Arte-Factual: Griffin-Head Protome

One of the two relics Lara discovers amongst the ruins of Midas’ Palace in Tomb Raider: Anniversary is the griffin-head protome, a bronze decorative piece that she correctly surmises was once fitted onto an Ancient Greek cauldron or drinking vessel.

What Lara’s declaration doesn’t tell us is where such an artefact would have been produced or what the use of a griffin motif could tell us about Ancient Greece’s cultural links with its neighbours across the Mediterranean.

The griffin-head protome as seen in Tomb Raider: Anniversary
The griffin-head protome as seen in Tomb Raider: Anniversary. Image credit: Kelly M.

Let’s start by taking a closer look at the artefact itself. A protome was a type of adornment that was often in the form of an animal head or human bust. Griffin protomes, such as the one seen in the game, would normally have been hollow and made from hammered sheets of bronze or cast in one piece using the lost wax method.

These would have been cast as separate pieces and then attached onto a ritual cauldron with bronze rivets. Several of these would have been attached to each cauldron, though this is mostly speculation;  few intact cauldrons have ever been found. It’s believed that these cauldrons would have been commissioned by high-ranking, wealthy individuals as offerings to the Olympian gods or gifted to local and foreign dignitaries in a bid to strengthen diplomatic ties.

This griffin has long pointed ears, a darting tongue, a sharp curved beak, a topknot, inlaid eyes, and an S-shaped neck. It wasn’t a traditionally Greek motif. It began to appear in Greek art during the period known as the “Orientalizing Period” (circa 8th century BC), when Greek merchants began to establish trading colonies across modern-day Syria, Turkey, Egypt, and other parts of the eastern Mediterranean. During this period of increased cultural exchange, the Greeks adopted new art styles and motifs and learnt new bronze-casting techniques from their Near Eastern neighbours.

One of the many pieces that would have been created during this period is the Proto-Corinthian owl figurine, another one of TR: Anniversary’s collectable relics. And, of course, this griffin-head protome, which not only served a decorative function but was also thought to ward off evil spirits.

Griffin protomes on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens
Griffin protomes on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
Image credit: Photo by Kelly M.

These protomes have found in numerous sites across the Greek mainland and islands but  it’s thought that the main production centre was on the island of Samos, which lies a mere two kilometres off the coast of modern-day Turkey. The island’s proximity to ancient Asia Minor made it a prime location for commerce and allowed the Samian Greeks to establish trade links with merchants in Egypt, Cyrene (in modern-day Libya), Phoenicia, and the Black Sea region. It’s easy to see how cultural exchange would have flourished within this multicultural environment.

Over 200 griffin protomes have been excavated from the site of the Heraion, a large sanctuary on Samos that was dedicated to the goddess Hera. Similar protomes have also been found across the sea at the Sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, no doubt a bid to garner favour with Hera’s adulterous husband. So it’s entirely possible that one protome may have found its way into the heart of a fictional ancient palace, ready to be snapped up by a certain female adventurer.

If you’d like to learn more about griffin protomes or Ancient Greece’s “Orientalizing Period”, check out the links listed under “Sources & Further Reading” below. Or click here to read about other artefacts and art works featured in the Tomb Raider series.

Sources & Further Reading:


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About Kelly M

Kelly McGuire is a translator, editor, writer, and gamer with a passion for archaeology, foreign languages, cultural heritage, and wildlife conservation. She tweets under the username @TRHorizons and is the admin and chief content creator for Tomb Raider Horizons.

View all posts by Kelly M →

10 Comments on “Arte-Factual: Griffin-Head Protome”

  1. Awesome article, very informative. I missed reading arte-factuals!

    I do wonder, when you took that photo at the museum, did you know you might use it someday? Hahaha

    1. Not at all! I took that a few years before I launched this blog but it’s an amazing coincidence (I didn’t even remember seeing it in TR:A as I never found that relic) 🙂

      The photo I used in the Greek wrestlers article was also a wonderful coincidence. I only realized I had a photo of the sculpture when I started working on that article and thought “Hang on…” 😀

      1. The benefits of travel. If I ever write an article on a giant stone beetle, I know I have a photo of it from the British Museum hahaha.

        Now I really want to go to the British Museum again. Still so much to see. And every time I go there’s a section closed for repairs. It almost feels like a game: “you can only explore this part in this stage.”

    1. I’d love to but I’m not sure if Crystal D/Square Enix would be OK with that. Now, if they commissioned me to write such a book… 😉

      1. There must be someone you could email. I am sure these articles would be proof enough you have the know-how and writing skills to make it worth their time.

        1. I guess I could always get in touch with the TR community manager. At the moment, I just don’t have the time to commit to a major project like that (most of my articles would need to be rewritten to be bookworthy, LOL).

          1. Who knows? In five years time, you might realise you have written enough articles to make it easy to put together a book with a few rewrites. It’s just an idea.

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