The Tartan Sealstone

In one of last year’s blogs (May 2017: “Where did tartan come from?” I introduced the ‘Tartan Timeline’ as my academic defence against the gainsayers who insist that it was the ‘invention’ of Sir Walter Scott, later aided and abetted by Queen Victoria and her Consort, Albert. There’s no doubt that that distinguished trio – together with the early industrial tartan weavers – have a lot to answer for in the revival, promotion and romanticism of tartan and its associated dress. However, the faintly justified scorn heaped upon them has frequently spilled over into the origins of tartan itself.

Hopefully, the Timeline and its documented evidence redressed that imbalance although I was reluctantly convinced that no earlier evidence than the 750 – 1200BC bracket, would ever come to light.

How wrong I was! In 2015 a team of archaeologists from the University of Cincinnati uncovered a Bronze Age warrior’s tomb outside the ancient Greek city of Pylos. Their painstaking work uncovered over 1500 artefacts, one of which was an insignificant, stone-encrusted little sealstone measuring only 1.4 inches (3.6cms) long. Sealstones were carved stones used to create an impression on wax or clay and after its unearthing, this one lay in a drawer, uninvestigated for over a year.

Once cleaned, the Pylos Combat Agate as it became called, showed a skill and finesse unparalleled by anything ever found from the Minoan-Mycenaean era. The thumb-sized stone depicts a battling warrior who, having already killed one opponent, is plunging his sword into the neck of another. Some of the details are so intricate that they can only be seen using a powerful camera lens or microscope. The original craftsman may have used a magnifying glass to create those details, but no type of magnifying tool from the period has ever been found.

Team Member Dr. Jack Davis said; “What is fascinating is 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.”

Not being versed – or indeed necessarily interested – in the comparatively boring history of tartan, none of the specialist researchers attached any significance to the vanquished warriors’ ‘loin cloths’ which, in the detailed drawing, clearly showed ‘tartan’!

But . . . to a tartan ‘anorak’ like me, this was manna from heaven and so my tartan timeline has been pushed back from the imprecise 750-1200 BC bracket of the Takla Makan tartan, to a definite 1440 BC of the Pylos tomb. Undoubtedly, ‘tartan’ was well-established prior to our warrior’s gory victory, but let’s not over-gild the historical lily!

Who those unlucky tartan-clad warriors were, can only be guessed at. I would like to think that they were Celts, for whom the weaving of tartan-like fabrics was an established artform and whose central European origin was only 400 miles north of the warrior’s tomb. But that’s a very simplistic bit of wishful thinking.

The region was at one time dominated by the Minoans, whose sophisticated civilization arose on Crete, 50 miles to the southeast, and there is much evidence that the first wave of ‘conquering’ Mycenaeans embraced Minoan culture, from its religious symbols to its domestic décor. The Minoans were noted for their skilled artisans and craftsmen who traded widely in the Aegean, Mediterranean and beyond.

Perhaps they, rather than the Celts, were the originators of what we now call tartan. It may be fanciful, but I like to muse that 3,500 years later and 2,500 miles distant, I’m sitting in Perthshire following in the footsteps of those early tartan designers.

For more information on the Griffin Warrior and its fascinating historical implications, have a look at:

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Brian Wiltonpeter wilsonCarl PetersonAndy LevettBrian Wilton Recent comment authors
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Ron Cunningham
Ron Cunningham

Great article!
Are you aware of the ancient grave sites in the Gobi Desert where bodies mummified by the cold, dry soil were discovered to hsve red hair and were wrapped in a tartan weaved
material? The age of the Caucasian individuals pre-dated Chinese history in that area.

Brian Wilton

Thanks Ron – I suspect that find was actually the one in the Takla Makan Desert (to the west of the Gobi Desert) which was dated 750 – 1200 BC – the earliest ever evidence of ‘tartan’ . . . . until the more recent find in southwest Greece. Thanks for your interest!

Andy Levett
Andy Levett

Hi Brian very interesting, l did read somewhere quite a few years ago of a grave , which could of been the Gobi Desert ones, of a high ranking woman possibly priestess or princess which had tartan clothing. They put forward the theory that tartan may have originated in that area and migrated east and west. Sorry l can’t be more precise about the article it was a while ago but just stuck in my mind.

Brian Wilton

Thanks Andy – I haven’t heard of that article and I strongly suspect that it’s actually the Takla Makan mummies at the root of it. But it was the male of the group on whom the tartan was found – wrapped around his legs I think. He was tall, brown-haired and long-nosed and assumed to be Caucasian. It’s a small step from there to assume that he was a Celt for whom the weaving of tartan-like designs was a well-known craft – the Greeks of the period frequently commented on the outlandish dress. The Celts spread out from central Europe… Read more »

Carl Peterson

I agree, great article, but to get back to what we now believe was to identify highland clans of Scotland by their designs was erroneous. A bogus collection by the Sobieski brothers, who claimed to be grandsons of the bonnie prince influenced folks like Sir Walter and the likes and led to this new idea of what tartans meant.

Brian Wilton

Glad you enjoyed it Carl. I think you might be recylcing some questionable claims. The problem with so many of these tartan myths is that there’s frequently a grain of truth involved. Some Scottish clans were definitely known for their tartans before the era of Walter Scott or the Sobieski brothers, but many more jumped on the tartan bandwaggon during that period. So you’re half right 🙂 You’re quite wrong about Walter Scott however – he was one of the very few who smelled a rat about the Sobieskis. In their defence it’s now accepted that not ALL of their… Read more »

peter wilson

Thanks for sharing Brian. Quite fascinating. Time to reintroduce tartan loincloths at Brooks Bros!

Brian Wilton

And I know just the man to do it . . . Peter Wilson of Great Scot International out of Charlotte NC 🙂

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