MYCENEANS

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As opposed to the Minoans on Crete and the islands in the Aegean, the Myceneans were primarily based on the mainland of Greece and the Peloponnese. But like Minoan culture, Mycenean prehistory is split into three periods, based on pottery styles and the degree of architectural development: Early, Middle, and Late Helladic (3000-2000, 2000-1550, and 1550 -1050 BCE). Most of the artifacts and interest (for us) is concentrated on the Late Helladic period, itself split into Late Helladic I, II, and III. The high point of Mycenean culture is in Late Helladic I, II, and IIIA and B, roughly 1550-1200 BCE. After this, the level of culture declines, apparently the result of a combination of military reversals and economic problems. It is clear that the Myceneans were first heavily influenced by the Minoans, and then conquered the Minoans by 1450 or so BCE. The decipherment of Linear B, an early form of Greek, also makes it clear the Myceneans spoke Greek and had many of the same gods as are found in Homer and the classical pantheon--hence the question about how this pantheon was shaped by the Myceneans' experience with the Minoans.
Mycenae, in the north eastern Peloponnese, was the most important city in Homer's Iliad, and has been shown by archaeology to have been the biggest and presumably the most important of Mycenean palaces--hence the name for this Bronze Age Greek culture. Mycenae was excavated by Schliemann in the 1880s and 90s, and other sites (Pylos, Thebes, Orchomenos, Tiryns) were subsequently identified and excavated. Here is a watercolor view of the site of Mycenae, showing Schliemann's early excavations in the central left, and his circular dumps in the center bottom.

 

 

 

 

 

Unlike Knossos or other Minoan sites, Mycenae has a thick defensive wall, and the site includes a deep spring--obviously this place was built with the possibility of a long seige in mind. Schliemann's excavations uncovered Grave Circle A, where some of his most spectacular gold finds were made. However, this circle was originally outside the walls, and only later enclosed. Later excavators uncovered the palace, and it follows a typical "megaron" plan, a linear sequence of rooms leading to a round hearth surrounded by four pillars.

 

 

 

 

When Schliemann arrived, the famous "Lion Gate" of Mycenae was still sticking up out of the rubble--unlike Knossos, Mycenae had been known and kept its name through the classical and Hellenistic periods. The Bronze Age fortifications he uncovered are truly enormous--the lintel stone you see under the lions is as large as several sedans, and this type of stonework was called "Cyclopean" in antiquity due to the belief that only the Cyclopes could have dealt with such huge stones.
Defense was obviously a major concern for the Myceneans, and this distinguishes their architecture very tangibly from that of the Minoans.

 

 

 

 

A view from inside the Lion Gate, looking back over the walls.

 

 

 

 

Reconstructions of the appearance of the palace itself, its plan, and an isometric drawing of the Megaron. Note that once you get to the palace itself, its architecture begins to look more similar to Minoan architecture.

 

 

 

 

A view of the Postern Gate, around the back side of the fortifications. Like Medieval castles, Mycenae had gates through which the beseiged could make surprise attacks on those laying seige.

 

 

 

 

Again, once you were inside the palace, the Myceneans borrowed a lot of their decorative ideas from the Minoans. Here you see some heavily restored MYCENEAN court women, looking much like their Minoan counterparts you saw before. How such decorative borrowing interacted with cultural differences in the construction of gender is a very good question.

 

From the Frieze of Women found at the palace at Pylos, 13th century.

 

 

A fresco depicting a woman from the "Cult Center" at Mycenae, 13th century BCE.

 

 

Again, because Thera seems to have been influenced by both Minoan and Mycenae before the Myceneans conquered the Minoans, here is a miniature fresco from Thera showing another naval scene, with figures onshore with shields and spears, and a shipwreck depicted in the foreground.

 

 

Mycenean pottery styles were also strongly influenced by the Minoans. Here is a stirrup jar from Athens, and comparatively minor Mycenean site, depicting an octopus and a dolphin. 12th century BCE.

 

 

 

 

One thing the Myceneans did not copy or adapt from the Minoans was their skill in metalwork, especially inlay on swords or dagger blades. The top two examples show a dagger-blade from Grave Circle A at Mycenae, with lion-hunting scenes on opposite sides (16th century); the example below that is from Pylos (15th century). The scenes are reminiscent of similes and descriptions in Homer.

 

 

 

 

These examples of Bronze Age armor come from various places in Mycenean Greece. So far, no comparable types of body armor have been identified from Minoan contexts. Several details about this armor (for instance, the boar's tooth helmet) match Homer, and others don't.

 

 

 

 

In addition to the swords, jewelry, and gold foil ornament that the Myceneans put in burials of significant people, they also sometimes put gold masks over their faces. On the left is one that would later be termed "the mask of Agamemnon," although Schliemann actually gave this name to the rather more jolly fellow on the right. His body was actually found fairly well preserved, though it has since been lost (see the drawing below, made on the spot by Schliemann; both masks are from Grave Circle A, 1550-1500 BCE).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even in sealstones, the Myceneans seem to have borrowed much of their repertory from the Minoans--the goddesses (or women) depicted in the top two examples look much like Minoan Snake Goddesses or Court Women.

 

 

 

 

A gold ring from Tiryns, ca.1400 BCE, showing a procession of "Demons" with jugs toward an enthroned figure. Whether these demons represent some sort of deity, or human worshippers in costume, is not known.

 

 

 

 

The Myceneans also had a system of writing, adapted from Minoan Linear A, called Linear B. It has been preserved on clay tablets baked when several of the palaces were destroyed by fire. Here is a picture of a typical tablet; this example is from Pylos, ca.1200 BCE.

 

 

 

 

In the 1950s, Linear B was finally deciphered and revealed to be an early form of Greek. It is a "syllabary," which means that each sign stands for a spoken syllable. Some of the signs, however, remain ideographic--that is, they remain basically a picture of what they represent. Below is a table of the sounds represented by the various signs in Mycenean Linear B.

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, Linear B tablets consist entirely of records--inventories of things received, sent, or stored in a given palace. This has given us a much better picture of the Mycenean economy and agriculture, but not much insight into religious practices or mythology. Occasionally, however, a tablet will record gifts to named gods, and these include gods familiar to us from later Greek mythology (Zeus, Poseidon, Athena, Hera, Dionysus). Here is a typical example of such a list, with the Greek syllables given and then a translation into English; the tablet was found at Knossos, but records a set of dedications to various deities at Pylos ("Puro"). Because Linear B is a syllabary with a limited number of signs, it doesn't record the language very accurately, and the translation of many tablets remains difficult.

 

 

 

 

A collection of Mycenean artifacts from the island of Cyprus. These illustrate the influence of Minoan culture on the Myceneans, but also (through the presence of amber beads and the Egptian scarab immediately before the tall cup) show the extensive networks of trade typical of both cultures.