An ancient civilization and trading center, situated on a hill and covered with the fertile soil of the Argolic Plain, is today one of the most visited places in Greece. Mycenae is associated with many legendary kings, heroes, and people who wrote their own history. Let us explore the land of the Mycenaeans, who once ruled not only the Peloponnese.
A wealthy and strong Bronze Age citadel with an ancient culture that stands till today in the Peloponnese. The Mycenaean civilization spread across the Mediterranean and inspired poets, writers, and artists for centuries.
Nowadays, Mycenae is an exceptional archaeological site that gives its visitors the opportunity to explore and understand the once-dominant city. The Archaeological Museum of Mycenae gives you a glimpse into this glorious past.
Let's explore together the numerous cultural shades of this dominant civilization and realize how Mycenae changed the course of Greek history.
Ornament from Mycenae- credits: S_Kohl/depositphotos
Mycenaean Civilization - Historical Background
Mycenae was founded in the middle of two hills and was able to control both land and sea. The first occupation of this location was in the Neolithic period (7th millennium BC). The site's peak was during the Late Bronze Age (1350-1200 BC) when the Mycenaeans were the great civilization we know today. Most of the remains that we see today on the site are from that period.
In the 2nd millennium BC, a small settlement was visible on the site and the cemetery. It was not earlier than 1700 BC when the first families of rulers and aristocrats of that time appeared in the Mycenae. During the 15th century, BC Mycenaeans managed to establish a Mycenaean dynasty on Crete, under the Minoan culture. Mycenaeans and Minoans had peaceful contact.
By now, the Mycenaeans were powerful and dominant. They founded their majestic palace and established the famous palatial centers (14th century), following the Cretan models with a few alterations (palace as the trade center of the city). The fortification with the emblematic Lion Gate was built in 1350 BC, during the Late Helladic period. The famous Treasure of Atreus was constructed probably around the same period.
We don’t know for sure how Mycenae collapsed and vanished. The two more common scenarios include either a violent invasion to the citadel or the decline of the trade when the people of the Eastern Mediterranean started growing their commercial activities combined with the palatial system that couldn’t stand the consequences of the natural disasters.
Mythological Background of Mycenae
According to tradition, Akrikios was the founder of Mycenae. Akrikios, who had a daughter named Danae, left his native Argos and went to Tyrins (another city in the Peloponnese). Later he employed the one-eyed mythical creature Cyclops to build the walls of Mycenae from huge stones that no one could move. That is why the great walls of Mycenae are also called Cyclopean walls.
The famous hero Perseus was the son of Zeus and Danae. He named the city Mycenae after the pommel (mykes) of his legendary sword that fell there, or after quenching his thirst in the spring among the mushrooms (myces). According to mythology, the descendants of Perseus were the rulers of Mycenae for three generations. The last of them was Eurystheas, who died childless. The inhabitants of the city elected Atreus, the son of Pelops and father of Agamemnon and Menelaus, as their king.
Eurystheus ordered Hercules to carry out his 12 labors, so he could prove that he was the greatest of the Greek heroes.
Cyclops - credits: Machev/depositphotos
King Atreus and his son Agamemnon
King Atreus was the most famous and popular king of Mycenae. When the beautiful Helen, wife of Menelaus, was kidnapped by the Trojan prince Paris, Agamemnon led the expedition against Troy in the Trojan War.
What you will see in Mycenae
The palace complex of Mycenae was operated under a centralized system of government. This complex included the Megaron, which served as a symbol of the ruler's power. The Megaron included temples, shrines, storerooms, cult buildings, and houses that probably belonged to high officials, as well as art workshops.
Acropolis of Mycenae - credits: Anastasios71/depositphotos
In addition, the entrance to an underground spring can be seen on the northeast side of the fortress. Outside the walls, the two Grave-Circles can be seen. Not far from them and outside the fortification, are the remains of buildings that were used as workshops for the production of perfume and perfume oil. Mycenae was famous for the export of these products.
- Cyclopean Walls
- Grave Circle A
- Grave Circle B
- The Palace of Mycenae
- Treasury of Atreus
- Tomb of Clytemnestra
- Tomb of Aegisthus
- Lion Tomb
The emblematic Lion Gate of Mycenae is probably the first thing that strikes anyone who enters the archaeological site. It was built around the 13th century BC when the Acropolis needed a monumental entrance.
