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Why A Thumb-Sized Stone Is Important To Ancient Greek Art History


Jack Davis, along with his wife Sharon Stocker, excavated an ancient grave in Pylos, Greece. They found what they thought was a bead - turned out to be history in all ways. Jack Davis is head of the classics department at the University of Cincinnati, and he joins us from there. Professor, thanks so much for being with us.

JACK DAVIS: Well, thank you for your interest in our work.

SIMON: What do you call this bead?

DAVIS: (Laughter). We call it an agate.

SIMON: The Pylos Combat Agate.

DAVIS: Yes. That's the name my wife and my co-director, Sharon Stocker, invented for it.

SIMON: And what's on this?

DAVIS: It's a scene of battle. We've got two warriors. One appears to be a hero. And he's almost totally naked, wearing a loincloth. And he's driving a sword into the jugular of his opponent who, unlike him, is heavily armored, carrying a shield, wears a helmet. And he's carrying a spear, and he's wearing a short kilt. And there's already a dead warrior lying on the ground, and he's also wearing a short kilt. And the clothing, in both cases of the individuals who are losing here, are elaborately decorated.

SIMON: And, well, how small are the figures, so we understand this?

DAVIS: Oh, heavens. The entire sealstone, which we had thought originally was a bead when we excavated it, is only about 3.7 centimeters long. So it's - you know, it's about the size of the first digit of my little finger or so. And the figures themselves are the size of my fingernail. Some of the details in their clothing or the representations of their weapons are as small as a half a millimeter - so really just the size of a sliver or a hair.

SIMON: And all this detail in just a couple of centimeters.

DAVIS: We couldn't see them at all when we - until we put the item under a microscope, looked at it and used the techniques of photo microscopy and extreme close-up lenses in order to document it.

SIMON: And who made this and why?

DAVIS: Well, it appears to us to have been made on the island of Crete. And, well, we call them sealstones because they were markers of identity by stamping them into clay or some other soft medium.

SIMON: I mean, why would an artisan make something like this if most people couldn't see it?

DAVIS: Well, the first thing I thought of was I remember being amazed as a child when someone showed me the pin with the Lord's Prayer engraved on its head. I think there's something similar going on here. I think that the artisan on who executed this was trying to amaze people with his skill.

SIMON: Is there something in this object that tells us something we really didn't know about the civilization?

DAVIS: I think absolutely. I mean, the artist is truly a virtuoso. And although the figures in the scene are obviously stylized in accordance with the conventions of the time, he displays an interest in and appreciation for bodily movement that is really unparalleled and anticipates artistic innovations that we didn't think evolved until about 800 years later.

SIMON: Jack Davis heads the department of classics at the University of Cincinnati. Thanks so much, and good luck in your digging, sir.

DAVIS: Well, thank you very much, Scott. I appreciate your interest. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.