A measured take on the Pylos Combat Agate

A small agate decorated with a battle-scene, recovered from the so-called “Griffin Warrior” tomb in Pylos (Greece), has been hyped up for the wrong reasons.

Written by Matthew Lloyd on

When I was an undergraduate studying Greek Art and Archaeology 500–300 BC, I had a tutorial partner who could not write an essay on coins or gems. These objects were so small that they found it impossible to be interested in them.

I wonder what they would have made of the Pylos Combat Agate, presented to the world last week in the New York Times: an object that is undoubtedly magnificent, but absolutely tiny in size (37 mm long!).

Then again, sillier things than its size have kept me from appreciating it.

Finds from the “Griffin Warrior” tomb

The agate was found in the “Griffin Warrior” tomb, one of around two-thousand objects currently being cleaned, studied, and published by a team from the University of Cincinnati. It is believed to be of Minoan (i.e. Cretan) origin. Encrusted with limestone, its taken more than a year for the object to be cleaned and the incredible decoration to be revealed.

Central to the scene is the figure dubbed by the excavators the “hero”: near naked wearing only a loincloth, with flowing locks of hair, this man strides forward over a dead body on the ground, grabs the crest of his opponent’s helmet, and thrusts his sword into his opponent’s neck. The opponent carries a large body-shield and a long thrusting-spear, too long to be an effective weapon now that the hero is so close to him. The opponent and the dead man on the ground wear skirts or kilts, finely decorated despite their minuscule size.

The dead man, like the hero, had a sword known in modern scholarship as Type C, the same as the sword found in the “Griffin Warrior” Tomb, also known from the Argolid and from Crete. It is an exceptionally detailed piece, and although similarly complex scenes (such as one of the gold signet rings from this same grave) and similarly themed scenes are known (such as this scene from a seal found in Grave Circle A at Mycenae, pointed out by Dr Dimitri Nakassis on Twitter), there is nothing quite like it.

Frustration and puzzlement

And yet, for the past week I have been less appreciative and more frustrated by the Pylos Combat Agate. It is not its place in art history that I object to – it deserves the attention that it is getting. But the headline in the New York Times, which several academics on Twitter noted must have been written by John Keats, exemplifies my problem: “A Grecian artifact evokes tales from the Iliad and Odyssey.”

Reading the piece, one finds caveats throughout: “The seal stone’s possible relevance to the Homeric epics is intriguing but elusive.” “We’re not saying this is a representation from Homer,” the excavator, Dr Sharon Stoker, admits. And yet, in the University of Cincinnati’s own article: “It’s a scene that conjures the sweeping and epic battles, larger-than-life heroes and grand adventures of Homer’s The Iliad.” The agate, the Mycenaeans, and Bronze Age Aegean history are all tied inexorably to “Homer”, a shakily historical figure himself who, if he existed, lived some seven centuries or so after the “Griffin Warrior”.

Every time an archaeological discovery makes the news, there are a few clichés that always do the rounds. For a site to be newsworthy, it must “rewrite the history” of whatever region, period, or artefact type it happens to be. If it’s a well-preserved site, it’s “the Pompeii of wherever” (though the “Griffin Warrior” has escaped such a designation, at least for now). And for Aegean prehistory, there is an additional category: it is somehow connected to Homer. It’s frustrating, in part, because the Griffin Warrior Grave is clearly an exciting discovery, but every year the reports from it result in groans rather than gasps from academics (at least on my Twitter feed).

New perspectives on early art history

Despite my cynicism, the Pylos Combat Agate does provide a new perspective on early art history – although I still draw the line at saying it rewrites it, or calling it “Greek” (or “Grecian”). Rather, it writes a new chapter, near the beginning, that wonders how a prehistoric engraver managed this level of detail, that marvels at the musculature they managed to achieve, and that (hopefully) recognises that significance of combat imagery to the Minoans and tries not to over-emphasise it in the Mycenaeans (not helped by evoking the Iliad every time something exciting is found).

I would argue that, rather than “rewriting” history every time we find something new, archaeologists and historians get to add a new chapter, a new dimension, to the on-going, collaborative project that history actually is.

I know that it’s my own problem, and I need to learn to appreciate the object without getting aggravated by the sensationalist reporting. My cynicism is rooted in the sensationalist reporting around this tomb over the past few years, as well as the general bingo-card of archaeological news reporting. Had I been alive when the “Heroon” at Lefkandi were excavated in 1981, or on Twitter when the “Warrior-Trader” was published in 1995, I may have had similar reactions to those graves, despite their centrality to my research now (although the name “Warrior-Trader” is still annoying).

The Pylos Combat Agate is the kind of beautiful object that could draw people to Aegean Prehistory without the prescriptive lure of the Homeric epics. I look forward to the thousands of further treasures the “Griffin Warrior” Tomb is sure to contain – and managing my frustration at the reporting.