Researchers found a stunningly intricate carving on a 3,500-year-old gemstone that measures less than an inch and a half long.
The Pylos Combat Agate [Photo by Jeff Vanderpool, University of Cincinnati]
Archaeologists actually found the tiny masterpiece in 2015, but thought that it was just a bead. The gemstone was among 1,400 artifacts discovered in a 3,500-year-old Bronze Age tomb of an ancient Greek warrior named the “Griffin Warrior”, so called because his tomb contained an ivory plaque depicting a griffin.
The skeleton of the Griffin Warrior was found to be quite well-preserved, which in itself was a remarkable discovery. He was buried with stunning treasures, like signet rings, ivory combs, and weapons befitting a warrior. The carved gemstone was set aside when it was discovered, with its intricate carving buried under millennia of dirt. It wasn’t until researchers got rid of the the limestone encrusting the gemstone that they were able to discover the hidden artistry of the masterpiece.
A reconstruction of the Griffin Warrior's face
According to a new study, researchers at the University of Cincinnati took almost a year just to get rid of the limestone encrusting the little stone. However, it was all definitely worth it, since what they found may make us rethink what we know about the history of art.
The small gemstone, known as the Pylos Combat Agate, features an intricate carving depicting a warrior standing over a slain enemy and plunging a sword into the neck of another. If you’ve read The Iliad or The Odyssey, you’d have an idea of the grandiosity of depictions of scenes like this. Whoever the artist had been, they managed to create such an intricate and detailed scene in such a small space. Some of the details in the carving are no bigger than half a millimeter. In fact, if you want to be able to easily see some of the details, you’ll only be able to if you use a photomicroscopy photography lens.
The limstone-encrusted gemstone [Photo courtesy of The Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati]
So how was the artist able to create such small, intricate details? Researchers actually aren’t sure yet. They think that the artist may have used some kind of magnifying glass, but so far, no such tool from Bronze Age Greece has been found. Jack Davis, one of the researchers, also says that this kind of detail in carvings won’t be seen again until 1,000 years later.
An illustration of the carving by T. Ross; Courtesy the Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati
At the time of the Griffin Warrior’s burial, Mycenaeans--Greek mainlanders--conquered the Minoans--Cretan islanders. As a result, Minoan art heavily influenced Mycenaean art. If an artifact from Bronze Age Greece is in the Minoan style, it may have been imported or even stolen from Crete.
The tomb of the Griffin Warrior and its artifacts are great examples of this cultural exchange. Though researchers still don’t know who exactly this warrior was, they think he might have been a high-ranking member of Minoan society, or maybe a Mycenaean who was very fond of Minoan art.
The researchers that took on the task of cleaning the limestone off the tiny stone say that seeing the carving for the first time was a very moving experience, one that apparently even drove them to tears. There may also be more surprises from the Griffin Warrior’s tomb, since more artifacts have yet to be examined.
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