Mycenae, with the lion gate, palace and beehive tombs enclosed within the cyclopean wall of its citadel, is considered to be the finest example of Mycenaean Bronze Age civilisation. Mycenae was the primary Mycenaean civilisation between 1650 to 1100 BC. The various types of graves and funerary practices of ancient Mycenae are of particular interest.
The ancient city of Mycenae stands prominently on a modest acropolis that rises 300 metres above sea level on the Argolid Plain. The outer town that occupies the lower slopes of Ancient Mycenae contrasts with the citadel above it which is surrounded by formidably fortified walls. Insight into the civilisation of Mycenae, including its culture and customs, can be gained by observing the ruins within the citadel.
The elevated position of the palace of Mycenae at the centre of the fortified citadel suggests a civilisation with a ruling class in whom was invested significant power. The presence of shrines, temples and altars is evidence of adherence to religion, and the famous Tholos Tombs with a focus on funerals and ritual reflect the deep respect Mycenae’s community of 30,000 had for their dead.
The ruins of vessels used for metal works located adjacent to the palace suggest the presence of an ‘Artisan’ sector. The panoramic view of the terrain from the citadel across the Argolid Plain to the coast of the Argolic Gulf suggests strong agricultural potential. It also infers that Mycenae had strong trade routes and commercial arrangements with other settlements in the region.
Where is Mycenae?
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Menu for Mycenae
- Map of Mycenae
The Plan of the Citadel at Mycenae
- The Walls of the Citadel at Mycenae
- The Cyclopean Walls Around the Citadel at Mycenae
- The Lion Gate Entrance into the Citadel at Mycenae
- The Western Quarter Within the Citadel at Mycenae
- The Granary
- Introduction to Grave Circle A
- The Ramp House and House of Warrior Vase
- The Cult Centre and Religion at Mycenae
- The Northern Quarter Within the Citadel at Mycenae
- The Sally Port in the Citadel’s Northeast Extension
- The Underground Cistern at Mycenae
- The North Gate at Mycenae
The Palace at Mycenae – the Heart of Civilisation
- The Megaron at Mycenae
- Metals and Artisans at Mycenae
A Marker of Mycenae’s Civilisation – Funerary Ritual and Burials
- Outside the Citadel Wall – Mycenae Grave Circle B
- Grave Circle B Cist Graves
- Grave Circle B Shaft Graves
- Inside the Citadel Wall – Mycenae Grave Circle A
- Grave Circle A Shaft Graves
- Mycenae Tholos Tombs
- The Architecture of the Tholos Tombs
- The Lion Tholos and the Tholos Tomb of Aegisthus
- The Tholos Tomb of Clytemnestra
- Final Thoughts On Mycenae: Civilisation And Culture Of A Bronze Age Mycenaean Community
Map of Mycenae
The Plan of the Citadel at Mycenae
The Citadel Walls at Mycenae
The path outside the citadel at Mycenae weaves its way through the gentle undulations of the outer town’s lower western apron. Visitors are confronted on approach to the archaeological ruins of the citadel by the limestone block wall. The wall stretches out a 900m perimeter around the citadel, inside of which was the palace. Early inhabitants of the ancient city of Mycenae in the times of shaft graves did not fortify their citadel with a surrounding wall. The wall now seen was completed in the 14th Century BC. The wall was erected to contribute to the defence of the acropolis, reinforced by an elevated citadel and surrounding rocky outcrops.
The eventual construction of the citadel’s fortifications and wall from rugged, massive rocks makes the citadel look heavy and immovable. It gives an impression of robustness and strength.
The massive limestone blocks that were used to construct the protective wall for the Mycenae fortress were quarried from within Mycenae. The blocks were coarsely hewn to a considerable width. This was to ground the entire wall to an inconsistent foundation made up of the existing hard, unevenly deposited limestone bedrock. The wall in some sections needed to be laid to a thickness of more than 8m to ensure stability. The facades of the Mycenae walls were then filled with clay and rubble.
The Cyclopean Walls Around the Citadel at Mycenae
The walls around Mycenae have often been described as ‘cyclopean’, a reference to a cyclopes’ It was considered that only one of the cyclopes would have had the strength needed to move the boulders that made up the wall.
Who were the Cyclopes? Euripides in ‘The Cyclops’ identifies them as coming from Etna where they were the workmen of the God Hephaestus whose workshop was in the heart of this volcanic mountain.
