The griffin, a fabled creature combining the body of a lion and the head of a bird of prey with big wings on its back, connects the entire ancient world. It is generally seen as a creature of the sky that is closely associated with the sun. In a poem by the Greek poet Aristeas (7th cent. BC) the griffin guards the gold of the Hyperboreans against the Arimaspians – mythical peoples who lived far to the north of the known world. The Hyperboreans led a peaceful life dedicated to the worship of Apollo. In his honour they had amassed a great store of gold.
At the time when archaeology was beginning to establish itself as a science in the early 19th century, numerous circles of scholars formed with the goal of studying classical antiquity in view of the rapid proliferation of finds and the growth of knowledge. One such a circle was formed in Rome around 1820, uniting German scholars, artists and diplomats who called themselves the "Roman Hyperboreans" in reference to the mythical people of the north. Like modern-day devotees of Apollo, they were committed to enlightened ideals and sought to reconcile north and south.
One of its members, the archaeologist and painter Otto Magnus von Stackelberg, designed an emblem for the group: it depicted the Hyperborean griffin fighting the Arimaspians. The loose association of Hyperboreans was followed by the foundation – on the initiative of archaeologist Eduard Gerhard, another of its members – of the "Instituto di corrispondenza archeologica", predecessor of the German Archaeological Institute, in Rome in 1829. The Instituto retained the Hyperborean griffin as its signet, not least owing to the efforts of Gerhard, whose family had the griffin in its coat of arms and who also supplied the first design for a coin bearing this device – which however was never minted.
The "seal" and logo of today's DAI derives, in point of fact, from a statuette that Eduard Gerhard was given in 1865 on the 50th anniversary of his being awarded a doctorate. Unlike the griffin of the Roman Hyperboreans, the griffin here is not shown doing battle with the Arimaspians, but resting a paw on an amphora.
In 1892 – by which time the Institute had become a Prussian state agency – the small statuette was donated to the Institute's inaugural research facility in Rome, where it remains to this day. When the German Archaeological Institute celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1929, the griffin achieved unprecedented prominence as the device on the reverse of the medal that was issued to commemorate the occasion – the Winckelmann Medallion. It is primarily as a result of this medallion that the griffin has become the symbol of the DAI; and since that point also the figure has appeared on the Institute's publications. To mark the DAI's 150th anniversary in 1979 as well as the exhibition "Berlin und die Antike" the griffin was even immortalized on a five Deutsche Mark coin. By this time the figure was firmly established as the emblem of the DAI. Today the griffin, which links together the cultures of the ancient world, is emblematic of the international cooperation which is an enduring principle of the German Archaeological Institute.