In this article we present a summary of information on one of the most intriguing Archeological finds, the seal stone of Pylos.
During 2015, archaeologists excavating an ancient grave at Pylos in southwestern Greece pulled out a grime-encrusted object, less than an inch and half long, that looked like some kind of large bead.
They put it aside to focus on more prominent items, like gold rings, that also were packed into the rich grave.
But later, as a conservator removed the lime accretions on the bead’s face, it turned out to be something quite different: a seal stone, a gemstone engraved with a design that can be stamped on clay or wax.
The seal stone’s image, a striking depiction of one warrior in battle with two others, is carved in remarkably fine detail, with some features that are barely visible to the naked eye. The image is easier to appreciate in a large-scale drawing of the original.
“The detail is astonishing, especially given the size. Aesthetically, it’s a masterpiece of miniature art,” said John Bennet, director of the British School at Athens, an archaeological institute.
“The stunning combat scene on the seal stone, one of the greatest masterpieces of Aegean art, bears comparison with some of the drawings in the Michelangelo show now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” said Malcolm H. Wiener, an expert on Aegean prehistory and a trustee emeritus of the Met.
The seal stone comes from an untouched shaft grave near the ancient palace of Pylos. The grave was discovered in May 2015 by Jack L. Davis and Sharon R. Stocker, archaeologists at the University of Cincinnati who had been digging at Pylos for more than 25 years.
“It was after cleaning, during the process of drawing and photography, that our excitement slowly rose as we gradually came to realize that we had unearthed a masterpiece,” they wrote in the journal Hesperia (“The Combat Agate from the Grave of the Griffin Warrior at Pylos”. The interested reader may follow this link: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321233210_The_Combat_Agate_from_the_Grave_of_the_Griffin_Warrior_at_Pylos)
The seal stone presents two mysteries. One is how and why it was engraved in such detail. The other is whether its battle scene, strongly evocative of those in Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” depicts an event that contributed to the oral tradition behind the works of Homer.
The seal stone’s owner, known as the Griffin Warrior after the mythical animal depicted in his grave, was buried around 1450 B.C. He lived at a critical period when the Minoan civilization of Crete was being transferred to cities of the Greek mainland.
Local chieftains, as the Griffin Warrior may have been, used precious items from Crete to advertise their membership in the Greek-speaking elite of the incipient Mycenaean civilization, the first on mainland Europe. Their descendants, a century or so later, built the great palaces at Pylos, Mycenae and Tiryns, places mentioned by Homer.
Dr. Davis and Dr. Stocker believe that the seal stone, like other objects in the Griffin Warrior’s grave, was made on Crete. Work of such quality was not being produced anywhere on the Greek mainland at the time. The detail is so fine that it seems the engraver would have needed a magnifying glass, as would admirers of his work.
Yet no magnifying implements have been found on Crete from this era. Perhaps the engraver was nearsighted, the two archaeologists suggest.
Fritz Blakolmer, an expert on Aegean art at the University of Vienna, argues that the seal stone is a miniature copy of a much larger original, probably a stucco-embellished wall painting like those found at the Palace of Knossos on Crete. He said the seal must have been engraved by someone with a magnifying glass, even though none has been found, and dismissed the possibility that people of that era had sharper eyesight than today.
The seal, carved on a hard stone known as agate, shows a victorious hero slaying an adversary while a third warrior lies dead in the foreground. The seal stone is mounted so that it can be worn on the wrist, and indeed the hero is wearing just such an item, as if it were a wristwatch.
The two defeated warriors seem to belong to the same group, because both are wearing patterned kilts whereas the hero sports a codpiece. The scene evidently represents some event that would have been familiar to the Minoans who made the seal stone and to the Griffin Warrior’s community.
The seal stone’s possible relevance to the Homeric epics is intriguing but elusive. Early archaeologists, such as Heinrich Schliemann, who first excavated Troy and Mycenae, believed the “Iliad” recounted historical events and were quick to see proof of this in the artifacts they found.
Later archaeologists were more doubtful, but allowed that the destruction of Troy in 1200 B.C. could have been remembered in oral poetry for 500 years until the Homeric poems were first written down, around 700 B.C.
The Griffin Warrior was buried around 1450 B.C., distancing him even further from the first written version of Homer. Still, there is some evidence that the oral tradition behind the Homeric epics traces as far back as Linear B, the first Greek writing system.
Linear B was adapted by the Mycenaean Greeks from Linear A, used by the Minoans. The oldest known Linear B inscriptions date to 1450 B.C., and the script disappeared after the collapse of Mycenaean civilization around 1200 B.C.
Some of the scansion problems in the Homeric poems “can be resolved if you restore older forms of Greek which are consistent with the dialect recorded in Linear B documents,” said Dr. Bennet of the British School at Athens.
So the oral tradition that led to the Homeric epics perhaps stretched over seven centuries.
“We’re not saying this is a representation from Homer,” Dr. Stocker said of the tableau on the seal stone, while admitting it would be “fun to believe” the hero is Achilles. Rather, the image “is part of a cycle of stories familiar to both Mycenaeans and Minoans.”
Dr. Blakolmer, too, finds it tempting to see the figures on the seal as Homeric heroes, like Hector or Nestor, but in his view the temptation must be resisted.
“Fifty years ago, you would find nice attributions to Homeric heroes, but today’s academics are very careful in their Homeric attributions,” he said. “We have to make our own mistakes, not theirs.”
