This month, Smithsonian magazine has a long article by Jo Marchant on an important Mycenaean tomb at Pylos, dubbed the tomb of the “Griffin Warrior.” In light of this article, I believe it is very much worth looking at the details of the tomb, as well as at how scholars and journalists are presenting it.
(Note: the most accurate and detailed source of information on the tomb and its finds is an academic article by the co-directors of the excavation, Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker of the University of Cincinnati: “The Lord of the Rings: The Griffin Warrior of Pylos,” in the journal Hesperia [85 no. 4] from October 2016.)
The tomb was discovered in May 2015 at Ano Englianos, the site of ancient Pylos. This was the first season of renewed excavations in the area of the palace at Pylos (the famous earlier excavations by the University of Cincinnati, led by Carl Blegen, had discovered the palace and its archive of Linear B tablets). The 2015 excavation carried on past the scheduled season until the tomb was fully cleared (late October). In 2016, a second season of excavations including digging trenches alongside the tomb in order to clarify the sequence of its construction.
The tomb contained a single body with a wealth of finds: cups, pitchers, and basins of gold, silver, and bronze – no ceramics; four gold seal rings and 50 seal stones carved with intricate designs; bronze weapons with hilts of gold and ivory, and a helmet made of boars tusks; hundreds of beads of gold, glass, and semi-precious stones; an ivory plaque showing a griffin; six ivory combs; a bronze mirror with an ivory handle; and a bronze bull’s head, originally topping a staff. Most of the material is related to Minoan Crete, whether coming from Crete itself or made in Cretan style. It is still unclear exactly how many objects were buried with the deceased, though the number is certainly many hundreds. Some reports have said 2,000+, but this refers to the total number of registration numbers given out, and many objects were broken and have a registration number for each fragment.
The tomb is a large shaft dug into the ground and lined with stone slabs and rubble. Shaft graves are best known from Mycenae, where two grave circles (Grave Circle A and Grave Circle B) with incredibly rich shafts were found by Schliemann in the 1870s and Greek excavations under Papadimitriou and Mylonas in the 1950s – again with large amounts of material related to Minoan Crete.
While there was no pottery among the grave goods deposited with the body, the tomb could be dated by pottery in the fills deposited during its construction. Late Helladic (LH) I-IIA sherds were found in the fill laid to make the floor of the tomb as well as in the fill along what was once the coffin and along the outer walls of the tomb. We can therefore date the tomb by the latest pottery found in these fills: LHIIA, c. 1500 BCE. This places the tomb at the tail end of the Grave Circle phenomenon known from Mycenae, c. 1650 or 1600 to 1500 BCE.
This is one of the richest Mycenaean tombs found since Schliemann’s Grave Circle A. And, because of improvements in excavation and recording techniques, and because the Griffin Warrior tomb was a single burial (unlike most of the Mycenae shaft graves), we can learn still learn a great deal about shaft graves and burial practices from this discovery.
The initial set of stories on the tomb waited until the grave was fully excavated, in late October 2015. A second set of stories followed almost a year later (early October 2016), marking the publication of the first academic journal article on the tomb and presenting some of the findings from that article. The Smithsonian followed with a longer piece at the beginning of January 2017.
In these stories we see a progression from more reserved to less reserved claims. We also see this trend in the progression from academic article to popular news reports.
The first crop of news articles made relatively understated claims, with several qualifications: “could be,” will “help” understand the emergence of Mycenaean palaces, will “deepen” our knowledge of the relationship between Minoan Crete and the Mycenaean mainland. A year later, after the initial analysis and preceding publication of first scholarly article: the grave “throws light” on how Minoan culture spread to the mainland, and “offers evidence that Mycenaean culture recognized and appreciated Minoan culture more than previously believed.” There are changes after the analysis: Archaeologists “now believe” the rings and gemstones of the Griffin Warrior were “possessions from his culture” and not “loot” from Crete; the analysis “points to the exchange of ideas and goods” between Crete and the mainland. But the discussion is still fairly restrained.
