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Archaeologists unearth rare ‘masterpiece’ sealstone in Greek tomb in Pylos

It took more than a year to wipe the limestone crust off a 1.4-inch-long stone found in an ancient tomb in Greece, but it would have been time well spent even if it took twice as long — because when the task was completed, researchers from the University of Cincinnati had uncovered a treasure that could rewrite the history of ancient Greek art. The University of Cincinnati’s discovery of a rare Minoan sealstone in the treasure-laden tomb of a Bronze Age Greek warrior promises to rewrite the history of ancient Greek art.

Beneath the crust lay a meticulously carved sealstone that defies much of what has been thought to be the history of ancient Greek art.

The sealstone — an engraved gem designed to be used as a personal seal — was found in the intact Bronze Age tomb of the “Griffin Warrior,” which was uncovered in 2015 in an olive grove near the ancient city of Pylos.

The Greek Culture Ministry has called the nearly 3,500-year-old tomb the “most important [find] to have been discovered [in continental Greece] in 65 years.” So far, it has yielded more than 3,000 burial objects, including four solid gold rings, silver cups, precious stone beads, fine-toothed ivory combs and an intricately built sword.

But the newly uncovered sealstone, known as the Pylos Combat Agate, may be the greatest find of all.

It portrays a typical scene from Homeric legend: a warrior in battle, his sword plunging into the exposed neck of an enemy, another adversary sprawled dead on the ground. But its intricate design is unlike anything ever uncovered from the Minoan-Mycenaean world, and the researchers who uncovered it say it should prompt a reconsideration of the evolution and development of Greek art.

“Looking at the image for the first time was a very moving experience, and it still is,” said Stocker. “It’s brought some people to tears.” Davis and Stocker say the Pylos Combat Agate’s craftsmanship and exquisite detail make it the finest discovered work of glyptic art produced in the Aegean Bronze Age.

The tiny sealstone depicting warriors in battle measures just 1.4 inches across but contains incredible detail. Credit: University of Cincinnati

Even more extraordinary is that the meticulously carved combat scene was painstakingly etched on a piece of hard stone measuring just 3.6 centimeters, or just over 1.4 inches, 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,” said Davis. “They’re incomprehensibly small.”

“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,” Jack Davis, professor of Greek archaeology at the U. of Cincinnati, told EurekAlert!. “It’s a spectacular find….”

“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 the researchers 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, says Stocker.

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

“Looking at the image for the first time was a very moving experience, and it still is,” said Davis’ wife and co-leader in the dig, Shari Stocker, a senior research associate at UC’s Department of Classics.

“It’s brought some people to tears…. This seal should be included in all forthcoming art history texts, and will change the way that prehistoric art is viewed.”

Stocker and Davis will present their findings in a paper to be published later this month in the journal Hesperia.

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  1. Amazing,
    I wonder what kind of optical knowledge they must have had to produce such detail and also the instruments used.

  2. Martin Baldwin-Edwards

    Even in the Victorian period, many skilled crafts people working at close range (tailors, engravers etc.) developed extreme short sight early in their adult lives. Prior to optical aids, it may be that skilled individuals who made things like this artefact were people with extreme myopia, able to work on close-up detail but unable to see properly in everyday life.