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Fascinating Mycenae

Mycenae, Argolis, Greece

Visiting the citadel of Mycenae is traveling back in time almost 3,500 years. Most of the architectural remains visible today date from the 14th and 13th century BCE, when Mycenae was at the peak of its religious, political, and economical power. But its mythical as well as its historical roots go back even further in time, and its power once reached far beyond the plain beneath its walls.

"Mask of Agememnon"Greek mythology tells us how Perseus - famous for having killed the Medusa and for having saved beautiful Andromeda from a terrible sea-monster - founded the city and gave it its name when he lost his cap (called "mykes" in Ancient Greek) and found it back near a spring of fresh water at the foot of the hill. Perseus is not only linked to the origins of Mycenae, but also to those of the neighbouring citadels of Midea and Tiryns. He was also the first king of the Perseid dynasty which ended with Eurystheus, king of Tiryns, famous for imposing the Twelve Labors onto Herakles.

Back in Mycenae, the succeeding dynasty was named after king Atreus, who reigned around 1250 BCE. The most famous of the Atreids was Atreus's son and successor: king Agamemnon, whom we know well as commander-in-chief of the Greek army in the Iliad, Homer's account of the Trojan War. In the Iliad Mycenae is told to be "well-founded", "wide-wayed", and "golden". Much later, in Classical Athens of the 5th century BCE, the House of Atreus, and Agamemnon and his family in particular, would be the source of inspiration for several tragedies, put on stage on a regular basis even today.

DuMoncel Lion Gate at Mycenae

Considering the intriguing stories, the lofty epithets and the famous names linked to Mycenae, it would only be logical to find this city mentioned all throughout history. However, it seems to have faded back into the mist of myths and legends when its last inhabitants left some 2,000 years ago. Only its huge, "cyclopean" walls and its famous "Lion Gate" remained visible to travellers who had studied Classics and used the old stories as a guide book whilst exploring the ancient sites of Greece in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

At that time no serious scholar really believed the Trojan War had actually happened, that Agamemnon had been killed when he finally returned from Troy, by his own wife out of revenge for the ritual sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, or that Mycenaean tombs could be hiding treasures of gold. Only after the dust of the War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire had settled and "modern" Greece was born as the "Hellenic Republic" in the early 19th century, Greek archaeologists and historians could finally start to explore, excavate, and research the most famous sites of Antiquity. In 1841 the Archaeological Society of Athens started the first excavations on the rocky hill where once stood the citadel of Mycenae. The rediscovery of the Mycenaean civilisation had begun.

Schlieman StampIn 1876, Heinrich Schliemann, who was more of an "entrepreneur" than a true archaeologist, received the permission to start new excavations. He decided to continue what he had already done more or less successfully at the archaeological site of Hissarlik (the modern name for the city of Troy in Anatolia, present-day Turkey): find material and archaeological evidence that the legends and stories about Agamemnon, Mycenae, and beautiful Helen of Troy were not mere myths but were more or less precise accounts and descriptions of actual historical events and important people of the past.

Although he had managed to persuade most scholars that the ruins at Hissarlik were indeed those of the city of Troy, including traces of fire and destruction by war (which later on proved to be far from convincing proof), his archaeological "methods", which sometimes included the use of dynamite (!), and his scientific reports were not always recommendable. The fact is that, whatever archaeology today might think of this, he succeeded in making Mycenae world-famous again by digging up its legendary "gold". He found no less than 15 kilograms of it in the form of golden death masks and diadems, drinking cups, bronze swords and daggers with gilded decorations, and other beautifully crafted art objects such as the famous bull's head. Most of these treasures came out of the shaft tombs of so-called Grave Circle A, a very special burial place which is situated on the right hand side just after entering the citadel through the Lion Gate.

