I see you, Mycenae...
Finally! After more than 30 years of reading, writing, teaching and wondering about it, I got to see Mycenae. It did not disappoint.
I remember how I felt when I travelled around Egypt in 2001 with my best mate and, after somehow emerging unscathed after a dodgem-like taxi ride through the horn-honking streets of Cairo, we were disgorged at the very edge of the city and right into the lap of the Sphinx. And the Sphinx is underwhelming. It's about the size of a bungalow, for starters, and is in a sorry state of decay. Not that you have much time to look at it before the hawkers leap upon you, but I digress...
This post, then, serves a couple of purposes. Firstly, I hope it will be useful to anyone planning a day trip or an overnight stay in Mycenae (modern 'Mykines'), particularly from Athens. Secondly, for any teachers of Classical Civilisation or anyone with a broad interest in Bronze Age Greece, you are welcome to dip in and copy-and-paste as you wish. The route I follow in the citadel starts at the Lion Gate and takes you anti-clockwise around the citadel and back to this famous entrance. I think I have snapped all of the prescribed elements of the OCR GCSE Class Civ course but, if not, please feel free to contact me because I took a lot of photos.
Getting to Mycenae from Athens
This post won't be an awful lot of use to you if you're planning on heading there from some place else, except for the fact that it's a pretty straight run from anywhere in the Argolid or the northern section of the Peloponnese. You could easily reach it from Athens in an hour and a half and it's well signposted with the usual brown boards that indicate ancient sites: the tricky bit, of course, is navigating Athens itself. I don't mind saying that, even after a decade of blue-light runs through inner-city London, I really wouldn't fancy taking on Athens, especially when the whistle-toting traffic police are on duty. A sat-nav is an absolute must, or at least a confident and competent partner!
It's worth rewinding back to England first. I stayed overnight in Bishops Stortford because I wanted a stress-free journey to Stansted at 6am. I won't name the accommodation, not because I didn't have a decent en suite room but because I didn't sleep a wink due to a very loud club opposite and some pretty awful punters shouting and screaming until after 2am. This was very much at odds with Bishops Stortford itself, which is a very old and pretty market town. Also, so I heard from the taxi driver when he saw me leave ahead of a vagrant who I assumed had somehow found his way into the property, the hotel seems to double as a homeless hostel. Oh, and it's one of the most haunted venues around, but apart from that...
Anyhow, thankfully the 3.5 hour Ryanair flight was event free. Having only cabin bags, I sailed through airport controls and nobody was interested in checking my NHS COVID Pass, though I feel your pain if you do encounter problems (print your boarding cards well in advance!), and I jumped on an X95 bus from Athens' Venizelos airport to Syntagma square. You can pick these up just outside the arrivals hall and it cost 6 Euros. I see the website says they leave every 40 minutes (pretty much all day and night) and that it takes 60 minutes. Thankfully I didn't have to wait for long but it took somewhat longer than an hour, though it was a wet day and the traffic was awful.
I will get to the Mycenae leg in a minute but, if you are looking for somewhere to stay in Athens, you are spoilt for choice and prices are reasonable. I stayed in the 3-star Acropolis View Hotel Homepage ÷ Acropolis View Hotel ÷ Athens, Greece and it was fantastic value at just over 50 Euros including an excellent breakfast with this terrace view: certainly no false advertising here!
As soon as I arrived at this hotel and checked in, the receptionist couldn't have been more helpful in advising me about getting to Mycenae, and it was reassuring that the information I'd already gleaned was sound. The bus company you will need is KTEL Argolidas https://www.ktelargolida.gr/en/homepage-en/ and they, along with every other operator, are based at the main coach station at Kifissos.
I gambled on timing it right and lost. Given the Acropolis was so close, I wanted to visit it again before moving on, which meant I just missed one bus and had to wait for nearly 2 hours in the pretty insalubrious station (aren't they all?) with not too much to do. The free WiFi there didn't work for me so make sure you bring a book, just in case, and ignore the hawkers and their black market tat. They responded well enough to a friendly 'ohi yia mena, efharisto' (not for me, thanks) and I didn't see any female travellers getting any further hassle. That said, I'm sure it's a place best avoided in the evening, if at all possible.
The nearest Metro station to Kifissos is Eleonas on the blue line. If you haven't experienced it, the Athens Metro is fantastic. It's generally clean, spacious and has a lot fewer lines than the London Underground network. It's one of the few infrastructure legacies that still delivers after the crippling investment the Greek government made with their successful 2004 Olympic bid. The Akropoli station, for instance, as well as being quite high-tech, also exhibits some classical archaeology in glass panels embedded in the walls. So, getting to Eleonas - no problem at all. I was recommended taking a taxi from Eleonas to Kifissos but I wanted to walk, and I couldn't see any taxis in any case. The area takes its name from the once-abundant olive groves but you'd be doing well to find one nowadays. Apparently, the district is often spoken of as a potential regeneration project and it sorely needs investment. You will emerge from the Metro at a busy crossroads and need to find Marconi street. You are then faced with a 15-20 minute walk to Kifissos. It starts well enough, and there is a pavement of sorts, but the wing mirrors of the larger vans that fly past weren't that far from the two backpacks I had. I did see a couple braving the same route ahead of me with a small child but I'd think twice about this: I certainly wouldn't risk it with my own, short of carrying them both.
I passed the sort of scruffy forecourts, scrap yards and garages typical of most city back streets but I did notice a lot of pump truck repair shops. It seems you get through a lot of pneumatic tyres lifting crates and pallets in Athens! No olive trees though. For the first ten minutes or so, apart from the fumes kicked out by all the traffic, the going is ok. The dual carriageway with all the used car dealerships that then greets you is a little dangerous. There is a pedestrian crossing with a central reservation but either most of the drivers are habitual red light contraveners or the green ped crossing is badly calibrated. Pick up your children and don't dawdle is all I would say.
Once you're over this, follow the Antigonis Odos straight ahead (faced by the same sort of enterprises as on the Marconi) until the road hooks left ('Dragontos') and, a few hundred metres down, you'll find the bus depot. KTEL Argolidas is conveniently right on the corner, just across the entrance. The ticket cost me 10.80 Euros but bear in mind that the stop you need to ask for is Phichtia, which is a quiet little town on the main road about 1.5 hours from Athens. I shared a cab ride with an American tourist for just 5 Euros. It's only a few kilometres to Mykines and I walked it in 20 minutes when I left: the road is straight and not too busy. There is a little cafe and shop by the stop and the friendly owner will call the local taxi driver if you ask him. He's usually parked up in his Mercedes just across the road.
Mykines itself is a quiet little town/ village, with some pleasant houses set back from the main road (Christos Tsoundas Street), five or six tavernas and a smattering of gift shops. Its very existence is arguably down to the presence of Mycenae, a short walk away. When Heinrich Schliemann first arrived here in the 1870s, it was little more than an isolated hamlet. I initially got the sense that the locals were enjoying the last of the peace and quiet before the invasion of tourists. During my stay in late April, only one taverna seemed to be open, the excellent Melina's (in the middle distance of the photo on the left). Sadly, the two years without tourists due to the COVID pandemic ravaged the local economy. Kostas, the local taxi driver, told me that small businesses here were given less than 600 Euros to tide them over. In 2019, he said, it was barely possible to drive his taxi up the main street because it was so busy. Three years on and some of the restaurants he pointed out either won't be opening again or will only do so if tourists return in sufficient numbers. The mood, however, is generally optimistic, and Melina's owners are ready and waiting. Pantelis and Aspasia ("like Perikles' wife!") are incredibly friendly and welcoming: I'd definitely recommend eating on the terrace or just stopping for a coffee during the day and watching the world go (slowly) by.
In case you were wondering what happened to the railway, here is the answer! The station at Mykines features in the excellent documentary In search of The Trojan War featuring Dr Michael Wood. When this was filmed in the mid-1980s, it was fully operational but, alas, it's now slowly mouldering in a quiet corner of the village of Phichtia. Screened by brush and trees, it's easy to walk right past it. With its broken windows and the smattering of graffiti, sat on a rusty track overgrown with weeds, it looks rather forlorn next to the nearby houses, which are all very well cared-for. I remember having quite a temperature as a youngster and can still recall snatches of the vivid fever dreams. In one of them, I was flying along the tracks of an abandoned railway, sweeping through valleys past derelict sidings, without a soul to be seen. Doubtless someone had recently pointed out to me some section or other of a line that had closed forever following the Beeching cuts in 1963: there were, after all, 5000 miles of track withdrawn from service at the time. Given how quiet Mykines now is, and how ancient the land through which the track passes, I found this stretch particularly evocative. I did a bit of research back in England about when this line was decommissioned but couldn't find an answer.
