Archaeologists find Bronze Age tombs lined with gold near the Griffin Warrior

Archaeologists find Bronze Age tombs lined with gold

The family tombs are near the 2015 site of the 'Griffin Warrior,' a military leader buried with armor, weapons and jewelry.

A gold ring depicts bulls and barley, the first known representation of domesticated animals and agriculture in ancient Greece. Credits: UC Classics

Archaeologists with the University of Cincinnati have discovered two Bronze Age tombs containing a trove of engraved jewelry and artifacts that promise to unlock secrets about life in ancient Greece.

The UC archaeologists announced the discovery Tuesday in Greece.

Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, archaeologists in UC's classics department, found the two beehive-shaped tombs in Pylos, Greece, last year while investigating the area around the grave of an individual they have called the "Griffin Warrior," a Greek man whose final resting place they discovered nearby in 2015.

Like the Griffin Warrior's tomb, the princely tombs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea also contained a wealth of cultural artifacts and delicate jewelry that could help historians fill in gaps in our knowledge of early Greek civilization.

UC's team spent more than 18 months excavating and documenting the find. The tombs were littered with flakes of gold leaf that once papered the walls.

"Like with the Griffin Warrior grave, by the end of the first week we knew we had something that was really important," said Stocker, who supervised the excavation.

"It soon became clear to us that lightning had struck again," said Davis, head of UC's classics department.

Bronze Age Tombs Griffin Warrior Pylos
UC archaeologists discovered two large family tombs at Pylos, Greece, strewn with flakes of gold that once lined their walls. The excavation took more than 18 months. Credits: UC Classics

The Griffin Warrior is named for the mythological creature -- part eagle, part lion -- engraved on an ivory plaque in his tomb, which also contained armor, weaponry and gold jewelry. Among the priceless objects of art was an agate sealstone depicting mortal combat with such fine detail that Archaeology magazine hailed it as a "Bronze Age masterpiece."

Artifacts found in the princely tombs tell similar stories about life along the Mediterranean 3,500 years ago, Davis said. A gold ring depicted two bulls flanked by sheaves of grain, identified as barley by a paleobotanist who consulted on the project.

"It's an interesting scene of animal husbandry -- cattle mixed with grain production. It's the foundation of agriculture," Davis said. "As far as we know, it's the only representation of grain in the art of Crete or Minoan civilization."

UC archaeologists found a sealstone made from semiprecious carnelian in the family tombs at Pylos, Greece. The sealstone was engraved with two lionlike mythological figures called genii carrying serving vessels and incense burners facing each other over an altar and below a 16-pointed star. The other image is a putty cast of the sealstone. Credits: UC Classics

Like the grave of the Griffin Warrior, the two family tombs contained artwork emblazoned with mythological creatures. An agate sealstone featured two lion-like creatures called genii standing upright on clawed feet. They carry a serving vase and an incense burner, a tribute for the altar before them featuring a sprouting sapling between horns of consecration, Stocker said.

Above the genii is a 16-pointed star. The same 16-pointed star also appears on a bronze and gold artifact in the grave, she said.

"It's rare. There aren't many 16-pointed stars in Mycenaean iconography. The fact that we have two objects with 16 points in two different media (agate and gold) is noteworthy," Stocker said.

The genius motif appears elsewhere in the East during this period, she said.

"One problem is we don't have any writing from the Minoan or Mycenaean time that talks of their religion or explains the importance of their symbols," Stocker said.

UC's team also found a gold pendant featuring the likeness of the Egyptian goddess Hathor.

"Its discovery is particularly interesting in light of the role she played in Egypt as protectress of the dead," Davis said.

The identity of the Griffin Warrior is a matter for speculation. Stocker said the combination of armor, weapons and jewelry found in his tomb strongly indicate he had military and religious authority, likely as the king known in later Mycenaean times as a wanax.

Likewise, the princely tombs paint a picture of accumulated wealth and status, she said. They contained amber from the Baltic, amethyst from Egypt, imported carnelian and lots of gold. The tombs sit on a scenic vista overlooking the Mediterranean Sea on the spot where the Palace of Nestor would later rise and fall to ruins.

"I think these are probably people who were very sophisticated for their time," she said. "They have come out of a place in history where there were few luxury items and imported goods. And all of a sudden at the time of the first tholos tombs, luxury items appear in Greece.

"You have this explosion of wealth. People are vying for power," she said. "It's the formative years that will give rise to the Classic Age of Greece."