Archaeologists Jack L. Davis and Sharon R. Stocker of the University of Cincinnati say the seal stone, dubbed the Pylos Combat Agate, is a masterpiece likely to have been imported from Crete, and then buried with the Griffin Warrior, who may have been a local chieftain in southern Greece, around 1450 B.C. Fritz Blakolmer of the University of Vienna suggests the image on the seal stone was a copy of a larger work of art, such as a Minoan wall painting, and may represent an event familiar to both the Minoans and the Greeks of the Peloponnese. The detailed image was probably created with the use of a magnifying glass, he added, but no such tool has been found on Crete to date.
Archaeologists present a miniature seal stone with a combat representation of remarkable detail from the Griffin Warrior grave in Pylos, Greece. The item was found during excavations at the site, where many valuable artefacts were discovered. The seal was initially covered with lime accretions, so the archaeologists took it for a bead and put it aside to be conserved later. When the lime was removed the artefact turned out to be a seal stone with a striking depiction of a warrior in battle with two others. The detail of the carvings is astonishing, with certain features barely visible to the naked eye. The stone, which measures only 3.6 cm, is carved on a hard stone known as agate, hence it is called the Pylos Combat Agate. It is mounted so that it can be worn on the wrist.
The Archaeologists believe that the seal stone, like other artefacts found in the grave in Pylos, was made on Crete, since the quality of the work could not be found in other places at the time, namely around 1450 BC. After all, it was a common practice for local chieftains to use precious items from Crete to advertise their membership in the Greek-speaking elite of the incipient Mycenaean civilisation, the first on mainland Europe.
John Bennet, director of the British School at Athens said the seal is a masterpiece of miniature art, while Malcolm H. Wiener, an expert on Aegean prehistory and trustee emeritus of the Met said that the artefact is one of the greatest masterpieces of Aegean art.
The seal stone puzzles archaeologists as to how and why it was engraved in such detail. According to Davis, some of the details are only half a millimetre big. The archaeologists argue that the human body is represented at a level of detail and musculature that is not encountered until the classical period of Greek art, 1,000 years later.
Unlike ancient Greek sculpture or Roman mosaics, the seal might be hard to see without a magnifying glass. The engraved image is less than an inch and a half long, but includes an incredibly detailed scene of a warrior slaying two enemies. The seal has been named the Pylos Combat Agate.
“The stunning combat scene on the seal stone, one of the greatest masterpieces of Aegean art, bears comparison with some of the drawings in the Michelangelo show now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” said Malcolm H. Wiener, an expert on Aegean prehistory and a trustee emeritus of the Metropolitan Museum.
How the stone was carved is something of a mystery. Some details are only half-a-millimeter in size and would have required the use of some sort of magnifying device to get the elements right. However, no such equipment has been found in the ancient Greek world.
The carving in full detail can only be easily seen with a photomicroscopy camera lens. Some of the details carved onto the stone are only half a millimeter big. A magnifying glass may have been used to create the details on the stone, but according to Stocker, no type of magnifying tool from this time period has ever been found.
“They’re incomprehensibly small,” said University of Cincinnati professor Jack Davis in a press release.
In an interview, Davis further explained that works of art made with such detail wouldn’t be seen for another 1,000 years.
According to the researchers, the complexity of the carving forces historians to rethink the caliber of art being made during this time period. No comparably detailed carvings have been found from the Aegean bronze age.
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.”
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 skill and sophistication of the Pylos Combat Agate is unparalleled by anything uncovered before from the Minoan-Mycenaean world, say the researchers. 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,” explained Davis. “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 revelation, he and Stocker say, prompts a reconsideration of the evolution and development of Greek art.
“This seal should be included in all forthcoming art history texts, and will change the way that prehistoric art is viewed,” said Stocker.
NovoScriptorium: It is remarkable that no one dares to analyze something about the possible technology that must have existed in order to create such an object. Not sure we have realized what we have here; a little brown stone of agate, less than 3cm (!!!) long, that has the scene you can see in the pictures embossed on it. The plasticity, the 3-D sense, the incredible detail, are quite surprising for an object as old as 1500 B.C.
It has to be understood that some details are not visible with a naked eye.
”The detail is astonishing, especially given the size. Aesthetically, it’s a masterpiece of miniature art” comments John Bennet, director of the British School of Athens, one of the 17 foreign archaeological institutes operating in Greece.
“The stunning combat scene on the seal stone, one of the greatest masterpieces of Aegean art, bears comparison with some of the drawings in the Michelangelo show now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” says Malcolm H. Wiener, Prehistory expert of the Aegean sea.
So, let us now think of the possible technology behind the creation of this masterpiece.
First of all, the use of lenses must be taken for granted; otherwise it would never be possible to create anything like that for obvious reasons. So, directly as a rational consequence, we must accept that the ancient Greeks had greater knowledge of Optics than we previously thought.
Then, let’s see how the carving of agate stone is done today from the following web-page https://sciencing.com/cut-agates-6103199.html ; “Agate is a variety of quartz characterized by its fine grain and bright color, and it is traditionally associated with volcanic rocks. One of the most common materials used in hard stone carving, agates vary from shades of red, orange and yellow to rich burgundy and clay-colored hues. Though carvers seeking to cut fine details or intricate designs into agate will require specialized lapidary equipment (often available for rent at lapidary clubs) most general cuts can be made with a diamond-tipped bandsaw after tumbling”
From a rough search on the web about ‘specialized lapidary equipment‘, it is clear that a great deal of Chemistry is involved in modern carving/designing of agate stones.
Therefore, we must accept that either the ancient Greeks knew pretty much more on Chemistry than we previously believed or either conclude that they used diamond tools for designs like this. Well, obviously, both the above generate countless new questions. Of course, there is always the possibility that they used some other method which we have no idea of, or it is not used today for some reason. What could be that though?
Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides