Researchers Are Unraveling the Mystery of the Ancient Greek Tomb of ‘Nestor’s Cup’

clay cup featuring black geometrical designs
Nestor’s Cup, named for its ties to a legendary king referenced in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, bears one of the earliest known Greek inscriptions. Gigante et al. / PLOS One

A new analysis of human remains buried in Pithekoussai, an ancient Greek colony on the island of Ischia in modern-day Italy, during the eighth century B.C.E. sheds light on the history of Nestor’s Cup, an enigmatic artifact bearing one of the earliest known Greek inscriptions.

Archaeologists originally believed that the tomb, which boasted a rich array of grave goods, including Nestor’s Cup, contained the cremated remains of a child. But the new study, published this week in the journal PLOS One, indicates that burned bone fragments in the burial actually came from at least three adults.

“We can say that we reopened a cold case,” lead author Melania Gigante, a cultural heritage researcher at the University of Padua, tells Mindy Weisberger of Live Science.

As Haaretz’s Ariel David reports, Nestor’s Cup—decorated with black geometric designs—was imported from the Greek island of Rhodes. A brief inscription was added after the 2,800-year-old clay vessel was made. According to Brown University, the text reads, “I am Nestor’s cup, good to drink from. Whoever drinks this cup empty, straightaway Desire for beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize him.”

These lines are a somewhat jestful reference to Nestor, the legendary king of Pylos and a character in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. In the first of these epic poems, he drinks from a huge golden chalice with the power to restore strength. (Researchers discovered an entirely different gold artifact also known as Nestor’s Cup in a grave at Mycenae in 1876.)

Researchers Are Unraveling the Mystery of the Ancient Greek Tomb of 'Nestor's Cup'
The researchers found fragments of bones from at least three adult humans, as well as animal remains. Gigante et al. / PLOS One

The cup’s inscription is significant as one of the oldest known examples of writing in the Greek alphabet, per History of Information. Along with the Dipylon inscription found on an ancient Athenian wine jug from the same period, the vessel is linked to a variant Greek writing system known as the Euboean alphabet. 

Archaeologists excavated about 1,300 tombs at Pithekoussai between 1952 and 1982. The grave where Nestor’s Cup was found also contained a silver brooch and other pottery fragments, suggesting that whoever was buried there was of high status.

Long before the initial excavation, the tomb was disturbed to make way for more graves, reports Isaac Schultz for Gizmodo. That made it difficult for researchers to interpret what they saw. But a previous analysis of the cremated human remains suggested the burial belonged to a child between the ages of 10 and 14, leaving scholars puzzled about the inclusion of a cup with a racy message. 

The new analysis found fragments of both human and animal bones, with the animals—probably including sheep, bulls, pigs, dogs and birds—most likely buried as companions or food for the deceased humans. 

Examining the human bone fragments, the researchers compared the density of formations that show bone renewal over time. Per Live Science, this analysis revealed that the bones belonged to three different people, all of whom were adults. The team couldn’t determine how old the deceased were or whether they were related.

“Unfortunately, given the high fragmentation of the samples and the fire action, we are unable to say more,” Gigante tells Live Science.

Still, the researchers point out, the new findings help unravel the longstanding mystery of the tomb of Nestor’s Cup.

“Our research rewrites the history and the previous archaeological interpretation of the tomb, throwing new light on funeral practices, culture and society of the Greek immigrants in the ancient West Mediterranean,” say the study’s authors in a statement. They add that the tomb is “widely considered one of the most important archaeological findings of pre-classical Mediterranean archaeology.”

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