Stalled by a power outage today, but still excited to talk to you about a major archaeological discovery in the field of tartans.Actually, it isn’t. What I want to talk about is the stunning art on a seal excavated from the grave of the “Griffin Warrior,” a Greek nobleman buried in approximately 1450 BCE. This seal is so exquisitely detailed, with such unprecedented attention to anatomy and perspective, that if the dig had not been under supervision from the first, I would not have believed it was real. We associate the contemporary Minoans and Myceneans with a sharper, starker art, evocative but not realistic. Although this seal is of course not as technically accurate as, say, the Elgin Marbles, it has a level of observation that I would not have thought possible at the time.
Note the prone warrior, the one on the left who has fallen; note the warrior on the right. They have something in common: their skirts. They are both wearing tartan-weave cloth with a tasseled edge.
Whatever the ordinary person may think of the ancient Greeks, it probably does not include kilts. Popular culture associates the tartan with the Scots, with stuffiness and the Highlands, but the tartan is a truly ancient pattern. Tartans were found on mummified bodies buried in Urumqi, China, dating from 1400 to 1000 BCE. Elizabeth Wayland Barber has examined these tartans, and weaving in general, as a fugitive trace of ancient life, of women’s work vanished forever. This seal shows a very manly scene, but the artist, however unconsciously, recorded the handiwork of women.