Mycenaean Greece

Dafato Team | Jun 13, 2022

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The Mycenaean civilization is an Aegean civilization of the end of the Bronze Age (recent Helladic) extending from 1650 to 1100 B.C. approximately, whose apogee is situated between 1400 and 1200 B.C.

This civilization develops starting from the south of continental Greece (the "Helladic" area), whereas previously the most dynamic hearths of the Aegean world were in the islands, in Cyclades and especially in Crete, where had developed since the beginning of the IInd millennium BC the Minoan civilization. From around 1650

Around 1450 BC Crete is dominated by Mycenaeans, who settle in the palace of Knossos. It is there that are the oldest traces of the Mycenaean writing, the linear B, which transcribes an old form of Greek. Since its deciphering by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick in 1952, the Mycenaean civilization is, of all the Aegean pre-Hellenic civilizations, the only one known at the same time by archaeological vestiges and epigraphic documents. On the continent, the civilization which emerges at the same time rests partly on Minoan cultural contributions, it develops gradually a civilization organized around several palaces and fortresses which are probably centers of kingdoms dominating regions (Mycenae in Argolid, Pylos in Messinia, Thebes in Boeotia, etc). They are directed by kings, placed at the head of an administration whose operation appears in the administrative tablets in linear B. One often speaks of a "palatial" civilization because it is directed from palaces framing many activities, like what happens in contemporary civilizations of the Near East and Egypt. However, Mycenaean power is obviously not particularly centralized.

The Mycenaean civilization knows at the same time an expansion in the Aegean world, it is found until Asia Minor where it enters in contact with the area under the influence of the kingdom of Hittites, which knows the Mycenaeans under the designation of Ahhiyawa, term which refers to the name Achaeans attested by the later Greek texts, in particular Homer. The poems of the latter, in particular the Iliad, were often used as reference to treat the Mycenaean civilization, since it seems to preserve the memory of the time when the Greeks were dominated by the king of Mycenae. But such a situation has never been confirmed by sources documenting the Bronze Age, nor the existence of the legendary Trojan War, which is often attempted to be located around this period.

Around 1200 BC, the Mycenaean civilization enters a phase of decline, marked by several destructions of palatial sites, the end of the use of writing and the progressive disintegration of the institutions which characterized it. The Mycenaean cultural features gradually disappear after the twelfth century BC, during the period called the "dark ages". The reasons for this decline have not been elucidated. When the Greek world experienced a revival after 1000, it did so on new foundations, and the ancient Greek civilization, which was formed thereafter, largely forgot the achievements of the Mycenaean period.

The past of the Greeks is known for a long time only by the legends of the epics and the tragedies. The material existence of the Mycenaean civilization is revealed by the excavations of Heinrich Schliemann in Mycenae in 1876 and in Tirynthe in 1886. He believes to have found the world described by the epics of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. In a tomb in Mycenae, he found a golden mask that he called the "mask of Agamemnon". Similarly, a palace excavated in Pylos is called "Nestor's Palace". The term "Mycenaean" was chosen by the archaeologist Schliemann to describe this civilization, before Charles Thomas Newton defined the characteristics by identifying its homogeneous material culture from the findings made on several sites. This name is taken from that of the city of Mycenae (Peloponnese), on the one hand because it is the first archaeological site excavated to reveal the importance of this civilization and on the other hand because of the importance that this city had in the memory of ancient Greek authors (first Homer, who made the king of Mycenae the leader of the "Achaeans"). Thereafter, Mycenae was revealed to be only one pole of this civilization among others, but the term "Mycenaean" remained used by convention.

It is necessary to await the research of Arthur Evans, at the beginning of the XXth century, so that the mycenaean world acquires an autonomy compared to the Minoan world which precedes it chronologically. By excavating in Knossos (Crete), Evans discovers thousands of clay tablets, cooked accidentally in the fire of the palace, around 1440 B.C. He names this writing "linear B", because he estimates it more advanced than the linear A. In 1952, the deciphering of Linear B by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick, which reveals an archaic form of Greek, projects the Mycenaean civilization from Protohistory to history, and inserts it in its true place in the Bronze Age Aegean world.

However, the linear B tablets remain a limited documentary source. If we add the inscriptions on the vases, they represent a corpus of only 5,000 texts, whereas there are several hundred thousand Sumerian and Akkadian tablets. Moreover, the texts are short and of an administrative nature: they are inventories and other accounting documents, which were not intended for archiving. Nevertheless, they have the advantage of showing an objective vision of their world, without any mark of royal propaganda.

