The miniature masterpiece, as UC Magazine calls it, was carved on an agate just under 1-½ inches in length. (Credit: University of Cincinnati)
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. – Isaiah 55:8 (ESV)
A worker at an archeological dig unearths a lump of limestone and puts it to the side. It’s just another shapeless artifact to clean and classify as a team from the University of Cincinnati excavates this 3,500-year-old gravesite in southern Greece. What the team does not realize is that, underneath layers of sediment deposited by the ages lies the work of a genius. This masterpiece may change scholars’ views of Late Bronze Age art—and the other contents of the burial may reveal new insights about this neighbor of Israel, including the dates that should be assigned to events in the ancient world.
What’s going on in the Bible lands has been the focus of many Thinker Updates, but this time we’re exploring a find from one of Israel’s neighbors that just might help us better understand the world of the Bible and its place in history.
A year-and-a-half ago, archeologists affiliated with the University of Cincinnati (UC) made a startling discovery. They were excavating the tomb of a Mycenaean warrior near the Palace of Nestor in Pylos, Greece. They believed this warrior was buried around 1,500 BC, during what is commonly referred to as the “Late Bronze Age.”
The Mycenaean civilization is thought to have controlled what is now southern Greece as well as other lands around the Aegean Sea from about 1,600 to 1,200 BC. Around 1,200 BC at the end of the Late Bronze Age, this early Greek culture went into a downward spiral along with many of their neighbors at the time of the Sea Peoples incursion. By about 1,100 BC, according to standard dating, the Mycenaeans were gone and Greek history had entered a dark period of weakness and disunity about which relatively little is known.
The image of a male warrior has been recreated by layering muscle and skin over the well-preserved skeletal remains in his tomb. (Credit: University of Cincinnati)
The skeletal remains in this tomb were so well preserved that an image of the male warrior has been recreated by overlaying muscle and skin. He has been dubbed “the Griffin Warrior” because of a plaque found next to him. On that plaque, made of ivory, was engraved the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle. That character, in both Greek and Egyptian mythology, is known as a griffin—hence the Griffin Warrior.
Besides the plaque, workers unearthed more than 3,000 objects buried with the warrior. The number and quantity of these items speak to his elevated status. According to UC Magazine’s article Unearthing a Masterpiece, the treasure trove included “four solid gold rings, silver cups, precious stone beads, fine-toothed ivory combs, and an intricately built sword, among other weapons.”
This artifact was discovered in the grave, next to the Mycenaean warrior. Little did archaeological workers know what was under the limestone veneer. (Credit: University of Cincinnati)
No wonder it was a full year before anyone got around to cleaning and categorizing the aforementioned lump of limestone. Imagine their surprise when they removed the crusted veneer of the small agate and realized that its flat surface bore an almost microscopic carving that may change how scholars view the development of art at that time and place.
First of all, the image on the stone depicts a battle scene in which a warrior overcomes a foe with his sword while trampling another underfoot. This scene is characteristic of warfare in that era, but it was the extremely fine detail of the artwork that astounded archaeologists who unearthed it.
Due to the seal’s small size and veining on the stone, many of the miniature details are only clearly visible via photomicroscopy. (Credit: University of Cincinnati)
“Looking at the image for the first time was a very moving experience, and still is,” the magazine quoted Shari Stocker, dig leader and senior research associate in UC’s Department of Classics. “It’s brought some people to tears.”
Dig leader Shari Stocker in the grave of the Griffin Warrior discovered near the Palace of Nestor in Pylos, Greece (Credit: University of Cincinnati)
“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,” explained Jack Davis, dig leader and professor of Greek archeology, in UC Magazine.
Not only the detail but the size of Pylos Combat Agate, as it is referred to, is amazing. The agate on which this depiction of armed combat is carved is just under 1-1/2 inches in length and contains tiny features which may only be appreciated when viewed through a photographic lens.
“Some of the details on this are only a half-millimeter big,” said Davis in the magazine. “They’re incomprehensibly small.” The small size has prompted some to speculate that a magnifying glass was needed to engrave such exquisite detail.
