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Monday, June 11, 2018

Relearning Art History

University of Cincinnati archaeologist, Sharon Stocker, stands in the grave of the Griffin Warrior, discovered near the Palace of Nestor in Pylos, Greece.
One of the more frustrating difficulties in most areas of learning is having to discard what you know in favor of the tentative ambiguity of newly discovered or invented common knowledge. Those in the medical professions, for example, constantly find themselves in a footrace to absorb all the new treatments and procedures looming on the horizon, or coming into practice. The same is true in electrical engineering, especially that having to do with computers. Even mechanics, school teachers, taxi drivers, and virtually all designers face the same or similar problem (add changing tastes and styles in the case of designers). Perhaps one of the most "stable" bodies of knowledge might well be human and natural history in general and art history in particular. Yet even these areas are not without new understandings of their "who, what, when, where, how, and why." Moreover, such novel "relearning" often has direct causes and effects stemming from discoveries and innovations far afield from art. Just look what the advent of computers has brought to dozens of contemporary art forms.
Where it all began. Hardly much bigger than a pebble, the archaeological "dig" team might easily have discarded their unexceptional looking, Limestone encrusted Pylos discovery.
During the past two or three years, researchers from the University of Cincinnati have unearthed a 3,500-year-old tomb in the southwest of Greece. The tomb belonged to a Bronze Age warrior they nicknamed the “Griffin Warrior.” The tomb yielded many treasures, such as four gold signet rings, that have challenged previous notions about the origins of Greek civilization. Perhaps one of the most important and visually captivating finds from the tomb occurred a full year after its discovery. Researchers uncovered a carved sealstone (above)no larger than an inch and a half wide. The “Pylos Combat Agate” meticulously displays two warriors engaged in battle with bodies strewn at their feet. Some details were less than a millimeter wide. The carving is perhaps most astonishing because it predates artistic skills that were not associated with Greek civilization for another millennium. The representation of the human body is at a level of detail and musculature not to be found again until the classical period of Greek art 1,000 years later.
the Griffin Warrior, was uncovered in an olive grove near the ancient Greek city of Pylos in 2015.
Sharon Stocker, a senior research associate in UC's Department of Classics, and her husband, Jack Davis, professor of Greek archaeology, note that even more extraordinary is the meticulously carved combat scene was painstakingly etched on a piece of hard stone measuring just 3.6 centimeters, or just over 1.4 inches, in length (below). Indeed, many of the seal’s details, such as the intricate weaponry ornamentation and jewelry decoration, become clear only when viewed with a powerful camera lens. Some of the details are as incomprehensibly small as a half-millimeter.
Shown in the top image at about three times actual size, the detailed carving can best be seen only through a microscope.
Though the seal and other burial riches found within the tomb suggest the Griffin Warrior held an esteemed position in Mycenaean society, inasmuch as the artifacts are Minoan-made. This raises intriguing questions about his culture. Scholarly consensus has long theorized that mainlander Mycenaeans simply imported or robbed such riches from the affluent Minoan civilization on 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 B.C. or roughly the same time period in which the Griffin Warrior died. The discovery of four gold signet rings (below) bearing highly detailed Minoan iconography, along with other Minoan-made riches from the tomb, indicates a far more complex cultural interchange took place between the Mycenaeans and Minoans. Researchers point out that the skill and sophistication of the Pylos Combat Agate is unparalleled by anything uncovered before from the this era in art history. That raises a bigger question: How does this change our understanding of Greek art in the Bronze Age?
A diagram of the combat image found on the Pylos agate. In a testament to the anonymous artist’s skills, it should be noted that magnifying glasses were not believed to be used for another thousand years.
Given the magnitude of the Pylos find, it may be necessary to rethink when the wider area around the city began to flourish. It may have been earlier than previously thought since, somehow, whether via trade or force (raiding), its inhabitants had acquired the valuable objects found within the tomb. Many of the tomb’s objects were made in nearby Crete and show a strong Minoan style and technique unknown in mainland Greece during the 15th-century BC. This new discovery, may be a catalyst leading to a complete reevaluation the timeline and development of Greek art. More recent probing of the 3,500-year-old tomb of the Bronze Age warrior has rendered an incredible trove of riches, including four gold signet rings which likewise have challenged accepted wisdom among archaeologists about the origins of Greek civilization.

This gold ring with a Cretan bull-jumping scene was one of four solid-gold rings found in the tomb. That's more than found with any other single burial anywhere in Greece.
A specialized team reconstructed
the face of the Griffin Warrior by
layering facial tissue over his skull.
So, whose tomb did Davis and Stocker discover? The tomb may have held a powerful warrior or king. Perhaps he was a trader or a raider who died at about 30 to 35 years of age. Whoever he was, he helped to lay the foundations of the Mycenaean culture that later flourished in the region. Davis speculates, “He seems to have been celebrated for his trading or fighting on the nearby island of Crete and for his appreciation of the more-sophisticated and delicate art of the Minoan civilization (of Crete), with which he was buried.” A remarkable store of riches was deposited in the tomb with the warrior at the time of his death. The mere fact that the vessels in the tomb are of metal (rather than ceramic pottery) is a strong indication of his great wealth.

The 3,500-year-old shaft grave has revealed more than 3,000 objects arrayed on and around the warrior’s body, including four solid gold rings, silver cups, precious stone beads, fine-toothed ivory combs (seen here), and an intricately built sword, among other weapons.
"It seems that the Minoans were capable of producing art of the sort that no one ever imagined,” explained Davis. “It shows that their ability and interest in representational art, particularly movement and human anatomy. Such work is beyond what it was imagined to be. Combined with the stylized features, that itself is just extraordinary.” The revelation, he and Stocker say, prompts a reconsideration of the evolution and development of Greek art. Sharon Stocker predicts that, “This seal [will] be included in all forthcoming art history texts, and will change the way prehistoric art is viewed.”

The Stocker-Davis discoveries are already making waves in the areas of archaeology and art history.


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