A Discovery by Archaeologists from the University of Cincinnati Could Rewrite History

In 2015, in a work trailer at the site of an archaeological dig in Pylos, Greece, conservator Alexandros Zokos was meticulously cleaning artifacts with distilled water and ethanol when he came across a tiny sealstone, 1.4 inches long, made of agate. The brown-and-white marbled stone, one of more than 2,000 items that Cincinnati-based husband-and-wife archaeologists Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker had extracted from a 3,500-year-old gravesite nearby, closely resembled a bead, smooth and unadorned on one side and encrusted in calcium and lime on the other. On the Greek island of Crete, such stones would have been pressed into soft clay sealings on boxes, baskets, or rolls of papyrus, or used to mark a high-ranking person’s identity. But here on the Greek mainland, where society is thought to have been less evolved at the time, they were often repurposed in jewelry. This particular stone had been found face-down in the dirt near the skeletal remains of a man’s right arm, many other sealstones, and four gold signet rings.

Illustration by Daniel Krall

As the limestone dissolved, Zokos realized this was no ordinary stone. Davis recalls him saying something like, “This looks really interesting.” It may have been the understatement of the dig. Carved on one side of the stone and barely visible to the human eye was a miniature fight scene between one warrior and a rival, with a second rival lying dead at the warrior’s feet. Later, enhanced photography would reveal that the scene was incredibly—almost impossibly, considering the stone’s hardness and age—detailed, showing every flowing curl on the warrior’s head (which itself measured just 0.29 centimeters), a piece of jewelry on his wrist (an unfathomable 0.045 centimeters), and even astounding details of human anatomy, including what one BBC narrator later called “rippling biceps.”

Historians and archaeologists were already blown away when Stocker, a University of Cincinnati senior research associate, and Davis, head of UC’s classics department—“both well-known figures in the archaeological world,” says University of Missouri–St. Louis professor of archaeology Michael Cosmopoulos—found the circa 1450 B.C. grave in the first place, in an area where iconic UC archaeologist Carl Blegen had dug test trenches in the 1960s and “found squat,” says Davis. They were amazed again, just two months later, when Davis and Stocker revealed the discovery of those four pristinely preserved signet rings beside the remains of a man who had since been nicknamed “The Griffin Warrior” (for an ivory plaque with a griffin, a mythical mashup of lion and eagle, that the pair found between his leg bones). Now, they were astounded at the discovery of this extraordinarily small and precise piece of artwork, the likes of which had never been seen before.

Until now, historians thought Greek artists weren’t capable of creating such realistic and detailed art, let alone on such a small scale, until at least 500 B.C. The existence of this tiny stone (now known as the Pylos Combat Agate) 1,000 years earlier blew that theory out of the water. It also began raising more questions: Why had no one ever discovered the grave before? Who was this man, to have been buried in his own personal grave alongside such riches? And how did someone make something as detailed as the Combat Agate as early as 1450 B.C.? Add in the fact that Davis and Stocker, who have worked on digs in the area for three-plus decades, really hadn’t expected to find anything like this in their lifetimes—certainly not on this particular site—and you have a tale both epic and irresistible that’s tinged with mystery and fully capable of altering history as we know it.

Photograph courtesy the Department of Classics at the University of Cincinnati

The best part of the story is that Stocker and Davis didn’t even want to dig on this piece of land in the first place. They were looking for houses in the town that surrounded the Palace of Nestor, a remarkably well preserved 13th century B.C.E. palace that played a significant role in Homer’s Odyssey and had been discovered by Carl Blegen and another archaeologist in 1939. The land they wanted, in a place called Dimopoulos Field, was unavailable, so Greece’s Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs granted them a permit in a field near an olive grove that the Greek state owned, located in the 120-meter span between Dimopoulos Field and the Palace of Nestor.

