The griffin family of Lefkandi

A twelfth-century-BC alabastron from Xeropolis-Lefkandi

The site of Lefkandi flourished in the aftermath of the collapse of the Mycenaean Palaces. Among the pottery found at the settlement on the Xeropolis tell is an alabastron on which griffins are depicted not as monsters, but in a loving family scene. What does it mean for the changing contexts of pottery production in the postpalatial Aegean?

Matthew Lloyd

Excavations on the Xeropolis tell at Lefkandi, Euboea, began in the summer of 1964 under the direction of Mervyn Popham and Hugh Sackett. In the first year, trial trenches were dug around various parts of the tell to assess the best spots for subsequent excavation.

In a trench called Trial C a destruction deposit associated with a clay floor was discovered (Popham et al. 2006, pp. 87-88). The destruction level was dated to the pottery phase Late Helladic IIIC (LH IIIC), specifically Phase 2a in the site-specific pottery sequence. In absolute terms, on the currently accepted chronology, this is around 1150-1125 BC.

Among the debris were a number of near complete, some even intact, pottery vessels. One of these vessels was an unusual straight-sided vessel usually called an alabastron, although it does not closely resemble the familiar long or bulbous oil containers of that type from later centuries (Crouwel 2006, p. 237). Some scholars call it a pyxis (Kramer-Hajos 2016, p. 149), but while it is visually similar to later pyxides its function appears to be as an oil container, not a box. At the time of destruction, it appears that the foot of a kylix, a long-stemmed cup, was being used as a lid for this vessel.

Different views of the LH IIIC alabastron from Lefkandi. On the left is the main scene with the pair of griffins tending to a nest. On the right we can see that other animals are also depicted. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

While the shape is unusual, it is the decoration that makes this vessel unique. Decorated in light-on-dark style, the vessel was painted entirely black before pictorial scenes were added in white paint. The decoration includes real and mythical animals, arranged in what appear to be family groups. Three goats, a parent and two young, form one group; an antlered deer and its young another. Facing the deer, but of unclear relation to it, is a single sphinx.

It is the final group that gives the vessel it’s familiar name: the Griffin Alabastron. In what appears to be the main scene on the vessel, two antithetical adult griffins feed their young, chirping excitedly in the nest between them. The griffin on the viewer’s right, identified as the female on the basis of its less ornate decoration, seems to lovingly touch her paw to the arm of the male griffin. It is a strange scene of creatures usually depicted as monstrous enjoying a tender familial moment.

Nature nurtures

In the currently published repertoire of LH IIIC pottery from Lefkandi there are ninety-three pictorial vessels, all from settlement contexts (Crouwel 2006, p. 234). Sadly, this context means that the vessels are usually extremely fragmentary, but we know that kraters – large wine mixing bowls – are the most common shape to carry pictorial decoration. Kraters offer the painter both a large surface for decoration (Crouwel 2006, p. 248), as well as a use-context – feasts and drinking parties – where elaborately decorated vessels would be welcome (Rutter 2014, pp. 202-203; Kramer-Hajos 2016, pp. 152-156).

Among LH IIIC pictorial from Lefkandi scenes of animals are common and inventive (Crouwel 2006, p. 248). Two fragmentary scenes have been interpreted as rutting goats, a scene unknown in Late Bronze Age pictorial although more common in the first millennium BC; one of these is a common scene of antithetical rampant goats nibbling a tree with a third rampant goat added behind his mate, although the fragment that would confirm their conjugation is sadly missing (Rutter 2014, pp. 198-199).

Scenes of parents and children are also remarkably common at Lefkandi. Two kraters show a parent bird tending to single chicks in their nests, one of which seems to show a parent rushing to help the chick as it falls out of the nest; an adult and baby sphinx are preserved together on fragments of one krater, while another seems to show lions at play; a tiny fragment even seems to show a human child among adults (Rutter 2014, pp. 201-202).

Fragments of a krater from Tiryns that depict chariots, possibly a chariot race. Photo: Matthew Lloyd.

Nonetheless, in the overall corpus of LH IIIC pottery scenes of horse-drawn chariots and warriors are most common, and Lefkandi does not deviate from this pattern (Rutter 2014, pp. 202-203). Rutter suggests that this popularity is based on the context in which these vessels were used: “the mixing of wine with water, to be consumed in quantity by single-sex groups of male warriors and hunters celebrating their group achievements” (Rutter 2014, p. 203). Following from this, Rutter suggests that pictorial kraters emphasising familial ties might have been used by extended family groups.