On the basis of these tablets, historians describe in the 1960s a world composed of small kingdoms, each with a palatial administration, having experienced the fall of the Minoan civilization and themselves disappeared towards the end of the thirteenth century BC. New discoveries from the 1980s onwards - architectural ensembles, new batches of tablets, nodules, shipwreck cargoes - make it possible to clarify and qualify this picture. They also stimulate mycenological studies and the interest of the general public: thus, a great exhibition entitled The Mycenaean World is held in Athens in 1988-1989 and then moves in several European capitals. It is followed in 1990 of the celebration of the centenary of the death of Heinrich Schliemann.

The sources on the Mycenaean civilization come from sites spread mainly in continental Greece, but also around the Aegean Sea and a good part of the Mediterranean basin. This civilization developed in several phases from around the second half of the seventeenth century B.C. and reached its peak from the end of the fourteenth century B.C. with the construction of the great palatial centers (Pylos, Mycenae, Tirynthe, Midea, Gla and perhaps Thebes). Chronology has become more precise thanks to the introduction of absolute dating methods such as radiocarbon (carbon 14) and dendrochronology. In the absence of more detailed written sources, the evolution of this civilization must be approached from the archaeological data alone, presented below before the study of the aspects of the Mycenaean society.


The fine chronology of the Mycenaean civilization is based on the stylistic evolution of the pottery, well highlighted by Arne Furumark from the stratigraphic levels of the excavated sites. This relative chronology is still valid, but the dating of certain "floating" intervals gives rise to controversy in the scientific world, which also exists for all the geographical areas of the Late Bronze Age (Near East, Egypt). This is particularly true for the early Mycenaean period (Late Helladic I), where the scarcity of associations of Aegean objects and Near Eastern products prevents the true chronological extent of this phase from being restored. However, the progress achieved in radiocarbon dating makes it possible to fix the beginning of the Mycenaean civilization in the second half of the 17th century BC.

The Mycenaean period - the recent Bronze Age period of southern mainland Greece (Helladic) - spans more than 500 years. The Helladic begins around 3000 BC. The term Late Helladic (it is divided into several successive periods whose dating is approximate:

The roots

The Aegean world of the Bronze Age is dominated by three cultural areas, occupying its southern part:

The Helladic area is less developed (or "complex") than the other two during the Middle Bronze Age (Middle Helladic, first half of the second millennium BC), mostly occupied by villages that practice an agriculture that has evolved little since the Neolithic, where cereal cultivation was nevertheless supplemented by the cultivation of olives and vines, and metallurgy has spread. The fortified habitat appears, with Kolonna on the island of Aegina. The material culture is homogeneous in the area, even if the traditions of quality pottery vary from one region to another. The dead are rather buried in inhabited sites, which could refer to a desire to maintain a close link between the living and the dead, and thus to kinship groups. We also find tombs under tumuli, but this does not seem to be a form of burial for the elites as in later periods, since their funerary material does not distinguish them from other types of burial. The presence of a few richer tombs than others and of larger dwellings could indicate the presence of chiefs or at least of dominant groups. The products and ideas circulate between the regions, and with the Aegean islands, as indicated by the Minoan characters of certain types of ceramics elaborated in Argolid and Laconia (Lerne, Ayios Stephanos). The islands of Aegina and Kythera seem to play a role of relay. Indeed at the same time the palatial civilization of Minoan Crete takes off, during the "proto-palatial" period (c. 2000

The Late Helladic, which begins around 1700

The opening towards outside plays a decisive role in certain local evolutions. It is in particular Crete which exerts a strong influence in the Aegean world, as we see in the fact that the tombs of the continental elites of this time are well provided with Cretan productions or of Cretan style, which are used as objects of prestige in the service of the ruling classes but do not testify to a deep Cretan influence. But this period is by many aspects a period of creations on the artistic level, even if several of them do not have posterity in the following periods (gold masks, carved bas-reliefs), mixed with borrowings and continental adaptations of external models.The modalities of the rise of the continental elite of the beginning of the recent Helladic, sometimes characterized as an "aristocracy", remain obscure: the constructions of the time disappeared at the time of the construction of the fortresses and palaces of the Mycenaean period. The tombs of Mycenae indicate that the chiefs put forward an iconography that links their power to war and hunting, are organized around family groups, associating women and children. It is impossible to determine how and why this group emerges in the absence of documentation on these periods in the settlement areas. There was no use of writing on the continent, and the administration seems to have been poorly developed, which explains why specialists prefer to speak of "principalities" rather than "kingdoms" for this period.

The following period, HR IIB (c. 1500-1400 BC), sees these trends continue, but changes are emerging, which announce the Mycenaean period proper. It is still poorly known. The tholos tombs of chiefs are known for this period, and they testify to a passage from collective tombs to individual tombs, all of which were plundered in antiquity, at Mycenae, at Routsi in Messinia and at Vapheio in Laconia. The only building that could be qualified by its size as an excavated palace that is dated to the period is that of Menelaion in Sparta. That of Tyre has given some traces of this period indicating that it already exists, the other later Mycenaean palaces not. The prospecting and the localization of the tombs with tholos indicate in any case the emergence of political centers in several places, perhaps already palatial centers, but without systematic centralization: in Laconia the Menelaion coexists with Vapheio already evoked, also Ayios Stephanos and Pellana, thus the power is fragmented there; in Messinia on the other hand Pylos becomes the only center; in Argolid one supposes the emergence of the palatial centers of Mycenae, Tyrinthe and Midea In spite of the diversity of the local configurations, the social and political stratification thus seems to be accentuated on the continent.

