Gre­cian ar­ti­fact evokes tales from Homer’s epics

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - WORLD - By Ni­cholas Wade

Two years ago ar­chae­ol­o­gists ex­ca­vat­ing an an­cient grave at Py­los in south­west­ern Greece pulled out a grime-en­crusted ob­ject, less than 1-1/2 inches long, that looked like some kind of large bead. They put it aside to fo­cus on more prom­i­nent items, like gold rings, that also were packed into the rich grave.

But later, as a con­ser­va­tor re­moved the lime ac­cre­tions on the bead’s face, it turned out to be some­thing quite dif­fer­ent: a seal stone, a gem­stone en­graved with a de­sign that can be stamped on clay or wax.

The seal stone’s im­age, a strik­ing de­pic­tion of one war­rior in bat­tle with two oth­ers, is carved in re­mark­ably fine de­tail, with some fea­tures that are barely vis­i­ble to the naked eye. The im­age is eas­ier to ap­pre­ci­ate in a large-scale draw­ing of the orig­i­nal.

“The de­tail is as­ton­ish­ing, es­pe­cially given the size. Aes­thet­i­cally, it’s a mas­ter­piece of minia­ture art,” said John Ben­net, di­rec­tor of the Bri­tish School at Athens, an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal in­sti­tute. “The stun­ning com­bat scene on the seal stone, one of the great­est master­pieces of Aegean art, bears com­par­i­son with some of the draw­ings in the Michelan­gelo show now at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art,” said Mal­colm H. Wiener, an ex­pert on Aegean pre­his­tory and a trustee emer­i­tus of the Met.

The seal stone comes from an un­touched shaft grave near the an­cient palace of Py­los. The grave was dis­cov­ered in May 2015 by Jack L. Davis and Sharon R. Stocker, ar­chae­ol­o­gists at the Univer­sity of Cincin­nati who had been dig­ging at Py­los for more than 25 years. “It was af­ter clean­ing, dur­ing the process of draw­ing and pho­tog­ra­phy, that our ex­cite­ment slowly rose as we grad­u­ally came to re­al­ize that we had un­earthed a mas­ter­piece,” they wrote in the jour­nal Hes­pe­ria. The seal stone presents two mys­ter­ies. One is how and why it was en­graved in such de­tail. The other is whether its bat­tle scene, strongly evocative of those in Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” de­picts an event that con­trib­uted to the oral tra­di­tion be­hind the works of Homer.

The seal stone’s owner, known as the Griffin War­rior af­ter the myth­i­cal an­i­mal de­picted in his grave, was buried around 1450 B.C. He lived at a crit­i­cal pe­riod when the Mi­noan civ­i­liza­tion of Crete was be­ing trans­ferred to cities of the Greek main­land.

Lo­cal chief­tains, as the Griffin War­rior may have been, used pre­cious items from Crete to ad­ver­tise their mem­ber­ship in the Greek-speak­ing elite of the in­cip­i­ent Myce­naean civ­i­liza­tion, the first on main­land Europe. Their de­scen­dants, a cen­tury or so later, built the great palaces at Py­los, Myce­nae and Tiryns, places men­tioned by Homer. Davis and Stocker be­lieve that the seal stone, like other ob­jects in the Griffin War­rior’s grave, was made on Crete. Work of such qual­ity was not be­ing pro­duced any­where on the Greek main­land at the time. The de­tail is so fine that it seems the en­graver would have needed a mag­ni­fy­ing glass, as would ad­mir­ers of his work.

Yet no mag­ni­fy­ing im­ple­ments have been found on Crete from this era. Per­haps the en­graver was near­sighted, the two ar­chae­ol­o­gists sug­gest.

Fritz Blakolmer, an ex­pert on Aegean art at the Univer­sity of Vi­enna, ar­gues that the seal stone is a minia­ture copy of a much larger orig­i­nal, prob­a­bly a stucco-em­bel­lished wall paint­ing like those found at the Palace of Knos­sos on Crete. He said the seal must have been en­graved by some­one with a mag­ni­fy­ing glass, even though none has been found, and dis­missed the pos­si­bil­ity that peo­ple of that era had sharper eye­sight than to­day.

The seal, carved on a hard stone known as agate, shows a vic­to­ri­ous hero slay­ing an ad­ver­sary while a third war­rior lies dead in the fore­ground. The seal stone is mounted so that it can worn on the wrist, and in­deed the hero is wear­ing just such an item, as if it were a wrist­watch.

The two de­feated war­riors seem to be­long to the same group, be­cause both are wear­ing pat­terned kilts whereas the hero sports a cod­piece. The scene ev­i­dently rep­re­sents some event that would have been fa­mil­iar to the Mi­noans who made the seal stone and to the Griffin War­rior’s com­mu­nity.

The seal stone’s pos­si­ble rel­e­vance to the Homeric epics is in­trigu­ing but elu­sive. Early ar­chae­ol­o­gists, such as Hein­rich Sch­lie­mann, who first ex­ca­vated Troy and Myce­nae, be­lieved the “Iliad” re­counted his­tor­i­cal events and were quick to see proof of this in the ar­ti­facts they found.

Later ar­chae­ol­o­gists were more doubt­ful but al­lowed that the de­struc­tion of Troy in 1200 B.C. could have been re­mem­bered in oral poetry for 500 years un­til the Homeric po­ems were first writ­ten down, around 700 B.C. The Griffin War­rior was buried around 1450 B.C., dis­tanc­ing him even fur­ther from the first writ­ten ver­sion of Homer. Still, there is some ev­i­dence that the oral tra­di­tion be­hind the Homeric epics traces as far back as Lin­ear B, the first Greek writ­ing sys­tem.

UNIVER­SITY OF CINCIN­NATI / NEW YORK TIMES

The Py­los Com­bat Agate, with a finely de­tailed bat­tle scene strongly evocative of those in Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey,” was un­earthed in Greece in 2015 from the grave of a war­rior buried in about 1450 B.C.

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