The antiquities provide evidence that coastal Pylos was once an important destination for commerce and trade.

"If you look at a map, Pylos is a remote area now. You have to cross mountains to get here. Until recently, it hasn't even been on the tourist path," Stocker said. "But if you're coming by sea, the location makes more sense. It's on the way to Italy. What we're learning is that it's a much more central and important place on the Bronze Age trade route."

The princely tombs sit close to the palace of Nestor, a ruler mentioned in Homer's famous works "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." The palace was discovered in 1939 by the late UC Classics professor Carl Blegen. Blegen had wanted to excavate in the 1950s in the field where Davis and Stocker found the new tombs but could not get permission from the property owner to expand his investigation. The tombs would have to wait years for another UC team to make the startling discovery hidden beneath its grape vines.

Excavating the site was particularly arduous. With the excavation season looming, delays in procuring the site forced researchers to postpone plans to study the site first with ground-penetrating radar. Instead, Stocker and Davis relied on their experience and intuition to focus on one disturbed area.

"There were noticeable concentrations of rocks on the surface once we got rid of the vegetation," she said.

Those turned out to be the exposed covers of deep tombs, one plunging nearly 15 feet. The tombs were protected from the elements and potential thieves by an estimated 40,000 stones the size of watermelons.

The boulders had sat undisturbed for millennia where they had fallen when the domes of the tombs collapsed. And now 3,500 years later, UC's team had to remove each stone individually.

"It was like going back to the Mycenaean Period. They had placed them by hand in the walls of the tombs and we were taking them out by hand," Stocker said. "It was a lot of work."

At every step of the excavation, the researchers used photogrammetry and digital mapping to document the location and orientation of objects in the tomb. This is especially valuable because of the great number of artifacts that were recovered, Davis said.

"We can see all levels as we excavated them and relate them one to the other in three dimensions," he said. UC's team will continue working at Pylos for at least the next two years while they and other researchers around the world unravel mysteries contained in the artifacts.

"It has been 50 years since any substantial tombs of this sort have been found at any Bronze Age palatial site. That makes this extraordinary," Davis said.

 

Press release from the University of Cincinnati, by Michael Miller.


Iron Age shield bark Everards Meadows

Unique Iron Age shield gives insight into prehistoric technology

Unique Iron Age shield gives insight into prehistoric technology

 

A unique bark shield, thought to have been constructed with wooden laths during the Iron Age, has provided new insight into the construction and design of prehistoric weaponry.

Iron Age shield bark Everards Meadows
The unique find has given new insight into prehistoric technology

The only one of its kind ever found in Europe, the shield was found south of Leicester on the Everards Meadows site, in what is believed to have been a livestock watering hole.

Following analysis of the construction of the shield by Michael Bamforth at the University of York, it became apparent that the shield had been carefully constructed with wooden laths to stiffen the structure, a wooden edging rim, and a woven boss to protect the wooden handle.

Although prior evidence has shown that prehistoric people used bark to make bowls and boxes, this is the first time researchers have seen the material used for a weapon of war.

Severe damage

The outside of the shield has been painted and scored in red chequerboard decoration. Radiocarbon dating has revealed that the shield was made between 395 and 255 BC.

The shield was severely damaged before being deposited in the ground, with some of the damage likely to have been caused by the pointed tips of spears. Further analysis is planned to help understand if this occurred in battle or as an act of ritual destruction.

Prehistoric technology

Michael Bamforth, from the University of York’s Department of Archaeology, said: “This truly astonishing and unparalleled artefact has given us an insight into prehistoric technology that we could never have guessed at.

“Although we know that bark has many uses, including making boxes and containers it doesn't survive well in the archaeological record. Initially we didn't think bark could be strong enough to use as a shield to defend against spears and swords and we wondered if it could be for ceremonial use.

"It was only through experimentation that we realised it could be tough enough to protect against blows from metal weapons. Although a bark shield is not as strong as one made from wood or metal, it would be much lighter allowing the user much more freedom of movement."

CT scanning

The shield was first discovered by archaeologists at the University of Leicester's Archaeoligical Services in 2015 at an Iron Age site within a farming landscape known to have been used and managed by Iron Age communities, with the Fosse Way Roman road running close by.

Many cutting-edge analytical techniques have been used to understand the construction of the object, including CT scanning and 3D printing.

