Did griffins really exist?

28 Jan

While doing the digital restoration of several objects of the Regolini-Galasssi tomb, we noticed that there are many depictions of griffins on these objects.  Griffins were a popular theme in Etruscan art in the Orientalising Period in which this tomb has been built, but they are depicted in a very distinct way, with two long curls in the neck, which proves that there is an interesting story behind.  What are the origins of griffins, why are they depicted in this peculiar way? For example, a griffin is depicted on the situla which we have restored digitally (see image below).

detail of situla decoration

Detail of the restored situla decoration, showing a griffin (image: Visual Dimension bvba)

As we can see from the image above, the griffin has the body of a lion but has wings and a beak like an eagle, very specific ears and two strange curls at the back of the head.  Other depictions of griffins on objects from the Regolini-Galassi tomb, such as the holmos, are very similar and show the same characteristic features.

griffin on holmos bottom

Griffin on the bottom part of the holmos (photo: Daniel Pletinckx)

griifin on holmos top

Griffin on the top part of the holmos (photo: Daniel Pletinckx)

griffin on holmos top

Griffin on the top part of the holmos (photo: Daniel Pletinckx)

On some objects, the griffins are used more as a decorative element, still with the same characteristics (beak, curls).

disc fibula

Golden disc fibula from the Regolini-Galassi tomb (photo: Vatican Museums)

detail of golden fibula

Detail of the bottom part of the golden fibula showing griffins (photo: Vatican Museums)

golden breast plate

Golden breast plate (photo: Vatican Museums)

detail golden breast plate

Detail of the golden breast plate showing griffins (photo: Vatican Museums)

In 2000, Adrienne Mayor, a historian at Stanford University, published a ground-breaking book The First Fossile Hunters, which makes the link between fossils of extinct animals (such as dinosaurs) and mythical animals (such as the griffin).  More specifically, she states that Scythian nomads, who were mining gold in the Central Asian area in the first millenium BC told stories about the griffin, a fierce, eagle beaked, lion sized animal that wondered around in their mines, guarding the gold.

The First Fossile Hunters by Adrienne Mayor (2000, 2010)

The First Fossile Hunters by Adrienne Mayor (2000, 2010)

She states that these Scythian miners must have found skeletons of the Protoceratops dinosaur (see book cover above) and that these descriptions were known to Greek traders shortly before 675BC (the Regolini-Galassi tomb was build around 675-650 BC). In the foreword of the second edition (2010) of this book, she also notes that other similar dinosaurs have been excavated in the Central Asian region such as the Turanoceratops (published in 2009) and the Sinoceratops (published in 2010). When comparing the reconstructions of these animals (see below) with the Scythian, Greek and Etruscan depictions of griffins, we come to very interesting conclusions.

The Protoceratops had a distinct neck shield and birdlike beak.  The animal however was eating plants and had the size of a sheep.  Some skeletons show a crest bone.

Protoceratops

Protoceratops reconstruction (image: Nobu Tamura)

Protoceratops

Protoceratops skeleton (image: Wikipedia)

Protoceratops front view

Some Protoceratops had a crest bone (image: Wikipedia)

The Turanoceratops was similar but somewhat bigger. In addition to the neck shield, it had two distinct horns and was the size of a lion.

Turanoceratops

Turanoceratops reconstruction (image: Sergey Krasovskiy)

Turanoceratops

Turanoceratops skeleton (image: Vadim Glinskiy)

The Sinoceratops on the other hand had only one horn and an elaborated neck shield from which curved hornlets protruded.  On both sides of the neck shield, it had extra horns.  It was the size of a small elephant.

Sinoceratops

Sinoceratops reconstruction

Sinoceratops

Sinoceratops skull (image: Lukas Panzarin)

sinoceratops_front

Sinoceratops – front view

Most of these dinosaur remains have been found in the western part of the Gobi desert and the Altai mountains, not far from the Silk road.  This is also the area where the Scythians had their gold mines.  So it is not surprising at all that in Chinese art also griffins appear.  The top depiction in the image below fits very well with the ceratops neck shield with two holes.

Chinese jade plaques

Chinese jade plaques with griffins (British Museum, photo: Wikipedia)

When we look at Scythian depictions of griffins (see below), we see that the animal has a crest and strange ear-like features at the back of the head that could refer to the neck shield and crest bone of the Protoceratops dinosaur.

Scythian depiction of griffin

Scythian depiction of griffin (image: Wikipedia)

Other Scythian depictions of griffins (below) show also the neck shield (even with the holes) and the crest bone, and seem to suggest even the curved hornlets of the Sinoceratops.