Based on Blegen’s earlier explorations, the couple didn’t have high hopes. They chose eight different places where their initial team of 35 grad students, archaeologists, and volunteers would help dig exploratory trenches. This particular location, “Trench N-C02,” was included because someone had noticed stones protruding from the ground and wondered what they were. Three days into the dig, Stocker and Davis were shocked when those stones morphed into the outline of a grave. Seven days after that, the couple was sitting in a bank when they received a message from UC student Flint Dibble, saying, “You’d better come quickly—we’ve found bronze,” says Stocker. Turns out Dibble and fellow UC student Alison Fields had just uncovered the first of more than 2,000 grave goods the tomb would eventually yield—a sizable bronze basin.

“We were wildly happy on the one hand,” says Davis. But the pair’s gut reaction was just as much “Ah, crap!” as anything, he adds, noting that a find like this is “both a blessing and a curse.” For starters, they were already two weeks into a six-week permit, “and this looked like a lot more than six weeks’ work,” he says. He was right. The excavation would end up lasting six months. Plus, the presence of precious metals required round-the-clock security. Grave looting is a popular pastime with some locals; Stocker still shudders at the thought of a gold necklace they had to leave in the ground for nearly four months because it was wrapped around an embedded bronze cup.

A gold chain

Photograph courtesy the Department of Classics at the University of Cincinnati

Those weren’t the only complications. Most of their team had to leave after six weeks. It rained much more than normal that summer—they had to dig drainage channels around the grave and cover it with polyurethane so it wouldn’t fill with water. With so many pieces requiring conservation, the cost of the dig became “astronomical,” says Stocker. (She and Davis—not UC—raise every penny to fund the dig themselves, in the form of donations from both foundations and individuals.) The two people in charge were suddenly facing a lot more challenges than they’d anticipated.

Still, for an archaeologist, finding a single undisturbed and un-looted grave this old—especially one with everything from weapons to hair combs to gemstones and precious metals like bronze and gold inside—is rare, almost akin to winning the lottery, not because of the payout (there is in fact no official monetary reward for such a find from the Greek government, UC, or anyone else) but for the prestige and honor and new glimpses into historical data and information such discoveries provide.

“The importance of this tomb—wow—it’s hard to even start counting the ways,” says George Washington University professor and archaeologist Eric H. Cline, a former colleague of Davis and Stocker. “The gold in some ways is the least of it.” Ironically, the thing that saved this tomb was the fact that a massive stone from its original roof had fallen inside, crushing the corpse as the coffin decayed but also sealing the grave permanently. Eventually, Stocker speculates, earth filled in on top of it and nobody even knew it was there.

The tomb, showing the collapsed roof stone and the uppermost layer of artifacts

Photograph courtesy the Department of Classics at the University of Cincinnati

Photograph courtesy the Department of Classics at the University of Cincinnati

The University of Cincinnati’s archaeology program—part of its classics department, which dates back to the early 1900s—is “undeniably one of the top classical archaeology programs in the country,” says Cosmopoulos, who’s also worked extensively in the Pylos area. It’s also no stranger to important digs, especially in Greece—case in point, Blegen’s 1939 discovery of the Palace of Nestor, the “most impressive and prolific site” in Pylos, says Cosmopoulos, and “one of the greatest all-time finds of archaeology,” says Davis—not just for how intact it was, but for the more than 1,200 clay tablets held within its walls that led to the eventual deciphering of the ancient Greek language Linear B.

Now, the Griffin Warrior’s grave has once again put the school’s archaeology program on an international stage. The story of Stocker’s and Davis’s find has been covered by media outlets ranging from the BBC to The Sunday Times (of London), National Geographic Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, and The New York Times. Suddenly, says Cline, they’d become “one of these ‘overnight successes,’ 40 years in the making.”

Even so, the major theme emerging from this dig is a question tied to that Combat Agate: how exactly did Bronze Age Greeks carve such a detailed and artistically advanced scene on a really hard stone just 1.4 inches long? According to Stocker, “nothing [else] like this exists” from that time period. Ancient alien theorists aside, there is no definite answer. Maybe the artist was extremely near-sighted, Cline speculates, or maybe he had access to crystal lenses that acted like magnifying glasses (which aren’t thought to have been formally invented until much later). Or maybe, says Cosmopoulos, “the ancients were technologically far more advanced than we often give them credit for.”

