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Mycenae is an ancient city located on a small hill between two larger hills on the fertile Argolid Plain in Peloponnese, Greece. The Bronze-age acropolis, or citadel built on a hill, is one of the great cities of the Mycenaean civilization that played a vital role in classical Greek culture. Mycenae was also prominent in Greek mythology and inspired poets, writers, and artists throughout the centuries, though it was ultimately abandoned more than 2,000 years ago.

Mycenae in Greek Mythology

Mycenae’s true origins are unknown. According to Greek mythology, Perseus—son of the Greek god Zeus and Danae, who was the daughter of Acricio, the king of Argos—founded Mycenae. When Perseus left Argos for Tiryns, he instructed Cyclopes (one-eyed giants) to build the walls of Mycenae with stones no human could lift.

Perseus named the city Mycenae after the cap (myces) fell off his scabbard at the site, which he saw as a sign of good omen, or after finding a water spring to quench his thirst when he picked up a mushroom (myces) from the ground.

The Perseid dynasty ruled Mycenae for at least three generations and ended with the rule of Eurytheus, whom legends claim commissioned Hercules to perform the 12 labors. When Eurytheus died in battle, Atreus became king of Mycenae.

Mycenae is perhaps best known in mythology as the city of Agamemnon, the son of Atreus. King Agamemnon led the expedition against Troy during the Trojan War, which Homer accounted in his epic poem the Iliad.

Archaeological Site of Mycenae

Mycenae is situated in a naturally fortified position between the sloping hills of Profitis Ilias and Mount Sara, located some 20 km southwest of the Mycenaean city Tiryns. Mycenae and Tiryns were together recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1999.

The central feature of Mycenae—as with other Mycenaean citadels, including Tiryns and Pylos—is a great central hall called the megaron, which consisted of a columned porch, vestibule, and main chamber.

The megaron’s main chamber was a long rectangular room with a hearth in the center that’s surrounded by four columns supporting the roof. To the right of the hearth was a raised platform for the royal throne.

The megaron was surrounded by an irregular complex of buildings that included offices, archives, shrines, corridors, armories, storerooms, workshops, potteries, and oil-press rooms.

The massive “Cyclopean” walls of Mycenae also enclosed residential houses for aristocrats, various shrines, and Grave Circle A (so named by archaeologists), a stone funerary enclosure that contained massive shaft graves for the Mycenaean elite.

The citadel’s primary entrance was the Lion Gate, named for the lion sculpture that sits above it.

Outside the walls of Mycenae was the residential area of the city, Grave Circle B (which predates Grave Circle A) and various dome-shaped tholos (or “beehive”) tombs, including the famous Treasury of Atreus (or Tomb of Agamemnon).

Development of Mycenae

Archaeological studies suggest the area of Mycenae was first occupied in the Neolithic Age dating back to about the 7th millennium B.C. But these early settlements left few records due to the site having continuous re-occupation up until the founding of the citadel.

The first families of rulers and aristocrats likely arose in the Mycenae area around 1700 B.C. during the early Bronze Age, as evidenced by the construction of Grave Circle B.

In 1600 B.C., inhabitants constructed Grave Circle A, the first tholos tombs, and a large central building.

The majority of the Mycenae monuments visible today were constructed in the late Bronze Age between 1350 and 1200 B.C., during the peak of the Mycenaean civilization.

The construction of the palace and city walls began around 1350 B.C. About 100 years later, Mycenaeans constructed the Lion Gate and its bastion, along with a new wall to the west and south of the original wall. This new fortification encompassed Grave Circle A and the city’s religious center.

On the heels of a destructive earthquake, the walls were extended to the northeast around 1200 B.C.

Mycenaean Civilization

In the Iliad, Homer aptly described Mycenae as “rich in gold.”

Mycenaeans enjoyed a prosperous rule over the Greek mainland and areas around the Aegean Sea, with the elite living in comfort and style, and the king ruling over a highly organized feudal system.

In Mycenae and other Mycenaean strongholds, workshops produced an array of both utilitarian and luxury goods, including weapons and tools, jewelry, carved gems, glass ornaments and vases, which likely transported oil, wine, and other commodities for trade.

What’s more, funerary artifacts unearthed at the Grave Circles were made of precious metals (gold, silver, and bronze) accentuated with precious stones and crystals.

Mycenaeans also likely engaged in mercenary wars and piracy, and they were known to periodically raid and loot the coastal towns of Egyptians and Hittites.

Fall of Mycenae

Mycenae and the Mycenaean civilization began to decline around 1200 B.C. Mycenae’s people abandoned the citadel around 100 years later after a series of fires.

It’s unclear what caused the destruction of Mycenae, though theories abound.

One of the leading theories holds that Mycenae underwent years of civil strife and social upheaval. Dorians and Heraclids then invaded, sacking all of the Mycenaean strongholds except Athens.

Mycenae may have further suffered at the hands of raiders from the sea.

Alternatively, Mycenae may have fallen to natural disasters, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, drought or famine.

Whatever the case, though the citadel was abandoned, the outer city was not completely deserted and the remaining town was sparsely inhabited until the Greek Classical Period (5th and 4th centuries B.C.).

Destruction of Mycenae

During the Greek Archaic period (8th to 5th centuries B.C.), a temple dedicated to Hera or Athena was erected on the summit of the Mycenaean citadel.

Mycenae later took part in the Persian Wars, sending 80 men to the Battle of Thermopylae. Mycenae’s neighboring city Argos, which had remained neutral in the war, retaliated by conquering the town and destroying parts of its walls.

Sometime during the Hellenistic period—the period between Alexander the Great’s death (323 B.C.) to the emergence of the Roman Empire (31 B.C.)—the people of Argos founded a village on the Mycenae hill, repaired some of the citadel’s walls and Archaic-period temple, and built a small theatre over the walkway to the tholos Tomb of Clytemnestra (Agamemnon’s wife).

At some point, however, the new village was subsequently abandoned. When the Greek geographer Pausanians visited the area in the 2nd century A.D., Mycenae had already been in ruins.

Excavation of Mycenae

In 1837, the Mycenae archaeological site came under the jurisdiction of the Greek Archaeological Society. Its representative, Greek archaeologist Kyriakos Pittakis, cleared the Lion Gate in 1841.

Heinrich Schliemann, a pioneer in archaeology, conducted the first excavations of Mycenae in 1874, uncovering five graves in Grave Circle A. Various archaeologists in the late 1800s and early to mid 1900s continued his work excavating the palace and cemeteries.

In the 1950s, George Mylonas of the Greek Archaeological Society led excavations of Grave Circle B and parts of the settlement outside of the Cyclopean Walls. Around the same time, members of the society restored the Tomb of Clytemnestra, the megaron, Grave Circle B, and the area surrounding the Lion Gate.

Further restorations continued in the late 1990s.

Excavations of Mycenae, particularly of the lower town outside of the citadel walls, continued in the 2000s. Surveys suggest the area holds hundreds of visible and buried structures, including tombs, houses and other buildings, guard towers and beacons, roads and highways, bridges and dams, and an outer fortification wall with three gates.

While many Mycenaean artifacts are exhibited at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, the smaller Mycenae Museum next to the ancient citadel houses additional items discovered during archaeological digs in the surrounding site.


Mycenae; Ministry of Culture and Sports.
Archaeological Sites of Mycenae and Tiryns; UNESCO.
Pausanias. Pausanias Description of Greece with an English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A., in 4 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1918.
Mycenaean Civilization; METMuseum.
Mycenae and Tiryns; Greek National Tourism Organisation.
ABCs of Greek Architecture; The New York Times.
Beyond the Walls of Agamemnon: Excavation of the Mycenae Lower Town (2007-2011); Dickinson Excavation Project & Archaeological Survey of Mycenae.
Greek City’s End: New View Given; The New York Times
Thomas R. Martin. An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander. Perseus Digital Library.


Mycenae (Μυκήνες) is one of the most important archaeological sites of Greece. The fortified citadel is nested over the fertile plain of Argolis near the seashore in the northeast Peloponnese.

Mycenae is the largest and most important center of the civilization that was named "Mycenaean" after this very citadel. Mycenaean is the culture that dominated mainland Greece, the Aegean islands, and the shores of Asia Minor during the late Bronze Age era (circa 1600-1100 BCE). The Mycenaean Era occupies the tail end of the Helladic Civilization, which flourished in mainland Greece since 3000 BCE.

Assorted References

…16th century bc is called Mycenaean after Mycenae, which appears to have been one of its most important centres. The term Mycenaean is also sometimes used for the civilizations of the Aegean area as a whole from about 1400 bc onward.

