Archaeologists Find Unique Minoan Sealstone in Greece

An international group of archaeologists led by the University of Cincinnati has found a Minoan sealstone in the treasure-laden tomb of a Bronze Age Greek warrior in southwest Greece.

The Pylos Combat Agate. Image credit: University of Cincinnati.

The Pylos Combat Agate. Image credit: University of Cincinnati.

In 2015, University of Cincinnati (UC) archaeologists Professor Jack Davis and Dr. Shari Stocker, along with other UC staff specialists and students, made a rich and rare discovery of an intact, Bronze Age warrior’s tomb near the city of Pylos, an ancient city on the southwest coast of Greece.

Inside they discovered the well-preserved remains of what is believed to have been a powerful Mycenaean warrior or priest in his early- to mid-30s who was buried around 1500 BC near the archeological excavation of the Palace of Nestor.

Immortalized in Homer’s Odyssey, the large administrative center was destroyed by fire sometime around 1180 BC, but remains the best-preserved Bronze Age palace on the Greek mainland. UC archaeologist Carl Blegen first discovered the Mycenaean ruins in 1939, where he unearthed a number of clay tablets written in Linear B script, the earliest known written form of Greek.

The warrior’s tomb, hailed by the Greek Culture Ministry as the ‘most important to have been discovered [in continental Greece] in 65 years,’ revealed a remarkably intact skeleton, which the team dubbed the Griffin Warrior for the discovery of an ivory plaque adorned with a griffin — a mythical beast with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle — buried with him.

The tomb also revealed more than 3,000 objects arrayed on and around the warrior’s body, including four solid gold rings, silver cups, precious stone beads, fine-toothed ivory combs and an intricately built sword, among other weapons.

Due to the seal’s small size and veining on the stone, many of the miniature details are only clearly visible via photomicroscopy. Image credit: University of Cincinnati.

Due to the seal’s small size and veining on the stone, many of the miniature details are only clearly visible via photomicroscopy. Image credit: University of Cincinnati.

The newly-found sealstone is one of the finest works of prehistoric Greek art ever discovered, according to the team.

Dubbed the ‘Pylos Combat Agate,’ the seal promises not only to rewrite the history of ancient Greek art, but to help shed light on myth and legend in an era of Western civilization still steeped in mystery.

“Looking at the image for the first time was a very moving experience, and it still is. It’s brought some people to tears,” Dr. Stocker said.

“What is fascinating is that the representation of the human body is at a level of detail and musculature that one doesn’t find again until the classical period of Greek art 1,000 years later. It’s a spectacular find,” Professor Davis added.

“Even more extraordinary is that the meticulously carved combat scene was painstakingly etched on a piece of hard stone measuring just 1.4 inches (3.6 cm) in length.”

“Indeed, many of the seal’s details, such as the intricate weaponry ornamentation and jewelry decoration, become clear only when viewed with a powerful camera lens and photomicroscopy.”

“Some of the details on this are only a half-millimeter big. They’re incomprehensibly small.”

The miniature masterpiece portrays a victorious warrior who, having already vanquished one unfortunate opponent sprawled at his feet, now turns his attention to another much more formidable foe, plunging his sword into the shielded man’s exposed neck in what is sure to be a final and fatal blow.

It’s a scene that conjures the sweeping and epic battles, larger-than-life heroes and grand adventures of Homer’s The Iliad, the epic Greek poem that immortalized a mythological decade-long war between the Trojan and Mycenaean kingdoms.

“While we can’t say that the image was intended to reflect a Homeric epic, the scene undoubtedly reflects a legend that was well known to Minoans and Mycenaeans,” Dr. Stocker said.

“It would have been a valuable and prized possession, which certainly is representative of the Griffin Warrior’s role in Mycenaean society. I think he would have certainly identified himself with the hero depicted on the seal.”

A specialized team reconstructed the face of the Griffin Warrior by layering facial tissue over his skull. Image credit: University of Cincinnati.

A specialized team reconstructed the face of the Griffin Warrior by layering facial tissue over his skull. Image credit: University of Cincinnati.

Though the seal and other artifacts found within the tomb suggest the Griffin Warrior held an esteemed position in Mycenaean society, that so many of the artifacts are Minoan-made raises intriguing questions about his culture.

Scholarly consensus has long theorized that mainlander Mycenaeans simply imported or robbed such riches from the affluent Minoan civilization on the large island of Crete, southeast of Pylos.

Although the Minoans were culturally dominant to the Greek mainlanders, the civilization fell to the Mycenaeans around 1500-1400 BC — roughly the same time period in which the Griffin Warrior died.

“The discovery of four gold signet rings bearing highly detailed Minoan iconography, along with other Minoan-made riches found within the tomb, indicates a far greater and complex cultural interchange took place between the Mycenaeans and Minoans,” the researchers said.

“But the skill and sophistication of the Pylos Combat Agate is unparalleled by anything uncovered before from the Minoan-Mycenaean world.”

And that raises a bigger question: How does this change our understanding of Greek art in the Bronze Age?

“It seems that the Minoans were producing art of the sort that no one ever imagined they were capable of producing,” Professor Davis said.

“It shows that their ability and interest in representational art, particularly movement and human anatomy, is beyond what it was imagined to be. Combined with the stylized features, that itself is just extraordinary.”

The archaeologists will present findings from the Pylos Combat Agate in a paper to be published later this month in the journal Hesperia.

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Sharon R. Stocker Jack L. Davis. 2017. The Combat Agate from the Grave of the Griffin Warrior at Pylos. Hesperia 86 (4)

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