Mycenae

Archaeological excavations at Mycenae still continue today and have recently shown how the city not only has a much older history than the Greek literary tradition has been telling us, but that it also occupied a much larger area than what presently can be seen and visited by tourists. The site was inhabited since at least Neolithic times and already around 2100 BCE it was fortified with stone walls and contained several pit and shaft graves with pottery and other grave goods of very high quality. From around 1600 BCE the acropolis or citadel entered a new phase in its development with the construction of several new buildings featuring wall paintings, and the introduction of large so-called "tholos" (beehive-shaped) tombs.

Treasury of Atreus, Myceneae

During the 14th century BCE a first large-scale palace complex was built on three artificial terraces. Around the same time the construction of the famous "Treasury of Atreus" was started - the monumental tholos tomb that is situated outside and to the SW of the main archaeological site. This huge circular tomb with a corbeled roof is 13.5 meters high and 14.6 meters wide. The long walled and unroofed corridor (called "dromos") leading to its entrance is 36 meters long and 6 meters wide. Outside, left and right of the entrance to the tomb, traces of how semi-circular columns and other painted decorations were attached to the stone facade, can still be seen. On the paved floor of the entrance as well as on the huge stone slabs above and on both sides of it, other traces show evidence of monumental hinged doors. There are dozens of similar tholos tombs in and around Mycenae, three of which can be visited on the archaeological site itself. Yet this one, also called "Agamemnon's tomb", is the largest and the best preserved one, even featuring a more or less square side-chamber. The funerary practices of the Mycenaeans are still largely unknown to us, and seem to have changed during the centuries this civilisation dominated the mainland. These large tholos tombs as well as some smaller rock-cut tombs and shaft tombs, seem to have belonged to important families or dynasties. The bodies of the deceased were placed in pits dug into the floor of these tombs whilst offerings and grave goods were placed next to them or on small platforms on the sides of the interior of the tombs. It is probable that relatives, friends, and perhaps a large part of the community visited the tombs on a regular basis, bringing offerings or making libations to the souls of the deceased, outside at the entrance gate of the tholos tombs. This and other elements could indicate that there was some kind of belief that the dead could interact and "move" between the world of the living and the Netherworld, and could help the living communicate with the gods.

Mycenaen Walls

Further proof of the architectural achievements of this epoch are the impressive fortification walls (up to four or five meters wide in certain places) of the citadel, several flood management structures such as dams and bridges, and a large network of paved roads ("well-wayed Mycenae"), some of which still exist and function until this day. Several pottery workshops, large storage houses, quality products imported from all over the Mediterranean and beyond, all indicate a thriving economy and wide-spread commercial activities, supported by the invention and use of the first writing system on the mainland: Linear B (Linear A being slightly older, belonging to the Minoan culture on the island of Crete, and not deciphered yet).

Mycenae

Recently the theory that the citadel of Mycenae (and by extension all major Mycenaean citadels in the region) was predominantly a focal point of political and military power, and that all religious and economical activities in and around it were secondary to the first two, has been challenged. It seems far more likely now that since prehistory this site was of primary religious importance, and that the development of all other activities (political, economical, military) was a consequence of that. In other words: Religious practices and architecture on the site preceded and introduced the other ones. From this perspective it is important to understand how in prehistoric and early historic times (as is the case of Mycenae and its civilisation) societies were far less structured - if at all - into categories such as politics, economy, religion, jurisdiction, science, trade, education, culture, art. Early societies looked at their natural environment ("natural" in the sense that nature was still very predominant in all human activities) in a holistic way ("everything is linked to everything else") whilst any kind of power was very centralised and the monopoly of one important person: a high-priest functioned equally well as king, as judge, as military leader, and most probably also as a manager of commercial and trading activities. In that view, the so-called "palace" on top of the hill of Mycenae, could for example have functioned as a place for important religious celebrations or festivals as well as a court where matters of jurisdiction were decided upon, and even as the archive for all economical and other official documents written on clay tablets in Linear B.

