Mycenae

Carving of lions on the pediment of the Lion Gate in Peloponnese, Greece

Mycenae is the site where a mysterious late bronze-age civilization rose from nowhere around 1900 BCE, flourished mostly in the Peloponnese peninsula, and then disappeared suddenly around 1100 BCE. Whatever little we know about the Mycenaean civilization is fascinating.

The Mycenaean kingdoms were a loose confederation of city-states, each of which was ruled by a king. The center of the Mycenaean civilization was the city-state of Mycenae. According to a myth, Perseus, a son of Zeus and Danae, founded Mycenae. Mycenae was also the capital of legendary King Agamemnon, who defeated Troy. Homer refers to the Mycenaean people as Achaeans.

The Mycenaeans were believed to be Indo-European people, who migrated from the north and established settlements in Peloponnese. Although the Mycenaeans eventually conquered Minoans of Crete, they had an amicable relationship with the Minoans for a long time. Many aspects of the Mycenaean culture was influenced by the Minoans. When the Mycenaean disappeared abruptly in 1100 BCE, Greece plunged into dark ages.

Location

Mycenae is located on the Peloponnese peninsula 75 miles southwest of Athens, Greece.

Archaeological site

The was site was discovered in the 1870s by the German businessman and amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann who was already famous for discovering the city of Troy.

The site is on a hill and the ruins are visible from a distance.

Views from the Mycenae citadel

Cyclopean Wall

A massive wall known as the Cyclopean Wall surrounded the Mycenae citadel. The wall was named after the mythical giants from Asia known as Cyclopes. According to a legend, Perseus, the founder of Mycenae, employed Cyclopes to build the massive wall enclosing the citadel.

Cyclopean wall at the Mycenae citadel
The cyclopean wall at the Mycenae citadel

Lion Gate

Built around 13th century BCE, the Lion Gate is the entrance to the citadel at Mycenae and attached to it is the Cyclopean Wall. The sculpture above the lintel of the gate has a pillar flanked by two headless lions. It is believed that the original sculpture had the heads of lions made of metal.

Lion Gate
Lion Gate

Pausanias (110 -180 CE), a Greek traveler and historian, wrote about the Lion Gate in his book, Descriptions of Greece, which was used to identify Mycenae citadel by the archaeologists.

Grave Circle A

Grave Circle A is the site of a cemetery located inside the Mycenae citadel. The cemetery is enclosed by two rows of circular walls formed by stone slabs. When this site was excavated, six shaft graves with the bodies of 19 people, including men, women, and children were found. Each grave had a mound and stelae. Also found in the grave are funerary objects, including a golden death mask, gold and silver cups, rings, buttons, bracelets, and daggers.

Grave Circle A

Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered the cemetery in the 1870s, believed that the legendary King Agamemnon was buried there. However, the site is dated 17th or 16th century BCE, which is well before the time of King Agamemnon. Experts are not sure who was buried in this site but believe that the bodies belong to high-ranking people from the Mycenae civilization, probably the royalty.

Palace

The Mycenae palace is located at the highest point on the Acropolis.  The ruins visible today belong to the building constructed in the 13th century BCE. Only the foundations and floor paving of some rooms have survived. The archaeological evidence suggests that the site likely had many variations of the building before the current one.

The palace complex had a large courtyard and a megaron (meeting hall). The megaron consisted of a portico, prodomos (anteroom or open vestibule), and the main hall, whose principal space (known as domos) consisted of a circular hearth and four columns supporting the roof. See the model of the palace below.

People gathered in the megaron to conduct palace business. It was destroyed, most likely by fire, in the late 13th century BCE, and was rebuilt in the 12th century.

Mycenae palace

Cistern

A large underground cistern supplied water to the Mycenae citadel. The image below shows the entrance to the tunnel that led to a large underground cistern which received water collected from a natural spring through underground aqueducts.

Mycenae cistern

North Gate

North gate at the Mycenae citadel
North gate at the Mycenae citadel

The north gate is the second gate of the citadel, and the path from this gate led to the palace megaron. Built around 1250 BCE,  the north gate had double wooden doors with a sliding bolt to lock them.

Agamemnon Tomb (Treasury of Atreus)

Located on the Panagitsa hill near the Mycenae citadel and dated between 1350 and 1330 BCE, the Agamemnon Tomb is a massive dome-like structure with an entrance similar to the Lion Gate. It owes its name to its discoverer Heinrich Schliemann, who assumed that the tomb was built for King Agamemnon of the Trojan war fame. However, there is no evidence to suggest that the tomb indeed belonged to him. In fact, it was built well before his time.

The Agamemnon Tomb is a bee-hive type of a tomb. Also known as the Tholos tombs, the bee-hive tombs were prevalent in the Peloponnese Peninsula in the late bronze age. They get their name because of the dome-structure and their resemblance to the beehive.

This monument was referred to as Treasury of Atreus by the Greek traveler Pausanias who visited this site in the 2nd century CE.

Entrance

Entrance to the Tomb of Agamemnon located near the Mycenae citadel
Entrance to the Tomb of Agamemnon located near the Mycenae citadel

It has a remarkable entrance with a long passageway and a doorway similar to the Lions Gate in design. The lintel above the door is a massive stone weighing about 120 tons. The triangular space above the lintel is empty but likely housed some sculptures.

Passageway

Passageway wall of the entrance to the Tomb of Agamemnon
Passageway wall of the entrance to the Tomb of Agamemnon

The passageway is long with a wall on each side. The shape of most of the stones on the wall is rectangular, but there are some polygonal stones as well. The stones were cut precisely to fit the wall perfectly, and despite the differences in their sizes and shapes, it appears no mortar was used to bind them. As you can see in the image below, some of the stones on these walls are massive.

Chamber

The chamber of the Agamemnon Tomb is a dome with a diameter of 14.5 meters and a height of 13 meters. Considering the time period in which it was built, the construction of the dome was considered a great engineering feat.

Inside the chamber of the Tomb of Agamemnon

Related Pages
Minoan Civilization
Athens, Olympia, Delphi, Meteora, Crete, Greek Islands, Greece
Ephesus

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