Mycenae and Tiryns


Mycenae and Tiryns

Mycenae 'Rich in Gold', the kingdom of mythical Agamemnon, first sung by Homer in his epics, is the most important and richest palatial centre of the Late Bronze Age in Greece. Its name was given to one of the greatest civilizations of Greek prehistory, the Mycenaean civilization, while the myths related to its history have inspired poets and writers over many centuries, from the Homeric epics and the great tragedies of the Classical period to contemporary literary and artistic creation. Perseus, son of Zeus and Danae, daughter of Akrisios, king of Argos and descendant of Danaos, is traditionally considered as its mythical founder. Pausanias (2, 16, 3) reports that Perseus named the new city Mycenae after the pommel (mykes) of his sword, which fell there, or after the Perseia spring, discovered there under the root of a mushroom (mykes). According to the myth, Perseus's descendants reigned at Mycenae for three generations. After the last of them, Eurystheas, died childless, the Mycenaeans chose Atreus, son of Pelops, father of Agamemnon and Menelaos, as their king.

Mycenae was founded between two tall conical hills, Profitis Ilias (805 m.) and Sara (660 m.), on a low plateau dominating the Argive plain and controlling both the land and sea routes. The site was first occupied in the seventh millennium BC (Neolithic period). Very little remains of this early settlement because of continuous re-occupation up until the historical period. Most of the monuments visible today were erected in the Late Bronze Age, between 1350 and 1200 BC, when the site was at its peak. In the early second millennium BC a small settlement existed on the hill and a cemetery with simple burials on its southwest slope. Grave Circle B, a stone-built funerary enclosure containing monumental graves with rich grave gifts, indicates that the first families of rulers and aristocrats appeared at Mycenae at approximately 1700 BC. This social structure developed further in the early Mycenaean period, c. 1600 BC, when a large central building, a second funerary enclosure (Grave Circle A) and the first tholos tombs were erected on the hill. The finds from these monuments show that the powerful Mycenaean rulers participated in a complex network of commercial exchange with other parts of the Mediterranean.

The construction of the palace and fortification wall currently visible began c. 1350 BC (Late Helladic IIIA2). The latter saw three construction phases, the first wall being built of Cyclopean masonry. A new wall was erected to the west and south of the early one approximately one hundred years later (Late Helladic IIIB1), together with the Lion Gate, the citadel's monumental entrance, and its bastion. Included in the newly fortified area were the city's religious centre and Grave Circle A, which was refurbished and used for ancestral cults. The famous tholos tomb known as the 'Treasure of Atreus', with its gigantic lintels and tall beehive vault, was probably built during the same period. At approximately 1200 BC, in the Late Helladic IIIB-C period, following a large destruction probably caused by an earthquake, the walls were extended to the northeast so as to include the subterranean well. Successive destructions and fires led to the site's final abandonment c. 1100 BC.

After the collapse of the palatial system and of the 'Mycenaean Koine', the hill was sparsely inhabited until the Classical period. Meanwhile, several local cults of heroes developed in the area, fuelled by Mycenae's fame, which the Homeric poems spread throughout Greece. A temple dedicated to Hera or Athena was erected on the top of the hill in the Archaic period. In 468 BC, after the Persian Wars, in which Mycenae took part, the town was conquered by Argos and had part of its fortification wall destroyed. In the Hellenistic period, the Argives founded a 'village' on the hill, repaired the prehistoric walls and the Archaic temple, and erected a small theatre over the dromos of the tholos tomb of Clytaemnestra. The town was abandoned in subsequent centuries and was already in ruins when Pausanias visited it in the second century AD.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the impressive Cyclopean walls of the Mycenaean acropolis attracted many travellers and antiquaries who did not hesitate to loot the site, taking advantage of the indifference and greed of the Turkish authorities. In 1837, after the Greek Independence, the archaeological site of Mycenae came under the jurisdiction of the Greek Archaeological Society, whose representative K. Pittakis cleared the Lion Gate in 1841. In 1876, after opening several small test trenches in 1874, Heinrich Schliemann began excavating Grave Circle A, where he uncovered five graves. His work was continued in 1876-1877 by trench supervisor P. Stamatakis who uncovered the sixth grave. In subsequent years C. Tsountas (1884-1902), D. Evangelidis (1909), G. Rosenwaldt (1911), A. Keramopoulos (1917) and A. J. B. Wace (1920-1923, 1939, 1950-1957) excavated the palace and cemeteries. In 1952-1955 I. Papadimitriou and G. Mylonas of the Greek Archaeological Society excavated Grave Circle B and several houses, while G. Mylonas with N. Verdelis of the Archaeological Service excavated parts of the settlement. Excavations by the British School at Athens under Lord W. Taylor uncovered the religious centre, while further investigations were conducted by the Greek Archaeological Society under G. Mylonas and S. Iakovidis in 1959 and 1969-1974. In 1950-1955 A. Orlandos and E. Stikas supervised the restoration of the Tomb of Clytaemnestra, the palace, Grave Circle B and the area surrounding the Lion Gate. The project for the 'Restoration-Conservation-Presentation of the Monuments of the Acropolis of Mycenae and its Greater Area', begun in 1998, was overseen initially by the Work Group for the Restoration of the Monuments of Epidaurus and subsequently by the Mycenae Committee, created in 1999.

The archaeological site of Mycenae comprises the fortified acropolis and surrounding funerary and habitation sites, which are located mainly to its west and southwest. Most of the visible monuments date to the centre's great floruit, from 1350 to 1200 BC.

Great Cyclopean walls surround the almost triangular acropolis, which is accessed from the northwest through the famous Lion Gate, the symbol of the Mycenaean rulers' power. The gate was named after the two opposing lions carved in relief and set into the relieving triangle, a typical feature of Mycenaean architecture, over the door. To the right of the Lion Gate are the remains of a building dubbed the 'Granary', because its basement contained carbonized grain. South of the Granary is Grave Circle A, whose six large shaft graves contained numerous gold objects and other works of art. Beyond this is a series of buildings, possibly the residences of high officials: the House of the Warrior Krater, the Ramp House, the South House and the Citadel House. The citadel's religious centre, along the south fortification wall, includes the Temple of the Idols, the House of the Frescoes, Tsountas's House and the Priest's House. A staircase and a large processional street connected these shrines to the palace.

The palace, symbol of the power of Mycenaean rulers, dominates the citadel's highest point. It sprawls over artificial terraces and was reached by a large ramp beginning at the Lion Gate. The main palace building includes a large courtyard, a guesthouse and, at its very centre, the Mycenaean megaron. The latter consisted of three parts: a columned porch, a vestibule (prodomos) and the main chamber (domos), which housed the ruler's throne. The palace also included workshops and storerooms, both related to the palatial monopoly of goods, cult buildings and houses, which probably belonged to high officials.

At the northeast corner of the fortifications is the entrance to the underground spring, built during the third construction phase to safeguard access from the interior of the citadel during sieges. A corbelled corridor leads to the underground cistern located eighteen metres below, outside the fortification walls. Near the entrance to the cistern, to its west, is the citadel's second gate, the so-called North Gate, of similar construction as the Lion Gate, only smaller.

Outside the fortification walls, west of the Lion Gate, is Grave Circle B, which encloses fourteen shaft-graves. Four of the nine tholos tombs discovered so far at Mycenae are also located in this area. The so-called tombs of the Lions, Aegisthus and Clytaemnestra, and the Treasury of Atreus, further south, illustrate the development of this type of funerary structure, the latter being its most perfect example, with its enormous lintels, imposing vault and richly decorated facade.

Approximately fifty metres south of Grave Circle B, next to the modern asphalt road, are the remains of four buildings, the so-called houses of the Shields, of the Oil-Merchant, of the Sphinxes and the West House. Several inscribed clay tablets discovered in the House of the Oil-Merchant mention workers, oil and perfumes. These indicate that this was probably a workshop specializing in the production of perfumes and perfumed oils, which the Mycenaeans exported.

Traces of the highly developed road network, which connected Mycenae with the other large centres in the area, are still preserved around the citadel. One of these roads with its bridge is visible near the cemetery of the modern village, while a second road along the northern fortification wall still shows tracks made by ancient chariot wheels.

Site Monuments

1. The Treasure of Atreus

It is the most impressive of the preserved Mycenaean tholos tombs, situated at Mycenae, on Panagitsa hill.

The walls of the chamber and the long dromos (36 m. long and 6 m. wide) are lined with conglomerate ashlar blocks. The tholos or round chamber (h. 13.20 m., diam. 14.20 m.) is roofed with a conical corbel vault, having the shape of an old-fashioned beehive. A distinctive feature of the tomb is the side-chamber hewn in the rock (6 x 6 x 5 m.).

The rich sculptured and painted decoration that once ornamented the facade (10.50 x 6 m.) is not preserved on the monument. Between two half-columns of green stone with carved motifs, the entrance (5.40 x 2.45-2.70 m.) had a wooden double door set in the inner side of the long stomion (5.40 m. long) which was sealed with accumulated stones. A decorated plaque was placed on the "relieving triangle" over the lintel, which was made of two enormous granite slabs (the inner measuring 8 x 5 x 1.50 m.).

The "Treasure of Atreus" was constructed in ca. 1250 B.C. and was in use for a long period, not precisely defined.

The tholos is made of thirty-three superposed rings of conglomerate ashlar blocks, perfectly fitted so that each slightly projected beyond the edge of the one below it.

The monument remained visible and had already been plundered when it was mentioned by Pausanias (2nd century A.D.) as "Treasure". For a while it was used as a refuge by shepherds whose fires blackened the walls of the tholos. In 1878 P. Stamatakis cleared the dromos and the chamber. Of the relief decoration of the facade only fragments detached by Lord Silgo and Lord Elgin have survived in various museums (Munich, Karlsruhe, Berlin and especially, London and Athens).

2. The Subterranean Cistern

The importance of space is high and touches the limits of uniqueness in the prehistoric age. The entrance of the subterranean cistern is located in the walled city of Mycenae, in the northeast corner and towards the northern cyclopean wall. It dates back to the end of the 13th century. BC, when the last gradual development of the Mycenae enclosure took place in order to include it.

The subterranean cistern was built inside the walls of the Mycenaean acropolis to provide water to the inhabitants when they were in a state of siege. The water originated mainly from a vital source, Persia, which from the prehistoric times up to the present day is even vibrating and watering the modern village. Modern scholars place it precisely 360 meters away from the acropolis. It is in an advantageous location, 13 meters higher than the Acropolis, and we can see it from the Mycenaean years as the city's main aqueduct.

The Mycenaeans, had the technical experience of transporting water with ducts to the «foot» of the acropolis hill. The solution to the problem was given to the moment when an opening in the rock was found inside the acropolis, which they exploited in order to reach the tank they built outside the wall. The conception of the project and the realization of the work by the Mycenaean artisans places the subterranean cistern in one of the miraculous mechanical Mycenaean works with genuine «Cyclopean execution» which can be mentioned and compared with the modern water supply systems of the cities 33 centuries later.

The descent in the subterranean cistern begins with the shape of the high altitude arch leading to an entrance with pilasters and lintels, typical of Mycenaean architecture. To get to it we descend a scale on 3 levels that depend on depth and direction. The first downhill gradient, from which the 16 steps are preserved, leads to a cyclopean portal. The tubular stepped descent penetrates obliquely across the wall, penetrates its entire thickness, and continues underground until it reaches a covered quadrangle - a stop - from where it turns westward. The second ladder starts from the landing stage and ends in another - second stop - with 20 steps, changing eastwards. Now the parallelism with the wall is obvious.

After the last turn begins the third set of stairs, with a steep slope, covering the distance of 12 meters, remaining with 54 steps. The last  scale was intended to increase the capacity of the tank. This seems because the subterranean cistern and the manhole had a double layer of hydraulic plaster.

The tank of 5 meters deep, has a vertical shaft on its roof with sparsely positioned stones that function as filters. Here ends up the source of the underground pipeline.

The ceramic shells found around the wall and the subterranean cistern place it chronologically at the 1300-1210 BC and 1210-1160. Such structures are also found on the Acropolis of Athens and Tiryns. The reinforcement of the subterranean aqueducts is almost simultaneous in palaces. The monument is accessible by the visitor with the aid of a lens.

3. The Religion Centre

The religious center of Mycenae is located in the southwestern part of the Acropolis. It is a complex of religious buildings, which is confirmed both by the architectural remains and by the cult findings found there. Its peculiarity lies in the fact that it occupies a large area in the acropolis area. The excavation at the religious center was started by Tsounda, continued by Wace, and after Taylor and completed by Mylonas.

These buildings were constructed at various times from the end of the 14th century BC to the middle of the 13th century BC. They were destroyed at the end of the same century by fire. The buildings were then repaired and used until the end of the Mycenaean period. The site was also used during the Hellenistic period, when some houses were built above the religious center, a reason why the archaeological layers of the Mycenaean era have been disturbed.

The religious center is in three levels. Its construction is defined by the slope of the ground. A street path facilitated communication between the palace area and the religious center. It started from the palaces in the direction of N-B and B-N and reached the so-called "Holy Gamma". At a point where the threshold of the street was found in place and a mural on the downhill road indicates that the area was roofed.

The "Holy Gamma", located on the first level, is the earliest building in the area. It is a rectangular ground plan and consists of 2 rooms (C1, C2) communicating with each other. In one room were found benches in which they placed devotional objects, an altar and a sacrificial table. The use of the altar during ceremonies is also confirmed by the traces of fire found there. It is a sanctuary that communicates with a smaller room, which has been interpreted as a sanctuary by the religious objects found.  The well-known Mycenae palladium was found in the sanctuary. It is a painted tile depicting 2 female figures, presumably priestesses. Among them is another form which is covered with an eight-pointed shield.

From this building one could get to the so-called "Ergastirio", which is at the second level. Close to it is the "House of the Idols". It consists of an anteroom, a main room and another small room on which one climbs through a staircase. Behind the NW corner of the temple there is an enclosed triangular space with rock floor, which they used as a depositor. There were fragments of images. The temple had three wooden columns along its eastern side, a low stone-built platform, a staircase leading to the idle loft, and two built-in bearings that could have touched the idols.

The most well-known findings were large and small anthropomorphic idols of the snakes that adorn the first room of the Mycenaean Museum. The researchers argue that anthropomorphic images depict deities or possibly believers who take part in a ceremony. The interpretations that have been proposed and about the snakes' demons are that they symbolize death and life, the underworld and the earth.

From the so-called "Ergastirio" we go to "Tsounta House". The "Tsounta House" consists of three underground spaces, the ground floor with a main room and small rooms that were probably home-based. Here were stored products and objects related to worship and used during rituals.

In the 3rd floor of the "House of the Idols", there is the complex of 5 rooms, from which the rich finds, such as vases, ivory objects, etc. came to light. Since the first construction period, there is evidence of an altar, central fireplace, sanctuary and frescoes in the larger room of the complex, called the "room with the mural".

At the first level in the fresco exhibited at the Museum of Mycenae are depicted two female figures. One holds a sword and the other scepter or spear. Among them are two male naked figures. All the above figures are in a room with floor and columns that support the roof. On the left and bottom of the wall is a female figure that holds ears and is accompanied by an animal, probably a griffin. She also falls into a room with columns and maybe she is a deity that symbolizes fertility by offering ears to the altar.

4. The Cyclopean Walls

The acropolis of Mycenae was built on a hill, about 280 meters above sea level, between two steep hills. It is hidden from the hills of Prophet Elias, North and Sara, South. The two rugged ravines of Chavos from the north and Kokoretsa will naturally fortify the acropolis and will allow access only from the West side. The myth states that the founder of the Mycenae was Perseus. Perseus was the one who instructed the Cyclops, enormous mythical beings from Asia Minor, to build the walls for it and were called Cyclops.

Archaeological finds and architectural remains found near the walls brought to light three levels of construction, from the middle of the 14th century BC. until the end of the 13th century BC, which made the fortification system more and more effective. Exceptions are the repairs made during the Hellenistic period (3rd century BC), because parts of the wall were destroyed by the Argives in 468 BC. These concern the west side of the bastion of the Lions Gate, part of the curve of the wall surrounding the grave circle A, a section of the so-called polygonal tower adjacent to Tsounta's house and a segment of the NE extension.

Today, we see the imposing defensive walls, which follow the natural configuration of the soil and form an imaginary triangle. It is the final building phase of the walls, which dates back to the end of the 13th century BC. At the same time, the other Mycenaean citadels are fortified in the same way.

The final building phase concerns only the extension of the acropolis to the NE corner. It was taken to include the subterranean cistern and attached to the existing line. On the occasion of this important improvement work, which provided water to the acropolis, especially when it was in a period of siege, the two pillars in the NE expansion were made. One facilitated the guarding of the fountain that fed the acropolis and the other aimed at easy access to a watch outside the walls. At the same time, the large platform, which took its final form and the northern warehouses on the inner northern side of the wall, was widened.

The perimeter of the wall in its present form is 900 meters and forts an area of ​​30,000 square meters, with a maximum preserved height of 8,25 meters. and an average of 5.50-6 m wide, but in some places it reaches 8m.

The construction phase b’ dates back to the middle of the 13th century (1250 BC). In this phase the Grave Cycle A is included in the walls and the monumental entrance of the Lions Gate is being constructed for the first time. The most striking feature of the second phase is the Lions Gate, which was created from the beginning and had no relationship with the previous one. It is also for the first time built the North Gate and the NA bastion. The power and the edge of Mycenaean civilization is reflected here by the great expansion and the impressive appearance of the constructions. This stage is differentiated from the third and far from the first, as far as the manufacturing process is concerned. Not only are widespread use of conglomerates, but the foundations of the walls are made on a plexus (a layer of white clay mixed with small stones).

The development of the enclosure included the sealing of the highest peak of the hill, covering about half of today's area and dates back to the middle of the 14th century. B.C. (Around 1350 BC). At that time, the acropolis is fortified for the first time. However, there are signs and traces of habitation from the Neolithic and Early Helladic period (3000-2500 BC). Access to the acropolis is facilitated by a simple constructional main gate, located a little further north of the point where the Lions Gate was later created. From this phase today, the North Wall, part of the NW and the SE wall, is preserved.

The Cyclopean walls are rising sharply over time and remind us of the glory and grandeur of the Mycenaean civilization, which is praised by Homer's descriptions in the "Iliad".

5. The Building Complex of the Oil Merchant

75 meters to the south of Grave Circle B, near the tomb of Clytemnestra, the foundations of the Building Complex of the Oil Merchant district are clearly visible. This district consists of 4 large buildings: the West House, which is west and parallel to the street, the House of Oil Merchant, located in front of the West, the House of the Sphinxes, located on the left of the House of the Oil Merchant and the House of Shields is located on the right of the House of of the Oil Merchant. All the houses were two-storey except for the West House which was not in its entirety two-storey. These houses were thus named by characteristic objects found in them during the excavations.

Many archaeologists consider this complex to be the productive district of the palace. The Western House was more administrative and domestic, while the Houses of Shields and Sphinxes served as workshops for the ivory processing or other materials and also functioned as warehouses.

In this building complex mass production of valuable ivory, exotic materials and aromatic oils was developed. The large finds attest to the great boom in trade and testify to the complex's contribution to the Mycenaean exports that covered the entire Mediterranean basin.

The Building Complex began operating in the early 13th century BC. and was destroyed in the second half of the same century by fire. Possibly the fire was reinforced by the large amount of oil stored in the buildings and due to the large amount of wood used by the Mycenaeans to build the two-storeyed houses.

After the fire, the neighborhood was abandoned for a long time. In the Protogeometric period (10th-9th centuries BC), we find use of the area east of the Mycenaean houses where foundations of a small sanctuary were found and in various other places tombs of the same period. The architectural remains, such as fragmentary walls, wells, cisterns and graves, testify that the site was reused in Hellenistic times. Later, the site was abandoned definitively, so that in the later years, the sloping forested slopes were cultivated by the inhabitants of the area.

In the excavations that took place from 1950 to 1963, elegant, precious ivory objects, such as warrior heads and eight-figure shields, came to light. We also found signs of Linear B and inscribed vases that give us information on how the buildings functioned and how the Mycenaeans controlled the production. The billboards, for example, referred to accounts, censuses, lists of men and women and certify that the use of linear B was more related to the control that the retaking had on its own nationals.

All these findings, which are only a part of the excavations, testify to the specificity of the area and cause us to visit them at the Archaeological Museum of Mycenae and Athens.

6. The Lions Gate
The Lion Gate, this magnificent megalith monument, is considered to be the first example of monumental sculpture we know in Europe. It is the main entrance of the acropolis of Mycenae and was built in 1250 BC. about. It was named after the famous relief of the two lions that adorn the curved triangle.

As seen from Pausanias' description, the gate was visible from antiquity. In 1841 Pittakis cleansed it on behalf of the Archaeological Society and in 1876 Schliemann carried out a systematic excavation. In 1950, some restoration work was done.

The entrance of the gate consists of two piers, the threshold and the lintel. Above the lintel there is a so-called relieving triangle that carries the center of gravity to the side. This triangle is covered by a triangular plate in which is represented a heraldic composition of two lions, sloping on two altars. Among them there is a Minoan type column.

With regard to the interpretation of the above relief, many versions have been proposed to date. This is probably a religious display. It can still symbolize the power of the royal house of the Mycenaeans. Bringing to mind the rest of the Mycenaean citadels, we see that this is a unique work since none of the ancient entrances found a similar relief.

Lastly, we must point out that the Mycenaeans manage to create a simple monumental relief, which harmonizes with the imposing architecture of the area. This monument, with its perfect symmetry and its naturalistic style, aims to impress the visitor and to symbolize the power and prestige of the Mycenaean palace.

7. The Grave Circle B

To the west of the Acropolis of Mycenae is the grave circle B, one of the most important monuments in the area that give us information about the grave architecture and the grave customs of the Mycenaeans. It was part of the prehistoric cemetery of the area and contained 26 graves surrounded by a circular enclosure. It dates back to 1650-1550 BC.

Grave cycle B, which began to be used at the end of the Middle Helladic period (1650 BC), contains several kinds of graves. Some of them are small graves dugging in the rock and usually contain a skeleton. Some other graves are larger in size, rectangular and their sides are lined with walls. These tombs contain several skeletons. The 26 tombs were scattered in space without consistent orientation. Only four of them had tombstones. The custom of using tombstones as a mark for the existence of a tomb appears here for the first time in Greece and is something that has been adopted by later generations and is still used today. These columns along with the columns of the grave circle A are the first examples of monumental sculpture with relief decoration.

Passing now to the grave customs we know that deathly dinner were made over the grave. This ceremony is confirmed by the bones of the animals and the vases found in the soil. On the floor of the tomb they planted pebbles and then laid the dead man, who was in a shaky or extended stance. No burnings of dead were found.

In Mycenae there is not only the grave cycle B but also the grave circle A, which is a younger one and contains more luxurious finds from B. As has been argued by many researchers, these two circles were for members of the royal dynasty. Indeed, many have claimed that these two circles represent two different dynasties.