Dr Rachel Crellin, Lecturer in later Prehistory at the University of Leicester, who assessed the evidence for impact damage, said: “The first time I saw the shield I was absolutely awed by it: the complex structure, the careful decorations, and the beautiful boss.

“I must admit I was initially sceptical about whether the shield would have functioned effectively, however the experimental work showed that the shield would have worked very effectively, and analysis of the surface of the object has identified evidence of use.”

Craft practices

The shield has now been conserved by York Archaeological Trust and will be deposited with the British Museum on behalf of Everards of Leicestershire, who funded and supported the project.

Dr Julia Farley, Curator of British and European Iron Age Collections at the British Museum, said: “This is an absolutely phenomenal object, one of the most marvelous, internationally important finds that I've encountered in my career.

“Bark and basketry objects were probably commonplace in ancient Britain, but they seldom survive, so to be able to study this shield is a great privilege. It holds a rich store of information about Iron Age society and craft practices.”

 

Press release from the University of York.


The sword of a Hispano-Muslim warlord is digitized in 3D

The sword of a Hispano-Muslim warlord is digitized in 3D

A treasure from the Toledo Army Museum (Spain)

At age 90, Ali Atar, one of the main military chiefs of King Boabdil of Granada, fought to his death in the Battle of Lucena in 1483. It was there that his magnificent Nasrid sword was taken away from him, and researchers from the Polytechnic University of Valencia and a company from Toledo have now modelled it in order to graphically document and present it on the web.Ali Atar, Warden of Loja and Lord of Zagra, was a Hispano-Muslim warlord at the service of King Boabdil, the last sultan of Granada, to whom he was also related when he married his daughter Moraima. In April 1483 Boabdil tried to take the Christian city of Lucena (Cordoba) with the help of his father-in-law, but they lost the battle: the Nasrid king was captured and Ali Atar died fighting at the age of 90.

The sword has been digitalized in the workshops of the Toledo Army Museum (MUSEJE). Credit: IngHeritag3D

His magnificent sword, covered with gold, ivory and precious metals then passed into the hands of the Christians and, after many historical vicissitudes, this Andalusian treasure is now preserved and exhibited in the Toledo Army Museum (MUSEJE, Spanish acronym, Museo del Ejército).

To graphically document this valuable piece and make it known through the web, researchers from the Universitat Politècnica de València (UPV, Spain) and the company Ingheritag3D have carried out a three-dimensional digitization process. The study has just been published in Virtual Archaeology Review.

This is a photogrammetric image. Credit: IngHeritag3D

First they photographed the sword from many angles using a technique called photogrammetry. Then they overlapped all the images, drew planimetries (drawings of the meticulous filigree of the grip) and generated its 3D model.

"These techniques offer the possibility of valuing relevant pieces inside and outside museums, since three-dimensional modelling is prepared both for specialists -who can manipulate the piece virtually-, and for being shared publicly and interactively through the Internet," says engineer Margot Gil-Melitón, co-author of the work.

Using a web viewer, any user can use their mouse to check an exact replica of the handle of this genet sword, a type of genuinely Nasrid weapon introduced in Al-Andalus by the Zenetas (Berber people from whom it takes its name). Ali Atar's sword has a knob in the shape of a bulbous dome, an ivory fist carved with drawings and Arabic letters, and a golden arriax (sword grip) topped with zoomorphic figures.

To record the details of this fine ornamentation, the researchers have devised solutions that have facilitated the analysis of highly reflective materials and complicated geometries. Their workflow could also be applied to characterize other museum pieces.

Ali Atar Nasrid sword King Boabdil of Granada Battle of Lucena digitisation
This is a 3D modelling process of Ali Atar's Nasrid sword. Credit: IngHeritag3D

The other author of the study, Professor José Luis Lerma of the UPV, concludes: "A resource as valuable as cultural heritage can no longer be satisfied with physical conservation: it must be complemented by exhaustive digital preservation in all its forms, which facilitates the investigation of the pieces, their correct safeguarding and dissemination of knowledge to the general public."

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References:

Margot Gil-Melitón, José Luis Lerma. "Historical military heritage: 3D digitisation of the Nasri sword attributed to Ali Atar". Virtual Archaeology Review, Vol 10 - No 20, pp. 52-69, 2019. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4995/var.2019.10028

Interactive 3D animation of the handle of the genet sword of Ali Atar: https://skfb.ly/ZzzA

 

Press release from Fundación Española para la Ciencia y la Tecnología (FECYT), Agencia SINC