The beginnings of Mycenaean Crete

A series of violent destructions around 1450 B.C. (in local terminology the transition between the Late Minoan II and IIIA1) put an end in Crete to the Neo-Palatial phase, which saw the apogee of the Minoan civilization and its expansion in the Aegean. The large palaces of Phaistos, Malia and Zakros are abandoned after that, only that of Knossos being reoccupied, without important reorganization. The phase which opens sees a growth of the Mycenaean influence in the local material culture, and it is generally considered that the destructions are related to a conquest of the island by "Mycenaeans" come from the continent, which would dominate then the major part if not the totality of the island since the palace of Knossos which they reoccupy, since there is not any more equivalent center. Tombs of warriors appear on the island, in particular in the neighbourhoods of Knossos, with clear continental aspects which point there still towards the arrival of continental warriors, perhaps initially like mercenaries with the service of the Cretans, then like Masters of the island. The earliest known records in Linear B date from the beginning of the period, but as the system already appears to be fully functional it is plausible that it is older. They concern in part the distribution of arms and horses, a military tone that does not seem insignificant. They are written in Greek and include Greek names of persons, which is generally associated with the Mycenaean influence since it is generally considered that the Minoans were not speakers of Greek language. The other sites occupied during the early period are Chania (Kydonia) to the east, Haghia Triada to the south in the plain of Messara, Malia to the east outside the palace.

The palace of Knossos is then destroyed around 1370 B.C. (beginning of RM IIIA2), but it continues to function for an undetermined period of time, before being abandoned, perhaps soon after its previous destruction, or much later, around 1300 (the end of RM IIIA2). The main batch of tablets from the palace of Knossos can be dated to one of these two destructions, but it is not known which one, assuming that they all date from the same moment.

The age of the Mycenaean palaces: 14th - 13th century BC.

The Late Helladic III A and B archaeological periods, covering the fourteenth to thirteenth centuries B.C., are considered the Mycenaean "palatial" period, or at least the apogee of the Mycenaean palaces, or even the Mycenaean civilization itself.

The beginning of the fourteenth century sees the reunion of the "markers" of the Mycenaean civilization, identifiable on its main sites (Mycenae, Tyre, Pylos, Thebes): the citadels, the royal palaces, two dominant types of tombs - the tholos tombs and the chamber tombs - which all take on more and more monumental aspects, and finally the increasing use of linear writing B, which is documented on the continent from this period. The continental palaces are now managed by a Minoan administration, perhaps following a transfer consecutive to the destruction of Knossos. More largely the Mycenaean area extends geographically, in direction of north (until the mount Olympe), of the east (towards Epirus) and the east (in Dodecanese), in addition to Crete, and the Mycenaean influence becomes dominant in the Aegean world in the current of the XIVth century BC, its contacts extending towards Macedonia, Asia Minor, also in the west until Sardinia. The Hittite sources evoke for the first time the Ahhiya, country which one commonly identifies with Mycéniens (Achaeans) at the beginning of XIVe century BC.

The 13th century (HR IIIB) is the best documented period, both architecturally and epigraphically (most of the written sources date from the last period of the palaces since they are frozen by their destruction, thus c. 1200-1180 BC). It sees this growth continuing. The palatial complexes of Mycenae, Tyrinx, Pylos and Thebes reach then their apogee, as well as the defensive architecture, on the sites of Mycenae or Gla, and the royal tholoi tombs of Mycenae or Orchomena, and the evolutions are spotted on the few excavated secondary sites (Ayios Stephanos, Nichouria, Tsoungiza, Asine, etc.). The number of inhabited sites increases. The construction programs are thus very dynamic, and they undoubtedly also concern the communication infrastructures. The tablets in linear B allow us to understand the functioning of the palatial systems of continental Greece (especially Pylos) and those of Crete. They attest to the existence of a framework that organized various types of economic activities. The sources plead in favor of the coexistence of several kingdoms, directed from the principal palaces by an elite at the head of which is a monarch, the wanax, having an administration and specialized workers. On the other hand, it seems that the construction of tombs in tholos does not follow the general trend, perhaps because of a control put in place by the central power.

The Mycenaean civilization is then relatively homogeneous on the continent in the areas dominated by the palates, and one could speak about a koinè. But the elements of diversity are always important and that certain areas close to the great centers ignore the palatial system, in particular in the Peloponnese Achaïe, Arcadie, Elide, and in north Phocide, Thessalia, and Northern Greece presents a cultural profile different from that of the Mycenaean areas.

