Welcome to Mycenae!
The city of Mycenae was the capitol city of the Mycenaean people in the Peloponnesian peninsula in southern Greece. The Mycenaeans ruled in this area from between ~1700 and ~1100 BCE, the beginning of the Greek dark age. Little is known about this mysterious group because most of the writings found at the site are business receipts or military counts. But one of the most well-known works in all of literature, Homer’s Iliad, takes place during the time of this once great Greek city-state.
Homer’s Iliad gives us many insights into the world of Mycenaean culture that would not be available otherwise. We are allowed a look into the religious and military practices of the time, but these must be taken with a grain of salt. Many problems come from taking the Iliad as a literal text, one of which is the fact that multiple centuries of military technology accompany each other on the battle field.
But for all of it’s historic faults, it was because of this text that we have the majority of information on Mycenae we do today. A man named Heinrich Schliemann, an avid reader of Homer, went on a search for the palaces in the areas mentioned in the Iliad. After excavating what he believed to be the city of Troy, he began his excavations on Mycenae in the year 1876 CE and uncovered most of the main citadel, including a grave circle, known as grave circle A, and a majority of the area inside the walls.
Prior to Schleimann, an archaeologist named Kyriakos Pittakas began excavations on Mycenae in 1841 CE. Although he was not able to complete the excavation, he did dig one of the most important finds at the cite: the Lion Gate. The lion gate is, to use an architectural term, a relieving triangle. The two posts of the door hold up the lintel, which is the top of the door frame. Above the lintel sat the relieving triangle, which gets its name because it relieves the posts and lintels from the large amount of weight put down by the “cyclopean rocks” that made up the outside wall of the citadel.
After Pittakas, Schleimann began his excavation after years of searching for the home of Agamemnon, the king of the Acheans in the Iliad. When he began his dig, Schleimann worked his way from the Lion Gate inwards. He first found a grave circle which he named “grave circle A”. Each one of the six shaft graves that were inside it were marked by steles, or ancient grave markers. The six shaft graves are examples of a type of burial called “lateral inhumation”. This practice involves taking the bodies of the dead, placing them in the ground, and then building a wooden platform on top of them. After the platform was built, another body could be easily placed inside with the process repeated over and over again until the shaft was filled. Schleimann also found another grave circle outside the city which is actually older than the one inside. Titled “grave circle B”, this group of tombs actually contains 16 shaft graves.
Inside grave circle A, Schleimann found an abundance of grave goods including death masks, daggers, and golden jewelry. One of the masks which he claimed to have found was called the aptly named “mask of Agamemnon”. There has been a lot of debate over whether this mask is really a Mycenaean death mask, let alone the real death mask of Agamemnon. While some swear it is real, others believe it to be a fake actually made by Schleimann while digging at the site.
The next big discovery made by Schleimann was the Megaron at Mycenae. The word Megaron literally translates into “big room”, and is exactly that. The Megaron was a meeting place for dignitaries from other cities and countries to come and meet the king of Mycenae. More information on Megarons can be found on this site on the page entitled “Megaron”.
Although little is known about Mycenaean culture, a lot of assumptions can be made from the references in the Iliad and from their artwork. The majority of crafts found at Mycenae are ritual goods. These ritual goods would have been placed on or in front of a religious altar as offerings to gods. Another insight to Mycenaean culture can be seen in their frescoes. Although many articles and essays have been written about the Mycenaean frescoes, but one thing is for sure, the Mycenaeans were a heavily religious group. We can also tell a lot about their clothing from their depictions of themselves in their artwork. Although we have ideas about what the Mycenaeans may have looked or been like, they are only ideas, because most of this information would have degraded and disappeared over time. Although we do not understand a lot about Mycenaean culture, we can certainly gain insight through their art, artifacts, and architecture.