A big deal, indeed: Greece celebrates historical treasure unearthed by UC archaeologists

Couple unveil findings about significant discovery
Posted at 5:00 AM, Oct 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-20 08:24:17-04

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom -- It’s no secret that Greece has fallen upon hard times in recent years. Its faltering economy has created a sense of desperation in the proud nation’s citizens, driving some to seek out, plunder and fence the very artifacts from which much of the country’s pride is derived.

But in May 2015, a most rare discovery made by two University of Cincinnati archaeologists -- a tomb left undisturbed for more than 3,500 years -- gave Greece a reminder of the greatness of its past. On Oct. 6, Shari Stocker and Jack Davis told more than 350 people in a packed lecture hall at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece, and more than 1,000 from around the world watching via the internet, what they had discovered inside the Grave of the Griffin Warrior.

"The economic disaster, the crisis is seriously felt, and there was a lot of negativity as far as Greece’s ability to recover," Stocker said. "One of the great things about our story is it’s just a happy story. It’s exciting, and it’s something to be proud of, and it is their country. It’s very rare to have happy news."

One of the four rings discovered inside the Grave of the Griffin Warrior in Pylos, Greece. (Photo provided by the University of Cincinnati)

"Major heads of government in Greece have been calling to congratulate us," Davis said. "It’s a big deal."

A big deal, indeed -- The New York Times reported that the consensus in the archaeological community is that the discovery is the richest find in Greece in 50 years.

Inside the grave, which is located near Pylos, a city on the southwest coast of the country, was a cache of treasures that most archaeologists could only dream of discovering. Among gems, ivory combs, a bronze mirror and the remains of a powerful man, the husband-and-wife team of Davis and Stocker found clues that may help explain the very origins of what would eventually become Classical Greek civilization.

The evidence: Four golden rings, each beautifully engraved. The rings once marked the grave’s occupant as one of the most powerful men in Pylos.

"The rings are particularly interesting because, for one thing, gold rings are pretty rare in prehistoric Greece," Davis said. "But there are intricate scenes depicted on the gold rings, and all four depict scenes, imagery of ancient Cretan religion from the Minoan civilization. They’re scenes that we haven’t seen before produced on the island of Crete itself."

Minoan culture, a Bronze Age civilization, arose on Crete and other islands in the Aegean Sea about two millennia before the Mycenaean civilization of Greece came into existence. The rings Stocker and Davis found in the tomb suggest that people on the Greek mainland, despite cultural and linguistic differences, understood the imagery on the rings.

"Why is that important? Really, because it shows that ideas and concepts were being imported from this older civilization, the Minoan civilization, which is the oldest civilization in Europe," Davis explained. "They were being imported to the Greek mainland and integrated with the ideas and concepts that ultimately gave rise to the Classical Greek civilization, which sits at the very foundation of civilization."

The excavation of the Grave of the Griffin Warrior -- so dubbed because of the numerous representations of griffins in its contents, Stocker said -- took place between May and October 2015. Since then, the couple has worked on analyzing, cataloging and preserving their discoveries.

University of Cincinnati archaeologists Shari Stocker, left, and Jack Davis take a break from excavation work at the Grave of the Griffin Warrior in Pylos, Greece. (Photo provided by the University of Cincinnati)

And since their recent announcement, the couple has been in high demand. They spoke at Cambridge University, then traveled to London to speak at a meeting of the Anglo-Hellenic League, a British organization dedicated to charitable work and historic preservation in Greece. But work in Pylos is far from over.

"We’re continuing with our scientific analyses," Stocker said. “We’re hoping to do some DNA testing in the future, and we also want to send out some samples for carbon-14 dating to see how close we can get to the absolute date for the grave."

Stocker and Davis’ findings have garnered heavy interest from around the world. The Grave of the Griffin Warrior has been featured in National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine and the UK’s The Telegraph, to name a few of the more prominent publications, along with numerous scientific and archaeological websites and journals.

The discovery continues a University of Cincinnati tradition of archaeological success in Greece that dates back to 1927, when Carl Blegen joined the faculty of UC. Blegen’s famed excavations of Troy in Turkey and the Mycenaean-era Palace of Nestor in Pylos helped make Cincinnati one of the United States’ most famed cities in the Greek zeitgeist.

"We’re going to celebrate in just a couple of years our 100th anniversary as a program in archaeology, and we’re stronger than ever," Davis said. "We retain this commitment to not only reinvestigating the archaeological sites that we’ve studied in the past, but also helping maintain them."