Researchers astounded by the intricacy of a Mycenaean carved gemstone


Back in 2015, the 3500-year old Mycenaean ‘Griffin Warrior’ grave found in Pylos was touted as “the most important tomb to have been discovered in 65 years in continental Greece” by the country’s Ministry of Culture. Part of this bold statement had to do with the over 3,000 precious objects found in the Mycenaean grave, including a bronze sword with an ivory hilt, gold pendants, and the namesake griffin plaque. And two years later, the artifacts and their incredible levels of craftsmanship continue to baffle archaeologists and historians alike, with the latest example pertaining to an intricately carved gemstone (enlarged drawing pictured above).


This fascinating gemstone in question here comprises a 1.4-inch (3.5 cm) piece of polished agate that depicts a complex etching of human warrior figures. While initially being encrusted with limestone, the researchers at the University of Cincinnati were able to clean the gemstone and unravel the profound engraving showcasing two warriors in the heat of the battle. One of them is about to plunge his sword into the neck of his opponent, while a body of slain enemy lies by his feet. Some of the complex details of the gemstone figures, like their hair and musculature, are around half-millimeter wide, so much so that the researchers had to use magnifying glasses (and even microscopes) to discern the intricacy of the artwork. Jack Davis, a professor of Greek archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and the head of the excavation team, clarified –

Some of the details on this [gemstone] are only a half-millimeter big. They’re incomprehensibly small. 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 1,000 years later. It’s a spectacular find.

Now relating to the scope of the original discovery (made in 2015), the excavation project was also undertaken by archaeologists from the University of Cincinnati. The researchers located the grave near the Palace of Nestor, with the Mycenean site being known for its relation to Homeric legends and apparent sacrificial offerings on its beach. In Greek mythology, the legendary Nestor of Gerenia was the king of Pylos, an Argonaut, and also a senior member of the Achaean Greek force that invaded Troy. However, in this case, the archaeologists confirmed that the treasure-filled tomb in question is not of Nestor.


In fact, in chronological terms, the Griffin Warrior’s tomb predates the (probable) lifetime of Nestor by almost 300 years. To that end, the timeline of this grave coincides more with a period when mainland Mycenean Greece had closer contacts and trade relations with the island of Crete and its burgeoning populace. Incredibly enough, some of the ritzy artifacts and jewelry items were actually made in Minoan Crete, and thus showcase a distinct Minoan style of art that was relatively unknown in mainland Greece circa 15th century BC. These objects were further complemented by around fifty seal-stones that depict Minoan goddesses and the renowned motif of bulls (which gave rise to the legend of the Minotaur).

As for the ‘relation’ between the ancient Myceneans (from mainland Greece) and the Minoans (from Crete), a recent DNA analysis revealed that the two groups were genetically quite similar. Assessed from the remains of 19 different ancient individuals (from areas comprising what is now Greece, Crete and Turkey), the incredible genome-wide DNA sequence data also points to an interesting scenario where both the Bronze Age groups – Minoans and Mycenaeans, migrated from Anatolia, millennia before the advent of Bronze Age in the Mediterranean region. The pre-Bronze Age population comprised Neolithic farmers, and as such some of them also settled in southwestern Anatolia – thus alluding to a scope where genetically similar people resided in Greece, Crete, and parts of Asia Minor. Furthermore, the study also hypothesizes, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the modern Greeks, in turn, retain a fair share of the genetic similarities of their Mycenaean predecessors.


Lastly, coming to the hypothetical scope of the Griffin Warrior himself, he was presumably an influential fighter or trader, who possibly even helped the mainland Greeks to lay the foundations of the Mycenaean culture. back in 2015, Davis said –

Whoever he was, he seems to have been celebrated for his trading or fighting in the nearby island of Crete and for his appreciation of the more-sophisticated and delicate nature of the Minoan civilization, found on Crete, with which he was buried.


Reconstruction of the Griffin Warrior. Credit: Lynne Schepartz & Tobias Houlton, University of the Witwatersrand.

Source: University of Cincinnati / Images (except last image) Courtesy of The Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati