a time and place that give it special significance. He was buried around 1500 B.C., next to the site on Pylos on which, many years later, arose the palace of Nestor, a large administrative center that was destroyed in 1180 B.C., about the same time as Homer’s Troy.
The palace was part of the Mycenaean civilization; from its ashes, classical Greek culture arose several centuries later. The palaces found at Mycene, Pylos and elsewhere on the Greek mainland have a common inspiration:
All borrowed heavily from the Minoan civilization that arose on the large island of Crete, southeast of Pylos. The Minoans were culturally dominant to the Mycenaeans but were later overrun by them.
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.
The excavation was organized through the Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati, with sponsorship from the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, and with permits from the Greek Ministry of Culture. Research at Pylos by the University of Cincinnati in 2013 was supported by the Institute for Aegean Prehistory, the Louise Taft Semple Fund of UC's Department of Classics and private donors including Phocion Potamianos, a Greek-American; James H. Ottaway, Jr., trustee of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens; and Robert McCabe, president of the Board of Trustees of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and his wife, Dina McCabe.
Davis and Stocker also give credit and thanks to their team, the "very helpful local office of the Ministry of Culture of Greece and guards who provided security; Evangelia Militsi, director of antiquities for the Messenia office of the Ministry of Culture, and Evangelia Malapani, curator of antiquities."
Catalogue Of Objects Found Within The Warrior Tomb
Four complete solid-gold seal rings to be worn on a human finger. This number is more than found with any single burial elsewhere in Greece.
Two squashed gold cups and a silver cup with a gold rim
One unique necklace of square box-shaped golden wires, more than 30 inches long with two gold pendants decorated with ivy leaves.
Numerous gold beads, all in perfect condition.
Six silver cups.
One three-foot long sword, with an ivory hilt overlaid with gold in a rare technique imitating embroidery (found at warrior's left chest).
Under this sword was a smaller dagger with a gold hilt employing the same technique.
Other bronze weapons by his legs and feet.
Bronze cups, bowls, amphora, jugs and a basin, some with gold, some with silver trim.
More than 50 seal stones, with intricate carvings in Minoan style showing goddesses, altars, reeds, lions and bulls, some with bull-jumpers soaring over the bull's horns - all in Minoan style and probably made in Crete.
Several pieces of carved ivory, one with a griffon with large wings and another depicting a lion attacking a griffon.
Six decorated ivory combs.
Precious Stone Beads
An astonishing hoard of over 1000 beads, most with drill holes for stringing together. The beads are of carnelian, amethyst, jasper and agate. Some beads appear to be decorations from a burial shroud of woven fabric, suggested by several square inches of cross woven threads which survived in the grave for 3,500 years.