Back to Mykines... I stayed for 3 nights in 'La Petite Planete' http://www.petite-planet.gr/en/hotelen.html and got lucky on several fronts. Firstly, owners Vasiliki and Greg typify everything about Greek hospitality and then some, and the staff are wonderful too. By happy chance, this hotel is the nearest accommodation to the site of Mycenae itself, which is about 1km uphill - it's definitely not a taxing walk and the views along the valley are stunning. The hotel itself was built in the 1970s and has more than 20 very clean and tidy rooms: the view of the Argolid and, in the distance, the sea from my balcony (room 106) was beautiful, and I still miss waking up to it. You get the impression the staff are really proud to work here and, given its fascinating history, it's easy to understand why.
If you stay here, be sure to talk to Vasiliki herself about it (and look at the old photographs/ daguerreotypes). Vasiliki is the great-granddaughter of the lady who owned the house in which Heinrich Schliemann stayed for a few months whilst digging at Mycenae in the 1870s, and his room - named after him - is available for guests. That house subsequently became a hotel, 'La Belle Helene', and it has attracted a long list of famous guests over the years, including Agatha Christie, JK Rowling and, during the war years, some of Hitler's own. La Belle Helene is only a short distance away in Mykines and, though it is sadly closed at present, it is undergoing renovation with plans to reopen. Vasiliki's father opened La PP almost 100 years later, so it's fair to say her roots run very deep, as does her knowledge of archaeology and ceramics. Also, Gregoris is a very fine silversmith and I was very proud to buy a ring from his display for my wife (not least for allowing me a week away to work and research!).
The 'Treasury of Atreus'
The image on the left was taken inside the tholos (it's almost impossible to avoid tourists getting in the way, even in low season) but there were a couple of other features of the chamber that really stick in the mind, besides the incredible corbelling. Firstly, the near perfect dome creates remarkable acoustic effects. It gives voices an oddly strident edge, and even lightly tapping one's feet on the ground, particularly in the centre of the chamber, sounds like you are striking an electronically amplified drum. It would have given a resonant edge to any funeral ceremonies taking place inside. Secondly, the bees making the gaps in the stones their home sound like they are swarming around your ears. The effect is unsettling and I only stayed long enough to take a few snaps, including that of the inner chamber (above right) before the bees won. How I didn't get zapped multiple times I will never know: I'd certainly have stung me for the annoying foot-tapping. I liked it. I could almost hear the voices of Mycenaean nobility, flecked with warning. Thank you for your respects, stranger. Now on your way.
The site of Mycenae
The walk from Mykines to Mycenae (the Greeks themselves don't make this distinction, mind!) follows an ancient road and, once you leave the modern village behind, it becomes quite easy to imagine what it might have been like for the Bronze Age traveller. One of the reasons for my visit was to immerse myself in the environment for the third and final book of the 'Blades of Bronze' trilogy, in a way which images from textbooks, and even videos, cannot replicate. It’s all very well reading that the citadel sits besides a steep gorge but most pictures will zero in on the stones themselves. It is only when the acropolis swings into view as you round a bend in the road that you really appreciate just how well-chosen the site was. It is often described as being situated in a naturally fortified position between the sloping hills of Profitis Ilias and Mount Sara. I don’t know what the defining characteristic of a mountain is: whilst neither of them is Everest, they are steep, forbidding hills. A lookout posted on either summit would, on a clear day, have a magnificent view for many miles along any of the approaches. It would have been nigh impossible to sneak up on Mycenae. The photo below, left, is in La Petite Planete's lobby, and was taken to show how the land looked just prior to the hotel's construction. I took the photo on the right from a similar position - perhaps 200 yards further along the modern road. The ancient acropolis nestles on a much lower hill between its 2 much larger brothers.
So here it is. As mentioned above, I followed the path anti-clockwise around the citadel, through the Lion Gate, around Grave Circle A then up the Great Ramp to the palace and beyond.