With the new Smithsonian article, we see something very different. This starts with the headline: the tomb “upended what we thought we knew about the roots of Western civilization”. (Compare the earlier headlines: in the first round, the tomb “could be a gateway to ancient civilizations”; in the second round, the rings “connect two ancient Greek cultures.”) Based on no new evidence beyond what was known in October 2016, there is a massive difference in both tone (definitive, and even past tense) and scope (“upended,” and not just two cultures but the roots of all of Western civilization). Of course, headlines are often meant to be attention-grabbing, but this tone and scope is matched in the text of the article. We read, for instance, that the tomb “offers a radical new perspective,” not only on the two cultures but through them on “Europe’s cultural origins” (though we read in the rest of the paragraph that the finds match those from the shaft graves of Mycenae and on Crete). We find the archaeologist Davis speculating that the relatively “egalitarian” society (strange when considering the massive wealth of this individual man’s grave) of Mycenaean Greece might have laid the foundation for the emergence of Athenian democracy a millennium later, and for all democracies.
Compare this to the academic article in Hesperia from October: The boldest claim made is in the conclusion: “These and other associations that we will explore in future publications promise to open new doors to our understanding of the Mycenaean belief system. . .” But mostly we find something much different: the tomb provides “new data about Minoan/Mycenaean iconography and Mycenaean burial customs.” The four gold signet rings “confirm” a more intensive relationship at the beginning of the Late Bronze Age between Pylos and Minoan Crete than thought before. In general, the statements are less absolute, much narrower in scope, and instead of something radical the discovery “confirms” something we knew before, just with “new data.”
So what is the evidence on which the new Smithsonian article bases its major claims? It is mostly the same evidence provided in the academic article: the analysis of the four rings and the arrangement of the grave goods. Weapons were placed on the left side of the body, rings and seal stones on the right. Davis and Stocker suggest that individual items in the burial were matched to those depicted on the gold rings: a mirror, a bull’s head from a staff.
Based on this, Marchant writes in the Smithsonian article: “In their [Davis and Stocker’s] view, the arrangement of objects in the grave provides the first real evidence that the mainland elite were experts in Minoan ideas and customs, who understood very well the symbolic meaning of the products they acquired. ‘The grave shows these are not just knuckle-scraping, Neanderthal Mycenaeans who were completely bowled over by the very existence of Minoan culture,” says [British archaeologist John] Bennet. “They know what these objects are.’”
In Hesperia, Davis and Stocker are very cautious – and rightly so – with the conclusions they draw. They introduce their analysis with a skeptical quote from Emily Vermeule from the 1970s: “Most prehistoric art is not really understandable. There is no convincing way to relate designs on gold to burial rites or to religion or community symbols of belief.” This is entirely correct: How can we know if the Mycenaean Greeks understood Minoan symbolism, when we don’t understand much about Minoan (or Mycenaean, for that matter) symbolism ourselves? If anything, we should be even more cautious than Davis and Stocker are in the Hesperia article. They believe that the people who buried the Griffin Warrior matched specific items (a bull’s head from a staff, a mirror) to objects depicted on the gold rings. Yet they use language that indicates the identification of those objects on the rings isn’t certain: “seemingly horns”; “which we interpret as a mirror.” So we must raise a question that Davis and Stocker do not: If the mirror and the bull’s head had not been buried in the grave, would they have interpreted the objects on the rings in the same way? That is, to what extent was their interpretation of the rings guided by those finds? Even if Davis and Stocker are correct about the matching of grave goods to the images on the rings, it is possible that the Minoan craftsmen originally intended to represent other objects, but that these were reinterpreted by the Mycenaean buriers as a mirror and a bull’s head.
Either way, nothing justifies the suggestion by Marchant that the people of Pylos understood Minoan iconography. Davis and Stocker suggest otherwise in the academic article: they write that Minoan gold rings on the mainland “were recontextualized in graves like that of the Griffin Warrior” –new contexts, and therefore new meanings.
