Mycenae, the city of lions

Property 941 – Archaeological sites of Mycenae and Tiryns

When I think about Ancient Greece, I have in mind the cultural achievements of Athens in the 4th century BCE.  Or possibly the oiled and bearded Hollywood version of the Spartans. Given a little more thought I might come up the Alexander the Great and his conquest of much of the world a century later. This is Ancient Greece, in my mind and in most people’s.

But it’s not the most ancient Greece. That title belongs to a much older group of city-states which may not even be able to be called Greek. When Homer (whoever he/she/they was/were) wrote about the Trojan war and Odysseus’s return home it is likely that these stories belonged to a much older tradition with a starkly different culture – the culture of Mycenae and its allies. This was a civilisation that flourished in central Greece a thousand years prior to the wars between Athens and Sparta, a more brutal time which was so early that it had been reduced to the status of myth and legend when Alexander came along.

Mycenae was the leading city in a coalition that spread across much of Greece, and was a major cultural power in the Eastern Mediterranean. Mycenaean culture interacted with the Minoan culture based on Crete, as well as the Hittite empire in Anatolia and the New Kingdom of Egypt, where some of its artefacts have been found. Homer’s tales of “Achaean” princes and warriors are likely to be based on individuals from this era, and the Trojan War may have been an actual event, possibly a trade war. The city was rediscovered in the 19th century, and has been excavated ever since then, notably by rogue German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann.

Given its importance as part of Greece’s cultural heritage, getting to Mycenae was a pain in the neck. I got on a bus from Athens and changed after an hour or so to a smaller bus which wended its way through rocky little villages, nearly abrading the side off someone’s house in the process. Dumped at the base of a hill I slogged my way up to the archaeological site. Imagining myself as some kind of Victorian explorer, I was gravely disappointed to find dozens of people milling around. Bloody tour bus groups. They take all the fun out of getting to remote places.

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The lion gate

However the archaeology nerd in me loved the entryway. Mycenae is situated on the top of a hill for defensive reasons and is surrounded by a wall. The main entry is the so-called Lion Gate, named on the basis of its carvings, which are the only known major pieces from this period. Small lions were common wildlife in the Middle East at the time and would have been an ongoing problem for shepherds, although it is not known what these stone lions are intended to represent. Royalty is presumed.

The fortifications are certainly substantial and would have deterred any casual invader. Survivability of the fortress is also enhanced by the presence of a well on the top of the hill, into which an adventurous visitor can descent via a series of steps. I climbed down the slippery stones until it was too dark to see, with an acute awareness of how many bones I would break if I fell. When I re-emerged my travelling companion Tommy tut-tutted about the state of the safety equipment and the associated legal liability. I reminded her that we were in Greece, and such things were governed by a Mediterranean approach to risk, caveat viator.

As could be expected with such an ancient ruin, very little survives other than major structures. There’s no real hint as to how the residents lived, as their homes were likely to have been made out of timber and mud brick. It’s likely that most of the estimated 30,000 residents of the city lived on the surrounding slopes, and that the present ruin was a palace or a place of refuge.

Another section of the hillside contains a number of burial sites. Some are simple pit or shaft tombs, but there is also the massive “treasury of Atreus”, a huge domed space built into the side of a hill. Part of the hillside is carved away and a dromos (runway) leads to the entrance. Despite the name there is no evidence that the site was used as anything other than a burial space.

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The “Treasury of Atreus” via the dromos

Heinrich Schliemann, the German archaeologist who aggressively excavated the site, had something of a penchant for giving things grandiose names. He believed in the Homeric epics as literal history and was highly unscientific and indeed destructive by modern standards. Part of his investigative method involved digging pits in random sites in search of treasure and hoping for the best. Luckily for him he found some – the so-called “Mask of Agamemnon” a glorious golden mask which he believed was owned by the famous king. It is likely that the mask is actually rather older, but that gets in the way of a good story.

The casual visitor to Mycenae is probably not likely to be overly enthused by the site, as understanding it requires a bit of background knowledge. I found it rather exciting, and felt a genuine thrill at walking in the footsteps of the famous characters from the Iliad and seeing the buildings that I’d studied. Most of all I was struck by the sophistication of a culture that existed more than a thousand years prior to Alexander, and laid the foundations of what we think of as Greek culture.

* The quality of the photos in this entry is due to the fact that (a) they were taken on film and (b) I was still learning how to use a camera properly.

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