…representing the Cretan and the Mycenaean tradition, were not fused but survived in separate sets of songs and tales.

The Aegean region—and in particular the island of Crete, which was inhabited from about 6000 bce —can be considered the cradle of western European culture. Settlers came to Crete from areas farther east, including Anatolia, North Africa, Syria, and Palestine

…people, goes back to the Mycenaean civilization of about 1400–1100 bce , which itself was the heir of the pre-Hellenic civilization of Minoan Crete. The Mycenaean civilization consisted of little monarchies of an Oriental type with an administration operated by a bureaucracy, and it seems to have operated an educational system…

…supplied incontrovertible proof that the Mycenaeans on the Greek mainland during the 2nd millennium bce were Greek in language and likewise that Knossos in Crete was a Greek-speaking stronghold at the time of its final destruction (c. 1400 bce ). The records from Knossos, Pylos in Messenia, and Mycenae in the…

The sudden architectural awakening of the Mycenaean Greek mainland is intimately connected with the zenith and decline of Minoan Crete and can only be understood against the background of a long Cretan development. Unlike Minoan Knossos, the archaeological remains on the mainland are…

…are to be found on Mycenaean metalwork of the 13th to 11th centuries bce . Six gold rings, excavated from a Mycenaean tomb of the 13th century bce at Kouklia (near Old Paphos), in Cyprus, are decorated with a cloisonné technique that suggests an intermediary stage between inlay and true enamelling.…

In Mycenaean tombs of about 1400 bce , beaten gold portrait masks were found. Gold masks also were placed on the faces of the dead kings of Cambodia and Siam (now Thailand).

Originating in the late Mycenaean period, the Greek epic outlasted the downfall of the typically heroic-age culture (c. 1100 bce ) and maintained itself through the “Dark Age” to reach a climax in the Homeric poems by the close of the Geometric period (900–750 bce ). After Homer, the activity of…

Meanwhile, the Minoan and Mycenaean peoples of Crete and the Aegean developed gold beads of great originality and beauty in the shapes of polyps, lilies, and lotuses there are also a number of spherical Mycenaean gold beads decorated with granulated patterns. Beads of opaque glass with impressed circlets of…

Stimulated by Minoan influence, Mycenaean art flourished from the 16th to the 14th century, gradually declining at the beginning of the 1st millennium bce .

…from the shaft graves of Mycenae, Nilotic scenes showing Egyptian influence. The bronze was oxidized to a blackish-brown tint the gold inlays were hammered in and polished and the details then engraved on them. The gold was in two colours, a deeper red being obtained by an admixture of copper…

A profusion of gold jewelry was found in early Minoan burials at Mókhlos and three silver dagger blades in a communal tomb at Kumasa. Silver seals and ornaments of the same age are not uncommon. An elegant silver cup from Gournia belongs to the…

…of the shaft graves at Mycenae. Potters were much influenced by work in richer and more spectacular media: many of their shapes can be traced to originals in gold and bronze found in Cretan palaces and Mycenaean tombs.


Relations with

…were subsequently used by the Mycenaean civilization, suggesting that the founders of Mycenae may have come from Epirus and central Albania. Epirus itself remained culturally backward during this time, but Mycenaean remains have been found at two religious shrines of great antiquity in the region: the Oracle of the Dead…

…produced the civilization known as Mycenaean. They penetrated to the sea into the Aegean region and via Crete (approximately 1400 bce ) reached Rhodes and even Cyprus and the shores of Anatolia. From 1200 bce onward the Dorians followed from Epirus. They occupied principally parts of the Peloponnese (Sparta and Argolis)…

…as the culture known as Mycenaean. The Mycenaeans, in turn, achieved control over Knossos sometime in the 15th century bc the Linear A script was replaced by another script, Linear B, which is identical to that used at Mycenae and is most generally deemed the prototype of Greek. Detailed administrative…

…by the activities of the Mycenaeans in the 14th–13th century bc , as revealed by archaeology. From this and other evidence, some authorities have identified the Achaeans with the Mycenaeans. Other evidence suggests that the Achaeans did not enter Greece until the so-called Dorian invasions of the 12th century bc . It…


The discovery of the Mycenaean civilization by Heinrich Schliemann, a 19th-century German amateur archaeologist, and the discovery of the Minoan civilization in Crete (from which the Mycenaean ultimately derived) by Sir Arthur Evans, a 20th-century English archaeologist, are essential to the

…and motifs occur in late Mycenaean and sub-Mycenaean art. Though identification is controversial, Centaurs, a siren, and even Zeus’s lover Europa have been recognized. Mythological and epic themes are also found in Geometric art of the 8th century bce , but not until the 7th century did such themes become popular…

…an earlier Greek civilization, the Mycenaean, toward the end of the 2nd millennium bce , when the Dark Age descended upon Greece and lasted for three centuries. All that was preserved were stories of gods and men, passed along by poets, that dimly reflected Mycenaean values and events. Such were the…


From about 1400 bce Mycenaean pottery was imported from mainland Greece, and it is possible that Mycenaean artists accompanied the merchants. There is evidence of Greek immigration from the Peloponnese after 1200 bce , with the collapse of Mycenaean civilization. West of Famagusta was Engomi, the principal city and port…

History of the Site

Homer, the great singer of tales, describes Mycenae as well built (euktimene), with wide streets (euryagyia), and rich-in-gold (polychrysos) in his famous epic poems Iliad (II.569, IV.52, VII.180) and Odyssey (III.305). Such epithets were used repeatedly, interchangeably and rather conventionally for various cities in the formulaic language of Greek oral epic poetry – but not so for Mycenae. These three Homeric words epitomize vividly and effectively the complex archaeological picture of Mycenae that has emerged in the last two centuries. Systematic excavations and surveys of the site have revealed an imposing citadel fortified with massive cyclopean walls – a marvel of engineering – which comprised a magnificent palace, shrines and temples, workshops and storerooms, houses, and royal graves outside the citadel walls were excavated parts of a large and densely populated town, extensive cemeteries with richly furnished royal shaft graves and monumental tholos tombs, an impressive water supply system of clay pipes, channels, underground cisterns, and dams finally, an extensive road network was traced connecting the citadel with its surrounding region and with select ports that gave access to trade routes all over the Mediterranean. Mycenae, a world heritage site, was the leader of a closely-knit network of palatial states that shared a homogeneous culture – the fabled Mycenaean civilization.

Geomorphology, Location, and Topography of Mycenae

The citadel of Mycenae, which in its final form comprised an area of 30,000sqm surrounded by a 900m-long circuit wall, was built on a low rocky hill rising 278m above sea level and approximately 40-45m above the surrounding plain. The hill of Mycenae is nestled between two mountains, Profitis Elias to the north and Zara to the south, from which it is separated by two ravines formed by winter torrents, Kokoretsa and Chavos, respectively it is, therefore, a natural strong-point, protected by deep gorges and steep rocky sides all around, except its western slope which is the only accessible side, and is constantly supplied with fresh water by the Perseia spring which lies 360m to the east of the citadel and approximately 13m higher than its summit. The hill of Mycenae and the adjacent mountains belong to the western part of the Arachnaion mountain range that divides the Argolid from Corinthia, and rise in the northeastern corner of the Argive plain at the mouth of the only passage connecting the two regions (Tretos gorge or modern Dervenakia) and in the crossroads of the eastward routes to the Hermionid and the Saronic Gulf. The hill of Mycenae, therefore, combines a strong geopolitical location which controls access points to and from the Argolid, and a commanding view of the Argive plain to the south below. The triangular plain of the Argolid, surrounded and isolated by mountain ranges, stretches approximately 14km along the coast and 21km inland. The coastline of the Argolid Gulf shifted repeatedly in prehistoric times as a result of post-glacial melting and alluvium deposits in the 2nd millennium BC the sea was much closer to the site of Tiryns than the present-day shore line, which must have been the main port of the Argive plain. Finally, a significant fault measuring some 2-4.5km in length, 1.5m in width and a maximum vertical displacement of 3m has been located to the east/northeast of the citadel of Mycenae, showing traces of multiple reactivations in the past, which caused intense local seismic activity in the 13th century BC and considerable damage at Mycenae, Tiryns and possibly Midea.