Approach to the Lion Gate
Given soldiers carried their shields on their left, the bastion on the right would enable defenders to attack their exposed sides in what is a very confined space.
Note the 'Cyclopean' walls built onto the bedrock of the hill. Construction would have been difficult enough here but, given the sheer drop of the hill on the south side, above which the palace is situated, it made me appreciate just how incredibly resourceful and skilled and, I suspect, short-lived those builders were.
Beyond the Lion Gate
Just inside the entrance, on the left, is a recess, described in some textbooks as a cubby hole for a guard. I accepted this until I saw it in person. It would have to be an exceptionally small (and vicious) guard to find any comfort (and use) in such a small space. It is much more likely that a guard dog would have been on duty or slept there. With its highly attuned sense of hearing (and, perhaps, smell), a well-trained dog might have been a useful early warning against unwelcome visitors that had – somehow – evaded detection by lookouts, particularly at night. Even if this wasn’t its main purpose, since the earliest civilisations, dogs have provided a very useful means of keeping people in line. A visitor to the site can easily imagine being greeted with a disconcertingly loud bark and even a good sniffing-over upon entering the citadel: a reminder that your presence amongst the elite – from the very outset – is at the sufferance of the wanax, not the other way around.
The scale of the gate and the carved triangular block sat atop the lintel is no less impressive in person for all that it is one of the most photographed monuments in Greece. The portal is an almost perfect 3m x 3m square, though the height shades the width by 10cm or so. The slab on which the lions are carved, masking the relieving triangle, is even wider and almost as tall again (3.6m x 3m). It is also in an excellent state of preservation.
Inside Grave Circle A
When the citadel walls were reconfigured and expanded (probably in the 13th C BC), they embraced the grave enclosure, as shown below, and the Lion Gate was likely coeval with this phase of development. The older circuit wall was probably that which abutted the ramp (and, as discussed in George Mylonas' book 'Ancient Mycenae: The Capital City of Agamemnon', the original citadel entrance may also have been located here.) The famous shaft graves located within the circle date back to the 16th C BC, perhaps 300 years too early to contain any king returning from the Trojan War, but this doesn't detract from the dazzling and era-defining array of artefacts found by Schliemann and his team in the 1870s. Schliemann located 5 of the shafts; the Greek archaeologist Stamatakis found the 6th. A total of 19 bodies were identified. The holes in some of the shaft walls suggest wooden beams stretching across the sides to support makeshift roofs to protect the bodies from the weight of earth piled above.
GCSE prescribed visual sources
For teachers or students of GCSE Classical Civilisation, a reminder of where the prescribed sources were found. If in doubt, I’m sure it becomes pretty clear what your best guess is…!
· The Gold Rhyton: Grave Circle A
· The Gold Pyxis: Grave Circle A
· ‘Agamemnon’s’ golden death mask: Grave Circle A (specifically, shaft 5)
· The dagger blade showing the hunting scene: Grave Circle A
Other prescribed visual sources found within the citadel include:
· The warrior vase, found in the House of the Warrior, which is located near Grave Circle A
· The fresco of a Mycenaean lady holding a necklace was found in the House of the Chief Priest, located in the so called ‘Cult Centre’, south of Grave Circle A
· The grave stele made of porous stone, showing a warrior hunting in a chariot: Grave Circle A
Looking down the 'Great Ramp' towards the rear of the Lion Gate
This section of 25 metres or so of the ramp is the broadest and grandest. Above this, the path winds its way towards the palace and it is very easy to imagine the comings and goings of visitors, artisans and high-ranking officials, as well as perhaps more solemn processions on religious occasions.
The main issue facing the unwary from hereon is one of visualisation. Though any modern reconstructive work has not been carried out on anywhere near the scale, say, of Knossos, nevertheless, you have to bear in mind that, for example, the steps at the bottom of the ramp – worn as they look – are modern. Similarly, the south-western and eastern terraces have largely been rebuilt as a matter of necessity. As mentioned, the drops into the valley below in these areas are sheer and erosion over the centuries has claimed notable casualties. A sizeable section of the palace had slipped away into oblivion before being rebuilt and this is perhaps the reason for it being roped off when I visited.
