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:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/golden-warrior-greek-tomb-exposes-roots-western-civilization-180961441/

16 Comments
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Ron Cunningham
Ron Cunningham
2 years ago

Brian,
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
2 years ago
Reply to  Ron Cunningham

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
2 years ago

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
Editor
2 years ago
Reply to  Andy Levett

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
2 years ago

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
Editor
2 years ago
Reply to  Carl Peterson

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
2 years ago

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

Brian Wilton
Editor
2 years ago
Reply to  peter wilson

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

kilts for men
1 year ago

Thanks for sharing such an informative post about tartan.I enjoy a lot while reading. Keep sharing your best posts.

Brian Wilton
Editor
10 months ago
Reply to  kilts for men

Thanks guys!

    It’s a really fascinating story that one.
    Slav
    Slav
    10 months ago

    When we take a look at ornamentation of stone age cultures – especially rich Cucteni-Tripilia ornaments – we can certainly get some insights how that iconic pattern might have originated. Ornament of diagonal crossed square (known sometimes as sown field) is a common ornament in many cultures. We can observe it in these regions of Europe that had traditions of geometric ornamentation and preserved it to modern days. Nordic, Baltic, Slavic (Ukrainian Vyshyvanka), Romanian embroidery have such symbol as one of the most often used elements of their patterns. Plaid is quiet logical and simple translation of such symbol on… Read more »

    Slav
    Slav
    10 months ago
    Reply to  Slav

    Ah I even found Sown Field ornament on Cucteni-Tripilian ceramics that looks like a part of plaid. Please take a look at this photo
    comment image

    Brian Wilton
    Editor
    10 months ago
    Reply to  Slav

    Thanks Slav,
    Much as I would love to believe that those crossed lines scratched into pottery represent tartan, I don’t think I can make such a leap of faith. I don’t think tartan ever existed as a graphic design but perhaps evolved as a practical way of using up remains of different coloured yarns in the warp and weft. Weavers then saw the potential and deliberately introduced different colours for artistic effect.

    Slav
    Slav
    10 months ago
    Reply to  Brian Wilton

    Well I meant more like geometrical design popular on ceramic and probably painted on fabric too make its way to woven fabric. These were times of hypothetical deep connection of cultures of the era to symbolism connected to belief systems. Even act of weaving had religious aspects in Indo-European paganism. (Connected to fertility BTW. And sown field as well is fertility symbol.) As Who knows how deep in the past are roots of such beliefs.

    Brian Wilton
    Editor
    10 months ago
    Reply to  Slav

    I find it difficvult to accept that tartan evolved from graphics of crossed lines. I think the two are quite separate artistic disciplines.

    Slav
    Slav
    10 months ago
    Reply to  Brian Wilton

    Why? Are you seeing just nothing more than lines in them? Two crossed line are symbols of union of male and female the most basic fertility symbol known to the humanity of all cultures around the globe. Add 4 more lines and we get sown field elongate borders and we get cross within field within cross surrounded by field. Variants of this fractal scheme are popular among many cultures of Europe, Asia and Americas in their geometrical ornamentation. You start simple and evolve trough centuries. In your part of the globe it just happened it evolved into layering of many… Read more »

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