In ancient Greece Mycenae was an important city, centrally situated in Argolis, 25 km southwest of Corinth. It was once the most important political and cultural centre of the Mycenaen civilisation.
From a distance there is little to see. The walls and the remains of buildings blend into the same colours as the surrounding landscape, and can only be seen when you get nearer to the site.
The famous German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann began excavations here in 1876. Sixty men, working in three teams, laid bare the enormous walls. Schliemann discovered the famous Lion Gate and royal graves and uncovered the contours of the city which was praised by Homer for its wealth.
According to Schliemann, the inhabitants of the city were of Indo-European origin and settled in Greece between the 20th and 16th century BC. Their language was a forerunner of the Greek dialect which at that time was inscribed on clay tablets (the so-called Linear-B script). This script was an early predessor of later alphabets.
Mycenean culture at its height
The Mycenean civilisation reached its highest point between the 16th and 13th century BC. Small settlements were founded in many places spread over a large area of today’s Greece, mainly close to fertile valleys and natural harbours. The villages grew under the guidance of an aristocratic class which owned land and weapons.
The Mycenean culture was remarkably successful thanks to a combination of agriculture and industry. They knew how to work gold, silver and bronze. Thanks to a very efficient trading fleet their products could be found as far afield as the Iberian Peninsula, all over Italy, Syria, Palestine, Cyprus, the Balkans, Egypt and the Hittite empire. This trade was of great importance in establishing the reputation of Mycenae.
Beautiful buildings, enormous tombs
There are striking differences between a fortified Mycenean city and a Minoan royal city. Mycenae is more like a Scottish castle or a small Italian village built around a castle. The royal cities look completely different. It is well preserved because it was quickly abandoned and fell into ruins in the 12th century during the Dorian Invasion. Only the acropolis on the hill continued to be inhabited until 468 BC when the city was finally destroyed.
The city walls around the acropolis were erected between the middle of the 14th century and the end of the 13th century BC. They were built with almost perfectly rectangular blocks of stone and without cement. Inside the walls is a circular plateau where Schliemann and a Greek archaeologist found six almost intact tombs with gold, silver and bronze grave goods as well as a large amount of pottery. It is now thought that these graves date from the 16th century BC.
One of the most famous structures at Mycenae is the Lion Gate, named after the relief carved on the almost 3 metre high triangular block of stone above the entrance.
Treasury of Atreus
Many of the best preserved tombs in Mycenae have been uncovered. The most famous is the Treasury of Atreus (also known as the Tomb of Agamemnon) which dates from 1330 BC. The stone lintel above the doorway weighs 120 tons and measures 8.3 x 5.2 x 1.2 metres, making it the largest in the world. Around it lies a passage 30 metres long and 6 metres wide between steep walls made of large, rectangular blocks of stone. This leads to a wide facade with a gateway 5 metres high and about 3 metres wide. Behind this entrance is a circular hall about 30 metres high with a diameter of 15 metres. The completely concave hall is built with 33 layers of stuccoed stone which rest on a ledge and reach to the top of the building. To the right of the entrance a small burial chamber has been hacked out of the stone. In the grave Schliemann found, among other things, gold death masks, gold crockery items, jewellery and decorated daggers, beautifully decorated pottery, votive goods and fragments of frescoes.
Segments of the columns and architraves were removed by Lord Elgin in the early nineteenth century and are now in the British Museum in London. Other architectural elements such as capitals can be seen in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin
Since 1999 Mycenae has been on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Text Harrie Wolters
Translation Alun Harvey