“We were sailing Near Malea, when an eastern wind arose, And drove us to this wild Etnean rock; The one-eyed children of the Ocean God, The man-destroying Cyclopses inhabit. On this wild shore, their solitary caves….. In these wretched goat-skins clad… ”
And with reference to Mycenae’s cyclopean walls, Euripides extends the legend of the wall being placed in position by a cyclops;
“Agamemnon: Now haste thee from the tent. … and send her to Mycenae’s walls Raised by the Cyclops. ”
Which raises two inevitable questions. Given that early Mycenae did not construct such a strong fortification, was the latter constuction really necessary? Or was it more a reflection on the rulers at the time who wished to project a sense of supremacy by building imposing structures that were disproportionate in size to any threat they were under? And If the mythological Cyclopes didn’t build the walls, what technology did the Mycenaeans use to both transport and place the rocks? It appears that ramps and crude rope and pulley systems that utilised the strength of animals were the preferred methods.
A more comprehensive outline of the building of the cyclopean walls can be read in our post describing the Tiryns Citadel.
The Lion Gate Entrance into the Citadel at Mycenae
The main entrance into the citadel is through the Lion Gate (c1240 BC), probably the best known of Mycenae’s features. A relief of the Lions is clearly seen on the gate’s lintel.
The Mycenae Lion Gate is situated in the south western corner where the citadel wall reaches a height of 12m. A guard house or bastion overlooks the gate to protect the entrance to the citadel.
The gates were about 3.1m high and 3.0m wide and were hung on a jamb made up of large conglomerate blocks. Conglomerates are formed by the cementation and compaction of sediments with a grain size generally larger than sand. Depending on composition, conglomerates would have better withstood than limestone the prolonged stress and impact that prolonged use of the heavy gates would have had on the jamb.
Two standing lions facing each other can be seen above the lintel. It has been suggested that the lions’ heads, now missing, were shaped out of a mineral named steatite. The mineral steatite is related to talc, one of our softest minerals. We can scratch Steatite with our fingernail. Steatite is a harder, sturdier variety of talc but could still be shaped by hand with a chisel without necessarily needing a tapping hammer. Ancients fashioned steatite into bowls and all types of kitchen ware, often polishing the final product to bring out steatite’s natural characteristics. The use of steatite would certainly have made the carving of the lion’s heads much easier and they would have been reasonably resistant to weathering.
The triangular geometry of the lion crest is important to the strength of the gate. The heavy blocks exerted a significant force on the opening which allowed for a gate. The weight of an unmodified wall above the lintel would act vertically downwards causing the lintel to weaken and eventually collapse. The Triangular section above the lintel allows one component of the weight to act along the border of the triangular section while the other acts towards the centre, resulting in considerable less weight acting directly on the lintel. The other component acts towards the centre, resulting in considerable less weight acting directly on the lintel.
The use of the lion may be related to the Mycenaeans having been linked to both the Minoans from Crete and the Lydians from present-day western Turkey. The lion was strongly associated with Lydia and Aeschelus applied it to Agamemnon and his family. The lions may have been used by Mycenae to symbolise power or they may also have been significant as a religious symbol.
Once through the Mycenaean Lion Gate and inside the fortress, the path, the ‘Great Ramp’, reverts to its original construction of rounded cobbles. The profile of the Ramp may have been smoothed for everyday safety by backfilling with soil and fine gravels.
The Western Quarter Inside the Citadel at Mycenae
Along the citadel’s western wall are found some of the structures most important to the citadel and culture of Mycenae. These include the Granary, Grave Circle A, the Ramp House and House of Warriors, and ruins of houses that occupied the former site of the Cult Centre.
The Granary at Mycenae
A 13th Century BC Granary is located immediately to the right once through the Lion Gate. The wall of the granary shares the western wall of the citadel. The Argolid Plain supported grain growth, which most likely included barley because barley would have been most suited to soil conditions. Wheat was also grown because grains of wheat were found inside the granary during excavations. The wheat may have been grown locally or imported. It could be reasonably assumed that the granary could have been used to store grain for bread making and cereals.
Introduction to Grave Circle A at Mycenae
Grave Circle A inside the Mycenae citadel is located to the left of the granary. A path leads to an expanse inside the western wall which was formerly the royal cemetery during the 16th Century BC. The deceased were buried along with objects of material value. Grave Circle A is discussed in greater detail in the section of the post describing funerary practices at Mycenae Grave Circle A.
The Ramp House and House of Warrior Vase
The path diverges just past the Grave Circle. One path ascends towards the Palace and the other descends slightly towards the former Cult Centre. Ruins of houses that dated from 1600 to 1400 BC can be identified in the direction of the Cult Centre.