The intricate detail of the Pylos Combat Agat is revealed in this enlarged drawing of the image on the stone. (Courtesy of Tina Ross/the University of Cincinnati)
The warrior scene is thought to have been created by artisans of the Minoan culture, which inhabited the island of Crete, southeast of Pylos.
“Although the Minoans were culturally dominant to the Greek mainlanders, the civilization fell to the Mycenaeans around 1500-1400 BC—roughly the same time period in which the Griffin Warrior died,” according to the magazine.
What surprised the archeologists was the large number of artifacts of high quality discovered in this Mycenaean warrior’s grave. “It seemed the Minoans were producing art the sort that no one ever imagined they were capable of,” Davis told the magazine.
According to the UC archeologists, this treasure trove also suggests that relations between Mycenaean and Minoan were closer and their cultures more interwoven than earlier thought.
Will this remarkable find rewrite the history of Greece and Greek art? Could the advanced quality of the Pylos Combat Agate, engraved 1,000 years before any comparable artwork, cause scholars to rethink their ideas of when these societies rose and fell?
The Pylos tomb and future archeological digs may reveal more answers. As has been mentioned, Greece supposedly fell into a dark age of nearly 500 years after the collapse of the Mycenaean Greece and the Bronze Age in about 1,200 BC. Yet many scholars have noted the close stylistic similarities in many aspects of the culture (including art) between Mycenaean Greece and the rise of Classical Greece about 500 years later.
Centuries of Darkness by Peter James (Credit: Amazon)
One book, Centuries of Darkness by Peter James (Athens: Aiolos, 2006), points to problems with the dating of these dark ages around the Mediterranean. James notes that evidence from before and after the dark periods shows that some of these styles are so similar that the time of depression must be much shorter than normally thought. He concludes that the “dark periods” in the cultures have all been artificially lengthened by centuries due to their reliance on Egypt’s timeline for their dates.
Apparent problems with standard dating are what prompted Egyptologist David Rohl to explore potential revisions. The New Chronology being proposed by Rohl and others would decrease the long dark periods in Egypt and its neighbors by centuries, which would pull a remarkable pattern of archaeological evidence matching the Bible’s Exodus account from the Middle Bronze Age forward in time to match the biblical dates for the Exodus. It would also have the effect of drawing Mycenaean Greece much closer to classical Greece.
David Rohl has noted that some scholars have been puzzled by the historical detail gotten right by Homer in his great tale of the Iliad. Many think Homer lived in the 800s BC, but the Trojan War, which is the subject of the Iliad, was about 400 years earlier. Under the New Chronology, the end of the Bronze Age and the Trojan War would move forward by at least three centuries, so Homer could have spoken with some whose grandfathers participated in the war. This would explain how he got so much right.
So Hiram supplied Solomon with all the timber of cedar and cypress that he desired … So Solomon’s builders and Hiram’s builders and the men of Gebal did the cutting and prepared the timber and the stone to build the house… and Hiram king of Tyre had supplied Solomon with cedar and cypress timber and gold, as much as he desired, – 1 Kings 5:10, 18, 9:11 (ESV)
Will connections drawn from evidence at Pylos show signs that the Bronze Age happened later in history than the standard view holds. If so, the Mycenaean civilization could have been active through the time of kings David and Solomon, rather than collapsing centuries earlier. The result would be that the glorious kingdom of Solomon would no longer be lost. Currently, most scholars conclude that the Bible is exaggerating when it describes the peace, wealth and cosmopolitan nature of Solomon’s kingdom. This is because the period of the Iron Age in which Solomon is currently set was the most impoverished in Canaan. But a shift as called for in the New Chronology would set Solomon in the era of wealth and international trade found in the Late Bronze Age. This controversial proposal is dismissed by many, but troublesome anomalies continue to point to the fact that something is wrong with the standard view.
Researchers continue to sort through this amazing find in one of the world’s oldest continuously populated regions. The UC archeological team has yet to restore and catalog some of the items found in the grave with the Griffin Warrior.
“There will be many more surprises to come, for sure,” stated Davis confidently in UC Magazine. Keep Thinking.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. – Isaiah 55:9 (ESV)