Mycenae, on the Peloponnese Peninsula is the type of place of which legends are made. In fact, many legends, hatched from the gruesome facts of Greek history, were made here; creating the plots for many ageless Greek tragedies. Think back to some of your college reading. Remember names like Perseus, Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Orestes, Elektra, Paris, Helen of Troy, Achilles, the Trojan Wars? All were borne here. Mass murders of relatives, cannibalism, incest, treachery, kidnapping, revenge killings, murderous, multi-generation family feuds (played out with knives, swords and various poisons), human sacrifices (including of relatives) all took place within and around the walls of Mycenae’s Royal Palace.
And all of this within the context of a thriving, cosmopolitan society with a strong, sophisticated, pre-Roman organizational structure, a skilled trades sector and a city-state that maintained reasonably friendly relations with its neighbors and trading partners (the Trojan Wars notwithstanding) and welcomed and integrated other peoples and cultures into its own society. All, at least, until numerous and relentless naval attacks undermined its trading relationships, prosperity and social cohesion and led to a mass, multi-generational emigration of its citizens during the 11th and 10th centuries B.C.
Today, outside of history classes and the timeless lessons of tragic Greek plays and novels, the primary intertest in Mycenae lies in its tombs: both the sophisticated architecture of its shaft and beehive tombs and from some of the incredible artifacts that have been found in them, from beautifully painted pottery to solid gold death masks. Although the site has more than a dozen excavated sites, some of the most interesting include:
- Treasury of Atreus (commonly referred to as the Tomb of Agememnon, which is was not), is a 14th century B.C. beehive tomb (so-called due to its domed shape that was constructed using successive circles of mortared blocks and stones that were either dug into a hill or covered with earth). It is a large, fully intact, double-chambered tomb with a 120-foot entrance corridor and a triangular hole above the entrance.
- Tomb of Klytemnestra is another beehive-shaped tomb that is smaller, has steeper walls and only a single chamber. It was built into an existing hill and is now open, as the top had collapsed and been removed;
- Grave Circle B, a complex of 26 smaller, 17th-16th-century, royal shaft-style tombs enclosed within a circular stone wall, each of which was marked with a stone stelai.
- Cyclopian Wall, which was built in three stages, of different materials layered atop each other, between 1350 and 1200 B.C.
- Lion’s Gate, the main entrance into the fortified palace complex, that is carved with low-relief lions (the heads of which have long-since disappeared);
- Royal Palace, built about 3000 B.C. atop the summit of the hill surrounded by the walled fortress, currently consists of little more than the foundations. It is, however, surrounded by several other structures, such as royal homes, administrative quarters and a granary for which some of the walls still stand;
- Artisan Quarter, a complex of smaller, two-story buildings (only parts of the first floors of which remain) that are outside the fortress walls. This quarter, identified from remnants of in-process products, consisted of two rows of buildings separated by a central courtyard.
- Cult Center, a combination of five, 13C BC complexes that consisted of temples and shrines that were built along a processional road.
- Underground cistern, a massive engineering feat that required the digging of 99 steps through rock to reach an underground stream that, once the fortress wall was expanded to include the entrance to stream (which is itself, outside the expanded wall), provided a secure source of water). Although one could go into it, we lacked a flashlight and only went down as far as the light reached.
The museum, meanwhile, explains the history of this advanced civilization and provides artifacts from throughout the complex. These consist primarily of pottery from different eras, but also ivory and gold jewelry, a replica of the pressed gold death mask that has been called, but is not actually, the Mask of Agamemnon (the original, as discussed in our Athens post, is in the National Museum) and an assortment of bronze items. It also contains remnants of wall paintings from the Cult Center.
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