Blog by Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist www.muddyarchaeologist.co.uk
Mycenae: the place the myth and legend. It was from here that King Agamemnon set out for the Trojan War, leading the allied troops of the Greek lands across the northern Aegean Sea to a long drawn-out siege and seemingly interminable hand-to-hand battles. So the epic poems of Homer sang.
The king returned here, with his new, captured girl, the daughter of King Priam of Troy, Cassandra. Here he was slaughtered by his wife, Clytemnestra and her new lover, Aegisthus, almost as soon as he arrived home; Clytemnestra had, understandably, never forgiven Agamemnon for sacrificing their daughter, Iphigenia, to gain favourable winds to sail to Troy. So the epic poems of the 600s and 500s BC and the dramatic tragedies of Athens of the 400s BC tell. The stories lived on as Greek vases and Roman frescoes and epics would vividly tell their stories.
To walk in Mycenae is, therefore, to walk amongst the oldest stories we know of western literature. It was peopled by characters, with names, dramatic events took place and it was a world of warriors, power and presence.
This NE corner of the Greek Peloponnese has rugged hills that rise behind the coastal plain. Now, the road winds along into the hills as the houses become fewer. As you climb, if you know what you’re looking for, you can spot the citadel of Bronze Age Mycenae. High on the hillside, ancient pale hard lines of walls overlook the plateau that stretches out before the scrubby high ridges.
First stop on a visit is often the Treasury of Atreus, just a short distance from the citadel. Now named after Agamemnon’s father, we don’t really know who was buried here. A grassy mound looms before you and a vast, humbling stone-walled entrance leads you to the great doorway. This towers heavily, looming above you as you enter into a huge dark round tomb (tholos): the corbelled stones of this beehive style tomb step in, layer by layer, to meet far above your head. The air is still in here, and the tomb empty. People appear miniscule within. A small inner chamber to the right, barred off for your safety, once contained the burial itself. Turning back to the bright block of sunlight framed by the massive doorway with its triangular window above it, the size of the lintel is awe inspiring, as is the knowledge that this has stood here for over 3,000 years since c.1350 BC.
Suitably in awe, a short drive to the main car park puts you on the track that leads up to the great walls of the citadel of Mycenae. Its cyclopean walls were built of stones so huge that surely only giants (cyclopes) could have constructed them. But before you can truly appreciate their size by getting up close, there are distractions along the way.
Great long holes sink into the stony ground beside the path. Long stone-lined entrances lead to dark entrance-ways. These are the lesser tholos tombs, still impressive and still largely hidden from view. Later, as you head to the site museum, you will pass another, its top long gone and its empty insides open to the world.
A highlight of the visit now awaits. You walk up the modern path, on an ancient slope, and pass beneath the Lion Gate. Sculpted in c.1,200 BC, this belongs to the time of the Trojan War. Did the triumphant king Agamemnon walk under this very gate? We may be walking in his footsteps on his last day on earth. It is a moment that melts the millennia away.
But, once under the great gate, you are immediately drawn back to the stones around you. To your right are the great Circle graves. German businessman turned archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, excavated Mycenae and it is in these graves that he found the gold death mask that inspired his headline-gripping message to the world in 1876 that he had ‘gazed on the face of Agamemnon’.
He was wrong. These graves belong to 1700s BC through to 1500s BC, at least 300 to 500 years earlier than the Trojan War. Nonetheless, here great elite warriors had been buried. Here was an earlier version of Homer’s ‘Mycenae rich in gold’ with the warriors’ chariot burials, weapons and gold jewellery. Long before Troy, Mycenae was rich and powerful.
A slow steady climb up the modern pathway takes you higher at every curving bend. Pause to look down on the ancient houses that surrounded the citadel; pause to gaze out at the plateau that stretches to the see – everything that the light touches was Mycenaean. Pause as you reach the top and notice an open area, with column bases; this was the great megaron, the hall for the throne, for pronouncements and judgements. Here, on this high terrace, a welcome breeze cools you as you look out from this defensive high point.
A stroll through the ruined buildings past the spiky sparse undergrowth takes you past the old workshops where artefacts were found, and on to the back door of the citadel. A great wall stands, perched above the triangular corridor that gave safe access out towards the mountainous hills. The stones are rough, unshaped, but their weight holds them in place.
Nearby, a cistern was a vital source of water for the walled citadel. A water tank once filled with cooling life-giving water stands near the gate. A few paces further and steep stone steps vanish down into the utter blackness of the underground water source. In the past, in less Health and Safety conscious times, it was possible to shuffle and feel your tentative way down, torch in hand, to the damp steps that lead into the cold water.
A route out of the citadel takes you past another back door, more regular in shape than the last, an official route out to the pastures and hillsides with their sacred spaces.
Rarely visited, the site museum is worth exploring. Here you take a journey through from the earliest settlements here to the jewellery, frescoes and figurine votive offerings of this great civilisation.
Their writing – the early Greek Linear B script – names the gods and lists their accounts. Their connections were far and wide, as they were influenced by Cretan Minoans and traded from the western end of the Mediterranean to the Eastern shores and down to Egypt and into southern Italy.
To walk in Mycenae is to enter a 3,000 year old world. It is very ‘other’ to our modern lives, and yet it was peopled with power, skills, religion, personal jewellery and traded items, wall decorations and a great sense of cultural identity. Life here was vibrant, confident (at least for the elite!), and far-reaching. And it still draws us to this great centre of the Bronze Age Mycenaean civilisation.
This blog is part of the Sense of Place series by ‘The Muddy Archaeologist’, Gillian Hovell
It is for educational and leisure purposes only.
For further information on Gillian’s further work, including online (starting 2020) and in person courses, lectures and events, tours, and publications: http://www.muddyarchaeologist.co.uk