Sometime around 1450 BC Minoan Crete was conquered by the Mycenaeans. Life in three of the palaces – Phaistos, Malia and Zakro – comes to an end and only in Knossos itself does it continue, though in a rather different, less grandiose form. The new artistic style appears to imitate those on mainland Greece and Minoan Linear A is now replaced by a new script, Minoan Linear B which has now been deciphered to be Greek. The obvious implication is that Minoan Crete was now conquered by the Mycenaeans.
Who were the Mycenaeans? Judging by Homer’s Iliad, the earliest event in Greek history was the siege of Troy, eventually captured by the Greeks after a 10 years siege. In this war, the Greeks were led by Agamemnon, the King of Mycenae. However in classical Greece, Mycenae was, as it is today, only a small village, but there was evidence that it had once been somewhat greater, notably in the form of two carved lions that once formed the apex of a magnificent gate — the finest example of sculpture to come down from the Minoan or Mycenaean world.
This attracted the attention of a German grocer, Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann was a parson’s son, who became a grocer, and then turned into an international trader and became very rich. As a small boy, he had read Homer, and dreamt of going to the East and digging up Troy. Everyone said that Troy did not exist, but being a literal minded grocer, he went out and dug into a mound where Troy should have been, and Lo and behold! in 1871 he discovered Troy. True, his methods were at first somewhat crude, and he was something of a fantasist who dressed up his findings and his wife in a glow of romanticism which at times merged into romantic fiction.
However having discovered Troy, he then turned his attention to Mycenae. By this time he was a somewhat better archaeologist — he had acquired an architect, Wilhelm Dorpfeld, who drew up plans of what he had found.
Just inside the Lion Gate, he discovered two grave circles, circular walls enclosing graves. In one of them he found treasures with which to adorn his wife once again, and also a gold mask which he knew instantly to be the mask of Agamemnon himself, and he telegraphed excitedly ‘ I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon’ – he was about 200 years too early.
Since then, Mycenae has been extensively excavated, and has given its name to Late Bronze Age Greece.
Mycenae is set in the north eastern corner of the Peloponnese (that is southern Greece) in an area that is dominated by classical and modern Argos. It is set on a low hill at one end of a fertile plain with high mountains rising up behind it. It was a steep and difficult site to turn into a palace, but a fortified palace was built on the low hill and a substantial town arose outside the walls in the valley below.
The Palace is essentially centred round a single large room with the roof supported on four pillars with a porch at the front with two pillars, a type known as a megaron. The megaron is often thought to be the type architecture of the Mycenaean world. It is quite unlike the centralised Minoan palace built around a courtyard; instead the ancillary buildings are scattered around the hilltop, while the main town is outside the walls, on the level ground below.
The megaron features prominently in Homer’s Odyssey where Odysseus arrives home after a twenty year absence, ten years having been spent in the siege at Troy and a further ten years wandering round the east Mediterranean and getting lost, shipwrecked and seduced. But he eventually arrives home in Ithaca, and finds that his ever loving wife Penelope has spent the last twenty years fighting off suitors who are still pursuing her. Odysseus gets into the Megaron disguised as a swineherd and eventually challenges the suitors and picking up a convenient bow and arrow, shoots the lot. The baddies are all killed, the hero is triumphant and he is eventually reunited with his ever loving wife. Ever since then archaeologists have been looking for a megaron, and at Mycenae they found what appears to be a suitable building.
The Citadel at Troy is surrounded by walls, and the main town lies outside the walls in the valley below. And on a low ridge on the other side of the valley are the burials, with the most magnificent in the centre, the so-called Treasury of Atreus, which is neither a treasury, nor has it anything to do with Atreus, the father of Agamemnon. These are all beehive shaped or tholos tombs, with a long passageway leading up to the circular tomb at the centre, with the roof curving inward in a beehive shape. None has ever been found intact, but the Treasury of Atreus forms one of the most magnificent pieces of architecture to have come down from the Bronze Age. Twenty more such tombs are scattered along the ridge.
These royal tombs contrast markedly with the situation at Knossos, where at the height of the palatial period, rich royal tombs are conspicuous by their absence. There are indeed such ‘tholos’ tombs, but they are late and appear to have been built under Mycenaean influence or when the Mycenaeans had taken over as rulers.
Indeed it is hard to avoid a picture emerging of the distinction between the Minoans and the Mycenaeans. By the mature Palace period, the Minoan palatial civilisation had existed for a thousand years or more, and it was no doubt sophisticated, mature – and perhaps even slightly effete? The Mycenaeans by contrast are crude, warlike, masculine and barbarians. Whether there is any truth in any of this or whether it is simply a myth engendered by the genius of Arthur Evans, I would not like to say.
But it seems clear that around 1450 – 1400, the Mycenaeans did take over in Crete. They introduced their own language, the language of Minoan Linear B, that is Greek. Linear B tablets are not found in the three palaces to the east at Phaistos, Malia and Zakro, though Linear A tablets are found in all three. Linear B tablets occur in great quantity at Knossos, and a few are known from Chania, the second town of Crete, lying to the west, where it is often suspected that a Minoan palace may lurk under the modern town waiting to be discovered, if only someone would pull down the modern town.
But there are also a lot of Linear B tablets in the other palaces on the mainland: at Pylos, the palace of King Nestor in the south west corner of the Peloponnese; at Tiryns the lesser palace twenty miles from Mycenae; at Thebes under the modern town; and at a number of other sites in Greece. (Click here to see the account of the Mycenaean palace at Sparta). It seems clear that the Mycenaeans conquered the Minoans and it is likely that the conquest was not a peaceable one. But the Mycenaeans adopted the habits of literacy from the Minoans and adapted their script to form Minoan Linear B, which we now know to have been Greek.
Thus the Mycenaeans form the background to the myths and legends enshrined in Homer, and in the thoughts and minds of the classical Greeks, and in this way the Minoans form a very distant ancestry to the story of the grandeur that was Greece.