The entrance to the palace
I naively thought that the propylon, the entrance, to the palace would be fairly easy to spot. It isn’t. It took me a few minutes of head-scratching to work out that I had already passed it and was stood just outside of palace’s outer court. Had I somehow achieved this 3350 years ago, I would have ignored several angry challenges and been pinned – no doubt in the literal sense – to the floor on that very spot. The culprit is the modern path, which passes directly over the propylon threshold and slices into the outer sancta of the palace itself. Whilst I understand the need to balance visitor comfort with site preservation, I can't help but feel that the former consideration has defaced the site.
The picture above was taken before the path was laid. Unfortunately, the tight hairpins now give a misleading impression of how the palace approach might have looked. That and the scant remains of what would have been an imposing structure. A visitor to the palace would have been faced with two single-columned, roofed porticoes at this point.
The column bases just to the right of the path (right) feature in the reconstruction of the propylon to the palace (below), at the centre of the screen-grab.
The palace and megaron
B west portal
C Grand Staircase leading to Cult
D forecourt/ ante-chamber
E covered portico
During my stay in Mykines, I visited the site twice, on successive days. The best time to visit, if you want to avoid the coachloads of tourists and the zesty heat, is in the early evening. On my second visit, after a day spent looking round Nemea, I hurried from the hotel to get into the site at about 4:30pm. By 5pm, apart from a mother and her young daughter, I had the site to myself and a couple of hours to enjoy it before it closed. Looking down over the sweeping valley towards Argos and the sea (which would have been a mile or so nearer in the Bronze Age), feeling the heat radiating from those ancient stones, bathed in the golden light of late evening as I read Mylonas’ book, I felt an unsurpassed feeling of well-being and peace. Then, in what passes for a moment of middle-aged rebelliousness, I decided I had to duck under the ‘no entry’ barrier and walk through the megaron. The pictures you see in this section, dear reader, are illicitly taken from there. They would have cost me a sharply blown whistle and a stern rebuke, had there been anybody around who cared. You’re welcome.
The picture above is taken from the threshold to the throne room. In the foreground is the aithousa (porch) and, in the background, the ante-chamber. At least one of these rooms - and surely both - would have enjoyed a dramatic prospect over the Argolid: the palace would have been a very gloomy place indeed without such natural light, even if Mycenaean kings weren't so interested in the view.
There are lots of references in epic poetry to guest-friends sleeping in porches upon mattresses or blankets brought out by stewards. This is where Telemachus sleeps in King Nestor's palace in the Odyssey, for instance. There is some conjecture that the suit of rooms adjoining the ante-chamber in Mycenae is the xenon, where guests could be accommodated, possibly with a private bathroom, suggested by the terracotta drain running underneath the floor of the so-called 'Square Room' in this suite. A corridor would have separated the northern and southern halves of the palace, and remains of some steps prove that there was another floor to the palace but the extent of this floor is unknown.
Underneath the ugly cover (left) are the remains of the central hearth in the megaron. Against the right-hand wall, as you look at the photo, would almost certainly have been the king's throne, if the better-preserved megaron at Pylos is any sort of blueprint. Unfortunately, this was part of the section of the palace that slipped into the valley and any remains of the gypsum (?) throne are probably lost forever.
As I have already mentioned, well-preserved as the site is, it requires a colourful imagination to bring it to life. It doesn't help that much of the northern section of the palace was levelled whilst the foundations for a much later temple of Athena or Hera were created. However, the reconstruction of the throne room at Pylos gives an impression of how a similar sized megaron might have looked, although these reconstructions often obscure the fact that the pillars would have been made from inverted tree trunks.
Doubtless it was because I was not allowed in there and because there was nobody about to spoil the aesthetic, but – even though it looks like somebody has dropped a cheap shed roof from B&Q over the hearth – there was something about that throne room. It’s certainly not big (officially 12.92m long and 11.50m wide) so the weight of all those conversations and arguments, flatteries and intrigues and, ultimately, panic and terror that it will have witnessed have settled deep into those stones. Listen hard, with nobody else around, close your eyes and they will whisper to you. Even the wind that whips through the site is silent here.
