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Griffin Warrior from Bronze Age

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The discovery of a Bronze Age warrior’s tomb amid an olive grove in Pylos, Greece, in 2015 was exciting, reported (Australia).

It was intact.
It held a well-preserved skeleton of a 3500-year-old Mycenaean noble.
It was filled with treasure.

There was one problem: many of the objects, preserved by the site’s hard-baked clay, were incredibly fragile.

Which is why it has taken two years for the full tale of the man — dubbed the Griffin Warrior — to be told.

But among the 3000 objects buried with him is one of such outstanding quality that it promises to rewrite the history of art.
The stories of Bronze Age Greece are still with us.

Epic poems, many of them attributed to a single playwright — Homer, paint a picture of a world where the divide between gods and men was blurry. Where epic feats, magical beasts and beautiful women drove nations to war.

But scattered within the prose are descriptions of landscapes, palaces and equipment that time and again have been proven to be remarkably accurate.
This is the world to which the Griffin Warrior belongs.

His name remains unknown. His title comes from an ivory plaque boldly carved with the image of a griffin — a legendary creature with body and tail of a lion, with the head and wings of an eagle — carefully buried with him.

We know he was rich. We know he was powerful.
All thanks to the objects he was buried with.

These came from all over the Aegean and Ancient Greece. But archaeologists were surprised at how many came from Crete and the Minoan civilisation that thrived there at the time.
It indicates the economic and cultural ties between the competing civilisations was much stronger than previously thought.

Gold signet rings. Silver cups. A bronze suit of armour. A helmet of wild boar’s teeth. A gold-covered sword.

And then there were the embellishments: 1000 beads carved from precious stones. Ivory combs. A gold necklace. More than 50 sealstones.
One particular example of these tiny engraved gems has captivated researchers.

At first it didn’t look like much: a limestone encrusted bead.
It was small: barely 3.6cm across.
It was heavily coated with 3500 years of hardened grime.

So it was put to one side as archaeologists concentrated on more dramatic objects among the grave goods.

But a careful — and time consuming — program of cleaning has since revealed what they at first missed.

“It was after cleaning, during the process of drawing and photography, that our excitement slowly rose as we gradually came to realise that we had unearthed a masterpiece,” the husband-and-wife researchers record in their study paper.

It’s now being called the single best example of engraved art ever discovered from prehistoric Greece.

“Looking at the image for the first time was a very moving experience, and it still is,” University of Cincinnati excavation co-leader Shari Stocker said in a statement.
“It’s brought some people to tears.”

The olive-green piece of agate holds a carving of rich intricacy and stunning detail.
“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 1000 years later,” says project co-lead, Professor Jack Davis.

“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.”

The craftsmanship the gem demonstrates is far beyond what archaeologists believed Bronze Age Myceneans and Minoans were capable of.

In fact, the level of detail is so high it needed modern photomicroscope technology to reveal it all. The researchers say they believe it must have been carved by an artist using a magnifying glass. Or at least one who was very near-sighted.

“Some of the details on this are only a half-millimetre big,” Professor Davis says. “They’re incomprehensibly small.”

A microscope reveals the seal’s image includes intricate ornamentation on the weapons, patterned clothing and jewellery.
It’s all an amazing insight to the Bronze Age era, and the Griffin Warrior himself.

The agate gem shows a near naked, long-haired warrior plunging his sword into the neck of his heavily shielded, spear-wielding foe. The body of a second opponent lays crumpled at his feet.
It’s an energetic, tense but victorious moment of combat.

“I think he (the Griffin Warrior) would have certainly identified himself with the hero depicted on the seal,” Stoker says.

The gem was designed to be worn on the wrist, like a watch, the researchers say. In fact, the hero on the gem is wearing one just like it.

Experts have not yet identified what mythical scene the stone depicts. But it was no doubt a popular tale of the time.

And it’s through these tales we know much of what we do about the Greek Bronze Age.
Homer’s The Illiad and The Odyssey immortalised a titanic clash of cultures when Mycenean Greece besieged the ancient city of Troy for 10 years — a fight that was only ended through the deception of a wooden horse concealing warriors.

Beyond these richly detailed poems are only a few scattered Mycenean ruins, a few damaged graves and some diplomatic texts unearthed in ancient Turkey.

But the Griffin Warrior came from a time before the events told in these epic tales.
Buried about 1450BC, it was an era when the Minoan civilisation had begun to collapse — possibly due to an invasion from the Greek mainland following disastrous flooding from tsunamis sparked by the eruption of the Santorini volcano.

All this is why the Griffin Warrior’s tomb is now regarded as one of the most significant archaeological finds of prehistoric Greece in recent decades.
As is the incredible carved gem it contained.

The quality of the art which captures the scene is unparalleled by anything else in uncovered from the Mycenean / Minoan era.

“This seal should be included in all forthcoming art history texts, and will change the way that prehistoric art is viewed,” Stoker says.
And there may yet be more to come.

Not all of the objects from the Griffin Warrior’s tomb have yet been cleaned and preserved.
“There will be many more surprises to come, for sure,” said Davis.

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