The Cult Centre and Religion at Mycenae
The population of Mycenae used the ‘Processional Way’ to access the Cult Centre which was located inside the western wall on the south-western slopes of the citadel. The ruins of the Cult Centre comprised shrines, temples and altars which indicate the importance of religion within the culture of the Mycenaeans, The Cult Centre also contained a central court and a smaller megaron, which was later replaced by houses. One former building could have been palatial, perhaps the property of a 14th Century BC official.
The Northern Quarter Within the Citadel at Mycenae
Beyond the Artisan’s zone adjacent to the Palace, the path leads to the 13th Century BC northeast extension of the wall of the citadel. Two important modifications were made to the extension.
Sally Port in the Citadel’s Northeast Extension
A sally port is a small portal in a fortification that allows a controlled exit of defenders when under siege. The sally port in the northeast wall at Mycenae provided direct access to a terrace with a strategic view outside the eastern perimeter of the citadel.
The Underground Cistern at Mycenae
The construction of the underground cistern and its passageway within the city provides more insight into the civilisation at Mycenae. The cistern and its passageway are very impressive feats of thought and engineering. The passage descends down 18 steps under the northern perimeter wall. The passage then descends to another entrance that leads to a remote underground cistern located 300m outside the citadel. It’s possible to use a torch to crouch your way along the passage from outside the citadel. These passages are corbelled, meaning each course of masonry slightly overlaps the massive course immediately underneath resulting in reinforced curvature. The entrances are strengthened by large conglomerate lintels and jambs.
This construction secured the water supply to the fortress by collecting water from a natural spring which was located outside the citadel. In the event of an attack or siege, water was available if normal access to springs outside the walls was too dangerous.
The North Gate at Mycenae
A return to the Lion gate is by walking along the north wall through The North Gate (c1250 BC). Massive conglomerate blocks were again used to form the lintel and jamb so as to hang the gate.
The North Gate would have provided access to the citadel for the inhabitants of Mycenae to bring in their produce for storage.
The Palace at Mycenae – the Centre of Civilisation
The Palace at Mycenae was the centre of Mycenae’s civilisation. The palace issued the administrative, economic and military governance at Mycenae.
The modest fortifications and citadel that marked the earliest civilisation at Mycenae were transformed when rulers started to forge economic links across the Aegean. The Mycenaeans had peacefully acquired knowledge of agriculture from the Minoans and adopted their Aegean-wide trading practices. However, the Mycenaean rose when the Minoan civilisation fell into decline between 1550 and 1400 BC.
Rivalries between the various Mycenaean city-states gave rise to an elite class based on increased wealth and military strength. The rulers of these separate Mycenaean city-states transformed their dwellings into spectacular temple-palaces fortified by the colossal walls previously described. At Mycenae, this resulted in what was once a truly beautiful palace.
The position of the palace of Mycenae on the acropolis was chosen deliberately so that the palace would occupy the highest point within the citadel. This would maintain the association between the palace’s elevated position and the status and power of those who occupied it; namely, the rulers, priests, priestesses and their servants. The fact that the palace at Mycenae, the royal residence from 1400 to 1100 BC, is situated 40m above the Lion Gate is not an accident.
The Megaron at Mycenae
The essential architecture of the palace of Mycenae included a sequence of porches and small courtyards that led to an imposing megaron. The megaron was the beating heart of Mycenae because it was where the king sat on his throne, the source of all military, administrative and economic governance.
Mycenae’s megaron is now identified only by the ruins of its foundations. The ruins indicate the megaron was a rectangular building of three elements – a porch, vestibule and main room with circular hearth and four pillars that supported an overhead aperture to remove the smoke. The main room was 13m x 11m, the columns were 4.5m high and the hearth had a diameter of 3.7m.
A Propylon provided formal access to the palace of Mycenae which led to a small courtyard and then a balcony which provided splendid westerly views across the Argolid Plain. No doubt the view was shared between observing spectacular sunsets, and vigilant watchfulness for any enemies encroaching across the Argolid.
Metals and Artisans at Mycenae
The path continues towards the southern extent of the palace and exposes some rather undistinguished archaeological ruins of the Artisan’s Quarter. This section of the Mycenae ruins is clearly delineated even though a little overgrown with grasses. These workshops were part of the east wing of the palace.
The trades that occupied this area contributed valuables to the Palace and perhaps the treasury. One of the claims made by Homer was that Mycenae was rich in gold. This was verified by the recovery by archaeologists of gold funerary masks and adornments from the burial tombs.