The underground cistern
This is one of the most impressive pieces of Mycenaean engineering. The cistern runs to a depth of 18 metres and cuts obliquely through the fortification walls to connect underground with conduits from a natural spring about 300 metres away. This secured the continuous supply of fresh water to the citadel and was the basic reason for the extension of the walls in this area at around the same time as the Lion Gate was constructed and Grave Circle A was included within the circuit walls. Unfortunately, only the topmost section of the cistern’s steps are accessible to visitors but, even descending the first dozen or so into the bedrock, the temperature plummets and natural light is soon snuffed out. From here, the steps descend into darkness along another couple of turns before meeting the head of water.
The sally port
You could be forgiven for thinking, at first glance, that the Sally Port marks the entrance to the cistern, or even vice-versa. The pointed arches are after all quite similar. Most commentators seem to accept that this little portal provided a useful strategic means of defending soldiers launching surprise attacks. Even though this north-eastern tip of the citadel is not overlooked by any approach, to what extent it could have remained a closely-guarded secret to any attacking force is debatable. Perhaps it was screened by brushwood or some other cover. Whatever the exact thinking behind it, when the fortification walls were extended to embrace the cistern in the mid 13th century BC, the sally port was incorporated into the design. It is marked by the narrow slot through the extreme right of the walls in the diagram, above.
The Postern Gate
The picture on the left is taken from inside the walls and shows what may well have been a little guardroom whilst that on the right is taken from the path that sweeps down from the acropolis in the same direction as the underground cistern. The sturdy modern door gives a faint impression of what the gate might have looked like when it was operational. Whilst not built to the same scale as the Lion Gate, it is constructed in the same manner and makes for an impressive piece of engineering.
The cemetery of the west slope
The excavation of the rich in gold cemetery at Mycenae was completed in a particularly short period of time, without the necessary recording procedures, even by the standards of those times. As a result, everything we know from Schliemann’s and later publications is fragmentary and incomplete, which makes a coherent narrative of this area of the site somewhat tricky. The cemetery, rightly called given the close proximity of Grave Circle B, the tholos Tombs of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, as well as other, smaller chamber tombs, is immediately to the right upon passing through the ticket office. I couldn’t help but think, when Mycenae had long since been abandoned and become overgrown, just how many graves any traveller or shepherd would have been passing over, blithely unaware.
Grave Circle B
This grave circle at the west end of the cemetery contained 14 royal shaft graves and 12 shallow and small graves. It was enclosed by a thick, low, circular wall of rubble masonry, 28m in diameter. All the graves have been marked with letters from the Greek alphabet. Exceptional is Grave Rho (now protected by a cement roof) which was excavated, emptied and enlarged during the 15th century BC.
It's worth remembering that, despite its appellation as circle ‘B’, the first burials it contains date to the 17th century BC, predating ‘A’ by 100 years or more. The first burials in Circle B were relatively small and poor typically containing, for example, terracotta tableware, but subsequent graves contained expensive jewellery, weaponry and precious stones. For the purposes of the GCSE exam, however, Grave Circle A is where it's at!
The Tomb of Clytemnestra
Tholos type tombs emerged in Mycenaean Greece in c. 1500-1450 BC as the resting places of the local royal families. The so-called Tomb of Clytemnestra was built c.1250 BC and it is very similar in style to that of the Treasury of Atreus. However, the slightly more sophisticated use of curved stones around the lintel suggests a later development. It is worth remembering that nothing found inside the burial chamber – which is where the most important people would be laid to rest - justifies it being named after Agamemnon’s wife. However, excavations in the 1960s led to the discovery of the surrounding walls of the tomb. In the dromos – the passage leading to the entrance of the tholos - a woman's grave was found in addition to accompanying artefacts; two mirrors, ornaments and beads. However, the inner burial chamber was found looted and empty.
What I didn’t know, until I had walked the site myself, was that a later theatre (Hellenistic Period, 3rd century BC) had been constructed on top of the tomb, and you can see the curved rows of seats in the picture on the left, below. Surely this cannot have been coincidence? I did a bit of research when I got home and the excerpt below is shamelessly lifted from a paper acknowledged at the end of this blog by Constantinos Paschalidis:
'Much later, and after Mycenae was destroyed and deserted by the Argives and colonized once more in the 3rd century BCE, the Hellenistic theater of Mycenae was built on the west slope, outside the cyclopean walls. The chamber tomb and the area around Grave Circle B were filled anew. Stone seats of the koilon were placed on top of the built dromos of the nearby Clytemnestra Tholos, which was used as a suitable foundation. The tholos tomb, then still visible, was also covered with earth. Although the choice of the theater’s position was largely dictated by the natural formation of the slope, the presence of the ancient tombs in the area must have held some significance, judging from the fact that Grave Circle A seems to have remained visible and deeply respected until the end of antiquity (Gallou 2005, 21). In a place where memories were never absent, as noted by Pausanias, the performance of drama should have included an aspect that honored the heroic ancestors. The performances of the “misfortunes of the House of Atreus” – in the words of Elektra – a breath away from the royal tombs themselves, must have especially electrified both actors and audience alike.'