Tourists in Mycenae, Greece

Two other, far more "solid", archaeological elements also seem to point at the importance of Mycenae and similar citadels as primordially religious centres which attracted economical and political activities, rather than being centres of political power causing some economical and religious activities as side-effects. First, the Lion Gate: This monumental entrance to the acropolis features a 3m x 3m square doorway with an 18-ton lintel, on top of which stand two lions seemingly protecting an altar supported by a small column. Although nobody has ever given a satisfactory and conclusive explanation for the different elements of this heraldic emblem of one of the major cities in the history of the world, it seems logical to equate the lions with political and military supremacy, and the altar with religious power. Second, the countless small (clay) figurines of deities (the majority of which is definitely female) found on the site, and the discovery of larger and seemingly much older "idols" (also female in appearance) in a building that seems to have functioned as their "home". These idols were probably wrapped in woven clothes, laid to rest in the evening, woken up in the morning, and given food and other offerings, as though they were the visible and material representatives of invisible and immaterial deities. Such rituals were not uncommon in the Eastern Mediterranean and in Ancient Egypt at this period in history. They have very deep and old origins, dating way back to prehistoric times.

Mycenae

Since we are talking about Mycenaean religion and other aspects of this intriguing society: It is important to keep in mind that this is the first society on the mainland of Europe that produced written documents. That means that the Mycenaean civilisation is the first one to enter into "historical" times: from prehistory (when no written documents were produced) into history. However, a lot of prehistoric elements, material as well as immaterial ones, survived well into the first centuries of history and perhaps some even into Classical Times. For example, it isn't because the Mycenaean civilisation is dated to the Bronze Age (as it was known for its knowledge how to produce bronze weapons and tools) that all production and use of stone tools and weapons suddenly stopped. It is also quite obvious that a lot of religious practices, rituals, objects, statues, and most probably also prayers and sacred texts, weren't simply abandoned the moment a standardised writing system was introduced. Certain elements that are fundamental to a society, usually change very slowly. The Mycenaean civilisation thus allows us to have a peek into prehistory, apart from what is known only by archaeological remains excavated on prehistoric sites.

View from Mycenae

When we look close enough, what we can see is really fascinating. What seems to be a civilisation shaped by men and their physical power (cyclopean walls, huge tombs, weapons of war and stories of conquest), has a surprising female side to it, and one that is incredibly important. The majority of Linear B tablets that have survived the ages (thanks to the fires that ravaged the archives where they were kept but baked the clay so the texts were preserved) have an economical content, talk about taxes, the trade of products, and the distribution of food to the population. However, one document from the archives of the Mycenaean state of Pylos (in the SW of the Peloponnese) is equally enlightening as it is modern in content. It is a juridical dispute about the exemption of taxes, between Eritha, the high priestess of the female deity Potnia in Pylos, and the local authorities. Eritha claims that the land of the Sanctuary of Potnia, which is her responsibility, should be exempted from paying taxes. From the elements in this document, which by the way is the earliest document about a juridical dispute in the history of Europe, it becomes clear that Eritha had significant religious, financial, and economical powers. And there were of course more high priestesses like her all over the Mycenaean empire. From this and similar historical documents it appears that at least a large number of highly-ranked Mycenaean women were the owners and managers of large areas of land, of the crops that were grown, and of the houses that were built on it.

This comes as no surprise if we consider how in prehistoric societies women were the ones who were responsible for the arable land and the crops it produced. It also appears that women were the first ones to learn how to successfully grow crops and harvest them. Men were mostly out hunting and fishing. Women in the villages were the ones taking care of and teaching children. Most probably women were the first artists, as new investigations into the art inside prehistoric caves like the one in Lascaux seem to prove.

Considering how closely linked the Mycenaean civilisation still is to its prehistoric roots, the role, function, and importance of women in Mycenaean society must not have been very different. Ask artists to look at the decorations of Mycenaean pottery, at the design of Mycenaean jewellery, at the refined style of the Mycenaean wall paintings, and they will tell you that they see a woman's "touch", not a man's hand at work. Now such theories are hard to prove because there simply aren't enough written documents that would corroborate such views. But there are many clues pointing at the significant role Mycenaean women played in their society, as priestesses, as owners of land, as managers of the household, and as artists.

