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World of the Griffin Warrior

A single grave and its extraordinary contents are changing the way archaeologists view two great ancient Greek cultures

September/October 2019

Pylos Combat Agate Seal StoneThe age of Homer was an age of heroes—Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae, Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, and Nestor, the king of Pylos, among others—whose deeds are chronicled in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Many archaeologists believe that Homer’s tales, despite being composed 500 or more years after the Late Bronze Age events they describe, had roots in a real past. “There’s always a kernel of truth to stories handed down from generation to generation,” says archaeologist Jack Davis. Whether these men were real people is unknown. But the culture they belonged to, which dominated Bronze Age Greece from around 1600 until 1200 B.C.—known as Mycenaean since it was given that name by nineteenth-century scholars—was certainly the model for the poems’ dimly remembered heroes from the deep past.


Pylos Greece Shrine Ring FacePylos Greece Gold NecklaceOver the past century, archaeologists and linguists have largely focused their studies on the Mycenaeans’ place in the early development of later classical Greek civilization. Excavations at Pylos, and at sites all across mainland Greece, have provided a great deal of evidence of the Mycenaeans in their prime. This research has revealed that at their peak they were tied into a world that encompassed most of the eastern Mediterranean, including ancient Egypt, the city-states of the Near East, and the islands of the Mediterranean. One such link, though, stands out as perhaps the most important: a deep connection to the island of Crete, which, in the Late Bronze Age, was inhabited by members of a culture scholars call Minoan after the legendary King Minos, a culture very different from that found on the mainland.


Scholars have long debated the nature of the relationship between the Mycenaeans and the Minoans. This discussion has centered on whether Mycenaean culture, and what is thought of as ancient Greek culture, dating to half a millennium later, was imported from Crete, or was a homegrown phenomenon. But the exceptional discovery of a man’s grave filled with more than 2,000 artifacts just outside Nestor’s palace in Pylos suggests that the concept of competing cultures might obscure a deep interconnectedness. “Archaeologists have a way of cutting the world up into well-bounded cultural entities, but it seems that in the Late Bronze Age new identities were being formed,” says archaeologist Dimitri Nakassis of the University of Colorado Boulder. “There used to be clear lines between the Minoans and the Mycenaeans, but a lot of work now points out that these are our categories, not theirs.”

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Bronze Age Masterpiece