Who were the Mycenaeans?

The "Mycenaeans", understood as the bearers of the Mycenaean civilization, are above all identified by their material culture, characterized by the various features that one finds in continental Greece at this period, in particular pottery and craft industry, architecture, funerary practices. Since the translation of the tablets into Linear B, it is known that these people spoke an archaic form of Greek. No written source from a Mycenaean site has told us how this people named themselves (their autoethnonym). Reading the Iliad, where the Greeks are often called "Achaeans", and taking into account the mention of Ahhiyawa to the Aegean region in the Hittite sources of the Late Bronze Age, one wanted to see in the Mycenaeans Achaeans. But the second argument is far from being accepted by all, while for the first, it is noted that the term "Achaean" can have several meanings in Homer's texts. Thus, the question often asked to know if one would be well in presence of "Achaeans" on a great part of continental southern Greece, before the arrival of "Dorians" in the first millennium as the later Greek historians claim it remains the object of debates.

The linguistic analysis of the texts in linear B connects the Mycenaean language to Greek dialects of later times, those of the Eastern group, including Ionian-Attic and Arcadochypriot of the following millennium. It is closer to the latter than to the former, but this does not mean that it is its ancestor, since several elements distinguish it from the latter, which cannot necessarily be explained by changes over time. This indicates in any case that the split between the Western Greek language group (that of the Dorian languages) and the Eastern Greek language group had already taken place at this time, so that the Greek world was already crossed by different dialects, even if it is not known where the speakers of these dialects were located. In any case the attempts to identify dialectal variants in the texts in linear B did not give convincing results, which would be explained by the fact that the writing is standardized, does not seek to return the spoken language and thus tends to erase the vernacular variants.

Moreover, while having a uniform material culture, nothing indicates that the languages and ethnic groups were, carriers of the Mycenaean material culture having been able to speak other languages than Greek. It is the case of the languages known as "Aegean" or "pre-Greek", established in the area before the arrival of the speakers of languages "proto-Greek". The date of arrival of the latter is debated: current proposals favor the beginning of the Middle Bronze (c. 2300-2100 BC), but some go back to the beginning of the Early Bronze (in any case it is no longer proposed that the development of the Mycenaean civilization coincides with their arrival, as may have been the case in the past. It is difficult to evaluate the evolution of the relationship between the Greek language and these unknown languages, which it used at the time, and from which it obviously borrowed a lot. Indeed, the Greek lexicon is certainly based on an Indo-European background, but it includes others which are attributable to this earlier background, because they cannot be explained by a Greek origin. It is not known how to characterize them, some attributing them to unknown languages, but perhaps already Indo-European (in particular that of a people which one names sometimes "Pelasges"), or to Anatolian languages, in particular the Louvite spoken in Eastern Asia Minor at the Mycenaean time. In any case, as seen above, we know from the Hittite texts that the Mycenaeans had extensive contacts with this region (especially the country of Arzawa), and the texts of Pylos could indicate the presence of people from Asia Minor. The question of the language of the "Minoans" (thus that of the texts in linear A and Cretan hieroglyphs) also arises, since it is admitted that it is not Greek. The texts in linear B coming from Knossos give Greek names of people, but others which are not it, which thus probably belong to the Minoan bottom.

Genetic studies shed light on these questions, particularly on the origins of the Bronze Age Aegean world populations. A study published in 2017 thus shows that the Mycenaeans were genetically close to the Minoans. These populations are the result of a genetic mixture between Neolithic farmers of Western Anatolia for three quarters of their ancestry and a population from the East (Iran or Caucasus). The Mycenaeans are differentiated by an additional component from the North linked to hunter-gatherers from Eastern Europe and Siberia introduced via a source linked to the inhabitants of the Eurasian steppe. The results of this study also show that there are no genetic elements of Egyptian or Levantine origin among the Mycenaeans.

Expansion and Mycenaean presence in the Aegean world

In the Aegean islands, including Crete, the particularities inherited from the Cycladic and Minoan cultures are fading, a sign that these regions have lost their leading role and have become areas under Mycenaean cultural influence. It is difficult to determine whether this is accompanied by population movements from the mainland. The Mycenaean presence on the sites of this area often follows that of the Minoans, which declines after the destruction of around 1450 BC, visible on the Cretan palatial sites. The Mycenaean expansion is done mainly in the direction of the southern part of the Aegean world: Crete, but also the Cyclades, the Dodecanese and the littoral of Asia Minor; the southern Balkans had limited contacts with the Mycenaean world. It is mainly through the diffusion of Mycenaean ceramics that we can assume this, but also through ivory objects of Mycenaean type, even if it is often complex to distinguish exports and inspirations. Moreover, it is difficult to know whether Mycenaean ceramics found outside mainland Greece were exported for their container function or for their own sake. The nature and causes of this expansion are debated. Political aspects have been invoked in several places, notably Crete and the Cyclades, but at the very least commercial motives seem indisputable, even if it is complicated to determine which products were actually traded.

