A tour of Mycenae

panoramic view of fortifed citadel with a large hill to either side

Following on from last year’s virtual tour of the Mycenaean site of Tiryns, now it’s the turn of the site after which the “Mycenaean” societies of Late Bronze Age Greece are named – Mycenae (ancient Greek Μυκήναι, modern Greek Μυκήνες Mikines). This impressive fortified citadel is only about 20km from Tiryns, which was probably a subordinate/secondary site to Mycenae (although the exact relationship between the two is disputed), so if travelling by car the two can easily be done in one trip. Read on for the tour!

view of circular areas containing rectangular pits and one upright stone stele
Grave Circle B

As you walk towards the entrance, you can see a circular area with a few pits dug in it and a single upright stone. This is Grave Circle B, a burial area used from c.1700-1500 BCE: 35 people were buried over this period in 26 different graves. Before this, individual burials took place all over the slopes of the citadel facing you: this is the first time we see some graves being used for multiple burials and marked out as special by placing them in a separate area (some also marked with stelai like the single upright stone you can see), a process that we’ll see the culmination of shortly.

Walking up the slope towards the citadel, you approach the famous Lion Gate. The fortification walls are made of such enormous rocks they’re known as ‘Cyclopean’, because legend had it that only the giant Cyclopes could have moved these rocks into position.

This wall and gate were never buried completely – even after the Mycenaean period Mycenae’s location remained known (and it was periodically reoccupied). When Heinrich Schliemann started excavating here in 1876, under the superivsion of the Greek archaeologist Panayotis Stamatakis, he started digging just inside the gate, and discovered ‘Grave Circle A’. So-called because it was discovered much earlier than Grave Circle B (found in the 1950s), this grave circle actually came into use a bit later than the other: most of the burials are from 1600-1500 BCE, though there are a few later ones up to c.1400. The six ‘shaft graves’ – deep pits with a walled and roofed burial chamber at the bottom – contained spectacular finds like the famous ‘Mask of Agamemnon’ which are now on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.

View over roughly circular pit with stone-built walls, surrounded by upright stone slabs. Behind is a fortification wall and then a view over the remains of a group of buildings, the plain and mountains behind
Grave Circle A, with ‘Ivory Houses’ in the background

When the graves were actually in use (like those in Grave Circle B, each was repeatedly reopened for new burials), they were actually outside the wall of the citadel – the arrangement you see now, with the circle inside the fortification wall and surrounded by a double circle of upright stone slabs, dates to c.1400 BCE (after the grave circle had stopped being used for burials) when extensive works were carried out on the fortifications, including the construction of the Lion Gate and the enclosure of Grave Circle A and the nearby ritual buildings known as the ‘Cult Centre’ (to the left beyond the roofed house as you face the grave circle; not much is visible from the path but you will see lots of finds from these buildings in the museum). From being accessible to anyone walking up the hill from the surrounding settlement, these important sites of commemoration and ritual now came fully under the control of the palatial authorities, who seem to have been using this incorporation and refurbishment of the burial area of an earlier group of elite Mycenaeans to assert an ancestral connection as a foundation for their own power and status (whether or not the people buried there were in fact their ancestors).

Looking out over the grave circle and the wall, you can see a group of four buildings below the citadel. Known as the ‘Ivory Houses’ because of the large amounts of ivory furniture inlays found there, these buildings functioned as part of the palatial administration, receiving, storing and distributing goods and controlling workers – as is shown by the c.60 Linear B tablets found there (far more than from the citadel itself, where only 12 have been found), as well as items like the ivory inlays and oil jars. These buildings were destroyed about 1300-1250 BCE, 50-100 years earlier than the final destruction of the palace itself; you can see them closer up later in the tour.

Set of three concrete-floored rooms: porch marked by two column bases, narrow anteroom, and larger room beyond with a small roofed structure in the centre. Behind is a very tall hill.
Megaron (throne room)

Continuing up the hill, you pass through the porch of the palace building proper and then reach the throne room (or ‘megaron’) complex. If this is closed off, as it was when I visited, it can be viewed from the path above. Considered one of the defining features of a Mycenaean palace, this consists of a courtyard leading to a porch with two columns (you can see the bases), then a small anteroom, and then a larger throne-room, with a central hearth surrounded by four columns (here under a protective roof), and the throne against the right-hand wall. The megaron here is right on the edge of the steepest side of the hill – in fact, when it was excavated the far side of the throne room (where we assume the throne was located) had fallen down into the ravine, so that side is reconstructed.