The Smithsonian article does introduce one new piece of evidence for its dramatic claims, but not from the tomb itself. The 2016 excavations at Pylos revealed fragments of wall paintings at mansion houses (that the palace was later built over) – these are suggested to be the oldest wall paintings found on mainland Greece. The paintings show strong Minoan influence, with nature scenes including papyrus flowers. According to Marchant: “Together, the grave goods and the wall paintings present a remarkable case that the first wave of Mycenaean elite embraced Minoan culture. . . This has led Davis and Stocker to favor the idea that the two cultures became entwined at a very early stage.”
But does the evidence, and Davis and Stocker’s conclusion, really “upend” our understanding of how Mycenaean culture developed? For most of the last two centuries, there have been perhaps two major understandings of this emergence:
1. Mycenaean culture is simply Minoan culture spread to mainland Greece; it was brought Cretan colonists. This was the view of Arthur Evans, and was dominant in the first half of the twentieth century.
2. The Minoan-related wealth of early Mycenaean culture is elite emulation: mainland Greek elites adopting the trappings of the then-dominant culture, Minoan Crete. This view became more popular in the second half of the twentieth century, after the decipherment of Linear B (the writing of the mainland Greek palaces) showed it to be used to write Greek (as opposed to Linear A, the earlier writing of the Cretan palaces).
How does the new evidence – Minoan-style wealth in the Griffin Warrior grave and Minoan-style wall paintings on the early houses of Pylos – not fit into either of these two reconstructions?
The reality is that the new idea that Davis and Stocker favor is not all that new. As Marchant describes it, it is a form of what is called “entanglement.” Entanglement is the idea that the interaction of two cultures leads to a blending of those cultures, not the imposition or adoption of one over the other (especially in the case of colonialism). This idea has been increasingly influential in the archaeology of the Aegean Bronze Age over the last several years. Marchant even hints at this: immediately after presenting it as a new idea, she writes that it “fits recent suggestions” about the end of the Minoan palaces on Crete.
Reading between the lines, we see that the new evidence plays little role in the adoption of the theory of entanglement here. (This is even more evident when we remember that the Griffin Warrior tomb does present “the Mycenaean belief system at the moment of its creation,” as Davis and Stocker write in Hesperia, but comes roughly a century after the start of the Shaft Grave phenomenon.)
Entanglement, like colonization and emulation, is a model. The goal of scholarship is generally not to determine what actually happened in the past (which is often impossible), but to improve our understanding of the past – to come up with the best models possible.
As we see in this case, models are often driven not so much by new evidence as by new scholarly developments, the emergence of new theories. New evidence may be the immediate catalyst, but the process of change is much deeper.
Entanglement, at least in many cases, is probably a better model than what came before: it is a more sophisticated approach to understanding how cultures interact than simply asserting the dominance of one culture over another. But it is still a model, an imperfect explanation. Thirty or forty years from now, few scholars will be talking about entanglement; we will have new models, presumably better models, or we may even be asking different questions entirely.
All of this means that the interpretations we make are driven as much by our own beliefs as by the evidence of the past – as much by the present as by the past. Far from timeless, our models are very much of our time.
For evidence of this, we need to look only at the end of Marchant’s Smithsonian article. There we see Davis and Stocker tying their discovery to the emergence of democracies –that is, to us. We see the journalist tying entanglement in with rise of nationalism and xenophobia today. And we find a British archaeologist (John Bennet) looking at the interaction of Mycenaeans and Minoans and seeing the European Union. All of this reflects much of the current response of liberalism to Brexit, anti-immigration policies, and the election of Trump, projected into the past. The specific models and analogies used here seem forced and stretched.
Of course, it is good that scholars try to relate the past to the present. This is essential work, and an essential reason why scholarly work is relevant. But – and this is a huge caveat – we should be suspicious when we look into the past and see a reflection of ourselves, as if in a mirror.