A Brief History of Mycenae and the Mycenaean World

The first Greeks descended through the Balkans into mainland Greece in ca. 2300/2200 BC (beginning of the Early Helladic III). They settled down mainly in the fertile inland, formed villages and eventually small towns, organized egalitarian societies and developed a distinct regional culture (Middle Helladic) based on agricultural economy and limited trade contacts with the Cyclades and eventually Crete. Rising to power was a long process through trade, diplomatic contacts, and constant warfare abroad and at home during the formative Early Mycenaean period (Late Helladic I-IIA/B, ca. 1650-1420/1410 BC). The Mycenaeans proved to be meticulous students: through increasing contacts with Minoan Crete, their trade horizons gradually expanded from the Balkans and Northern Europe to Egypt, the Levant, Cyprus, and Asia Minor. This gradual expansion is documented in the multicultural amalgam of stylistic, iconographic, technical elements and materials of the exquisite finds in the royal Shaft Graves at Mycenae (Minoan, Egyptian, European/Balkan, Hittite, and Helladic influences), the extensive corpus of foreign imports in Greece (orientalia and aegyptiaca), and the increasing Mycenaean exports abroad. Contemporary iconographical evidence (e.g. flotilla fresco from Akrotiri at Thera, silver Siege Rhyton from Grave Circle A at Mycenae) illustrate some of the early military achievements of the rising new power abroad: raiding jointly with the Minoan fleet foreign exotic lands (Egypt?), sieging and sacking foreign towns. The Mycenaeans were recorded as “Ahhiya” or “Ahhiyawa” (

Homeric Achai(w)oi/Achaeans) in Hittite diplomatic documents already by 1420/1400 BC (since the reign of Tudhaliya II) and as “Danaja” or “Tanaja” (

Homeric Danaoi) in Egyptian tribute lists like those of Thutmose III (ca. 1450 BC) and Amenhotep III (Karnak, ca. 1380 BC), or on a statue-base from Kom-el-Hetan (ca. 1380 BC), where “Mukanu” or mki[n] (

Mycenae) was listed first among mainland sites. In the following decades, the “Danaja” references in Egyptian sources gradually replaced the earlier “Keftiu” accounts and depictions of Minoan embassies of the 15th century BC, echoing contemporary archaeological evidence for drastic Mycenaean expansion and simultaneous reduction of Minoan presence abroad. This reversal of the political and military situation in the Aegean in the 14th century BC was triggered by the gradual infiltration and, arguably, military presence of the Mycenaeans on Crete in 1420/1410-1370 BC (Late Helladic IIIA1), in the wake of a devastating earthquake which had leveled the Minoan palaces and left the Minoan world in disarray. The Mycenaean occupation of Crete marked for the Minoans the beginning of the end and for the Mycenaeans the end of the beginning.

The Mycenaean world and particularly Mycenae flourished in the following two centuries (ca. 1420/1410-1200/1175 BC), a period known as Palatial Mycenaean or Late Helladic IIIA/B. The Minoan palaces served as modus operandi for the sociopolitical and economic organization of the rising Mycenaean states. This period is marked by regional centralization of power, state formation, and advanced socio-economic organization, geared towards efficient surplus local production and overseas trade, both coordinated and regulated by the palace administration and sustained by palatial bureaucracy (Linear B). At home, the Mycenaean palaces were fortified into citadels, large-scale public works were carried out, and production was systematized at Mycenae, the cyclopean walls were constructed (1350 BC) and later expanded with the addition of the Lion Gate and postern gate (1250 BC), water supply was secured by means of an underground cistern and dams (1200 BC), a new palatial complex was built to replace an earlier palace (1300/1250 BC), the outer town expanded, roads and bridges were built to serve the region of Mycenae. Abroad, the Mycenaeans assumed control over the Minoan colonies and trade outposts in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, and further expanded to the east and west, thus firmly establishing their own trade network and successfully succeeding the Minoans in the overseas trade (Mycenaean thalassocracy). A vital sector of the centralized palatial economy and sociopolitical structure, overseas trade required not only a tight network of island and coastal outposts, but also highly effective diplomacy. Diplomatic contacts involved exchange of royal letters and gifts, ambassadors, official royal visits, treaties and bilateral agreements. Certain Mycenaean palaces like Mycenae, Thebes, and Pylos maintained a protagonistic role in overseas trade of luxury/prestige goods and diplomatic contacts at the highest level. The organized trade of luxury/prestige goods which required a well-coordinated control mechanism for acquiring raw materials and producing artifacts or other products to be marketed in exchange, afforded luxury to the elite, while the king’s special access to external prestige goods reinforced royal image and authority. The exquisite artifacts found in tombs in the area of Mycenae, Pylos, and Thebes, as well as the great variety of precious materials recorded in palatial inventory lists and yielded in the archaeological contexts of palatial workshops further document privileged connections and constant contact with Egypt, Anatolia, and the Near East, closely following the successful Minoan archetype.

In the course of the 12th century BC rapid, dramatic, and combined changes in several of socio-economic, political, and environmental variables affected a fragile balance and triggered a chain reaction whose accumulating effect was progressively magnified and multiplied, resulting inevitably in a catastrophic systems collapse which caused the decline and fall of the Mycenaean world. The latter half of the 13th century BC was marked by intense and frequent seismic activity in certain regions of mainland Greece (two major destruction horizons were recorded at Mycenae in ca. 1240 BC and 1200/1180 BC). These ‘earthquake storms’ caused severe structural damage, local fires, disorganization and disarray, immediate allocation of manpower for costly and energy-consuming repairs, and hence disruption of economic life and trade. A typical example of a low-diversified surplus-geared economy without sufficient alternative resources to fall back to, Mycenaean economy could hardly withstand and recover from temporary setbacks or survive the combined impact of various factors, such as natural catastrophes (earthquakes, extensive fires, severe climatic conditions, droughts, crop failure), ecological overexploitation, and palatial military/financial overextension. Natural disasters may have acted as catalysts for a catastrophic system failure, inflicting the final blow to the system: they eliminated short-term food supplies, destroyed high-yield specialized agricultural production and livestock, and consequently upset dependent satellite industries (flax, textile, wine and oil industries), disrupted trade, damaged the infrastructure, and demoralized the population. Inevitably, civil unrest, internal wars and raids by starving populations on less affected regions followed, causing decentralization and political fragmentation, dissolution of the socioeconomic nexus, severe depopulation of vital areas, and emigration to the coasts, islands, and overseas. The movement of peoples (called “Sea People” in the Egyptian sources) and the subsequent widespread destructions in Asia Minor and the Levant in the beginning of the 12th century BC led to the collapse of the Hittite Empire, but also eradicated the Mycenaean trade outposts and colonies in the East. The loss of their off-shore trade posts disrupted foreign trade and paralyzed the overseas sector of the centralized palatial economy, which, given the peripheral geopolitical location of Mycenaean Greece, depended on the contact with the main zone of exchange through intermediaries. That must have been another terrible blow to the already distressed and staggering palatial economy, forcing it to fall back on domestic production and isolation. In the course of the 12th century BC many small settlements in several regions (i.e. Argolid, Achaia, Attica, Euboia, Thessaly, islands, Cyprus, Asia Minor) sustained continuity and achieved substantial revival with their limited production and trade capacity, despite the general decline and fragmentation on the contrary, the citadels of Mycenae, Tiryns, and Thebes, though partially repaired and reoccupied, and despite attempts for economic revival, never fully recovered and were gradually abandoned. The deterioration of the same system that had strengthened central palatial authority through the coordination and regulation of political and socioeconomic life resulted inevitably in the dissolution of the palaces’ power, decentralization and fragmentation of Mycenaean Greece. It appears, therefore, that it was the Mycenaean elite and its diagnostic, key elements (palatial administration and writing, foreign contacts and luxury goods, monumental art and megalithic architecture) that suffered the most from the system meltdown, whereas at a lower level the impact was less direct, and the core of Mycenaean society changed more gradually (in terms of basic material culture and cultural practices) and evolved organically into the Early Iron Age Greece.

