Due to the seal’s small size and veining on the stone, many of the miniature details are only clearly visible via photomicroscopy. (all images Courtesy of The Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati, and used with permission)

The piece of stone may only be a little over 1.4 inches long (~3.5cm), but the meticulous detail of the carved scene featuring three warriors in hand-to-hand combat is a stunning display of ancient artistic skill and it may challenge our perceptions of naturalism in the Ancient Aegean era.

The “Pylos Combat Agate,” as the seal has come to be known, was discovered in May by a team of archeologists from the University of Cincinnati (UC). It was found among thousands of other objects in the intact tomb of a Bronze Age warrior dating to about 1500 BCE at a Mycenaean site in the Pylos region of Greece. The Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports has dubbed it one of the “most important [tombs] to have been discovered in 65 years.”

Drawing of the detailed combat scene captured on an agate sealstone discovered by the University of Cincinnati’s Sharon Stocker and Jack Davis. (images Courtesy Department of Classics, University of Cincinnati)

Jack Davis, who is one of the excavation’s co-leaders, suggests the find is unprecedented. “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,” Davis explained to UC Magazine. “It’s a spectacular find. … Some of the details on this are only a half-millimeter big,” he said. “It seems that the Minoans were producing art of the sort that no one ever imagined they were capable of producing. … 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 stylized features, that itself is just extraordinary.”

The source for the battle scene may not be clear, but researchers believe that the miniature battle must reflect a legend that was well known to the people of the region. The tomb also held an intact skeleton, which UC researchers have labeled the “Griffin Warrior” for the discovery of an ivory plaque depicting a mythical griffin. The 3,500-year-old shaft grave also includes more than 3,000 objects, including four solid gold rings, silver cups, precious stone beads, fine-toothed ivory combs, and an intricately built sword.

“Probably not since the 1950s have we found such a rich tomb,” James C. Wright, the director of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, told the New York Times.

Davis and Shari Stocker, the dig’s other co-leader, will present findings from the Pylos Combat Agate in a paper to be published this month in the journal Hesperia.

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Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic. You can follow him at @hragv.