It was built from four gigantic stones that form a very impressive monument. The threshold and the lintel weigh about 20 tonnes each. It used to have a double-leaf wooden door that opened inward. The most impressive element of the door is the two-faced lions resting with their forelegs on two altars. In the center of the lions, there is a column in typical Mycenaean style. The heads of the lions have not been preserved, but archaeologists believe that they were facing the visitors.
The symbolism is clear; the column refers to the palace of the Acropolis, which was protected by the powerful and fearless lions. The lions were the symbol of the protected animal of the dynasty.
Grave Circle A, B
The Mycenaeans used to bury their dead outside the walls. This practice was common in ancient Greece for many centuries. The Grave Cycles A and B were burial complexes built around the 17th-16th centuries.
Grave Circle A is located on a soft rocky slope. This was the cemetery of the most powerful family of Mycenae. There were 6 tombs used for many members of the family, from men and women to children. The tombs were rich in grave goods. Among them, archaeologists found funeral masks, weapons, gold jewelry, and various objects made of exotic materials.
The famous golden mask of Agamemnon was found here. It was believed to belong to the famous king Agamemnon, but modern archaeologists suggest that the mask was made about 300 years before the Trojan War.
Grave Circle B is the second grave complex, containing 26 graves, again with more than one disease in each grave. Some of them contained grave goods but were not as rich as the tombs of Circle A. Nevertheless, it looks like these tombs belonged to the upper class of Mycenae.
Grave Circle A in Mycenae - credits: ankarb/depositphotos
The palace of Mycenae was a large complex of rooms full of frescoes with various themes. The Mycenaeans wanted to show their wealth and artistic concern, and there was no better place than a palace to do this.
The main purpose of the palace's existence was to have a large center that included worship rooms, artists' workshops, and storage areas. It was fully functional and served as a center for the entire community. It was built according to the Minoan model of palaces.
Palatial complex of Mycenae - credits: firstname.lastname@example.org/depositphotos
Treasury of Atreus
In the 15th century, the Mycenaeans adopted a different type of grave for their dead. The Tholos Tomb of Mycenae, or the so-called Treasury of Atreus, is the best example of this type. This emblematic funerary monument was intended only for royal members.
The tomb consisted of a chamber with a long dome (tholos) where the body was kept and a long corridor leading to the chamber. This type of tomb was made and covered with a mass of earth. Their purpose was never to be opened again.
Despite the vast amount of pottery found inside and outside, the tholos was filled with the treasures of King Atreus. His weapons were found inside and enough food and drink for the journey to meet Hades and the underworld.
Treasury of Atreus - credits: lefpap/depositphotos
The culture of Mycenae is rich and full of color and inspiration. Enough evidence is preserved not only in the city of Mycenae but also throughout Greece and especially in Crete. The Mycenaeans were great artists who created unique works of art that can be found in every part of their daily life and not only in the palace complex.
They created their distinctive and characteristic art, which did not lack imagination and richness. Nevertheless, Minoan art, with its natural forms and schematic representations, was influenced by the Mycenaeans. From their weapons with curved battle scenes to beautiful and colorful frescoes with scenes from daily life, pick your favorite.
Their creations were made from a variety of materials including gold, copper, ivory, clay, and even glass. Not many of these materials were local but were imported from various places in the Mediterranean such as Cyprus and Egypt. This is another great example that reflects the wealth of the city.
The frescoes that decorated the walls of the Palatial complex were covered with marine and natural motifs, religious ceremonies, hunters, and warriors. Female figures were also found in the frescoes, depicting the important role of women in the community. Another great example of art is jewelry, mostly found as grave goods in the tombs. Most of them, made of gold and other exotic materials, represent the level of complexity and craftsmanship of the local people.
The variety of metalworking techniques shows that the Mycenaeans were experts in arts and crafts. Finally, the artistic influence of this civilization is reflected not only in the Aegean but also in distant cities such as Syria and Spain.
The trade market helped Mycenae to create its own art and export it to distant lands. This was one of the best ways for Mycenae to become known and dominant not only in Crete and the Aegean but also far beyond.