One could however consider in the case of Crete that the island still exerts a notable influence in the material culture of the neighboring areas of the Aegean world, of which continental Greece with which the commercial exchanges are increasingly strong. It is then incontestably a component of the Mycenaean world, one finds there an administration of type similar to that of the continental kingdoms, even if one cannot say with certainty if it is dominated by people come from continent that remains the most considered solution, and it is necessary to admit at least the presence of Mycenaeans on the spot. The material culture undergoes there however little continental influence and the local specificities continue. One notes a period of economic prosperity, and the presence of a dense network of administrative centers. There is then a weakening of the influence of Knossos vis-a-vis the emergence of new centers like Chania, which becomes the most important artisanal center of the island, whose ceramic productions are found in Cyclades, on the continent, in Sardinia and in Cyprus.

In the Cycladic area, where the major center of Thera (Santorini, with Akrotiri) had disappeared after the volcanic eruption of Santorini, the Minoan influence had receded by the 15th century B.C. and that of the Mycenaean area is detected from that moment by the important presence of continental pottery. The site of Phylakopi, on Milos, undergoes a destruction to which succeeds the construction of a palate of the Mycenaean type: as in Knossos, that would indicate the catch of control by continental warriors. It becomes then the principal site of the Cycladic area, but it is the only palace which is known there. In the other islands the cultural "myceneization" is clearly seen, by the presence of ceramics imported from the continent, but the presence of Mycenaeans is not located with certainty. Haghia Irini on Kea is another important site of the period. The Mycenaean imports decline from the HR IIIB, towards the middle of the XIIIth century BC, to be replaced by a local production, although the material culture remains of Mycenaean type.

The Dodecanese also has a strong Mycenaean influence in places. Two necropolises on the island of Rhodes, Ialysos and Pylona, have yielded important continental ceramic material as well as chamber tombs, which could indicate the presence of a Mycenaean community there, at least for commercial purposes. In HR III B, the Mycenaean presence is also declining.

On the Asian continent near these islands, the Mycenaean presence is less strong, for example in the necropolises of Caria (Kos and Müsgebi). Further north, one arrives towards the regions known by the texts coming from the Hittite kingdom, which dominates Anatolia at this period since its central part. The most powerful kingdom of Asia Minor is Arzawa, whose capital Apasa is perhaps Ephesus, and which ends up being subjected and divided by the Hittites. The texts coming from the latter also speak of a kingdom of Ahhiyawa, which could well be that of Achaeans, thus of Mycenaeans. This kingdom is documented by a few tablets relating to political events in western Anatolia, where the influence of the Ahhiyawa king meets that of the Hittite kingdom. At the beginning of the 13th century B.C., its king was considered a "Great King" by his Hittite counterpart, i.e. his equal, in the same way as the kings of Egypt and Babylon, who all had several vassal states but no suzerain. The influence of the king of the Ahhiyawa in the eastern region of the Hittite Empire did not last long, however, and he finally disappeared from the texts. His territory dominated at least a part of Asia Minor, for he had at one time a governor in the city of Millawanda, probably Miletus. On this last site, destroyed by the Hittites towards the end of the HR III A, the Mycenaean influence seems strong, but côtoie that of the Anatolian people. There is some debate about the location of the center of the Ahhiyawa kingdom: many want to locate it in Mycenae or at least in continental Greece, thus making its extension correspond to that of the Mycenaean civilization, while some propose to locate it rather in coastal Asia Minor or on an island such as Rhodes, because these are the only regions that one sees it clearly dominating in the written sources.

Further north, the archaeological site of Troy (Hissarlik) raises many questions in connection with the Homeric epic. Generations of archaeologists have sought to know what was the level of the city that would have been destroyed by the Mycenaean attackers during a real conflict that would have inspired the stories of the Achaean war led by the Mycenaean Agamemnon against the Trojans in the Iliad and the cycle of legends about the Trojan War. Two candidates are in the running: level VIh and its successor level VIIa, both of which end in destruction, the exact nature of which remains to be seen (violent conquest or earthquake?). But it is still necessary to demonstrate that Homer's story refers to a real event, while the Mycenaean presence on the site remains weak.

