A transcript of an interview with Professor Jack Davis (one of the co-finders of the Pylos Combat Agate shown above) is available at www.npr.org and indicates why a thumb-sized stone is important to ancient greek art history. The transcript cannot be reproduced here as it is under copyright.
Centuries before the destruction of the Mycenaean palaces, a warrior died and was buried alone near the site of the later “Palace of Nestor at Pylos.” His burial was accompanied by one of the most magnificent displays of wealth discovered in Greece in recent decades. The character of the objects that followed him to the afterlife prove that this part of Greece, like Mycenae, was being indelibly shaped by close contact with Crete. This was the time of the very birth of European civilization.
The warrior’s tomb was discovered and excavated in summer 2015 by a team sponsored by the University of Cincinnati: students, professors, and professional archaeologists from a dozen different universities, representing as many different nationalities. Project co-directors Sharon R. Stocker and Jack L. Davis of the University of Cincinnati note: “The team did not discover the grave of the legendary King Nestor, who headed a contingent in the Greek forces at Troy. Nor did it find the grave of his father, Neleus. They found something perhaps of even greater importance: the tomb of one of the powerful men who laid foundations for the Mycenaean civilization, the earliest in Europe.”
Overlooking the bay of Navarino, high above the sea on the ridge of Englianos, sits the “Palace of Nestor at Pylos,” the most completely preserved of all Bronze Age palaces on the Greek mainland.
In the summer of 2015, an archaeology team from the University of Cincinnati uncovered a Bronze Age shaft tomb of an early Mycenaean warrior (probably the foremost leader of his times in the south Pelopponese). The discovery was made by University of Cincinnati's Sharon Stocker and Jack Davis. They were following through on a dig at a site that was initially excavated in the 1930s with the last activity in 1969, but this burial shaft was missed at that time, as it was found in a field on private land near an olive grove. The find proved to be a treasure-trove of artifacts, including 4 signet rings, bronze and gold jars, silver cups, a bronze suit of armour, a helmet of wild boar’s teeth and a gold-covered sword.
And there were the embellishments buried with the nobleman: 1000 beads carved from precious stones, also ivory combs, a gold necklace and more than 50 Minoan (from Crete) sealstones. (Note: a sealstone was a small carved object used to imprint clay or other soft substance with the mark of the owner, to create a seal).
One of the sealstones has enormous appeal, and was disclosed as a find in 2017, after restoration. The picture of this artifact is shown above.
The Pylos Combat Agate is a limestone-encrusted Minoan sealstone, which was found placed at the right shoulder of a skeleton, probably that of a Mycenaean nobleman, buried in the early Bronze Age, right at the start of the Mycenaean dynasties. It is an example of glyptic art from the Aegean Bronze Age, the details so fine it required photomicroscopy to be seen and appreciated. It is 3.6cm across, and was covered in 3,500 years of accretion and grime since its time of burial. It is carved on an olive-green piece of agate, and had the appearance of a bead, before being painstakingly cleaned, and restored. It is surmised the decoration was worn on a wristband (in a similar location on the wrist where we would wear a wristwatch, today. On the agate, the victorious warrior is depicted wearing such a wristband on his left wrist).
The artistic representation of the human face, body and musculature done in such fine detail eclipses anything else ever found until about 1,000 years later, that is in the classical age of Greek art, about 500BC. The knowledge of human anatomy for the age of the piece astounded archaeologists and researchers. “Some of the details on this are only a half-millimetre big,” Professor Davis says. “They’re incomprehensibly small.” They surmise that the gem was carved under the use of a magnifying glass (or else they can’t explain it). Most of the detail reproduced in this line drawing of the agate gemstone is invisible to the naked eye.
The agate gem shows a near naked, long-haired warrior plunging his sword into the neck of his heavily shielded, spear-wielding foe. The body of a second opponent lays crumpled at his feet.
It’s an energetic, tense but victorious moment of combat.
“I think he (the Griffin Warrior) would have certainly identified himself with the hero depicted on the seal,” Stoker says.
The gem was designed to be worn on the wrist, like a watch, the researchers say. In fact, the hero on the gem is wearing one just like it
…“This seal should be included in all forthcoming art history texts, and will change the way that prehistoric art is viewed,” Stoker says.
“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.
The University of Cincinnati team’s dig at the olive grove on private land, with the tomb site at the far right, where the Pylos Combat agate was found.
Gold signet ring found at the burial site
A specialized team reconstructed the face of the Griffin Warrior by layering facial tissue over his skull.
The intricate detail worked in a microscopic size.
The seal artist's attention to detail and use of stylized faces make the Pylos Combat Agate one of the finest works of prehistoric Greek art ever discovered. Courtesy of The Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati
Many of the seal’s details, such as the intricate weaponry ornamentation, become clear only when viewed via photomicroscopy. Courtesy of The Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati
The agate as it was originally found with the accretion of limestone covering its fine detail.
One of the ivory combs that was found in the tomb treasure.
Palace of Nestor site, at Pylos, near the olive grove where the Pylos Combat agate was found.
Ancient Origins https://www.ancient-origins.net/pylos already features an article postulating the correlation between the graphic design of the Pylos Combate Agate, and the stars of the night sky. Although there might be something to this theory, the topic will probably require a hefty tome of research and analysis to convince me. The ancient Greeks and their ancestors from the Minoan-Mycenaean civilisation were a blood-thirsty lot.
Pylos was frequently mentioned in history and mythology, and is a famous ancient name. Pylos has a continuous historical presence since pre-historic times. Pylos was the dominant Mycenaean center in Messenia.
It is interesting that the location also has a Homeric connection.
The position of modern Pylos is not where ancient Pylos was.
• the Mycenaean Pylos (Bronze-Age ~ -1300 / -1200 B.C.) called also Sandy Pylos or Homer's Pylos is supposed the capital of Nestor's Kingdom (from Homer's Odyssey), is located at Epano Englianos (nearby Hora). In 1939 archaeologists discovered and excavated there a Mycenaean palace known as the Palace to Nestor, it seems the site itself was called Pylos.
• the Classical and Hellenistic Pylos (~ -700 / +600) was probably situated on the rocky promontory now known as Koryphasion at the northern edge of the bay of Navarino, close to Voidokilia Bay.
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