Mystery 4. Greece: The Gold of Mycenae - a key one among so many Bronze Age mysteries
Since the rediscovery of Greek prehistory in the 19th century, triggered by characters like Heinrich Schliemann and (Sir) Arthur Evans, the Bronze Age of Greece and the Aegean has been a source of fascination, of previously unavailable information about our past and of a whole series of long-standing riddles. We have touched upon some of them before...
It is hard to choose what to present here as the most mysterious question arising from the first era of civilisation in Europe. The evocative and oddly distant marble figurines of the Cycladic islands, created in the 2,000s BC, are one mystery: what do they mean and what were they used for? Another is the question of the Minoan culture of Crete, dominating the Aegean Sea from about 2,000 BC for 500 years or more. Who were these people, what was their language, what was their story? The biggest of all these questions is the end of the Bronze Age, after 1,200 BC, when a whole series of civilisations around the eastern Mediterranean went up in flames quite literally. What was it that ended, what caused it to end and what followed? We hope to come back to all these question again here.
That said, our chosen mystery for now is the gold of Mycenae. The site is the greatest of the Bronze Age citadels in Greece, celebrated in Homer's epics of the 7th or 6th century BC, visited by Pausanias, the great 2nd century AD traveller, rediscovered by the German archaeologist Schliemann in the late 19th century and subject to systematic research by Greek and British scholars ever since. One of the most thoroughly discussed sites in Greece, Mycenae is well understood in some regards and not at all in others.
What all guidebook-readers and all visitors to Mycenae easily appreciate is one of the most stupendous Bronze Age fortifications in Europe, constructed and enlarged between the 15th/14th and 13th centuries BC, with its massive "Cyclopean" walls, the Lion Gate, the "palace" and other features. It all matches Homer's references to a grand royal centre, even though the great poet wrote half a millennium after the downfall of the great site. What all visitors to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, and to the local museum at Mycenae, mainly admire is the immense wealth of its golden treasures, discovered by Schliemann in 1876 and by Papadimitriou and Mylonas in 1952. Two 'Grave Circles', circular enclosures containing in each case a series of shaft graves, yielded one of rich deposits of golden objects: Grave Circle A alone contained over 15kg (33lb) of gold, making it one of the largest gold finds in all of European archaeology. The assemblages from both circles are breath-taking: hundreds of items, among them jewellery, attachments for clothing, decorated weaponry, funeral (?) masks, and so on, accompanied by other rich finds made of rare or exotic materials, such as ivory, silver, ostrich egg (from Africa), amber (from Northern Europe), glass (maybe from Crete or Egypt) and much much more. These finds are very prominent and have been so for generations, but most visitors do not understand the problem they pose.
The picture most visitors get is of a great fortification containing a palace and other complex buildings, and also containing and being surrounded by a lot of graves, including the immense wealth in gold. Stupendous architecture and stupendous wealth going together. That's not quite right: both grave circles of Mycenae, A and B, are from the 1500s BC. Schliemann famously dubbed the most elaborate of the masks as that of Agamemnon, a major Homeric hero. If Agamemnon, Homer's Greek leader in the Trojan War, ever lived, he would have been 300 years after that mask: at best and at a stretch, its face might be that of his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. The citadel, city and palace came into existence at least a hundred years later than these rich burials. That means that the people who decided to bury their dead with all that wealth chose the spot for a reason other than it being a major population centre or fortification in their days. Their burial of great leaders or kings actually preceded the growth of a city at the site. That in itself is mysterious enough: why this place? Is it a coincidence that a major centre developed near these wealthy graves, or is there something that made the place central and worthy of the immense investment in infrastructure it received after the Grave Circles?
But it's more complex even. Until the 16th century BC, the warrior societies of Mainland Greece were very much a backwater of the wider region, lacking the organisation evident in Crete and other places and lacking the wider contacts with Central Europe and the Middle East that other nearby regions already enjoyed. For many centuries, the mainland appears somewhat impoverished compared to its neighbours. The region only ceased to be that backwater in the 15th or 14th centuries BC, when its rulers had finally gained control of the Aegean coasts and islands, including Crete. That's when they built their great citadels. So, how did these Greek Mainlanders that we now call Mycenaeans get to bury such astonishing wealth so early, before they had a citadel, before they controlled the Aegean and Crete, before they gained the wide international contacts that are so visible a century or so later?
There is no clear answer to any of this, but it seems clear enough that whatever it was that enabled those 16th century BC ruling families to bury their dead with such wealth was also closely connected to their rising to power over the next few generations. What remains utterly unclear and still controversial is the source of their wealth in gold. The immediate region, known as the Argolid, does not bear gold, while other parts of Greece do. There is little evidence so far that the Mycenaeans exploited gold deposits themselves. A lot of the golden objects in the Mycenaean grave circles show a definite Cretan/Minoan influence, to the extent that Cretan craftsmen may have produced all or many of the items. Nonetheless, the conquest of Crete by mainlanders, if it happened, happened a century later. Are we looking at booty from warfare, at gained wealth from mercenary fighting for Crete or Egypt (the superpowers of the era), at the winnings from successful trade between the Mediterranean and continental Europe, or at something else? One step further: considering that the rich gold assemblages of Mycenae remained hidden until the 19th century AD, how did Homer, at least 700 years after their burial, know to name wealth in gold as the emblematic feature of Mycenae?
We cannot answer these questions, but we can marvel at the wonderful material from the grave circles, wonder about their meaning, speculate about the wider geopolitics and economics of the era, puzzle about the connections between myth and history and - most importantly - follow vibrant ongoing research to gain further understanding and to open more questions. The Mycenaean gold certainly remains a mystery, but it is an immensely fertile one.
On Peter Sommer Travels' itineraries in Greece, we touch upon this fascinating topic often. Most obviously so on Exploring the Peloponnese, where we visit Mycenae itself, but also on Exploring Crete, where we pursue the interaction between the great island and the mainland, on Cruising to the Cyclades, visiting the most exciting of all Bronze Age sites in Greece, Akrotiri, and on our add-on tours of Athens, where the Mycenaean treasures in the National Archaeological Museum are one of so many highlights. For one of archaeology's greatest mysteries and the many stories arising from it, join us in Greece.