Ancient city where Mask of Agamemnon was found

Trip Start May 30, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Greece  , Peloponnese,
Thursday, July 22, 2010

After Epidaurus, my tour continued on to the famous ancient city of Mycanae, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the second millennium BC Mycenae was one of the major centers of Greek civilization, a military stronghold which dominated much of southern Greece. The period of Greek history from about 1600 BC to about 1100 BC is called Mycenaean in reference to Mycenae.

It is believed that Mycenae was settled by Indo-Europeans who practiced farming and herding, close to 2000 BC. Scattered sherds have been found from this period, 2100 BC to 1700 BC. At the same time, Minoan Crete developed a very complex civilization that interacted with Mycenae.

The settlement pattern at Mycenae during the Bronze Age was a fortified hill surrounded by hamlets and estates. Missing is the dense urbanity present on the coast. Since Mycenae was the capital of a state that dominated much of the eastern Mediterranean world, the rulers must have placed their stronghold in this less populated and more remote region for its defensive value.

Outside the partial city wall, we saw Grave Circle B, named for its enclosing wall, which contained ten cist graves in Middle Helladic style and four shaft graves, sunk more deeply, with interments resting in cists. Richer grave goods mark the burials as possibly regal. 

A walled enclosure, Grave Circle A, included six more shaft graves. Grave goods were wealthier than in Circle B. The presence of engraved and inlaid swords and daggers, with spear points and arrowheads, leave little doubt that warrior chieftains and their families were buried here. Some art objects obtained from the graves are the Silver Siege Rhyton, the famous Mask of Agamemnon, the Cup of Nestor, and weapons both votive and practical.

In around 1250 or so, the Cyclopean wall was extended on the west slope to include grave circle A. The main entrance through the circuit wall was made grand by the best known feature of Mycenae, the Lion Gate, through which passed a stepped ramp leading past circle A and up to the palace. The Lion Gate was constructed in the form of a 'Relieving Triangle' in order to support the weight of the stones.

By 1200 BC the power of Mycenae was declining; during the 12th century, Mycenaean dominance collapsed. The destruction of Mycenae is part of the general Bronze Age collapse. Within a short time around 1200 BC, all the palaces of southern Greece were burned, including the one at Mycenae

After viewing the ancient city we took the short bus ride to the Treasury of Atreus or Tomb of Agamemnon. It is an impressive tholos tomb on the Panagitsa Hill, constructed during the Bronze Age around 1250 BC. The lintel stone above the doorway weighs 120 tons! Mentioned by Pausanias, it was still visible in 1879 when the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered the shaft graves under the agora in the acropolis at Mycenae.

The tomb perhaps held the remains of the sovereign who completed the reconstruction of the fortress or one of his successors. The grave is in the style of the other tholoi of the Mycenaean World, of which there are nine in total around the citadel of Mycenae. However, in its monumental shape and grandeur it is one of the most impressive structures surviving from Mycenaean Greece.

With an interior height of 13.5m and a diameter of 14.5m, it was the tallest and widest dome in the world for over a thousand years until construction of the Pantheon in Rome. Great care was taken in the positioning of the enormous stones, to guarantee the vault's stability over time in bearing the force of compression from its own weight. This obtained a perfectly smoothed internal surface, onto which could be placed gold, silver and bronze decoration.

The tholos was entered from an inclined uncovered hall, 36 meters long and with dry-stone walls. A short passage led from the tholos chamber to the actual burial chamber, which was dug out in a nearly cubical shape.

I was actually more impressed with the Treasury than the ruins of Mycanae.  The Treasury looks today much the same as it did 3200 years ago!  How such a complex and physically demanding structure was built remains a mystery.

After leaving the Treasury we made a brief stop at a local pottery factory where we saw how artisans continue to employ ancient Mycenaean design.  It was helpful to see the process which made me even more impressed with how artists 3000 years ago could have created such advanced art.  After many beach days it was nice to visit some educational attractions.
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