In other words, the link between Homeric era burials and subsequent performance of their deeds – immediately on top of their graves - is just too strong to be ignored!
Mycenaeans and their bones
A note on hero cults, in light of the comments above. Given the attitude of the later Greeks - from the Archaic Period on - towards dead heroes, it is tempting to think that this reverence began in the Bronze Age itself. Not so, however. As Mylonas notes, the respect shown towards the dead at the time of their funeral contrasts markedly with the attitude towards those remains during later ceremonies. As is clear given the size of the dromoi and the resources required to unblock the doors, funerals at tholoi must have been time-consuming and labour-intensive affairs. Buried alongside the bodies were some very expensive grave goods, as we have noted, as well as the more mundane ware. There is no doubting the respect shown towards the dead at the time, then.
However, it seems to have been a case of 'out with the old, in with the new'; and quite literally, if the bones and goods thrown out of the chamber are anything to go by. Old bones were shoved aside to make way for the recently deceased. Moreover, some of the older offerings appear to have been broken and even stolen by the very relatives of the dead. Mylonas argues that this behaviour can only be explained if we assume that the Mycenaeans believed that the spirit of the dead only remained around the grave as long as the flesh was in existence. After such time, the spirits were no longer interested in the affairs of the living. The bones could therefore be swept aside, or even thrown outside, with impunity. The offerings and grave goods were only meant for the trip to the lower world but were not intended to be a part of it. In addition, there is no evidence that funeral offerings were renewed from time to time, nor that additional gifts were placed in the grave. This seems to conclusively rule out the possibility of any hero cults.
The Tomb of Aegisthus
The so-called Tomb of Aegisthus is situated just next to the Tomb of Clytemnestra - his lover and Agamemnon's wife -, but they do not belong to the same period. While Clytemnestra's is the most recent of the 9 tholos tombs in Mycenae, Aegisthus' is one of the oldest, dated around 1470 BC.
The photo below, left, gives a good impression of just how close together the two tombs of Clytemnestra (left) and Aegisthus (right) are, and hence why the infamous lovers’ names have been used in this way.
The 10 Euro ticket to the site will also grant you access to the excellent museum, and I found it useful to have a good look around here before entering the site. There is also an impressive - albeit collapsed - tholos tomb (the Lion Tomb) adjacent to the toilet block. The museum is clean, well-organised and looks like it has had a fairly recent makeover (though this is just my opinion). I also found the staff to be very helpful and approachable. There are detailed highlights from the shaft graves, though some of the exhibits are replicas (such as the golden death mask, below). The ubiquitous terracotta figurines are well worth a look and are yet to be satisfactorily explained, beyond being important elements of cultic ritual. That and obviously being representations of female entities!
Meanwhile, in the valley to the west...
I mentioned above how helpful Vasiliki, the owner of La Petite Planete hotel, is to anybody interested in the history of the region. As I was heading out to Mycenae for the first time, she shared some insider information with me: there is plenty of archaeology to be seen outside the site without paying a cent. She drew up a map of the adjacent valley on Google Earth and pointed out a walk that takes in several relatively unknown tholoi that are seldom visited by visitors focused upon Mycenae itself.
I sometimes have the memory of a goldfish and, whilst I thought I had memorised the route, I got it wrong at the first juncture. In a nutshell, the little car park just around the corner from the Treasury of Atreus services both it and Mycenae itself. There is some shade here and an excellent kiosk serving decent hot drinks, a fine range of slush puppies (popular with American schoolchildren, I noticed!), sandwiches, cakes and crisps. An unmarked path at the back of the car park snakes away back down south (ignore the gated path to the north). After a hundred yards or so, the track forks and this is where I initially went wrong. The left-hand path takes you past a small white-washed church but, unless you want to pay your respects to whichever saint is revered there, you will need to take the right-hand track.