The hilt of a Minoan sword

Photograph courtesy the Department of Classics at the University of Cincinnati

After consulting with an Athens-based goldsmith who specializes in “re-creating ancient technology,” says Stocker, it seems possible that the artist, “using a fixed lathe that rotate[d] with the foot,” first built “a large-scale model to understand the proportions of the motions, [then] worked his way down to something very small in size.”

By moving “the stone rather than [the] tool,” she adds, the artist would have more control during the carving process. And magnification wouldn’t have been an issue, says Stocker, because artisans—even today—who carve hard stones in a similar way use “slurry water” to keep the stone lubricated, “so you can’t see what you’re doing anyway.” Still, the thing to keep in mind here is that all theories, including those of the Athens-based goldsmith, are just conjecture; nobody really knows for sure how someone would have made something like this 3,500 years ago because “so far as we know,” say Davis and Stocker, “the Greek mainland had no written language at this time.” In other words, unlike ancient Near Easterners and Egyptians, who the pair says “have much longer histories of writing,” mainland Greeks in 1450 B.C. had no alphabet—no means of passing down specific information, except with pictures and stories.

As far as the Combat Agate’s implications for historians and the art world, “it’s changing the way they look at things,” says Stocker. The presence of such advanced art in a grave from this time period likely illustrates that early mainland Greeks had a more complex and involved relationship with the rest of the world, including those more advanced Cretans. After she and Davis spoke about the dig at Smith College, a group of professors told them “we have to rewrite our ancient art lectures,” says Davis, “because we tell people: ‘Greeks did not become so intensely interested in the human form until a thousand years later,’ or ‘They weren’t trying to show the reverse of the human body in detail until the beginning of the fifth century B.C.’ But here it is—a thousand years earlier!”

Not a whole lot more is known about the Griffin Warrior himself. Stocker and Davis got a CT scan of both his skull and pelvic bones at a Greek hospital and through the help of physical anthropologists have estimated his age at death as being somewhere between 30 and 35. They’ve also worked with the anthropologists to recreate the structure of his face—a solid, rounded rectangle with full lips, a broad nose and smaller, almond-shaped eyes (the latter two features, says the couple, are estimates based on the modern Greek population). Judging from the caliber of materials buried alongside him, the Warrior was definitely “somebody very high up in the society of the Mycenaean time,” says Stocker. “A prince or a priest. Somebody with the ability to commission the production of these objects by the best artist in the entire Minoan world.” Beyond that, they say, there is no hope of ever knowing who exactly this man was, since he came from a society that didn’t write or read. Still, the pair always includes an illustration in their presentations, depicting what the funeral procession could have looked like as the Griffin Warrior’s grieving family carried his lifeless body to the stone-walled tomb, scores of valuable treasures in tow. It’s an important reminder, they say, amid the restored artifacts and Stocker’s and Davis’s stories of adventure and intrigue, that this “was a real burial of a real person.”

Photograph courtesy the Department of Classics at the University of Cincinnati

Stocker and Davis are known for taking excruciating care while removing items from the ground; we’re talking use-a-shish-kebab-skewer-instead-of-a-shovel-to-dig-that-out careful, says Cline (their team’s conservation efforts are no less painstaking; a bronze mirror with an ivory handle alone took six months to restore). Thanks to current-day technology, this careful approach will allow them to recover more detailed evidence about past cultures and the era when the Griffin Warrior lived than ever before. Scientists can analyze miniscule shreds of textiles to see what they were made of and how they were made; they can also figure out the composition of the gold in things like the signet rings, too, and possibly even discern the location where the gold was originally mined. Bottom line? “We feel a great commitment to the material,” says Stocker. “An ethical commitment to do the most with it that we possibly can.” Davis is quick to point out, though, that such endeavors require a sizable outlay of cash, so the pair is also constantly in search of what he jokingly refers to as “Sugar Daddies.”