Mycenae

At the end of the 13th century BCE the citadels of Mycenae and of neighbouring Midea and other Mycenaean strongholds in the region as well, seem to have been destroyed by a massive earthquake. This must have caused an enormous amount of casualties amongst the population and had far-reaching effects on agriculture, trade, and the economy in general, as not only the citadels but also a lot of dams, bridges, and roads were destroyed or seriously damaged. At Mycenae the palace and other buildings were repaired, albeit poorly, and a number of ramps and walls were added, one of which included the Perseia spring within the fortifications. This fresh water spring, obviously named after the city’s mythological founder, can still be reached by walking down into a dark, corbeled tunnel with 86 steps leading down 18m to the water source.

Mycenaen Spring

These architectural additions appear to be evidence for a preoccupation with more security facing a possible invasion. Nonetheless, also the second palace was destroyed eventually, this time with signs of fire. Again, some buildings were repaired but a second fire soon afterwards ended all occupation of the citadel of Mycenae until a brief revival happened in Hellenistic times. With the decline of Mycenae, Argos, at the other side of the plain, some 10km to the SW of Mycenae and clearly visible from the top of the citadel, became the dominant power in the region. The exact reason for the end of the Mycenaean civilisation is still unclear and possibilities include natural disaster, over-population, internal social and political unrest, or invasion from foreign tribes.

Mycenae Museum pieces

A visit to Mycenae would be incomplete without seeing the magnificent golden artefacts, burial masks, cups and rhytons, ivory figurines, jewellery, swords and daggers, pottery (some of which looks surprisingly modern in design!), and the intriguing votive figurines or idols found at the site. Although the original golden burial masks and some of the other treasures found by Schliemann in Grave Circle A now reside in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, the copies on display in Mycenae surely give testimony to the superb craftsmanship and wealth of "golden Mycenae".

Angelos Asklepiades photographs and writes about his passion: archaeological sites and their history, legends, and stories. Based in the heartland of the Mycenaean civilisation, the Argolid, he explores mythical hills and magical valleys in search of ruins and roads that were seen and described by travellers of the 18th and 19th century. A master's degree in Classical Philology and Greek Archaeology helps him to share to a general public what colleagues in history, philology, and archaeology research, excavate, and publish. You can contact him at garden.of.the.muses@gmail.com

Helpful Mycenae Tourist Information

Mycenae is about a 2 hour drive from Athens and about 20 minutes from the town of Nafplio. There are restaurants and hotels nearby in the town of Mikines though you will probably enjoy yourself a lot more if you stay in Nafplio. Many people include Mycenae when they do a One Day Tour of the Argolis with George the Famous Taxi Driver or as part of a longer trip around the Peloponnesos. Fantasy Travel also offers the Mycenae - Epidaurus 1 Day Tour and their Mycenae - Epidaurus 2 Day Tour and it is also included in their 4 Day Classical Tour, their 5 Day Classical Tour and their 7 Day Grand Tour of Greece. If you plan to go by bus they leave from the Kifissos Bus Station and continue on to Argos and Nafplio. See Schedules. You can also rent a car through Swift Rent-a-Car and Fantasy Rent-a-Car and go on your own. For hotels in and around Nafplio see Booking.com's Nafplio Hotel Search.

A special thanks to Fantasy Travel for a few of the photos on this page which they actually got through DepositPhotos.com and to Mark Cartwright for the rest.

Be sure to visit these nearby places as well

Ancient Myceneae, Greece
Corinth & the Argolis

Nafplio, Peloponessos
Nafplion

Nemea, Temple of Zeus
Nemea


Epidauros


copyright by Matt Barrett and updated continuously