Mocking the fallen palaces?

A notable feature of LH IIIC pictorial is that while there is much that is imaginative in the depictions, many of the basic forms are familiar from the palatial period but they are given a new twist in their postpalatial context. Antithetically positioned goats nibbling leaves were familiar in Mycenaean painting for centuries before the collapse of the palaces, adopted from the Near East, but scenes of goat sex are unknown (Crouwel 2006, pp. 242-242). So, too, were griffins, but never in parental pairs.

According to Janice L. Crowley, “Griffins are everywhere in Mycenaean art” (Crowley 2008, p. 279). And so they are: in “flying gallop” pose on the blades of swords from the shaft graves at Mycenae and on an ivory pyxis from Athens; on an ivory plaque in the tomb of the so-called “Griffin warrior”; duelling warriors on the handles of mirrors; harnessed to a chariot on seal-rings; attending the Mistress of Animals; and flanking the throne in the megaron at Pylos, as they did too in the throne room at Knossos. Apparently adopting it along with other prestigious symbols from the Cretan Minoans, the Mycenaean Greeks “transformed the griffin and the lion into grand symbols of their own aggressive power” (Crowley 2008, p. 281).

A fresco from the Cult Centre at Mycenae depicting a woman wearing a boars’ tusk helmet (probably a goddess), accompanied by a miniature griffin. National Archaeological Museum, Athens.

Margaretha Kramer-Hajos suggests that the antithetical position of the parental griffins suggests direct reference to the “heraldic” depictions of these monsters such as those in the throne rooms at Knossos and Pylos, but that the care they show to their offspring indicates that they have been “domesticated” (Kramer-Hajos 2016, pp. 149-151; quotation, pp. 150-151):

Rather than guard the wanax or the palace itself, they guard their helpless chicks; their fierceness is gone together with the palaces of the LH IIIB period. Palatial iconography is thus turned upside down and powerful symbols are rendered not only harmless but even comical.

Kramer-Hajos suggests that behind these depictions lies “a reaction to palatial iconography by downplaying, even mocking, powerful palatial symbols” suggesting “disassociation and dissatisfaction” with the collapsed palatial system (2016, p. 151). In this, she follows and elaborates upon Rutter: “among the possibilities might be a frank rejection of monarchy as a political system or simply a lampooning of the former totems of royalty. That is, these family scenes just might be examples of political commentary or even humour in late Mycenaean art” (Rutter 2014, p. 204).

There is something compelling about this argument for a sense of humour among the survivors of palatial control. But the argument fails to completely convince me. The pictorial style of Late Helladic IIIC begins in the Middle phase of that pottery period, which on the accepted chronology is something like a generation after the fall of the palaces. While it is not inconceivable that resentment of the palaces remained, it seems a little strange to see it the focus of a few vessels at Lefkandi, a non-palatial site. Although Lefkandi may have been under the sway of the palace at Thebes in the thirteenth century (Lemos 2020, pp. 789-790), the temporal and physical distance between that palace and mid-twelfth century Lefkandi makes me dubious that these symbols remained closely connected to palatial rule.

This explanation also only applies to a small section of LH IIIC pictorial pottery, a pottery style concerned with the natural world, warriors, and hunting. The Griffin Alabaston is, as Rutter says, “potentially the single most significant – yet at the same time frustratingly enigmatic – expression of post-palatial Mycenaean attitudes toward the relationship between parents and children” (Rutter 2014, p. 203); but a better way to understand it is to think about it not only as something unique, but as part of the wider repertoire.

Rather than seeking the meaning behind these images in reference to the past, we should instead be thinking about the context in which they were painted.

Domestic peace

Rutter, considering the implications of the familial-themed decoration, suggests that the Griffin Alabastron was commissioned by a woman. In contrast to the drinking rituals associated with kraters, alabastra are thought to have been sometimes used as containers for women’s cosmetics. Furthermore, he suggests that on this alabastron the sphinx, paired with the stag and faun, specifically represents this woman as an immigrant: “a mother and consort, but one foreign to her family” (Rutter 2014, p. 204).

