An intricately carved gem that could rewrite the history of ancient Greek art has been discovered by archaeologists from the University of Cincinnati (UC). The stone – which was used as a seal – has been described as a "masterpiece" by researchers, who claim it is one of the finest known works of prehistoric Greek art
The 'Pylos Combat Agate', as the seal is known, measures just 1.4 inches across and depicts a violent battle scene. It is the latest and most significant object to emerge from the tomb of the Griffin Warrior – a treasure trove of more than 3,000 artefacts hailed as the most spectacular find in Greece for more than half a century when it was uncovered near the ancient city of Pylos in 2015.
The tomb contained the well-preserved remains of what is thought to be a powerful Mycenaean warrior or priest who died around 1,500 BC, as well as a hoard of precious artefacts that together have challenged accepted wisdom surrounding the origins of Greek, and indeed Western, civilisation.
While the tomb was discovered two years ago, it took conservationists more than a year to clean the limestone from the seal, revealing its intricate design.
"Looking at the image for the first time was a very moving experience, and it still is," said Shari Stocker from UC. "It's brought some people to tears."
Jack Davis, also from UC, added: "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. It's a spectacular find."
Despite the seal's diminutive size, the intricate engravings depicting weaponry and jewellery only become clear when viewed with a powerful camera lens and photomicrosopy.
"Some of the details on this are only a half-millimetre big," said Davis. "They're incomprehensibly small."
The seal shows a mighty warrior with a vanquished opponent at his feet, plunging his sword into the neck of another. The scene is reminiscent of the epic battles described in Homer's epic poem The Iliad, which tells the story of the Trojan War.
It is unclear whether the image is a direct reference to Homer, although the researchers think it probably depicts a legend that would have been familiar to ancient Greeks from the Mycenaean civilisation – based on the mainland – and the Minoan civilisation of Crete.
"It would have been a valuable and prized possession, which certainly is representative of the Griffin Warrior's role in Mycenaean society," Stocker said. "I think he would have certainly identified himself with the hero depicted on the seal."
The sophistication of the Pylos Combat Agate is unrivalled by anything recovered to date from the Minoan-Mycenaean world and changes our understanding of Greek art in the Bronze Age, the researchers say.
"It seems that the Minoans were producing art of the sort that no one ever imagined they were capable of producing," Davis said. "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 stylised features, that itself is just extraordinary."
Stocker and Davis say the seal could lead to a reconsideration of the evolution and development of ancient 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.