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Mycenean Art and Architecture


The Mycenaeans were a warlike people who thrived on the Greek mainland from about 1600 to 1100 BC leaving mighty fortified walls, awe-inspiring stone-igloo-like tombs, and troves of golden treasures including the legendary Mask of Agamemnon.

Complete Video Script

[65, Mycenaeans, c. 1600–1100 BC] As dominant civilizations inevitably decline, their culture is absorbed by the next civilization to rise. The Minoans were followed by the Mycenaeans — a more warlike people on the Greek mainland. They created powerful cities, impressive tombs, and beautiful art.

[66, Archaeological site of Mycenae (northeastern Peloponnese, Greece); artifacts from National Museum of Archaeology, Athens] Unlike the Minoans, the Myceneans were a militaristic society surrounded by enemies. Their citadel was heavily fortified and stood on an easy-to-defend hill, flanked by steep ravines, with views all the way to the sea. Ideally situated for trade by both sea and land, the citadel of Mycenae flourished.

[67, The Lion Gate, 1250 BC, Mycenae, Greece] Its mighty Lion Gate would have been awe-inspiring, a symbol of power. They were crude architecturally — with only a corbelled arch much weaker than a round Roman-style arch (which wouldn't be adopted for a thousand years yet). They could only span the width of a single flat stone. But the Myceneans built with huge stones — so huge that a thousand years later, Greeks would look with wonder at these walls and declare "no man could build with such stones. It must be the work of the Cyclops." In fact, this came to be called "Cyclopean architecture."

[68, Tholos Tomb, Mycenae, Greece] This passageway leads to an underground royal tomb. The corbelled stonework was an engineering marvel. Designed like a stone igloo, this tomb was the grandest dome of its day. In fact, this remarkable Mycenean structure would remain the biggest dome in the world for over a thousand years. This was a vast distance to span with no internal supports — a wonder in its day.

[69, artifacts from National Museum of Archaeology, Athens] These early Greeks had the technology to melt tin and copper together to make bronze. As people of the Bronze Age, they had the best tools and weapons yet. And they came with an artistic flair. The ornamentation, whether for the simple things of everyday life or tools of war, was exquisite.

[70, Vapheio Cups, 1st half 15th century BC; Mask (not) of "Agamemnon," 16th century BC, National Museum of Archaeology, Athens] The Myceneans, whose gorgeous works of art were lovingly crafted, were the mysterious people the poet Homer wrote of in his legends of Greece's earliest origins — the Iliad and the Odyssey. Their artifacts match his description of Mycenae as a fabled city "rich in gold." The so-called "Mask of Agamemnon" was a death mask placed on the face of a dead king in his coffin. Objects from the royal tombs include finely decorated weapons and sheaths…and fine golden jewelry. These delicate golden cups are another example of impressive Mycenean artistry.