The Pylos Combat Agate

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What is it?

This masterpiece in miniature is an engraved agate sealstone, measuring only 3.6cm in length. Carved with exceptional skill onto its hardstone surface is a combat scene with such fine details (some barely visible through the veining of the agate) that they can only be seen properly with photomicroscopy or a close-up camera lens. In a triangular composition, a victorious warrior thrusts his sword into his opponent, with another, already vanquished, lying on the ground. There is a hole running horizontally through the interior of the sealstone, drilled from each side, and a thin bronze bar was found within this string hole. On his left wrist, the victor wears three bracelets, one with a large sealstone, giving us an idea of how this artefact may have been worn.

Where was it found, and when?

Pylos in Mycenaean Greece is most famous as the home of the aged king Nestor in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. In July 2015, a team of archaeologists led by Sharon Stocker and Jack Davis from the University of Cincinnati was excavating near the Palace of Nestor. There, they uncovered a Bronze Age burial, dating from c.1450 BC and replete with stunning grave goods, including four ornate gold signet rings and an ivory plaque featuring griffins, from which the interred man was given the name the Griffin Warrior (CWA 82).

The archaeologists also recovered what was, at first sight, a more unassuming find: this small object, lying face down in the ground near the right arm of the Griffin Warrior. It was so caked in lime that it was only during the cleaning process that the real beauty of the engraved agate was revealed.

Why does it matter?

Both the level of detail of the engraving and the naturalistic depictions of anatomy are unparalleled in the art of the Minoan–Mycenaean world. The victor’s iris, lips, and locks of hair and beaded cords of his necklace flowing behind him from the motion of his lunging strike have all been carefully captured, and the engraver has adapted some features, giving precedence to how the image would appear in the impression rather than on the agate.

Even the choice of object for the intricate image – a sealstone – is unusual. But thanks to the exceptional attention to detail, we can glean some information about dress and weaponry that had previously been unclear. For example, the opponents both wear kilts with a carré pattern that is rare in Aegean art, and the context of the find, with other fine jewels, suggests that wall paintings showing men laden with jewellery may not have been as excessive as thought before. At present, there is no evidence for Early Mycenaean workshops on the Greek mainland, where seals were not yet in use in administrative systems. Stylistic similarities suggest that many of the Griffin Warrior’s grave goods have Minoan origins, and in the case of the sealstone, which was probably made in palatial workshops on Crete, two gold caps each with 14 granulated beads were perhaps added to tailor it to the mainland market.

It seems the Griffin Warrior, like elite Mycenaeans elsewhere, used his connections across the sea to acquire fine possessions. These ultimately accompanied him to the grave, as a lasting reflection of his standing in society.

Find out more

For more information on the project, visit www.griffinwarrior.org. To read further, see Sharon R Stocker and Jack L Davis (2017) ‘The Combat Agate from the Grave of the Griffin Warrior at Pylos’, Hesperia 86 (4): 583-605

Image: courtesy of the Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati


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