Ancient Greek 'Masterpiece' Revealed on Thumb-Size Gem

The scene's stunning detail is etched with intricate precision and depicts a victorious warrior in combat.

A stunning work of art etched on a gemstone no larger than an inch and a half was revealed after researchers washed away thousands of years of limestone and grime.

The team of researchers first found the masterpiece two years ago, but they had regarded it as little more than a small bead. It was in a collection of 1,400 artefacts unearthed in the 3,500-year-old tomb of a Bronze Age warrior buried in southwest Greece. The stone, which the researchers have now dubbed the "Pylos Combat Agate," would have likely been used as a small piece of jewellery said Shari Stocker, one of the dig leaders.

The tomb itself was a remarkable find when researchers discovered it in 2015. It housed the well-preserved skeleton of the "Griffin Warrior." He was buried with a plaque depicting a creature called a griffin, with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. Among the burial riches found with the Griffin Warrior were a collection of gold signet rings and a bronze sword. The gemstone was collected but put aside and its artistry was only revealed after a routine artefact cleaning.

It took researchers from the University of Cincinnati nearly a year to clean the artefact before they could see the intricate details carved into its surface. Details about the gemstone and the artefacts found in the tomb were published in the journal Hesperia. (Read more about the tomb's discovery.)

"It's so moving to actually look at. Almost always the reaction is to cry," said Stocker.

VIOLENT SCENE

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 millimetre 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.

"[Other works of art] bear as much resemblance as a Mickey Mouse cartoon to Michelangelo," he said.

A sketch of the Pylos Combat Agate shows the carving's incredible detail. - ILLUSTRATION BY T. ROSS; COURTESY THE DEPARTMENT OF CLASSICS, UNIVERSITY OF CINCINNATI

The scene depicts a victorious warrior who, after conquering his first opponent, lifts his sword to plunge it into the neck of another enemy. Individual muscles can be seen on the human bodies carved onto the stone.

It has all the grandiosity of scenes like the Greek epics The Iliad and The Odyssey.

The tomb in which the stone was found is located on the Peloponnese peninsula at Pylos, at the site of King Nestor's palace, as written in Homer's epic poem The Odyssey, Andrew Lawler reported for National Geographic last year. Exactly what the stone's delicate carving depicts is a mystery. Researchers don't have enough clues to link the depiction to the oral traditions that would later inspire Homer in 700 B.C. But Stocker and the researchers believe it probably depicts a legend that would have been well known at the time.

TOMB OF SURPRISES

According to the researchers, the complexity of the carving forces historians to rethink the calibre of art being made during this time period. No comparably detailed carvings have been found from the Aegean bronze age.

The Griffin Warrior was buried around 1450 B.C., during what was a politically tumultuous time in ancient Greece. It's widely thought that Greek mainlanders, the Myceneans, conquered people on the island of Crete, the Minoans. Minoan art greatly influenced that on the Greek mainland and many of the Minoan artefacts found during this time period may have been imported or robbed.

How much influence the Minoans exerted on mainland Greece has been the subject of debate. The Griffin Warrior's tomb, the researchers suggest, indicates a high level of cultural exchange. Exactly who the warrior was isn't yet known. The number of Minoan artefacts in his tomb indicate he could have been a member of the Minoan elite or a Mycenaean who was captivated by the Minoan culture.

 

Lead image: The Pylos Combat Agate took nearly a year to clean. It's approximately 1.4 inches long - Courtesy of The Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati

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