History of Excavations at Mycenae

Mycenae was first explored in 1841 by K. Pittakis on behalf of the Athens Archaeological Society Pittakis cleared the area of the Lion Gate, the Treasury of Atreus and the Klytemnestra tholos tomb. Mycenae, however, was brought into the spotlight of worldwide acclaim by H. Schliemann in 1874/1876 who, following the description of the ancient traveller Pausanias, discovered five royal shaft graves in Grave Circle A (a sixth shaft grave was later excavated by P. Stamatakis), all furnished with unprecedented treasures of jewelry, weapons, vases, and other exotic artifacts and materials. This discovery, which followed Schliemann’s own excavations at Troy and his discovery there of the so-called ‘Priam’s Treasure,’ secured for Schliemann the title of the ‘father’ of Mycenaean archaeology and established the existence of the Mycenaean civilization (quite befittingly named after the most famous and powerful citadel, the seat of legendary king Agamemnon, and the first to be excavated on mainland Greece). In 1884 Captain B. Steffen mapped the area of Mycenae (Karten von Mykenai). In 1886-1897 Chr. Tsountas excavated most of the citadel, five tholos tombs and over one hundred chamber tombs. In 1920 the British School under A.J.B. Wace took over the investigation of the site Wace excavated several sectors of the citadel, several buildings outside the walls, four tholos tombs and many chamber tombs, and published his results in monumental publications (1920-1957). Lord W. Taylour continued his work in the cult center of the citadel (1959-1969). In the meanwhile, the Athens Archaeological Society resumed the investigation of the site with the accidental discovery, excavation, and monumental publication of the royal Grave Circle B outside the walls by G. Mylonas and I. Papadimitriou (1951-1954). In 1958 G. Mylonas resumed the investigation of the citadel on behalf of the Athens Archaeological Society he excavated several sectors of the citadel as well as houses and chamber tombs outside the walls (1958-1988). He was succeeded by S. Iakovidis (1988-2013) who excavated various sectors and buildings inside and outside the citadel and published the results of earlier excavations. Iakovidis conducted jointly with E. French and the British School an extensive archaeological survey of the wider area of Mycenae (Archaeological Atlas of Mycenae). Chr. Maggidis worked with Iakovidis on Building K inside the citadel (2002-2008) and has been publishing earlier excavations (Palatial Workshops) in the meanwhile, Maggidis conducted an extensive geophysical survey of the surrounding area that led to the discovery of the Lower Town (2003-2013), and has been excavating sectors of the Lower Town since 2007.


Primary sources (excavation reports and publications of fieldwork)

Schliemann, H. & W.E. Gladstone, Mycenae A Narrative of Researches and Discoveries at Mycenae and Tiryns, 1880

Karo, G., Die Schachtgräber von Mykenai, 1930-1933

Tsountas, Chr., and J. Irving Manatt, The Mycenaean Age: A Study of the Monuments and Culture of Pre-Homeric Greece, 1897


The people of Mycenae were Indo-Europeans who came to Greece between the 20 th and 16 th centuries BC. They spoke a language similar to what the future Greek dialect would be. The civilization flourished from the 16 th century to about the end of the 13 th century BC. The Mycenaeans were also successful traders and controlled trade routes to the Corinthian Isthmus.

The Mycenaean’s built palaces and fortified citadels. The citadel walls were built out of large stones, which are referred to as the cyclopean walls. Ancient Greeks believed the only way they could have been built was by cyclops, which is how the walls received their name. These kinds of walls were very common among other Mycenaean citadels as well.

At the back of the citadel there is a secret stairway that has ninety-nine steps leading down to a large container. This was connected to a spring by pipes in case in times of war everyone was trapped inside the city. At the highest peaks of the citadels, the king’s palaces were built. The planning of the palaces was similar to Minoan structures.The palace that was discovered at Mycenae matched the description of where Agamemnon lived, as described by the Greek poet Homer. This further added to ideas that Agamemnon was a real person and not just a king of myth. The citadels were also administrative headquarters for the rulers. The common people of the town lived at the foot of the citadels in the countryside. Experts can tell the difference in the society structure by the goods buried in the graves. This shows that there was definitely a lower class and ruling class. The political hierarchy consists of the king on top, who was the political and religious leader of the town. Underneath the king were the local chiefs who looked over administrative duties. The safety of the town was left up to the Lawagetas, the head of the army. Scribes overlooked economic production and transaction, allotted work and distributed rations. In Mycenaean economy there were two types of people: the ones who worked in the palace and the ones who were self-employed. Even the workers in the palace could be self-employed if they wished though.

The Mycenaens were a warrior culture as well as great engineers who built bridges, tombs, and palaces. They also invented their own script called linear B which was an improved version of Linear A or the Minoan language. From clay tablets we can tell that the agricultural economy was well organized and had well distributed. One of the most significant industries in their culture was the textile industry.

The preservation of the ruins can be contributed to the rapid decay that took place in the 12 th century BC because of the Doric invasion. The Doric invasion also ceased the building of new cities and quarters. How Mycenae came to a complete end is still a continued discussion because the acropolis shows signs of inhabitation until 468 BC, the year of destruction. The Doric invasion was not the end of Mycenae though. The first theory is population movement because the Dorian’s attacked. This hypothesis has been questioned because the Dorian’s had always been present in Greece around that time. It could have also been what the Mycenaens called the “Sea People.” The second theory is internal conflict. This is suggesting conflict between the rich and the poor because of the lower class becoming impoverished towards the end of the late Helladic period and rejecting the system in which they were governed. However when Mycenae came to an end, its demise started the Greek dark ages.

Mycenae - HISTORY

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The Mask of Agamemnon, called after the legendary Greek king of Homer's The Iliad . This mask adorned one of the bodies in the shaft graves at Mycenae. Schliemann took this as evidence the Trojan War was a real historical event.

the "mask of Agamemnon" found in the grave shafts of Mycenae

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on the relationship between the Mycenaean civilization and the Trojan War

Grave Circle A at Mycenae aerial view

Homer described the city as "Mycenae, rich in gold " in the great epic poem The Iliad . Certainly the graves at Mycenae were rich in gold grave goods, such as this mask. The splendor of the graves at Mycenae demonstrate the power and grandeur of the Mycenaean kings of that time.

The amateur archeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, went to Mycenae because it was the legendary home of King Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks who went to Troy to fight the Trojan War. He used the text of Pausanias, the second-century A.D. Roman traveler, as his guide. The site was already well-known, but he was the first to dig systematically at the site. He discovered the deep shaft graves which were cut into the rock of the Mycenae acropolis.

Bodies, dressed in lavishly decorated shrouds, were adorned with gold items and diadems and their faces were covered by masks of gold or electrum (such as the Mask of Agamemnon). The bodies were lowered into the shafts and spectacular grave goods, made of precious metals, were placed inside.

When Schliemann, excavated a Mycenaean grave shaft, he discovered this mask and thought he had "gazed upon the face of Agamemnon," the great king from The Iliad. Although the Mycenaeans flourished around 1500 or 1600 BCE, earlier than the supposed time of Trojan War, this great civilization from the past probably did inspire the later Homeric tales. There may well have been a war between the Mycenaeans and Troy of Asia Minor over trade dominance. But the shaft graves themselves date from the early Mycenaean period and were certainly not the graves of Mycenaean warriors who went to Troy. The graves actually date from the very beginnings of Mycenaean civilization in 1800-1700 BCE, when there is no evidence of contact with Troy. The walls of Mycenae were built later, in the 1400s BCE, and the shaft graves had long been there.

Plan B, “The Circular Agora, with the Five Royal Sepulchres, in the Acropolis of Mycenae,” Mycenae by Dr. Henry Schliemann, London 1880.

A tombstone, or stela, discovered at Mycenae. It was one of several which marked the shaft graves

“The Third Tombstone, found above the Sepulchres in the Acropolis,” Mycenae by Dr. Henry Schliemann, London 1880.

At the peak of Mycenaean civilization, shaft graves were no longer used. Tholos (Beehive) tombs came into use around 1500 BCE.

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the Cyclopean wall and the Lion Gate at Mycenae
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The Mycenaeans built massive citadels with strong walls made of huge stones. Later Greeks thought the walls must have been built by super-humans, demi-gods. Centuries after the fall of the Mycenaeans, Homer would remember the great civilization of Mycenae with its Cyclopean walls (built by a Cyclops), and the Trojan War. Amateur archeologist Heinrich Schliemann excavated the remains of Mycenae and discovered the Mycenaean civilization.

Plan C, “Plan of the Acropolis of Mycenae, with Dr. Schliemann's excavations,” Mycenae by Dr. Henry Schliemann, London 1880.

Mycenae was located on a hill with steep slopes to the north and a chasm to the south. Entrance was from the more gentle slope on the west side which had a narrow opening which could be easily fortified.

Mycenae - HISTORY

The Mycenaeans are named after the city-state of Mycenae, a palace city and one of the most powerful of the Mycenaean city-states. The Mycenaean civilization was located on the Greek mainland, mostly on the Peloponnese, the southern peninsula of Greece. The Mycenaeans are the first Greeks, in other words, they were the first people to speak the Greek language.

The Mycenaean civilization thrived between 1650 and 1200 BC. The Mycenaeans were influenced by the earlier Minoan civilization, located on the island of Crete. This influence is seen in Mycenaean palaces, clothing, frescoes, and their writing system, called Linear B.