Metal works were also used for weaponry and utensils. The main metal in use was bronze, which provided the cutting edges for weapons and tools. Military weapons included sword and dagger blades, spear points, chariot wheel fittings and suits of armour. Domestic utensils included cooking pots, cauldrons, cups, jugs, buckets, razors, tweezers, pins, mirrors, fibulae and tools such as sickles, knives, axes and chisels.
A Marker of Mycenae’s Civilisation – Funerary Ritual and Burials
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Mycenaean civilisation was its culture of funerary practices. The Mycenaeans brought with them a culture of ritual and monuments which were related to death and burial. The earliest funerary practices which were observed at Mycenae in Greece featured burials which existed in the form of single use cist graves, found outside the fortifications in Grave Circle B. These burials were succeeded 50 to 100 years later by shaft graves in Grave Circle A which was located inside the citadel wall. Finally, the Tholos tomb emerged as the preferred burial for the rulers, with chamber tombs and multiple burials. The use of gold to decorate the deceased was also distinctive at Mycenae. The progress in funerary practices marked the accepted date of the start of Mycenaean culture in circa 1650 BC.
Outside the Citadel Wall – Mycenae Grave Circle B
Mycenae Grave Circle B was located outside the western wall of the citadel, approximately 120m from the Lion Gate. The ruins of Grave Circle B’s 28m diameter circuit wall are quite visible.
Grave Circle B Cist Graves
The graves of the earliest Mycenaeans were single use cist graves which consisted of a rectangular pit lined with stone slabs. A stone slab was then used to enclose the slab. It was common for personal belongings to be placed into the grave alongside the deceased.
Grave Circle B Shaft Graves
Increasingly elaborate graves called shaft graves developed as the Mycenaean rulers and other elites grew in prosperity and personal status from the late 17th Century BC. These resembled the rectangular cist graves but were dug deeper and to size according to whether they were to accommodate individuals or entire families. There are more than 14 shaft graves in Grave Circle B and each had both a stone floor to support the deceased and natural masonry to support vertical walls. Some of the possessions owned by the deceased were laid out along the floor before the shaft was back filled with soil.
Inside the Citadel Wall – Mycenae Grave Circle A
Grave Circle A was located inside the western wall of the citadel. The stone circle in Grave Circle A had a diameter of 27.5m and the entrance was set adjacent to the Lion Gate.
Grave Circle A Shaft Graves
There are six shaft graves in Mycenae Grave Circle A, which are located just inside the citadel’s western wall. The graves were set 8m into the ground and were surrounded by a double circle of upright limestone slabs with rooves on stone lintels. Limestone stelai marked the graves. The Lion Gate, which replaced the previous gate, was designed to bring people into the citadel right next to the burial enclosure, reinforcing the importance of belief and funerary ritual to the Mycenaean culture. The shaft graves in Grave Circle A were richer, reflecting the increasing prosperity and ambition of the Mycenaean rulers.
Within their society, Mycenaeans invested a significant portion of their personal wealth on burial and bodies were dressed elaborately for inhumation. Gold funerary masks were used to decorate the faces of the deceased in Grave Circle A but the masks were not designed to be facsimiles of their faces. Women were interred wearing gold crowns, their bodies adorned with gold ornaments, while children were wrapped in sheet gold. It is not surprising that Homer wrote ‘Mycenae rich in gold’.
Mycenae Tholos Tombs
The Tholos Tombs, also referred to as Beehive tombs, are probably as significant to the identity of Mycenae as is its Lion Gate. The Mycenae Tholos Tombs succeeded the shaft graves at the end of the 15th Century BC and were again a probable display of increased wealth and prestige. The tombs required not only an investment in money but also an investment in time. It was unlikely that a tomb could have been built within 12 months.
The Architecture of the Tholos Tombs at Mycenae
Each of the Mycenae Beehive Tombs followed the same design. A long external passage bordered by high block walls on either side led to a beehive chamber. The entrance of the chamber was constructed from massive masonry on which the doors were hung. The corbelled chambers were very spacious with impressive, impressively high 15m ceilings. The advantages over the previous shaft graves were that new burials could be included within the tomb, and mourners could accompany the deceased into the tomb.
The design and architecture of the beehive tombs was a signature of Mycenaean civilisation. The corbelled ceilings, by virtue of their being constructed from oversized rock, placed a massive load on the top of the chamber walls where the ceiling became the wall. A free standing wall would not have been able to cope with the forces that would have pushed the wall outwards. The solution was to excavate the chamber area and build the chamber walls directly against the earth walls. This was the Mycenaean form of buttressing.
