Archeology and the Mycenaeans

Archeological digs

The Greeks we usually think about and talk about did not know that their Mycenaean ancestors ever lived. A great Dark Age is in between the Classical Greeks and the Mycenaean Greeks. Mycenaean Greece is buried in the dark past and beneath heaps of rubble.

The Classical Greeks did see some of the Mycenaean palaces and citadels. They found them strange. They were made with such huge stones. Some of the stones weighed as much as two tons each. The Classical Greeks had an answer for how these buildings came about. They were buildings built by the one-eyed giants called the cyclopes.

As the the Mycenaean buildings are unearthed, the archeologists call their design cyclopeian. That's because the archeologists are also amazed by the size of the stones used in buildings.

Basement of Mycenae Palace. Notice the size of the stones in comparison to the man.

Just how the Mycenaean workers are able to move and stack such heavy stones is still unknown. It is an amazing feat of engineering and construction. Nothing like it would be seen until the Classical Greeks began building temples. Even then, the Classical Greeks used much smaller stones.

Clearly, such a walled fortress is easy to defend. It is difficult to capture. And when richly equipped and decorated it is an appropriate home for a king.

Lions Gate Palace of Mycenae

Above, you see the Lions Gate. It is the main entrance to the Palace of Mycenae. The Palace of Mycenae is supposed to be the home of the great king Agamemnon. In the Iliad, he is referred to as the king of kings meaning the greatest and most important of the Greek kings. The gate is designed to show the importance and power of the king both by its size and the lions. Think of what you would have felt like back in that time walking down this entry way and through that great gate. Think what this gate on such a palace said about the owner of this palace.

Heinrich Schliemann

The German, Heinrich Schliemann, first dug up the ancient city of Troy in what is now Turkey. After his "success" there, which focused as much on finding treasure as doing history, Schliemann turned to Greece. He wanted to dig up the Palace of Mycenae. The story of the Trojan War says it was the site of riches. He unearthed parts of the palace. These included graves. The beehive graves often contained considerable treasures. Rich people are buried with much of their wealth to demonstrate for all time their power and importance.

The beehive tombs of the Mycenaean Era

While Schliemann's archeological practices are terribly destructive, the Mycenaean sites have been excavated. What is found at these sites is how we have learned about Mycenaean Civilization. That is because there are no written records we can use to tell us their history. Instead, we must learn from the artifacts (buildings, armor, cups, dishes, paintings, pots, etc.). Using them, we try to put together the picture of the civilization and its daily life.

Based on what we can put together we know that:

  • Mycenaean society was ruled by kings
  • Most kings were powerful figures within their regions of Greece
  • 99 out of 100 people were just workers growing food to keep society going
  • the same 99 out of 100 people supplied the ordinary foot soldiers
  • the remaining 1 % were aristocrats who lived as warriors
  • Mycenaean civilization was warlike -- attacking others and being pirates
  • Mycenaean society engaged in trade throughout the Mediterranean.

There is also another source of information. That is the literary works of the blind poet Homer. Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey.

One of the things the archeologist were not able to answer is the question of what caused the fall of the Mycenaean Civilization. There are various theories.

One theory says it is destroyed by another group of Greek speakers -- the Dorians. Not terribly civilized, the Dorians from the north of Greece are said to have moved south. Why would the Dorians be able to defeat the Mycenaean warriors? Some suggest these people have iron while the Mycenaean civilization only have bronze. Iron is a much stronger metal than bronze. An iron sword can smash through a bronze sword. But its hard to see how the Dorians are able to master iron making when the Mycenaean warriors focused on the best weapons they can have? Why would they not acquire the ability to make iron?

Another theory says the problems start with environmental disasters. There is much evidence that by 1100 BCE there are famines, droughts, and other natural disasters across the eastern Mediterranean World. Famine leads to pressure on the Hittite Empire, problems in the Levant, and Egypt invades the Levant.

Then there are the mysterious Sea People. They are a group of sea traveling warriors. Were did they come from? No one is sure. But they invade every kingdom. They attack the Hittites and cause the collapse of the Hittite Empire. Twice they invade Egypt. They attacked the Levant.. Their military adventures most certainly interrupt and perhaps stop trade in the Eastern Mediterranean. The result is the Mycenaean Civilization loses its source of wealth.

A possible way things ended. Suddenly poor, the various Mycenaean kings begin fighting one another in search of new wealth. And the environmental disasters also suggest they fight each other in an effort to increase the food supply for their kingdom. Perhaps, after the Mycenaean people almost destroy themselves, the Dorians saw their chance and invaded.

Some Mycenaeans were reduced to slavery. They were owned by and worked for the Dorians. Other Mycenaeans took to their ships and escaped to the coast of Anatolia. During the Greek Dark Ages, the Dorians will invade the islands of the Aegean slowly defeating and replacing the Mycenaean populations. On Crete, the Mycenaean people are turned into slaves. The Minoan people are driven deep into the mountains where they live in isolation for centuries.

Today we still celebrate the Mycenaean Civilization through reading the Iliad. It tells of ten weeks in the long war against the Trojans in Anatolia. The war could also have contributed to the fall of the Mycenaean Civilization. Living on a beach in a filthy military camp with no sanitation means DISEASE. There is every possibility, the returning warriors brought all types of disease back to their Mycenaean kingdoms, We know by 1100, the populations in all the kingdoms in the Eastern Mediterranean begins to rapidly get smaller. Famine and disease along with war are the reasons for rapid population loss. The great collapse of kingdoms and trade in the East Mediterranean World is called the Bronze Age Collapse.

What do you think was the reason the Mycenaean Civilization collapsed?

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ROBERT BRADY
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