A bronze and ivory mirror

Photograph courtesy the Department of Classics at the University of Cincinnati

Meantime, the grave itself has since been “backfilled with earth,” say Stocker and Davis, “to protect the walls from eroding” (in a perfect world, the pair would raise enough money someday to build a small shelter overhead so it could be re-opened for visitors). Every artifact Davis and Stocker removed from the grave is “property of the Greek state and remains in its possession,” they note, adding that “all of what we found will eventually be put in [Greek] museums.” If any artifacts ever do make it to the United States, they would be “more likely to end up [on exhibit] at a major museum in New York City or Los Angeles” than here, says Davis.

How has becoming rock stars in the archaeology world changed the couple’s lives? “Well, I have gray hair [and] I didn’t have any before this started,” says Stocker, who has lived and worked in Greece roughly 10 months out of every year since 2007. (Davis joins her on school breaks and in summers.) Sometimes, the pair also feels overwhelmed by well-meaning members of the public and the press, both of which have shown a nearly unquenchable thirst for news on the dig. Without the help of a full-time staffer, Stocker and Davis handle most correspondence and media requests themselves.

But the couple has also gotten to work with “some amazing people as colleagues,” says Stocker, including members of Harvard’s genetics department, who are studying the Griffin Warrior’s DNA, and a soil micromorphologist who is going to analyze the soil surrounding the grave so Stocker and Davis will have a better understanding of how it filled over time. “We’ve been very, very fortunate,” says Stocker. “We recognize that every day.”

Davis and Stocker will continue publishing indefinitely about their finds—they’re aiming for one article per year, because they want to disseminate the information as quickly as possible. “We want to have a chance to say what we think” before the world’s scholars redirect the discussions, says Stocker. Case in point: one Eastern European historian has already contacted them saying the pair’s findings validate his own research about “relationships between Greece and Egypt,” says Stocker. The couple could also easily spend the rest of their lives conserving, studying, and cataloguing all the items they found, though Stocker is also quick to note that the six months they spent excavating the site “are the beginning of 20 lifetimes worth of work. I mean, they’ll be working on this long after we’re gone and then some.” And they’re finally digging at their first choice location, Dimopoulos Field, through 2019. After that, they plan on spending as much time as possible in an apartment they recently bought in Athens, as Davis eyes retirement in five or six years.

In retrospect, says Stocker, “people might hope to find something like this, [but] nobody does. We were not looking for this. We were not even interested in excavating a grave. I don’t know how it happened, but we got this.”

Is it bad that they found it so late in life? “Can you imagine if they had found it when they were young?” asks Cline. “To be saddled with the responsibility of publishing this? It’s probably much better it happened late in their careers, in part because they know enough, working in Pylos for 25, 35 years, to be able to do a good job.” And besides, he adds, that’s “the beauty and the thrill” of archaeology. “You never know what you’re going to find. If you had asked them in 2005 if they thought they’d find an unplundered tomb, their answer would have been, ‘In your dreams.’” Now? “They get to go out with a bang.”

The best way to describe how an archaeologist views a find of this magnitude, he adds, is this: “The general public thinks either we already know everything or we don’t know anything. [But] we in the field know how much we don’t know. When Jack and Shari find this tomb [we think], ‘Great! Another piece of the puzzle.’ [But] we’re still just seeing a partial picture of the past.” One small glimpse into one person’s life at one very specific point in time.

That partial picture also serves as a poignant reminder. Just when we 21st century humans think we have all the answers, the unexpected discovery of a tiny bead in an undisturbed 3,500-year-old grave in Greece changes everything. It’s a sure case of history revealing itself on its own terms, in its own time, and in mind-boggling ways—“almost,” say Davis and Stocker, as if the Griffin Warrior himself just “wanted his story to be told.”

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