Linear B

Linear B tablets were first found on the island of Crete, the writing was similar to the Minoan Linear A. Arthur Evans credited the writing system to the Minoans. A young schoolboy named Michael Ventris saw the Linear B tablets while touring the British Museum. Young Ventris was fascinated by the script, and when Arthur Evans told the class that the script had not been deciphered, young Ventris asked Evans to repeat what he had just said. Hearing these words a second time, Ventris decided that day, that he would be the one to decipher this ancient script.

Ventris became an architect, but never lost his passion for Linear B. Ventris could speak many different languages fluently, and could pick up a new language quickly. In 1939, Carl Blegen, an American archaeologist, found several tablets of Linear B on the Greek mainland in the Mycenaean ruins of Pylos. Assuming that the language of Linear B was Greek, Ventris made a break through in the early 1950s with the help of others working on the script, including American archaeologist, Alice Kober. This made Arthur Evans angry, because he was certain it was a Minoan script (Evans died in 1941, however he was unhappy with any theory, up until then, that Linear B was anything but Minoan writing). The Mycenaeans used Linear B to keep records of their trading and economy, unfortunately, the writing was not used to tell stories or show feelings.

How the later Greeks felt about the Mycenaeans

The later Greeks told stories about the Mycenaeans who preceded them, like the poet Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. In the eyes of the later Greeks, the Mycenaeans were larger than life. One reason for this belief comes from the ruins of the Mycenaean city-states. The walls around these palaces are massive, made from blocks of stone weighing several tons and carried to the mountain-top settlements. The later Greeks called these walls cyclopean walls, named after the one-eyed giant race, because the later Greeks felt only giants could move the stones. A walled mountain or hilltop settlement is called a citadel.

Heinrich Schliemann, discoverer of the Mycenaean Civilization

Like the Minoans, the Mycenaeans were a civilization lost to the modern world. No evidence of the Mycenaeans (whom Homer called the Achaeans) or the city of Troy, also talked about in the Iliad, was to be found. However, in the 1800's, a German amateur archaeologist, by the name of Heinrich Schliemann, was convinced that the Trojans and Achaeans actually existed. He was fascinated by the Iliad with his copy in hand, along with his wife, Schliemann set out to find ancient Troy. Based on a description in the Homer's Iliad, Schliemann found a hill in modern Turkey that fit this description of the location of Troy. Amazingly, as Schliemann dug, ancient Troy was revealed. Feeling he was on a roll, Schliemann then went to Greece in 1876, where he uncovered artifacts of lost civilization of the Mycenaeans at Mycenae, high in the mountains. The Mycenaean palaces proved the wealth of the kings who ruled them. The Palaces included a large meeting hall, called a Megaron, and kings were buried in deep shaft graves along with their riches. Later tombs, called tholos, or beehive tombs, were built with massive stones and covered with earth.

The major Mycenaean city-states included Mycenae, home of the legendary King Agamemnon from the Iliad, Tiryns, the home of Heracles (Hercules) from Greek mythology, and Pylos, the home of old King Nestor from the Iliad. Pylos, located close to the sea, was the only city-state that did not have cyclopean walls, therefore, it was not a citadel like Mycenae and Tyrins. Since Greece is mountainous, the best form of transportation is by the sea. The Mycenaeans were seafaring people, all of the city-states were close to the sea, but far enough way that, should the city be attacked, the inhabitants would have time to react.

The Mycenaeans were bellicose by nature, attacking others, especially by sea, and fighting among themselves. Though they all spoke Greek, and worshipped the same gods, the Mycenaeans were separated into independent city-states, each with its own king. The Mycenaeans made weapons and armor from Bronze, giving this age its name: The Bronze Age. The Mycenaeans often settled battles between city-states by one-on-one combat, with each city-state taxiing their champion to battle by chariot.

The Iliad and the Odyssey

The Iliad tells about the attack on the citadel of Troy, in Asia Minor, by the Achaeans (Greeks). It is very possible that the Mycenaeans were these Greeks. The story tells of Helen, queen of the Mycenaean city-state of Sparta, who is kidnapped and brought to Troy by the Trojan prince, Paris. The Greek city-states reacted by sending a large fleet to attack Troy in an attempt to bring Helen back home. Being a citadel, Troy was very difficult to attack, and the war lingered on for ten years. Finally, Odysseus, a Greek and the King of Ithaca, devised a trick by leaving a large wooden horse behind as the Achaeans pretended to sail away in defeat. The Trojans, thinking the horse was a gift from the defeated Greeks, moved the horse into the city. After a celebration, Odysseus and others Greeks, hiding in the horse, opened the gates for the other Achaeans to enter. The Achaeans razed the city of Troy and Helen was returned to Sparta.

Some of the gods, having picked sides in this conflict, felt that Odysseus had cheated in victory. Odysseus set sail for Ithaca, but a trip that should have taken a few weeks ended up taking ten years, as the gods created obstacles in his path. All the while, his faithful wife, Penelope, waited patiently for his return. This part of the story is called the Odyssey, an odyssey is a word now used for any long and difficult journey.

Fall of the Mycenaeans

Around 1200 BC, we have evidence that the Mycenaeans increased the size of the walls around their cities. Something was threatening the civilization. Perhaps there was increased fighting among the Mycenaean cities, or perhaps there was a foreign invasion from the north of Greece. Maybe the long war with Troy took its toll on the civilization. Whatever the reason, the Mycenaean civilization collapsed around 1100 BC. There is evidence that the great palace cities were burned by those who replaced the Mycenaeans.

The Dark Ages (from the fall of the Mycenaeans to the first use of the Greek alphabet)

After the fall of the Mycenaeans, Greece went into a Dark Age. A Dark Age is a time when there are no historical records (writing) and also a time of fear, uncertainty, and violence. Those who replaced the Mycenaeans are called the Dorians, Greeks from the north who, as the story goes, were the sons of Heracles (whom the Romans called Hercules). These sons of Heracles had been driven out of the Mycenaean world, but vowed to return some day.

The Dorians used iron weapons, and Mycenaean bronze, though more beautiful and artful, was no match for Dorian iron. Iron replaced bronze during the Dark Age. The Dorians had no need for the Mycenaean palaces and burned them down.

The Dorians were now the masters of Greece. It was a simpler time, and a time without written history. Many Mycenaeans fled from the Dorians across the Aegean Sea to Asia Minor. Surprisingly one Mycenaean city, called Athens, was unaffected by the Dorian invasion. People in Athens carried on many Mycenaean traditions. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, the Phoenicians had developed the world's first alphabet.

We will learn more about Athens and the effect of the Phoenician alphabet on the Greek world in the next chapter.

The Lion Gate entrance of Mycenae creates a backdrop as a champion is taxied to battle by chariot. Upon returning from Troy, King Agamemnon is murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra. This murder was pay back because Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, so the gods would grant winds to the sails of the Greek boats leaving Aulis in Greece for Troy.


Capture the drama of Greece as the sunrises in Mycenae. This visitor destination, is a must-see for people who are interested about history, archeology and beautiful ruins. Never could a visitor forget the expression on their face at first site of the Mediterranean as well as the Adriatic Sea. What makes Mycenae special to Greece? This place happens to be where King Agamemnon ruled the people of Troy using a Trojan Horse.

One could just enjoy the breathtaking view just about anywhere since they have to trust the taste of the kings who ruled before – they have this wonderful and perfect preference to spots where they can have a majestic view of their territory. Did you know that when the sun casts a shadow during the day the colors of the countryside turns into this beautiful olive green and orange all due to the fact that the fertile soil has allowed several vegetables, herbs and spices to grow abundantly in Mycenae?

During summer, Mycenae is so fragrant that some visitors may become dizzy with all the beautiful smells they are experiencing. It is when the oranges are in full bloom. That happens to be such a wonderful sight to see in Mycenae. Most locals often give some tips to the visiting visitors that they should pack on some light clothes. Mycenae is indeed a place of the sun so people there are all bronzed up and ready to go.

Speaking of hotels, there are several cozy places for one to rest and they are priced very reasonably. The food is of course very mouthwatering. The only downside is having a peaceful night would be a little difficult since the whole of Mycenae is bursting with visitors who seem to not stop talking, dancing and laughing all through the night.