Certainly, the question of women’s social role after the fall of the palaces is significant in our interpretation of the Griffin Alabastron. In a recent article in the American Journal of Archaeology, Sarah C. Murray, Irum Chorghay, and Jennifer MacPherson argue that changes in postpalatial ceramic production can be explained by changes in the demographics of those producing the pottery – most notably, their gender. They argue that in the postpalatial period the greater availability of agricultural land will have encouraged male potters to abandon their craft in favour of feeding the community, leaving ceramic production to women operating at the household level (Murray et al. 2020, p. 225).

While the thrust of their argument focuses on the Early Iron Age (ca. 1050-700 BC), it seems that Murray, Chorghay, and MacPherson date the change to Late Helladic IIIC Early, with the subsequent sub-phases reflecting the establishment of expertise and style (Murray et al. 2020: 218-19). Of this early period they say (Murray et al. 2020, p. 219),

the progression of styles, from those obviously imitative of and drawn from a Late Bronze Age tradition to entirely new shapes and approaches to design, might reflect the process of new potters becoming more confident with practice and developing their own approaches to potting and decoration.

This might seem like a long time – usually attributed a century-and-a-half – for new potters and painters to be finding their feet. Nevertheless, we can see Late Helladic IIIC pictorial pottery as a kind of experimental period in which potters try to use the symbolism that they have inherited to express what is important to them.

If we accept that women took over ceramic production after the fall of the palaces ca. 1200 BC, we can perhaps re-examine Rutter’s idea that the Griffin Alabastron was commissioned by a woman and instead consider that it may rather have been painted by a woman and a mother. We may consider that the focus of the potters of Lefkandi on familial scenes may be that pottery production had moved into the context of household production by women. As many of us have become aware in recent months, when women work from home they are still expected to carry the weight of childcare; so too in prehistory, and so this focus may have been more on their minds as they painted their pottery.

Two counterpoints to this argument occur to me, although they are somewhat mutually exclusionary. The first is whether we should assume that familial and childrearing themes will only appear on pottery when women are involved. The second is that in LH IIIC pictorial, as in Late Geometric pictorial, scenes from the masculine realm of warriors and warfare are abundant.

The former can be answered by the fact that it is not these themes that lead Murray, Chorghay, and MacPherson to argue that women were in charge of pottery production following the collapse of the palaces. It is rather other factors, such as the initial decline in the quality of potting and painting, the greater regionalism apparent in style, and parallels in the ethnographic record, as well as the later use of decorative patterns from weaving, on which they rest their argument (Murray et al. 2020, pp. 218-219, 222-225, 226-229). That women chose to emphasise their own realms of activity is therefore tangential, but nevertheless interesting.

The second relies on our understanding of the context in which these vessels were used: the scenes of warriors and warfare in Late Helladic IIIC pictorial dominate kraters, wine-mixing vessels, perhaps used at masculine drinking parties where men sought allies (Rutter 2014, pp. 202-203; Kramer-Hajos 2016, pp. 152-156). Meanwhile, the Griffin Alabastron represents a vessel that may have been used in a specifically female context. We must also remember that pictorial pottery is a slim fraction of LH IIIC pottery production as a whole.

Whoever was painting these vessels, the men involved in drinking gatherings may have welcomed scenes relating to their warrior activities. There is no more reason to suppose that women could not paint their men at war than there is to suppose that a man could not paint the tender touch of one griffin parent on another’s arm. However, the wider context suggests a new demographic of pottery producers, and ethnographic parallels suggest that these would have been women.

Concluding thoughts

The pictorial style in the Middle Phase of Late Helladic IIIC pottery expresses a freer attitude in pottery production, with astonishing and inventive scenes appearing in numerous sites across the Aegean world. As well as Lefkandi, we might also note unique scenes of net-fishing and dancing at Naxos, what appears to be a chariot race on a vessel from Tiryns, and sea-battles from Kynos.

Nevertheless, a loss of what we might call institutional memory leads to a lower quality of production, firing, and painting, including a decrease in the variety of shapes, at least in the first phase of postpalatial pottery. Both of these features point to changes in the social background of those producing pottery in the Aegean, despite an attempt to maintain some sense of consistency with the past.

In the case of the Griffin Alabastron, we might see a woman using ideas from the past but transforming them in a way that is more interesting to her specific circumstances and the use to which she puts the vessel. At a stage when women had perhaps been in control of pottery production for a generation, but had not yet begun to draw their inspiration from their weaving expertise, she experimented with a vessel that may not have been seen outside her household. And while the Griffin Alabastron may not have inspired generations of future potters, it offers an unparalleled insight into postpalatial domestic life.