The vulnerable part of the tomb was the entrance because it penetrated part of the wall that was not buttressed. The early chambers, such as the Lion Tholos, addressed the problem by mounting a massive conglomerate lintel above the doorway. The lintel was supported by reinforced blocks which were oversized in comparison to the usual blocks that were used to construct the walls. This can be seen in a following image.
The later Tholos Tombs, such as the Tholos Tomb of Clytemnestra, used design rather than brute force to support their entrance. Their solution was to construct a triangular section above the door and lintel. The weight acting down from the ceiling resolved into two components, with one component of the weight acting along the perimeter of the triangle. It did what Gothic arches did two thousand years later. The result was that less weight acted vertically down on the lintel and the entrance underneath it.
The Lion Tholos and the Tholos Tomb of Aegisthus
The Lion Tholos and The Tholos Tomb of Aegisthus are among the earliest at Mycenae (early 15th century BC). The Lion Tholos is nearer the citadel and adjacent to the resource building. The Tholos Tomb of Aegisthus is located on the slopes on the western side of the citadel with the Tholos Tomb Of Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra was the wife of Agamemnon and Aigesthus was her lover.
The older tombs used massive conglomerate lintels across the door portals to bear the large load caused by the corbelled walls and ceilings of the tombs.
The Tholos Tomb of Clytemnestra
The Tholos Tomb of Clytemnestra is the most recent of the tombs (mid-13th Century BC) and with its ceiling intact clearly demonstrated the corbelled Mycenae beehive tomb.
The corbelled walls of the tomb and the ceiling produced a significant force on some parts of the structure, particularly the very large opening to the tomb. In the absence of reinforcement, forces would act from opposite sides of the jamb towards the centre of the opening, resulting in the collapse of the structure. The solution was in the triangular section above the door that along with the huge conglomerate lintels redistributed and supported the weight.
Commercial and Residential Buildings
Commercial and Residential District Outside Main Walls of Mycenae Citadel
There were at least two walled enclosures at Mycenae. A walled residential and commercial precinct existed to the west of the acropolis on the other side of the burial area. The long grasses in the image above disguise the structure of the ruins which would be far more obvious after site maintenance.
It is interesting that it was after the collapse of the Mycenaean civilisation that illiteracy across Greece became widespread and so it is not unreasonable to conclude that Mycenae had not only oral language but written language as well. This would have certainly enhanced both local trade and trade across the Aegean.
Final Thoughts on Mycenae: Civilisation and Culture
We are sure you will enjoy your visit to Mycenae. After all, you will be walking with history dating back 3,000 years. The layout is very one dimensional and it is very possible to nut out the basics of how the civilisation functioned. Its elevated location, particularly the palace, adds understanding to its relationship with its surroundings. We certainly thought Mycenae worth visiting.
A few last observations about practicalities and preparing for the visit.
- The question of how much time to visit Mycenae depends on personal interest. The Mycenae Archaeological site can be walked in just a couple of hours even allowing time to stop and consider some of the structures. But if you are interested in the history of Mycenae, Mycenae architecture or even Mycenaean mythology, then you would do well to allow a minimum of at least half a day to give yourself time to ponder on several centuries of the Mycenaean history and how it all pulls together.
- There is plenty of space for parking.
- The Mycenae site is generally safe for both older persons and children. However, some of the ramps could be challenging particularly those which are cobbled.
- The site lacks regular maintenance (grasses etc.) and parents might ensure close attention to childrens’ whereabouts in sectors such as the Artisan’s Quarter where grasses could disguise pits and wells.
- Be mindful of the weather. The site is open and exposed and precautions should be taken to protect against extremes. A cold wind blowing on the day will penetrate to the bone.
- It is always advisable to have some refreshments available in the car.
The Mycenaean citadel at Mycenae is an important element in ancient Greek history. It represents five centuries of advancement in technology and civilisation. The importance of the Mycenaean period can be measured by the fact that upon its demise illiteracy swept the whole of Greece. A visit to Mycenae encapsulates the important elements of the period.
Mycenae is in close proximity to other ancient archaeological sites which are all worth a visit. They include Palaia Epidaurus, also known as the town on Ancient Epidaurus; the Theatre and Sanctuary of Ancient Healing, both at Epidaurus; and the nearby Mycenaean city of Tiryns.
Mycenae Opening Times (pre Covid)
|8am – 7.00pm
|8.30am – 3.00pm
|New Year’s Day
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