Scythian

Scythian tattoo depiction of a griffin

Scythian tattoo depiction of a griffin

Scythian tattoo depiction of a griffin

Some Scythian depictions of griffins even seem to refer clearly to the two-horned Turanoceratops.

Scythian depe (6th-5th century)

Scythian gold applique in the form of a griffin  (6th-5th century BC)

It is unclear however if the typical ears of the griffin relate to a misinterpretation of the neck shield of the Protoceratops or to the two horns of the Turanoceratops, or if both depictions have been confused and merged into one.  Some Greek drawings clearly show (see below)  two horns like a Turanoceratops, but also show the crest bone which is more typical for the Protoceratops. Other depictions show clearly the two horns without crest (see below).

greek

Detail of a Greek crater, 375-350 BC, Louvre

Assyrian

Cylinder seal and impression, Mesopotamia, 13th century BC, The Morgan Library & Museum

Greek and Etruscan objects of the 7th-6th century BC show griffins with strange ears connected to a bony neck feature plus a horn on top of the head.  If we assume that the “ears” are an interpretation of the neck shield (because they continue in this strange feature in the neck), this depiction is very consistent with the skeleton of a Sinoceratops.  Detailed information on the appearance of such griffins were probably transferred to the Etruscans through contacts with their gold digging colleagues from Scythia, resulting in a quite different depiction of griffins in the 7th century BC (cfr. the book of Adrienne Mayor).

Etruscan protome of a lebes

Etruscan protome of a lebes, 600-575 BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

holmos_lebeti_Praeneste

Etruscan lebes (decorated with griffins and lions) from the Barberini tomb, Praeneste, 650 BC

greek

Pair of Greek griffin protomes, late 7th – early 6th century BC, Art Institute, Chicago

Greek

Greek griffin figurine, around 625 BC, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

If we go back to the griffin depictions on the Regolini-Galassi objects (images at the beginning), we see that the most prominent features that relate to the ceratops skeletons are the ears and the neck shield ending in curls.  When looking at recent excavations of Sinoceratops remains, we see that such features stand out remarkably when found.

frill

The frill of a Sinoceratops dinosaur

skull sino

The skull of a Sinoceratops dinosaur with the central horn

But griffins have been depicted already before 700 BC.  These depictions can be found not only in the Middle East but also in the Minoan palace of Crete.  They typically show a griffin as a crested eagle-lion. We also see that the griffin images on the objects of the Regolini-Galassi are still closely related to these older depictions from the Levant, and not to the different Greek depictions (see above) that appear at the same time.

met

Griffin excavated in Nimrud, Mesopotamia, 9th-8th c. BC, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Griffin, Syro-Palestinian, 8th century BC, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

megiddo

Ivory carving from Megiddo, 13th century BC, Oriental Institute, Unversity of Chicago

Minoan Knossos 17th

Reconstructed wall painting in the Minoan Throne Room at Knossos,  17th century BC

One small note concerning the six-headed lebes from the Regolini-Galassi tomb needs to be made here.  Although nearly every text about this object describes the depicted animals as griffins, close examination shows that the animals do not have any griffin features, but look much more like lions.

6-headed lebes

Bronze six-headed lebes from the Regolini-Galassi tomb (photo:Vatican Museums)

detail lebes protome

Detail of one of the so-called griffin heads of the RG lebes (photo: Daniel Pletinckx)

If  we compare with the other five-headed lebes that is decorated by lion heads, we clearly see the analogy between features of both depictions, such as the whiskers and the teeth (griffins are never depicted with whiskers or teeth).  So the heads of the 6-headed lebes of the Regolini-Galassi tomb do represent lions, no griffins!

5-headed lebeti

Bronze lebes with five lion heads from the Regolini-Galassi tomb (photo: Vatican Museums)

Detail views of the lion heads of the lebes (photo: Daniel Pletinckx)

Detail views of the lion heads of the RG lebes (photo: Daniel Pletinckx)

This blog is part of the Etruscanning 3D project, that is being partially funded with support from the European Commission. This blog reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

 

2 Responses to “Did griffins really exist?”

  1. Henry Psanec August 27, 2013 at 4:23 pm #

    Thank you very much for a fascinating and beautiful article. This theory not only makes sense, but it also does not go into extremes which I have read in some books, e. g. that the griffins were dinosaurs which survived until a few centuries ago or that they were genetic experiments performed either by civilizations we know nothing about or by extraterrestrials.

    And well done with the lebetes!

    • Sarah Jumel October 8, 2013 at 10:46 am #

      I quite agree. Having worked on Carnival floats in New Orleans (rife with both griffons and dinosaurs) I get a real kick out of finding out the two are related, if only in the human mind and history.

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