One of the big questions for humanity today is where and when our human ancestors moved from being itinerant hunter gatherers following the food cycle to settling down in the one place, developing their own food sources with time to spare for play, art and wondering about the role of the ‘Gods’ in their existence. On the continent of Europe, we know the Minoan people on Crete seemed to have done a fabulous job of settling in the one spot and pursuing high art and architecture (2200-1500 BCE) and the next cab off the rank were the people who settled around Mycenae in Greece and created an impressive civilization that dominated both the Peloponnese and wider areas in the centuries between 1900-1100 BCE.
Getting an understanding about outbreaks of civilization always depends on whether these people had managed to transfer their day-to-day spoken language into a written one. Whilst the Sumerians and Egyptian civilizations appear to have developed their cuneiform and hieroglyphics well before the Greeks, we know that the Minoans and the Myceneans were working hard on their script to record the details of what life was like in the Peloponnese and this invention means they too broke through into history! We know that the Myceneans passed on their slowly evolving language onto their descendants in the Golden Age of Greek civilization along with their ideas about the Gods above and the art, architecture and weaponry needed to survive in the much contested world of ancient Greece.
We visited the Peloponnese over two trips in 2013 and 2014 and were able to visit Mycenae and ponder the big questions about the civilization that developed here almost four thousand years ago. In a previous life I had been a history teacher so I had done my background reading on this fascinating place in the hills in the Argolis region so I knew the stories of how the modern world came to understand the important story that was Mycenae. The world owes a lot to the Roman traveller Pausanias for his records of his travels in the second century CE. Along with so many other places in the Peloponnese, he went to Mycenae and was shown the ruins of the entry to the city, the Lion Gate. It was his reference to the gate that 1500 years later enabled a Greek Surveyor to identify the site of ancient Mycenae in 1700. It was a great, but very hot day, when we passed through the Lion Gate and its amazing cyclopean stone blocks. The image below shows the Lion Gate entry down the pathway which leads up past the first grave circle.
The archaeological site of Mycenae entered the modern world in 1876 when the famous Heinrich Schliemann, a German archaeologist whose professional reputation has been critiqued heavily ever since, began work on the site. Schliemann is mainly famous for his destructive archaeology on the site of Troy and his theft of ‘Priam’s Treasure’ from the Troy site. He was in luck when he began excavating at Mycenae where he discovered the shaft graves that can be seen in the image above. It was here he discovered skeletons and gold interred with these burials. This time, he didn’t purloin his famous discovery, the golden Mask of ‘Agamemnon’.
Before we actually entered through the Lion Gate, our guide had decided to take us through the Museum on site as an introduction to our walk through Mycenae. I took the photo above left in this museum that purported to be Schliemann’s discovery, the Mask of ‘Agamemnon’. Fortunately or unfortunately, this is a copy of the supposed original mask that is now housed in the Archaeological Museum of Athens. Schliemann actually found five masks from the Grave circle but the one that is displayed in Athens has also been disputed as an original Mycenaean artifact simply due to Schliemann’s reputation for ‘self-mythologization’. “I’ve learned to doubt everything Schliemann said unless there is independent confirmation,” (William M. Calder III). On the other hand, most reputable archaeologists believe the mask is an original artifact but they place it at least 300 years before the Trojan War hero Agamemnon could have been buried in Mycenae.
From Grave Circle A we moved on through the archaeological site, attempting to make sense of the layout of this ‘urban area’ that housed the noble class of the Mycenaean civilization. Outside the walls of this acropolis was the lower town that in 1350 BCE is estimated to have held around 30000 people. It was one of a group of small states (such as Tiryns not far south from here) based around a palace system, perhaps an inheritance from their Minoan cousins across the water in Crete. It was around this date that the fortifications of Mycenae were rebuilt with the Cyclopean blocks that we still see here today. The Mycenaean palaces were built to a similar pattern throughout southern Greece. Each palace consisted of a megaron or throne room that contained a central hearth and an opening overhead, surrounded by four pillars. Frescoes decorated the walls. They must have been awe inspiring buildings in their day but all that is left at Mycenae of the Palace is the platform where it once stood.
Archaeologists and artists have attempted to turn back time 3300 years to get a sense of what the acropolis of Mycenae may have looked like with its Palace and surrounding houses of the upper classes. They will always be interpretations but the one below is a very helpful model of what this bronze age fortress would have looked like. (Courtesy…www.thecollector.com/mycenean-civilization)
Below is an artist’s recreation of what the inside of the throne room at Mycenae may have looked like with the central hearth, fire burning and the smoke escaping out the square hole in the roof. The throne is placed against the wall, surrounded by frescoes, so the King could be seen from any point in the room.
The Mycenaean Greeks were clearly a clever and industrious society. They were great builders, not just of palaces and fortifications but creating great engineering projects such as drainage systems, harbours, roads etc. Their development of the Greek written language (Linear B) was no doubt a reason why their traders ranged successfully and widely around the Mediterranean world. It seems to be inevitable that despite the many advantages that the Myceneans had to maintain their power in the Argolis, their civilization eventually failed and disappeared from the historical timeline. In the case of the Mycenaeans, it is not entirely clear why around 1100 BCE their acropolis was sacked and burnt to the ground and who were the culprits. From around the above date, Greece entered what historians refer to as the Dark Ages so it has been proposed that the Dorian people who conquered Greece with their Iron weapons around this time may be the culprits. Another group of culprits might be the mysterious ‘Sea-People’ who arrived and destroyed many centres around the coasts of Asia Minor. (Check Appendix 1 for a timetable of key dates in Ancient Greek History.)
During our time staying at Naphlion in 2014, we were also able to visit another Mycenaean fortress/palace site in Tiryns and a write up of that visit can be found here.