Mask of Agamemnon - credits: gilmansin/depositphotos
The Mycenaean Writing System: Linear B
Linear B has been proven to be the Mycenaean writing system. Archaeologists have found examples of scripts mainly in Mycenae and Crete. Most Linear B inscriptions were found in clay tablets and included economic transactions, texts with religious offerings, and military activities.
The oldest confirmed example was found on a clay tablet in the room of Chariot Tablets in Knossos. This tablet dates from 1450-1350 B.C. The first Linear B texts were found by archaeologists in the 20th century. It was not until 1952 that Michael Ventris, an architect, succeeded in deciphering the writing.
Linear B was abandoned around the 11th century BC. Literacy was completely abandoned in Greece by the 8th century BC with the Ancient Greek alphabet, which is completely different from Linear B.
The Archaeological Museum of Mycenae
The Museum of Mycenae is located a few meters from the emblematic Lion Gate of the Acropolis. Construction began in 1985 and the museum was opened only in 2003. The museum is a jewel for the site, extending over three levels. On two of the three levels, exhibition rooms display finds from the entire archaeological site.
The number of exhibits totals 2,500, ranging from weapons and objects of daily use to jewelry and tools. One of the most impressive pieces found at the excavation site is the Mask of Agamemnon, which is kept in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Nevertheless, a replica is located in the Museum of Mycenae.
In the three exhibition rooms, you will explore the everyday life of the Mycenaeans, the burial customs based on finds from the tombs, and parts of the Mycenaean culture such as art, religion, and trade.
Collection with jewels from the Archaeological Museum of Mycenae - credits: pgkirich/depositphotos
Excavations in Mycenae
In the 18th century, the Cyclopean Walls of the Acropolis were visible and attracted many antiquarians and travelers who also tried to plunder the archaeological site. The first organized excavation took place under the direction of the Greek Archaeological Society in 1841.
Soon, more and more people realized that the treasure and the lost civilization buried at the site were a great discovery. In 1876, the successful businessman and amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann began excavations in the area. Heinrich Schliemann also excavated Troy, in Turkish. Year after year archaeologists continued to excavate the site and discovered all the treasures.
The British School in Athens also participated in the excavations over the years, along with numerous brilliant Greek archaeologists such as G. Mylonas, S. Iakovidis, A. Orlandos, and E. Stikas.
Finally, in 1959, a series of restoration works began, which have continued, with interruptions, until today.
Mycenean art, octapus - credits: izanbar/depositphotos
Are there any Kid-Friendly Tours at Mycenae?
Mycenae is an amazing and unique archaeological site, located in a beautiful, peaceful, and breathtaking location. The traces of this ancient civilization, which changed the ancient world around the Mediterranean, are still present today.
A great addition to the site is the Archaeological Museum of Mycenae, which will explain to you and your family how the Mycenaeans lived and what items they used in their daily lives. As this breathtaking world unfolds before you, you can join a kid-friendly guided tour to better understand the Mycenaeans.
You can always combine your visit to ancient Mycenae with a day trip from Athens for a day of archaeological interest in the Peloponnese.
What are the Best Places to Visit Near Mycenae?
Nafplion: Nafplion has a medieval and Venetian character. Explore with your family the small stone pavements, the fortress of Palamidi, and the fortress of Bourtzi. You can enjoy great food and see one of the best sunsets.
Distance: 23 km/14,2 miles from Mycenae
Ancient Epidaurus: Epidaurus is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes the famous and homonymous theater, with its great acoustics, and the well-known Sanctuary of Asclepius.
Distance: 55km/34.2 miles from Mycenae
Ancient Corinth: Corinth was once one of the most powerful city-states of the ancient world. It has a long history and it is a good example of Roman Architecture in Greece.
Distance: 36,5 km/22,7 miles from Mycenae
How to Get to the Archaeological Site of Mycenae?
You and your family can visit the archaeological site of Mycenae either with a day trip from Athens or on your own from various locations. If you travel on your own, you can choose between a rental car, the public bus (KTEL), or a taxi.
In any case, it is most convenient to rent a car or take a cab. However, you can also make a day trip and enjoy a day with your family, visiting not only Mycenae but also other historical places nearby.