This 3,500-Year-Old Greek Tomb Upended What We Thought We Knew About the Roots of Western Civilization

They had been digging for days, shaded from the Greek sun by a square of green tarpaulin slung between olive trees. The archaeologists used picks to break the cream-colored clay, baked as hard as rock, until what began as a cluster of stones just visible in the dirt became four walls in a neat rectangle, sinking down into the earth. Little more than the occasional animal bone, however, came from the soil itself. On the morning of May 28, 2015, the sun gave way to an unseasonable drizzle. The pair digging that day, Flint Dibble and Alison Fields, waited for the rain to clear, then stepped down into their meter-deep hole and got to work. Dibble looked at Fields. “It’s got to be soon,” he said.

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The season had not started well. The archaeologists were part of a group of close to three dozen researchers digging near the ancient Palace of Nestor, on a hilltop near Pylos on the southwest coast of Greece. The palace was built in the Bronze Age by the Mycenaeans—the heroes described in Homer’s epic poems—and was first excavated in the 1930s. The dig’s leaders, Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, husband-and-wife archaeologists from the University of Cincinnati, in Ohio, had hoped to excavate in a currant field just downslope from the palace, but Greek bureaucracy and a lawyers’ strike kept them from obtaining the necessary permits. So they settled, disappointed, on a neighboring olive grove. They cleared the land of weeds and snakes and selected a few spots to investigate, including three stones that appeared to form a corner. As the trench around the stones sank deeper, the researchers allowed themselves to grow eager: The shaft’s dimensions, two meters by one meter, suggested a grave, and Mycenaean burials are famous for their breathtakingly rich contents, able to reveal volumes about the culture that produced them. Still, there was no proof that this structure was even ancient, the archaeologists reminded themselves, and it might simply be a small cellar or shed.

Dibble was clearing earth from around a large stone slab when his pick hit something hard and the monotony of the clay was broken by a vivid flash of green: bronze.

The pair immediately put down their picks, and after placing an excited call to Davis and Stocker they began to carefully sweep up the soil and dust. They knew they were standing atop something substantial, but even then they did not imagine just how rich the discovery would turn out to be.“It was amazing,” says Stocker, a small woman in her 50s with dangling earrings and blue-gray eyes. “People had been walking across this field for three-and-a-half-thousand years.”

Over the next six months, the archaeologists uncovered bronze basins, weapons and armor, but also a tumble of even more precious items, including gold and silver cups hundreds of beads made of carnelian, amethyst, amber and gold more than 50 stone seals intricately carved with goddesses, lions and bulls and four stunning gold rings. This was indeed an ancient grave, among the most spectacular archaeological discoveries in Greece in more than half a century—and the researchers were the first to open it since the day it was filled in.

“It’s incredible luck,” says John Bennet, director of the British School at Athens. “The fact that it hadn’t been discovered before now is astonishing.” The spectacular find of priceless treasures made headlines around the globe, but what really intrigues scholars, says Stocker, is the “bigger world picture.” The very first organized Greek society belonged to the Mycenaeans, whose kingdoms exploded out of nowhere on the Greek mainland around 1600 B.C. Although they disappeared equally dramatically a few hundred years later, giving way to several centuries known as the Greek Dark Ages, before the rise of “classical” Greece, the Mycenaeans sowed the seeds of our common traditions, including art and architecture, language, philosophy and literature, even democracy and religion. “This was a crucial time in the development of what would become Western civilization,” Stocker says.

Yet remarkably little is known of the beginnings of Mycenaean culture. The Pylos grave, with its wealth of undisturbed burial objects and, at its bottom, a largely intact skeleton, offers a nearly unprecedented window into this time—and what it reveals is calling into question our most basic ideas about the roots of Western civilization.

Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker, husband-and-wife archaeologists from the University of Cincinnati, discovered the warrior's grave. (Andrew Spear)

In The Iliad, Homer tells of how Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, led a fleet of a thousand ships to besiege the city of Troy. Classical Greeks (and Romans, who traced their heritage to the Trojan hero Aeneas) accepted the stories in The Iliad and The Odyssey as a part of their national histories, but in later centuries scholars insisted that the epic battles fought between the Trojan and Mycenaean kingdoms were nothing more than myth and romantic fantasy. Before the eighth century B.C., archaeologists argued, societies on the Greek mainland were scattered and disorganized.

At the end of the 19th century, a German-born businessman named Heinrich Schliemann was determined to prove otherwise. He used clues in Homer’s epic poems to locate the remains of Troy, buried in a hillside at Hissarlik in Turkey. He then turned his attention to the Greek mainland, hoping to find the palace of Agamemnon. Near the ruins of the great walls at Mycenae, in the Argolid Peninsula, Schliemann found a circle of graves containing the remains of 19 men, women and children, all dripping with gold and other riches. He hadn’t found Agamemnon—the graves, nearly 3,500 years old, dated to several centuries before the battles of Troy—but he had unearthed a great, lost civilization, which he called the Mycenaean, after the sovereign city of the powerful mythic king.

Homer describes other palaces, too, notably that of King Nestor, at Pylos. The Iliad says Nestor contributed 90 ships to Agamemnon’s fleet, second only to the great leader himself. Schliemann searched in vain for Nestor’s palace in modern Pylos, a sleepy coastal town in the southwest Peloponnese, there was no hint of ancient architecture, unlike at Mycenae. But in the 1920s, a landowner noticed old stone blocks near the summit of a hill near Pylos, and Konstantinos Kourouniotis, director of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, invited his friend and collaborator Carl Blegen, of the University of Cincinnati, to investigate.

Blegen began excavations in April 1939. On his very first day, he uncovered a hoard of clay tablets, filled with an unreadable script known as Linear B, which had also been found on Crete, the largest of the Aegean islands. He had dug straight into the archive room of King Nestor’s palace. After World War II, Blegen went on to discover a grid of rooms and courtyards that rivals Mycenae in size and is now the best-preserved Bronze Age palace on the Greek mainland, not to mention a significant tourist attraction.

Today, Blegen’s work at Pylos is continued by Stocker and Davis (his official title is the Carl W. Blegen professor of Greek archaeology). Davis walks with me to the hilltop, and we pause to enjoy the gorgeous view of olive groves and cypress trees rolling down to a jewel-blue sea. Davis has white-blond hair, freckles and a dry sense of humor, and he is steeped in the history of the place: Alongside Stocker, he has been working in this area for 25 years. As we look out to sea, he points out the island of Sphacteria, where the Athenians beat the Spartans during a fifth-century B.C. battle of the Peloponnesian War.

Behind us, Nestor’s palace is surrounded by flowering oleander trees and is covered with an impressive new metal roof, completed just in time for the site’s reopening to the public in June 2016 after a three-year, multimillion-euro restoration. The roof’s graceful white curves protect the ruins from the elements, while a raised walkway allows visitors to admire the floor plan. The stone walls of the palace now rise just a meter from the ground, but it was originally a vast two-story complex, built around 1450 B.C., that covered more than 15,000 square feet and was visible for miles. Visitors would have passed through an open courtyard into a large throne room, Davis explains, with a central hearth for offerings and decorated with elaborately painted scenes including lions, griffins and a bard playing a lyre.

The Linear B tablets found by Blegen, deciphered in the 1950s, revealed that the palace was an administrative center that supported more than 50,000 people in an area covering all of modern-day Messenia in western Greece. Davis points out storerooms and pantries in which thousands of unused ceramic wine cups were found, as well as workshops for the production of leather and perfumed oils.

Echoes of Homer are everywhere. In The Odyssey, when Odysseus’ son Telemachus visits Pylos, he finds the inhabitants on the shore sacrificing bulls to the god Poseidon, before traveling to the palace to receive a bath from one of Nestor’s daughters. Tablets and animal bones that Blegen found in the archives room recall a feast in which 11 cattle were sacrificed to Poseidon, while on the other side of the building is a perfectly preserved terra-cotta bathtub, its interior painted with a repeating spiral motif.

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The palace was destroyed in a fire around 1200 B.C., part of a wave of destruction that brought down the entire Mycenaean society, which in a few hundred years had developed distinctive art and architecture, its own writing system, a powerful military and trading routes that stretched across the known world. Scholars argue about what brought about the culture’s collapse, but drought, famine and invasion may all have played a role.

Davis and Stocker are interested not in the ruination of the palace, however, but in its beginnings. For several hundred years before the palace was built, the region was dominated by the Minoans, whose sophisticated civilization arose on Crete, with skilled artisans and craftsmen who traded widely in the Aegean, Mediterranean and beyond. By contrast, the people of mainland Greece, a few hundred miles to the north across the Kythera Strait, lived simple lives in small settlements of mud-brick houses, quite unlike the impressive administrative centers and well-populated Cretan villages at Phaistos and Knossos, the latter home to a maze-like palace complex of over a thousand interlocking rooms. “With no sign of wealth, art or sophisticated architecture, mainland Greece must have been a pretty depressing place to live,” says Davis. “Then, everything changes.”