The place of the Mycenaean world in the Mediterranean world

On a smaller scale, there are traces indicating contacts between the Mycenaeans and various points of the Mediterranean basin beyond the Aegean. These traces are, even more than for the regions of the Aegean shores, essentially ceramics. Indeed, we find them in regions sometimes very far from the Aegean world: to the west, in Sardinia, in the Po Valley, in the Iberian Peninsula, to the north in Macedonia or Thrace, and to the east and southeast in Cyprus and up to the banks of the Euphrates or in the lower Nile Valley. In reality, it is in the direction of Cyprus and the Levant that the traces are most significant, and may suggest the existence of more important and regular exchanges. This could be confirmed by the wreck found at Uluburun south of Kaş in Turkey, dated to the end of the fourteenth century, carrying mostly copper from Cyprus, but also some Mycenaean vases alongside other objects from Egypt, Syria, or the Taurus, indicating that the Mycenaean world was well integrated into trade networks involving the eastern Mediterranean basin. But no written trace of commercial relations between the ports of the Levant (like Ugarit) and the Mycenaeans appears. The maritime exchanges of this period were done essentially by coasting and by stages, there were not necessarily important direct connections. Cyprus (notably the ancient kingdom of Alashiya which occupies at least a part of it), where the Mycenaean presence is stronger, could have played the role of intermediary between the Mycenaeans on one side and the Levant and Egypt on the other. Moreover, this island was important for the Mycenaean world as a supplier of copper. At the end of the 13th century, Cyprus finally saw the settlement of migrants from the Mycenaean world, in the context of the population movements that affected the eastern Mediterranean at the end of the Late Bronze Age.

Numerous studies have focused on the documentation of relations between the Mycenaean Aegean world and the regions located to its east, which are otherwise so well known, but it must be admitted that the most audacious conclusions, speaking of diplomatic relations at times, are very speculative and that our certainties are quite slim. The numerous texts coming from the regions located east of the Aegean world may document diplomatic and commercial relations in this space, but there are rather few texts that can be linked to affairs that would involve the Mycenaean world. The most consistent record is that of the Ahhiyawa in the Hittite sources already mentioned for the close circle of Mycenaean expansion. Elsewhere and further afield, there is no mention of them, except in Egyptian sources, in which the Mycenaean world perhaps appears in rare writings under the name tanaju (Egyptian hieroglyphs tj-n3-jj-w, a term linked to Homer's Daneans?), from whom Thutmose III received messengers bearing gifts. In Greece itself, the finding of Cypriot and Syro-Mesopotamian cylinder seals in the palace of Thebes is not sufficient to evoke diplomatic exchanges. Therefore, it is more reasonable to consider that the Mycenaeans are at best marginal in the diplomatic system of the time, which is however extended; or else they are completely absent.

In conclusion, the opening on the outside of the Mycenaean world was decisive in its construction, its complexification. But the cultural exchanges between Mycenaean Greece and these external areas remain weak and do not affect its originality. The trade seems a little more important, although one cannot measure its real intensity, its methods or its motivations. The Mycenaean world does not seem to be a notable partner for the Eastern kingdoms, just as the imports of the latter do not seem to be determining for it. For the western Mediterranean, the Mycenaeans are not "smugglers" of the culture of the Eastern world, which exerts a certain attraction on several sites of this space, even if they participate in this influence coming from the East.

The Mycenaean civilization is primarily characterized by the architectural discoveries made on the major sites located in mainland Greece, above all Mycenae, Tyrinus and Pylos, on which the largest palaces have been discovered. The other markers of Mycenaean architecture are the fortresses, as well as the tholos and chamber tombs. The excavated places are those which testify to the way of life and the habits of the elites of the Mycenaean society, the lower social strata not being represented in the habitats nor in the majority of the necropolises discovered. These different elements illustrate well the originality of the Mycenaean civilization and its anchoring in the more ancient traditions of continental Greece.


The principal Mycenaean sites are fortified, taking support on rocky eminences. They can be situated on acropolises dominating plains, like Athens, Gla or Tirynthe, leaning against a large hill like Mycenae, or on the sea front, like Asine. Some enclosures like that of Gla enclose a space which is not completely built, which seems to indicate that they were intended to serve as a refuge for the populations of the surroundings. In the major sites of Tyre and Mycenae, where the most important fortifications have been found, it is the palatial buildings, their outbuildings and some residences that are defended. Beside these citadels, isolated fortresses have also been found, probably serving for the military control of territories.

The most ancient walls of Mycenae and Tyre are built in a device called "cyclopean", because the Greeks of the following periods attributed their construction to the Cyclops. They are made of large blocks of limestone which can be up to eight meters thick, not roughened, piled up the ones on the others without clay to weld them. The walls of Mycenae have an average thickness of 4,50 meters, and their height could have reached 15 meters even if one cannot have certainty. Later, walls are built with rough blocks, to embed them by filling the empty spaces with small stones. In the other fortresses, the blocks of stone used are less massive.

Different types of openings can be used to cross these walls: monumental door, access ramp, back doors or vaulted galleries to get out in case of siege. The palace of Tyrinus in its last state also saw the construction of vaulted passages (corbelled) under its enclosure, whose function is enigmatic. The main entrance of the fortified complex of Mycenae, the "Lioness Gate", has come down to us in a good state of preservation. It is made of well-cut blocks. Its lintel is surmounted by a limestone relief masking the discharge triangle. The two animals represented, probably lions but whose heads are missing (as is the ornament of the relief), face each other around a column.


