Architecture Around the World

Mycenae, Greece

Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae

TEXT Beneath Illustrations

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The acropolis

The acropolis

Approaching the Lion Gate

Lion Gate


The lions

The cyclopean walls

Artist's conception: Soldiers stationed in the round tower on the right would have shot arrows down on any attackers who tried to storm the citadel.

Grave Circle A, the royal cemetery explored by Schliemann in 1876.

Grave Circle A - low parapet wall made of two parallel rows of shelly or plain sandstone slabs

Grave Circle A

Houses south of Grave Circle A




The palace on the summit.

Mycenae Acropolis

The term "Mycenaean," more properly late Bronze Age, applies to an entire culture spanning the years 1700-1100 BC. Only the ruling class inhabited the hilltop palace, with artisans and merchants living just outside the city walls. It was abandoned in 1100 BC after a period of great disruption in the region.

Mycenae and Homer

Mycenae is one of the few ancient sites never forgotten by man in the course of time. The exploits of one of its kings became the theme of a great epic poem compiled by Homer, the oldest and one of the greatest bards of the western world. In the Iliad we read today, as thousands before us have read, that Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, led a Greek expeditionary force against Troy where Paris, the son of King Priam, had taken the beautiful Helen, wife of Menelaos, King of Sparta.

Lion Gate

The difficulties of storming the citadel were increased by the way in which its main entrance was designed. In front of the Lion Gate we find a narrow court some 15 m. in length and 7.25 m. in width. This court forced the attacking enemy to reduce their numbers and thus weakened their effort. Furthermore, the court is flanked by heavy walls. On its east side and for quite a distance rises a formidable wall, while a bastion occupies its west side. Defenders on the bastion could strike the undefended right side of soldiers advancing against the gate, while those on the east wall could force them to keep their shields in the normal position over the left shoulder.

We may well wonder how such blocks were lifted into position. No marks indicating the use of hoisting machinery are to be seen on the stones; it is generally assumed that the masons used inclines or ramps of earth over which the blocks were pushed and pulled into position. When the walls were finished the ramps were removed.

The opening of the gate was closed by a double door of wood decorated on the outside with bronze ornaments.

On either side of a column of the Minoan type ó wider at the top than at the bottom ó bearing an entablature, stands a lion with its front paws on altars on which the column is based. The heads of the lions, made of different, softer material and attached to the slab by dowels whose dowel-holes can be seen, have been lost. It was stated in the past that the heads were of bronze perhaps gilded, but scholars now believe that they were made of steatite, a soft stone more conducive than limestone to carving elaborate details. The heads were rendered full front and faced the visitor as he approached the gate. The vigorous modeling of the animals and the sense of structure and proportion give the relief life and an air of dignity seldom surpassed in prehistoric art. Its successful adaptation to the triangle above the lintel makes it one of the most successful architectural reliefs of all times.

The lions are the emblem of Mycenae, and they are guarding the royal family, the royal dynasty of Mycenae The relief over the gate is the coat of arms of the house of Agamemnon. Whether we accept this view or not the fact remains that the relief was in position when Agamemnon marched his troops through the gate to lead them against Troy.

Around 1250 B.C. the Mycenaeans decided to enlarge the area of the citadel to the west and south. At this time they built the Lion Gate and the west Cyclopean wall that begins at the Lion Gate and in a graceful curve sweeps around the Grave Circle that was now brought within the citadel.

Grave Circle A

Grave Circle A is the royal cemetery explored by Schliemann in 1876. It is a circular area some 28 m. in diameter enclosed by a low parapet wall made of two parallel rows of shelly or plain sandstone slabs

The royal tombs, the shaft graves, are mere rectangular trenches cut through the earth and the soft rock under it. They vary in size and depth: the smallest measures 3.00 by 3.50 m. and the largest 4.50 by 6.40 m.; the depth varies from I to 3 or 4 m.

The sides of the shafts are lined with narrow rubble walls that rise from the floor to a height ranging from 0.75 to 1.50 m. On the rubble walls rested wooden beams placed across the width of the grave at short distances from each other to support a roof structure made of stone slabs or thatch. Thus over the floor a cavity was formed and on the floor, covered with pebbles, the bodies of the dead were placed. The roof of slabs or thatch was covered with a thick layer of clay to seal the grave against seepage of moisture. Over it earth was poured until the surface of the slope was reached.

After the burial, its relatives consumed a funeral meal in honor of the dead; its remainsóbones of animals or seashellsówere covered with earth until a small mound was formed. On top of the mound was erected a stele, that is, a flat slab of stone one face of which was sometimes covered with relief decoration. When a relative was to be buried in the same grave, the stele, the earth, and the roof structure would be removed and the body be laid to rest next to the kinsman who had been buried earlier, together with the grave goods. The roof would again be constructed, the shaft above it filled with earth, the funeral meal eaten; there followed the raising of the mound of earth and the placing of the stele. This process was repeated as many times as it was necessary to use the grave. All burials were inhumations and evidently cremation was not practiced at the time. Schliemann reported one case of embalming which has remained unique.

Within the six shaft graves 19 skeletons were found, 8 belonging to men, 9 to women, and 2 to children. Evidently they were laid in the graves in their fineries and many gifts and furnishings, including vases containing supplies of food for the journey to the land of the Shades, Hades, were placed alongside and in the corners of the grave. It is not the purpose here

Heinrich Schliemann

Born in Mecklenburg, Germany, Schliemann (1822-90) was self-educated and by the age of 47 had become a millionaire expressly to fund his archeological digs. having discovered troy and demonstrated the factual basis of Homer's epics, he came to Mycenaean 1874 and commenced digging in grave Circle A. He believed a gold death mask was that of Agamemnon.

Photos and their arrangement © 2001 Chuck LaChiusa
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