Around 1600 B.C., the mainlanders began leaving almost unimaginable treasures in tombs—“a sudden splash of brilliance,” in the words of Louise Schofield, the archaeologist and former British Museum curator, describing the jewelry, weapons and golden death masks discovered by Schliemann in the graves at Mycenae. The mainland population swelled settlements grew in size, number and apparent wealth, with ruling elites becoming more cosmopolitan, exemplified by the diverse riches they buried with their dead. At Pylos, a huge, beehive-shaped stone tomb known as a tholos was constructed, connected to mansion houses on the hilltop by a ceremonial road that led through a gateway in a surrounding fortification wall. Although thieves looted the tholos long before it was rediscovered in modern times, from what was left behind—seal stones, miniature gold owls, amethyst beads—it appears to have been stuffed with valuables to rival those at Mycenae.

This era, extending until the construction of palaces at Pylos, Mycenae and elsewhere, is known to scholars as the “shaft grave period” (after the graves that Schliemann discovered). Cynthia Shelmerdine, a classicist and renowned scholar of Mycenaean society at the University of Texas at Austin, describes this period as “the moment the door opens.” It is, she says, “the start of elites coming together to form something beyond just a minor chiefdom, the very beginning of what leads to the palatial civilization only a hundred years later.” From this first awakening, “it really takes a very short time for them to leap into full statehood and become great kings on a par with the Hittite emperor. It was a remarkable thing to happen.”

Yet partly as a result of the building of the palaces themselves, atop the razed mansions of early Mycenaeans, very little is known of the people and culture that gave birth to them. You can’t just tear up the plaster floors to see what’s underneath, Davis explains. The tholos itself went out of use around the time the palace was built. Whoever the first leaders here were, Davis and Stocker had assumed, they were buried in this plundered tomb. Until, less than a hundred yards from the tholos, the researchers found the warrior grave.

(5W Infographics) A bronze sword with a gold-coated hilt was among 1,500 items buried with Pylos’ “griffin warrior.” (Jon Krause) Aerial view of the warrior's grave (University of Cincinnati) The later site of 14th-century B.C. Nestor’s Palace (Myrto Papadopoulos) The tholos tomb at Pylos (Myrto Papadopoulos) Today known as Voidokilia, the omega-shaped cove at “sandy Pylos” is where Homer recounted that Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, was welcomed by Nestor while searching for his father. (Myrto Papadopoulos) Bull sacrifice was practiced by the Mycenaeans at Pylos, as recounted in The Odyssey. The autumn olive harvest is an ancient ritual that survives today. (Myrto Papadopoulos)

Davis and Stocker disagree on where they were when they received Dibble’s call from the dig site. Stocker remembers they were at the team’s workshop. Davis thinks they were at the local museum. Dibble recalls that they were in line at the bank. Whichever it was, they rushed to the site and, Stocker says, “basically never left.”

That first splash of green became an ocean, filled with layer after layer of bronze, reminiscent of Schliemann’s magnificent finds. “It was surreal,” says Dibble. “I felt like I was in the 19th century.”

The researchers celebrated the next day with a lunch of gourounopoulo (roast suckling pig) from the local farmer’s market, eaten under the olive trees. For Davis and Stocker, the challenge of the find soon set in. “Everything was interlocked, crushed with everything else,” says Davis. “We never imagined that we might find anything more than a few potsherds that could be put together with glue. Suddenly, we were faced with this huge mess.” The collaborators began working 15-hour shifts, hoping to clear the site as quickly as possible. But after two weeks, everyone was exhausted. “It became clear that we couldn’t continue at that pace, and we weren’t going to finish,” Stocker says. “There was too much stuff.”

About a week in, Davis was excavating behind the stone slab. “I’ve found gold,” he said calmly. Stocker thought he was teasing, but he turned around with a golden bead in his palm. It was the first in a flood of small, precious items: beads a tiny gold birdcage pendant intricately carved gold rings and several gold and silver cups. “Then things changed,” says Stocker. Aware of the high risk of looting, she organized round-the-clock security, and, apart from the Ministry of Culture and the site’s head guard, the archaeologists agreed to tell no one about the more valuable finds. They excavated in pairs, always with one person on watch, ready to cover precious items if someone approached.

The largest ring discovered was made of multiple finely soldered gold sheets. (University of Cincinnati)

And yet it was impossible not to feel elated, too. “There were days when 150 beads were coming out—gold, amethyst, carnelian,” says Davis. “There were days when there was one seal stone after another, with beautiful images. It was like, Oh my god, what will come next?!” Beyond the pure thrill of uncovering such exquisite items, the researchers knew that the complex finds represented an unprecedented opportunity to piece together this moment in history, promising insights into everything from religious iconography to local manufacturing techniques. The discovery of a golden cup, as lovely as the day it was made, proved an emotional moment. “How could you not be moved?” says Stocker. “It’s the passion of looking at a beautiful piece of art or listening to a piece of music. There’s a human element. If you forget that, it becomes an exercise in removing things from the ground.”

In late June 2015, the scheduled end to their season came and went, and a skeleton began to emerge—a man in his early 30s, his skull flattened and broken and a silver bowl on his chest. The researchers nicknamed him the “griffin warrior” after a griffin-decorated ivory plaque they found between his legs. Stocker got used to working alongside him in that cramped space, day after day in the blazing summer sun. “I felt really close to this guy, whoever he was,” she says. “This was a person and these were his things. I talked to him: ‘Mr. Griffin, help me to be careful.’”

In August, Stocker ended up in the local medical clinic with heatstroke. In September, she was rewarded with a gold-and-agate necklace that the archaeologists had spent four months trying to liberate from the earth. The warrior’s skull and pelvis were among the last items to be removed, lifted out in large blocks of soil. By November, the grave was finally empty. Every gram of soil had been dissolved in water and passed through a sieve, and the three-dimensional location of every last bead photographed and recorded.

Seven months later, Stocker sails through a low, green metal door into the basement of the archaeological museum in the small town of Chora, a few minutes’ drive from the palace. Inside, the room is packed with white tables, wooden drawers, and countless shelves of skulls and pots: the results of decades of excavations in this region.

Still the organizational force behind the Pylos project, Stocker looks after not just the human members of the team but a troupe of adopted animals, including the mascot, a sleek gray cat named Nestor, which she rescued from the middle of the road when he was 4 weeks old. “He was teeny,” she recalls. “One day he blew off the table.”

She’s also in charge of conservation. Around her, plastic boxes of all sizes are piled high, full of artifacts from the warrior’s grave. She opens box after box to show their contents—one holds hundreds of individually labeled plastic bags, each containing a single bead. Another yields seal stones carved with intricate designs: three reclining bulls a griffin with outstretched wings. “I still can’t believe I’m actually touching them,” she says. “Most people only see things like this through glass in a museum.”

There are delicate ivory combs, thin bands of bronze (the remains of the warrior’s armor) and boar tusks likely from his helmet. From separate wrappings of acid-free paper she reveals a bronze dagger, a knife with a large, square blade (perhaps used for sacrifices) and a great bronze sword, its hilt decorated with thousands of minute fragments of gold. “It’s truly amazing, and in bad shape,” she says. “It’s one of our highest priorities.”

There are more than 1,500 objects in all, and although the most precious items aren’t here (they are under lock-and-key elsewhere), the scale of the task she faces to preserve and publish these objects is nearly overwhelming. She surveys the room: a life’s work mapped out before her.

“The way they dug this grave is just remarkable,” says Thomas Brogan, the director of the Institute for Aegean Prehistory Study Center for East Crete. “I think the sky’s the limit in terms of what we are going to learn.”

Fragments of Ancient Life

From jewelry to gilded weapons, a sampling of the buried artifacts researchers are using to fill in the details about the social currents in Greece at the time the griffin warrior lived

By 5W Infographics Research by Virginia Mohler

Like any momentous archaeological find, the griffin warrior’s grave has two stories to tell. One is the individual story of this man—who he was, when he lived, what role he played in local events. The other story is broader—what he tells us about the larger world and the crucial shifts in power taking place at that moment in history.