The Mycenaean palaces have for examples those excavated in Mycenae, Tirynthe or Pylos, which are in fact the only excavated buildings which are indisputably of palatial type, even if it is probable that the "Kadmeion" of Thebes is also one, although its plan is different. The fortress that protected the Acropolis of Athens in the Mycenaean period may have contained another palace, but as the archaeological levels of this period cannot be reached by excavations, this cannot be verified. These palaces are the centers of the administration of the Mycenaean states, as the archives that they provided have shown. From the architectural point of view, they are the heirs of the Minoan palaces, but also of other great residences built in continental Greece during the Middle Helladic period. The development of the Mycenaean palaces is detectable in the HR III A at Tyre, and on other sites where we find buildings prefiguring the great palaces of the following period, the levels of this period not having been identified in the palaces of Pylos and Mycenae. It is during the HR III B that the palatial architecture reaches its peak in the three main palaces of the Peloponnese.

The large palaces are organized around a set of courtyards opening onto several rooms of different sizes, including stores and workshops, in addition to reception and residence areas, and perhaps places of worship. An essential feature of these buildings is the megaron or megarons: this is a complex consisting of a porch opening onto a monumental entrance, a vestibule and above all a large room with a central hearth surrounded by four pillars, near which is a throne. One finds it in other monumental Mycenaean constructions. Of the three undoubtedly palatial buildings of the HR III B period that have been excavated, that of Pylos is the best preserved. It is organized around a main building of about 50 by 32 meters, dominated by a vast megaron of about 145 m2. The building was entered from its southeast side, with a door to the main courtyard that opened onto all the other parts of the building, including storage areas, guard rooms, and perhaps rooms used for religious ceremonies. Several stairways indicate that the building had a second floor. The main building was surrounded by three other units. The southwestern building, the largest after it, whose plan remains poorly known, may be the oldest. To the north of the complex, a storage area contained numerous wine jars, and a final building to the northeast consisted of several rooms, some of which may have served as workshops, or as cult spaces. The palaces of Tyre and Mycenae, whose state of preservation is less good, are attached to the citadel in which they are located, and the circulation is probably more complex.

At a lower level, there are buildings resembling palaces but which are not necessarily to be considered as such, because of the absence of administrative sources testifying to the presence of a palatial institution or because of the absence of a central body similar to that of the great palaces. These are for example the main buildings of Gla, Orchomena or Sparta, to which one could add the building with megaron of Phylakopi. P. Darcque qualified this type of building as "intermediate buildings" between palaces and houses, adding to it the large constructions of the sites of Mycenae ("House of the oil merchant", "House of the sphinxes", "House of the shields") and of Tyrinx which are linked to the large palaces. Their function remains to be determined: residences of local potentates when they are isolated (thus palaces in miniature), or residences of aristocrats, or dependencies of the palace when they are on palatial sites? These are residences of greater size than the current habitat, covering from 300 to 925 m2, whose monumental aspect, construction techniques and internal organization recall the three great palaces. They obviously serve more complex functions than the smaller residences, without being buildings of the size of the three great palaces.

The construction technique of the palaces and related buildings has many points in common from one site to another. The main palaces were distinguished by the presence of walls made of cut limestone blocks, but everywhere one generally finds walls using large stones as facing covering rubble. The walls of the large palaces were painted, as were some of the floors. The exterior and interior doors were also very elaborate.

Urbanism and residences

Mycenaean sites contain different types of residences, the exact nature of which is sometimes difficult to determine. In general, the function of buildings or rooms in the residences is difficult to determine, even in the case of finds of numerous artifacts that may indicate the presence of a workshop. The hierarchy between buildings is often uncertain. The examples of urbanism that can be analyzed are rare because of the lack of excavations of inhabited quarters: they can only be found in the south-western quarter of the citadel of Mycenae, where the buildings are separated by staircases often bordered by gutters, because of the uneven relief, and in the lower part of that of Tyre.

The houses are built in locally quarried limestone. They are mostly quadrangular in shape, but there are cases of curvilinear (oval, apsidal) buildings on isolated sites. The smallest houses have only one room, and generally measure between 5 and 20 meters on a side, not exceeding sixty square meters. This is where the lowest social strata reside. Other larger houses have several rooms, arranged in a more or less complex way, the most basic having a linear organization, sometimes an organization around parallel rooms, while some have a more complex structure and sometimes have a main corridor, or even a terrace on the floor. These residences with a more complex organization are larger, occupying a floor area of more than 100 m2, and probably serve for the higher social strata. The Mycenaean houses are in the continuity of the architectural traditions of the previous periods, and few innovations are attested in the techniques, the main change being the appearance of larger constructions.

