The tiny sealstone depicting warriors in battle measures just 1.4 inches across but contains incredible detail.

Stunning Minoan Gemstone Owned by a Bronze Age Warrior Rewrites the History of Ancient Greek Art

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In the more than two years since University of Cincinnati researchers unearthed the 3,500-year-old tomb of a Bronze Age warrior in southwest Greece, an incredible trove of riches has emerged, including four gold signet rings that have challenged accepted wisdom among archaeologists about the origins of Greek civilization.

But that wasn't the only secret hidden there beneath the hard-baked clay. It would take another year before the so-called "Griffin Warrior" revealed his most stunning historical offering yet: an intricately carved gem, or sealstone, that UC researchers say is one of the finest works of prehistoric Greek art ever discovered.

The "Pylos Combat Agate," as the seal has come to be known for the fierce hand-to-hand battle it portrays, 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.

The limestone-encrusted sealstone was discovered lying face-down near the right arm of the Griffin Warrior.

The limestone-encrusted sealstone was discovered lying face-down near the right arm of the Griffin Warrior. ( The Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati )

The seal is the latest and most significant treasure to emerge from the treasure-laden tomb of the Griffin Warrior, which was hailed as the most spectacular archaeological discovery in Greece in more than half a century when it was uncovered in an olive grove near the ancient city of Pylos in 2015.

The remarkably undisturbed and intact grave revealed not only the well-preserved remains of what is believed to have been a powerful Mycenaean warrior or priest buried around 1500 B.C., but also an incredible trove of burial riches that serve as a time capsule into the origins of Greek civilization.

Looking inside the Griffin Warrior tomb.

Looking inside the Griffin Warrior tomb. ( Griffin Warrior Tomb )

But the tomb didn't readily reveal its secrets. It took conservation experts more than a year to clean the limestone-encrusted seal, say dig leaders Shari Stocker, a senior research associate in UC's Department of Classics, and Jack Davis, the university's Carl W. Blegen professor of Greek archaeology and department head.

As the intricate details of the seal's design emerged, the researchers were shocked to discover they had unearthed no less than a masterpiece.

"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.

"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," explained Davis. "It's a spectacular find."

An enlarged drawing of the stunningly detailed combat scene captured on an agate sealstone discovered by the University of Cincinnati's Sharon Stocker and Jack Davis. Tina Ross/Courtesy Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati. ( Color illustration/Ben Gardner, UC Creative Services )

Even more extraordinary, the husband-and-wife team point out, 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."

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

Comments

This may represent a civil war between parts of the Minoan empire after the Thera eruption and before a Mycenaean invasion. The figure on the left is clearly a Cretan 'bull leaping' athlete from the attire, notice the codpiece worn by Minoan bull leapers. This may actually explain the sport and right of passage into a Military warrior class. Also, note a secondary club on the belt that was known to be used by Minoans see Baal and the dispatch of an adversary with an unusually powerful club (e.g. weighted orb end). Others have speculated this is a scabbard, but the one on the floor clearly shows this was detached and held in hand for some purpose and maybe a secondary/combination weapon.

The figure on the right I believe is a Caran hoplite that lived on Delos (centre of the Cyclades) and another adjacent island. They invented military dances (formations, and drill), introduced many military inventions (figure of eight shields, Horsehair helmet plumes that the Greek subsequently adopted) and fought as a military unit phalanx (all shown), they were regarded later as the best-disciplined fighters by the Greeks, and at some point changed sides. They were known to provide crew and soldiers for Minos navy but paid no tribute, this implies they were paid by him for their service. Further it was known that at a festival to Apollo at Delos, Minoans brought significant head of cattle (payment for services rendered).

My own analysis of these facts is that the seal represents a battle. The seal shows a heavy attrition rate of two Minoan foot soldiers (on the floor), to one Caran about to be dispatched by a Minoan leaping elite. It is assumed that the Minoan empire was in sharp decline after the Theta eruption, the trade network collapsed in upon itself, metal reserves running low, a global food crisis, and no surpluses from trade to pay the Carians, war! It looks like Cretan won on this occasion, we know the Carans changed sides and may have aligned themselves with Mycenaean to subsequently seized control of what remained of the Minoan empire. The seal may record the demise of the Minoan empire. It shows all the hall marks of Palace master craftsmanship and they would have wished to record this hard victory and betrayal, the Cretan won the battle but subsequently lost the war.

The use of the Carian shield is also interesting, it used at 90 degrees for close quarter combat (shown), it was assumed these were somewhat cumbersome full body shields (1x2m - composite of leathers skins stapled to a wicker base, superb at absorbing impact energy)that would have been good at defeating standoff slings and arrows. Look how the Carian, then rotates this at close quarters it provides 1m protection either side of the body to defeat being cut by a sword for the sides, similarly the helmet plumes absorb downward cuts to the head. The only way to penetrate this defence is to leap over the height of the sheild, dodge the hoplite and use the sword tip to penetrate the only weak spot at the neck. But to do so you have to avoid the jabbing hoplite. The drawing is misleading there is no outward thrust leg on the seal itself, the Minoan is leaping!

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