I abandoned this first pass and turned back for Mycenae, which turned out to be the right call because, when I explained my failure in faltering Greek to one of the museum staff, he took pity on my pathetic efforts and went to print off the two maps on the left. After lunch at the kiosk and a shot of caffeine, I made a successful second effort to locate these wonderful tombs Vasiliki had talked about. I avoided the church path this time and turned right. From this point, as I recalled her advising and will now pass on to you, look out for the helpful but faded splodges of red paint on rocks. These reassure you that you are on the correct path and occasionally point off into the undergrowth at apparently random intervals. Have faith in them! They do indeed indicate some fantastic tombs in various states of preservation. The first of these (*consults his map*), labelled the 'Tomb of Epano Phournos', is now pretty threadbare (see below right) but it is one of the three oldest tholoi in Mycenae, dating to the 16th century BC.
The walk to the next tomb is the longest on this little side-adventure but the scenery is beautiful. The track threads through fruit trees and laurel, and cypresses lancing into the flawless sky, whilst the clank of goat bells greeted me from the hills nearby. There wasn't a soul about and I would happily have walked for hours through the warmth, accompanied by the fragrance of the Greek countryside and the gentle drone of busy insects.
The track meets an asphalt road and, as you turn right, you should be ready to duck into the undergrowth in search of two tombs. The first is the 'Tomb of The Cyclops' and the second the 'Tomb of Orestes'. The maps I'd been given suggested that they are both accessed from the road, one after the other, but 'Orestes' is best found by plundering through a little thicket a stone's throw from 'Cyclops'. Accept with good grace the few scratches you will probably receive - and being buzzed by the bees - because the tombs are worth the little expenditure of effort: especially that of 'Orestes'.
The Tomb of Orestes dates to about 1300 BC and is beautifully preserved, like a smaller version of the Treasury of Atreus. The cladding of its relief triangle has remained intact both inside and outside to this day. Of all the tombs I saw, this was by far my favourite. It helped that there were no other tourists around to dilute the absolute stillness inside the beehive chamber, and that it is in such a phenomenal state of preservation.
As can be seen, there are numerous little tombs cut into the floor of the chamber. It is also called the 'Tomb of the Genii' on account of the slabs of glass paste that were discovered in the graves and decorated with genii.
There is a pervasive atmosphere within this chamber. I had a very strong sense of the dead, as if they had only very recently been exhumed, or that they had recently been inhumed and that I was the last person to leave before it would be walled up once again to await the next burial. Without wanting to labour the point or lay it on too thickly (and I am no spiritualist!), I had a sense that the tolerance of my presence was brief and that I was in danger of outstaying it. I didn't linger.
There is another tomb further down the road, not far from a junction of several other minor roads. It is indicated on my map by a little purple circle but - unhelpfully - I failed to record its name. I recall it being at one end of a quiet olive grove but I can find no photographs of it. It will have to fade happily in my memory. I paid my respects and left, well satisfied with my day's exploring. As I walked back, I remembered what Mylonas said about Mycenae. The citadel itself can hardly have accommodated more than a couple of thousand people: more, perhaps, in times of imminent danger, but only for a limited time. Instead, we have to imagine the valleys nearby containing little clusters of houses - more or less independent of each other - but to some degree economically dependent upon, and owing their allegiance to the palace, in return for its protection. It is tempting to see these communities claiming one or other of these tombs as their own. If we accept that the king and his family have sole access to the Grave Circles and the shaft graves then where does that leave these 'lesser' tombs? As the final resting places for 'local' dignitaries or leaders?
I found the track that led back to the car park and rejoined Christos Tzoundas street under a westering sun, looking forwards to whatever wonders Vasiliki's mother would be cooking that evening.
Mylonas, George. Ancient Mycenae: The Capital City of Agamemnon (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1957)
Paschalidis, Constantinos. “From Grave Circle A to the Hellenistic Theater: The Birth of Agamemnon’s Legend on the West Slope of Mycenae.” CHS Research Bulletin 7 (2019). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:PaschalidisC.From_Grave_Circle_A_to_the_Hellenistic_Theater.2019