Analyses of the skeleton show that this 30-something dignitary stood around five-and-a-half feet, tall for a man of his time. Combs found in the grave imply that he had long hair. And a recent computerized facial reconstruction based on the warrior’s skull, created by Lynne Schepartz and Tobias Houlton, physical anthropologists at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, shows a broad, determined face with close-set eyes and a prominent jaw. Davis and Stocker are also planning DNA tests and isotope analyses that they hope will provide information about his ethnic and geographic origins.

At first, the researchers struggled to precisely date his burial. Soil layers are usually dated based on the shifting styles of ceramics this grave held no pottery at all. But excavations of the grave’s surrounding soil in the summer of 2016 turned up pottery sherds that point to an archaeological period roughly corresponding to 1500-1450 B.C. So the warrior lived at the very end of the shaft grave period, just before construction of the Mycenaean palaces, including Nestor’s.

Davis and Stocker believe that the tholos tomb at Pylos was still in use at this time. If the warrior was in fact an important figure, perhaps even a leader, why was he buried in a separate shaft grave, and not in the tholos? Stocker wonders whether digging the shaft grave may say something about the manner of the warrior’s death—that it was unexpected—and proved a quicker option than deconstructing and rebuilding the entrance to the tholos. Bennet, on the other hand, speculates that contrasting burial practices in such close proximity may represent separate local family groups vying for supremacy. “It’s part of a power play,” he says. “We have people competing with each other for display.” To him, competition to amass exotic materials and knowledge may have been what drove the social development of Mycenaean ruling elites.

Within a few years of the warrior’s burial, the tholos went out of use, the gateway in the fortification wall closed, and every building on the hilltop was destroyed to make way for the new palace. On Crete, Minoan palaces across the island burned along with many villas and towns, although precisely why they did remains unknown. Only the main center of Knossos was restored for posterity, but with its art, architecture and even tombs adopting a more mainland style. Its scribes switched from Linear A to Linear B, using the alphabet to write not the language of the Minoans, but Mycenaean Greek. It’s a crucial transition that archaeologists are desperate to understand, says Brogan. “What brings about the collapse of the Minoans, and at the same time what causes the emergence of the Mycenaean palace civilization?”

The distinctions between the two societies are clear enough, quite apart from the fundamental difference in their languages. The Mycenaeans organized their towns with free-standing houses rather than the conglomerated shared buildings seen on Crete, for example. But the relationship between the peoples has long been a contentious subject. In 1900, just 24 years after Schliemann announced he’d found Homer’s heroes at Mycenae, the British archaeologist Arthur Evans discovered the Minoan civilization (named for Crete’s mythic King Minos) when he unearthed Knossos. Evans and subsequent scholars argued that the Minoans, and not the Mycenaean mainlanders, were the “first” Greeks—“the first link in the European chain,” according to the historian Will Durant. Schliemann’s graves, the thinking went, belonged to wealthy rulers of Minoan colonies established on the mainland.

In 1950, however, scholars finally deciphered Linear B tablets from Knossos and Pylos and showed the writing to be the earliest known form of Greek. Opinion now swung the other way: The Mycenaeans were reinstated as the first Greeks, and Minoan objects found in mainland graves were reinterpreted as status symbols stolen or imported from the island. “It’s like the Romans copying Greek statues and carting them off from Greece to put in their villas,” says Shelmerdine.

And this has been the scholarly consensus ever since: The Mycenaeans, now thought to have sacked Knossos at around the time they built their mainland palaces and established their language and administrative system on Crete, were the true ancestors of Europe.

The griffin warrior’s grave at Pylos offers a radical new perspective on the relationship between the two societies and thus on Europe’s cultural origins. As in previously discovered shaft graves, the objects themselves are a cross-cultural mix. For instance, the boar tusk helmet is typically Mycenaean, but the gold rings, which are rich with Minoan religious imagery and are on their own a hugely significant find for scholars, says Davis, reflect artifacts previously found on Crete.

Unlike ancient graves at Mycenae and elsewhere, however, which held artifacts from different individuals and time periods, the Pylos grave is an undisturbed single burial. Everything in it belonged to one person, and archaeologists can see precisely how the grave goods were positioned.

Significantly, weapons had been placed on the left side of the warrior’s body while rings and seal stones were on the right, suggesting that they were arranged with intent, not simply thrown in. The representational artwork featured on the rings also had direct connections to actual buried objects. “One of the gold rings has a goddess standing on top of a mountain with a staff that seems to be crowned by a horned bull’s head,” says Davis. “We found a bull’s head staff in the grave.” Another ring shows a goddess sitting on a throne, looking at herself in the mirror. “We have a mirror.” Davis and Stocker do not believe that all this is a coincidence. “We think that objects were chosen to interact with the iconography of the rings.”

Horns, which symbolize authority, appear on this bronze bull’s head and three gold rings. (University of Cincinnati)

In their view, the arrangement of objects in the grave provides the first real evidence that the mainland elite were experts in Minoan ideas and customs, who understood very well the symbolic meaning of the products they acquired. “The grave shows these are not just knuckle-scraping, Neanderthal Mycenaeans who were completely bowled over by the very existence of Minoan culture,” says Bennet. “They know what these objects are.”

New discoveries made by Davis and Stocker just this past summer provide more striking evidence that the two cultures had more in common than scholars have realized. Among the finds are remnants from what are likely the oldest wall paintings ever found on the Greek mainland. The fragments, which measure between roughly one and eight centimeters across and may date as far back as the 17th century B.C., were found beneath the ruins of Nestor’s Palace. The researchers speculate that the paintings once covered the walls of mansion houses on the site before the palace was built. Presumably, the griffin warrior lived in one of those mansions.

Moreover, small sections of pieced-together fragments indicate that many of the paintings were Minoan in character, showing nature scenes, flowering papyri and at least one miniature flying duck, according to Emily Egan, an expert in eastern Mediterranean art at the University of Maryland at College Park who worked on the excavations and is helping to interpret the finds. That suggests, she says, a “very strong connection with Crete.”

Together, the grave goods and the wall paintings present a remarkable case that the first wave of Mycenaean elite embraced Minoan culture, from its religious symbols to its domestic décor. “At the very beginning, the people who are going to become the Mycenaean kings, the Homeric kings, are sophisticated, powerful, rich and aware of something beyond the world that they are emerging from,” says Shelmerdine.

This has led Davis and Stocker to favor the idea that the two cultures became entwined at a very early stage. It’s a conclusion that fits recent suggestions that regime change on Crete around the time the mainland palaces went up, which traditionally corresponds to the decline of Minoan civilization, may not have resulted from the aggressive invasion that historians have assumed. The later period on Knossos might represent something more like “an EU in the Aegean,” says Bennet, of the British School at Athens. Minoans and Mycenaean Greeks would surely have spoken each other’s languages, may have intermarried and likely adopted and refashioned one another’s customs. And they may not have seen themselves with the rigid identities we moderns have tended to impose on them.

In other words, it isn’t the Mycenaeans or the Minoans to whom we can trace our cultural heritage since 1450 B.C., but rather a blending of the two.

The fruits of that intermingling may have shaped the culture of classical Greece and beyond. In Greek mythology, for example, the legendary birthplace of Zeus is said to be a cave in the Dicte mountains on Crete, which may derive from a story about a local deity worshiped at Knossos. And several scholars have argued that the very notion of a Mycenaean king, known as a wanax, was inherited from Crete. Whereas the Near East featured autocratic kings—the Egyptian pharaoh, for example, whose supposed divine nature set him apart from earthly citizens—the wanax, says Davis, was the “highest-ranking member of a ranked society,” and different regions were served by different leaders. It’s possible, Davis proposes, that the transfer to Greek culture of this more diffuse, egalitarian model of authority was of fundamental importance for the development of representative government in Athens a thousand years later. “Way back in the Bronze Age,” he says, “maybe we’re already seeing the seeds of a system which ultimately allows for the emergence of democracies.”

The revelation is compelling for anyone with an interest in how great civilizations are born—and what makes them “great.” And with rising nationalism and xenophobia in parts of Europe and the United States, Davis and others suggest that the grave contains a more urgent lesson. Greek culture, Davis says, “is not something that has been genetically transmitted from generation to generation since the dawn of time.” From the very earliest moments of Western civilization, he says, Mycenaeans “were capable of embracing many different traditions.”

“I think we should all care about that,” says Shelmerdine. “It resonates today, when you have factions that want to throw everybody out [of their countries]. I don’t think the Mycenaeans would have gotten anywhere if they hadn’t been able to reach beyond their shores.”

About Jo Marchant

Jo Marchant is an award-winning science journalist and former editor at New Scientist and Nature. She is the author of The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars and The Shadow King: The Bizarre Afterlife of King Tut's Mummy.

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