On the way down the other side of the hill, you pass through an area known as the ‘Artisan’s Quarter’, which contained workshops where precious materials such as ivory and semi-precious stones were worked, and reach the north-eastern section of the fortification. This was the very latest addition to the walls, which were extended out in the last phase of construction (c.1250-1200 BCE) to enclose this area and give access to the water cistern further down the slope, via a passage built down through the wall and the hill – apparently ensuring a water supply in case of siege was a concern at this point. You can walk down the first of the three flights of stairs leading to this cistern and admire the corbel vaulting of the roof, a technique allowing massive blocks of stone to be supported which was also used in the tholos tombs you’ll see later.

Following the path back round the other side of the hill, past the north postern gate – constructed out of three massive blocks of stone, like the Lion Gate but without the lions – you leave the citadel and turn right towards the museum (and the toilets and gift shop).

Museum display case of large clay figurines with upraised arms
Museum display of Cult Centre figurines

Here you can see many of the finds from the site, including – some of my favourites – these large clay figurines of people and snakes from the Cult Centre (plus, of course, a display of Linear B tablets). As mentioned above, though, you’ll have to go to Athens to see the most famous finds from the Grave Circles (there are some replicas on display here).

Just beyond the museum is one of the new monumental tombs that replaced the Shaft Graves of Grave Circle A as places for elite burials from c.1400 BCE. Known as ‘tholos’ tombs (θόλος in Greek means a round domed building; plural ‘tholoi’), these tombs have a huge domed burial chamber reached by a long entranceway (the ‘dromos’) and a tall doorway made, like the Lion Gate, of huge slabs of stone, with a ‘relieving triangle’ above – an empty space lessening the weight on the lintel stone.

Like the shaft graves, these would have been repeatedly re-used for burials of multiple individuals with rich grave-goods; but as tholos tombs stand out a lot more than shaft graves, even once the entranceway has been filled in, they’ve nearly all been robbed, leaving comparatively few finds for excavators. Nine of these tholoi have been found in the area around Mycenae, of which four are easily visible. This one is known as the Lion Tomb for its proximity to the Lion Gate; walking back up to the entrance path and down the slope on the other site will bring you to two more, called the Tombs of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus after the (in)famous mythical queen of Mycenae (who killed her husband Agamemnon in revenge for his killing of their daughter Iphigenia) and her lover.

Walking a little further past these tholoi will bring you to the Ivory Houses I mentioned earlier. Retracing your steps back to the entrance, stop to admire the view of the citadel, framed between the hills of Profitis Ilias (left) and Zara (right).

panoramic view of fortifed citadel with a large hill to either side
Citadel of Mycenae

After leaving the main site, you can walk or drive a little way back down the road to see one more tholos tomb – the largest at this site, known as the ‘Treasury of Atreus’ after the mythical king of Mycenae, father of Agamemnon. Part of the elaborate decoration of this tomb’s facade, made of carved multi-coloured stone, can be seen in the Mycenaean gallery of the National Archaeological Museum – which, if you haven’t already been, is recommended as your next port of call to see this facade, the Shaft Grave finds, frescos, more Linear B, and lots more!

Practical information

Getting there: Mycenae is about 2 hours’ drive from Athens, half an hour from Nafplio. Buses from Athens for Mycenae actually stop at Fichti, about 3.5km from the archaeological site. For opening hours, see the Ministry of Culture website.

Access: a step-free paved path runs from the entrance all around the citadel (with steep slopes in places), and to the museum (which is step-free, with ramps leading down to/up from galleries). Some areas of the citadel, e.g. the area around Grave Circle A and the cistern, are not accessible via this path and involve steps and/or uneven surfaces. The tholos tombs and Ivory Houses are down a steep slope via a paved path and a few steps, and then over uneven ground. The Treasury of Atreus is accessed via a gravel path which slopes upwards from the car park. NB the site is very exposed with little shade and few places to sit.

Facilities: toilets and a gift shop; the ‘cafe’ referred to by the website is actually a kiosk in the car park (i.e. outside the ticket barriers) selling drinks and snacks. On the fairly hot day in May when I visited, this had run out of still water by mid-afternoon, so I recommend bringing plenty with you (tap water on-site is not drinkable, according to staff). There are tavernas and grocery stores in Mikines village, c.2km down the road.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 885977.

Author: Anna P. Judson

Researcher of Linear B, currently in Athens

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