The road to Mycenae climbs gradually upwards until it just peters out at the site of the ancient city that is hard to pick out against the mountain side until you are nearly on top of it.
It is only as you get closer to the city’s walls that you start to get a sense of the site and the skill of its builders. The stones they used for the “Cyclopean walls” (as the encircling city walls are called in Greek) are massive, some of the biggest weighing several tons.
It is an astonishing feat of engineering which raises questions about how the Mycenaeans learnt their masonry skills and how they managed to quarry and move such enormous stones. Clearly this could not be achieved by trial and error: they must have had some way of planning and calculating how best to build on such a massive scale.
The entrance to the city is through the Gate of the Lions, an impressive gateway with huge stone uprights and lintel, surmounted by what appears to be two lions rampant. Actually there is some dispute as to whether the animals depicted are lions at all or something more exotic like gryphons. Whatever they are, it is also claimed that the heads were made of precious stone – which may account for the fact they they are now missing, perhaps the victims of later looting.
The original city doors were made of wood and you can still see holes in the walls where they fitted. Just inside the city gates there’s a hollowed out space in the rock that could be a sentry box or perhaps a shrine room.
The road into the city is up a steep ramp and as you climb, you pass, on the right, a grave circle where Schliemann found a skeleton wearing a gold mask that he called the ‘mask of Agamemnon’. One problem with his excavation of Mycenae is that he was keen to fit the archaeology to the ancient myths, rather than interpreting Mycenae in the light of the archaeology on the ground.
A series of steep ramps lead to the top of the site which is occupied by the megaron (palace complex).
The ruins are difficult to interpret and is not well signed. The site itself is much smaller than I had imagined: the megaron occupies the largest area of the city and there are comparatively few houses, most with tiny rooms.
So it looks as if the city was meant for the leader (or king) and his household: the nobility’s houses are believed to have been at the front of the site and perhaps some artisans houses at the rear. It does not look as though it was a city built to house a whole cross-section of Mycenean society. So where did they draw on the manpower for their mammoth building works?
As you climb up to the megaron you also get a clear view of the surrounding countryside and to the south-west, standing on its own rocky promontory, you can see the ancient site of Argos.
The rear of the site has some really interesting features. At one point in the city walls there is an entrance which originally must have been some form of gateway access. The gap today shows how thick the city walls actually are.
Then there is a postern gate with massive stone uprights and a lintel, similar to the Gate of the Lions, but without any decoration.
But the most impressive feature is the entrance to a water cistern which shows Mycenean building skills at their most impressive. Steps cut in the rock lead down to a corbelled entrance, again with stone uprights and lintel, and then down a steep passage to the cistern itself. Clearly the Mycenaean were very concerned to protect their water supply against enemy attack.
The cisterns demonstrate the Mycenaeans’ mastery of building skills and use of technology to move the building material. You can even still see at various points the marks of their chisels on the face of the rocks.
The well designed museum displays many of the items found on site, though the more prestigious items (the mask of Agamemnon and other gold items, swords, armour, etc.) are now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. There are some amazing carved figures, some of which are jointed like puppets., and cult objects similar to the Minoan snake goddess figures found at Knossos. The bright colours used and the fragments of frescoes found show the influence of the Minoan civilisation of Crete. Mycenean culture only lasted for a short period of time (1500-1100BC) after which the city was abandoned, although there is archaeological evidence shows that the site had been inhabited since 6000-5000BC.
Its strange to think that this from this small site the Mycenaeans once dominated mainland Greece. It has also had such an enormous influence on European culture through its links to the ancients stories about the house of Atreus, Agamemnon, the sacrifice of Ifigenia, the murder of Clyemnestra, Electra, Orestes and the Furies. Of course it’s impossible to tell how these stories were linked to Mycenae historically and what events they were actually based on.
Not far from the museum and outside the city walls lies a tholos, a beehive tomb, called the Lions’ Tomb. It provides an excellent example of Mycenaean building skills: massive uprights and a stone lintel, smooth stones, a very high structure built in the shape of a beehive which would have been topped off with a massive stone. It is not the easiest structure to build and we can only wonder why they chose this particular shape to memorialise their dead.
Back down the road leading up to Mycenae lies what is referred to as the Treasury of Atreus (the name was give to it by the 1st century AD traveller, Pausanias). This is another massive tholos with a long formal entrance way, huge beehive structure and side chamber (possibly an ossuary). No one knows what the structure contained as it was looted in antiquity, though some of the decorations from the exterior of the entrance are now in the British Museum.
These massive structures and the size of the grave circle in the city itself seem to indicate that the Mycenaeans practised some form of ancestor worship which drove them to devote so much time, energy and resources to the building of tombs for their dead.
The area is dotted with other smaller, but still impressive reminders of Mycenaean building skills. We came across this bridge up in the mountains that doesn’t seem today to be very important in terms of its location, but which must have taken a long time to build. Clearly, though, they thought it was worth the effort.