The functions of the rooms are difficult to determine, as furniture is often missing. The main rooms in these residences usually have one fireplace, in some cases several, but sometimes none. A functional differentiation of space in these smaller houses is often impossible to determine, as the single room houses are multi-functional as are probably many rooms in the more complex houses. In fact, only palatial or palace-related buildings have shown rooms specialized in certain functions, especially those of storing and archiving.

Funerary architecture

The most common mode of burial during the Late Helladic period was burial. The dead are buried under the floor of the houses themselves, or outside the residential areas, in cemeteries. The individual graves are in the form of cist, with a stone facing. Funerary furniture appears in HR I, whereas it was absent in previous periods. But the most spectacular forms of funerary architecture of the Mycenaean sites are the monumental tombs, mostly collective, which assert themselves in the transition period between the Middle Helladic and the Late Helladic, which sees the expansion of the two most common models in the Mycenaean period: the tholos tombs and the chamber tombs. However, the oldest tombs belonging to a monumental complex attributable to a reigning dynasty are of a different type: they are the circles of pit tombs of Mycenae, "circle A" and "circle B", dated to the HR I (c. 1550-1500), the second being the oldest. It is in circle A that Schliemann discovered the rich funerary furniture which took part in the legend of his discoveries. Circle B was uncovered in the 1950s.

The tholos tombs (θόλος

But the most widespread type of tomb is that of the chamber tombs, also composed of a stomion and a dromos, this time opening onto a chamber simply cut into the rock of variable shape, with a predilection for a quadrangular plan. The largest chamber, at Thebes, measures 11.50 × 7 meters on the ground, and is 3 meters high. It may be the tomb of a local dynasty, in a region where no tholos was built. In any case, these are collective tombs.

It remains difficult to establish whether the different forms of burial reflect a social hierarchy, as has sometimes been thought, by making the tholoi the tombs of the ruling elites, the individual tombs those of the wealthy classes, and the common tombs that of the people. But it remains clear that the largest tholoi were probably intended for members of a ruling dynasty, and that even the smallest ones probably required an investment that reserved them for notables and not for the lower strata of society.

The Mycenaean period is the oldest period for which we have comprehensible written documents from the Aegean world, written in a script specific to the Mycenaean civilization: linear B. It is not the oldest form of writing developed in the Aegean world, since Crete also saw the birth of Linear A which is an ancestor of Linear B, but has not been deciphered. The documentation that interests us here is a primary source for our knowledge of various aspects of Mycenaean society. The language of the written tablets is an ancient form of Greek. Its deciphering is due to Michael Ventris and John Chadwick in 1952. It is above all a question of seeing the context of the writing of the documents, the characteristics of the writing and the nature of the written texts, in order to better understand the issues of their interpretation.

Provenance, quantification and dating of documents

Linear B is primarily known by the clay tablets on which it was inscribed, as is the case for the cuneiform writing originating in Mesopotamia. The first tablets discovered were in the palace of Knossos in Crete during one of the many excavation campaigns conducted there by Arthur Evans. In 1939, others were brought to light in the palace of Pylos, where they were still found during the following campaigns after 1952. Others were found at Mycenae, then at Thebes, and in smaller quantities at Midea and Chania as well as at other Greek sites. An inscription in linear B may have been found outside Greece, on an amber object found in Bernstorf (de) in Bavaria, but this remains subject to discussion. Knossos is by far the site that has provided the most with about 3,000 tablets, nearly 300 in Thebes.

Linear B inscriptions were also found on "nodules", the ancestors of modern labels. These are small clay pellets, shaped between the fingers around a strap (probably of leather) which serves to attach the whole to the object. The nodule has an imprint of a seal and an ideogram representing the object. The administrators sometimes added other information: quality, origin, destination, etc. About sixty of these have been unearthed at Thebes. About a hundred vases bearing inscriptions painted in this script were also found, as well as other objects in smaller quantities (an ivory seal, a stone weight).

This makes a corpus of nearly 5,000 documents spread over a dozen sites in continental Greece and on the island of Crete, with three sites providing the vast majority of our documentation, which is very little compared to contemporary documentation from Egypt or the Middle East, but which is sufficient to provide important information for understanding Mycenaean society, even if it is necessary to face notable difficulties in interpreting the texts.

The beginnings of Linear B are the subject of debate: Crete in the 16th - 15th centuries, ? In any case, the oldest document dates back to around 1375 and was found in Knossos. The linear B is clearly a form of linear A adapted by scribes knowing this first writing of Cretan origin to the Greek language of the "Mycenaeans". The majority of the documents found later date from HR III B, especially from its phase B2 (13th century). They were preserved, in a more or less good state, among the ruins of buildings following their destruction. They therefore bear witness to the activity of the institutions that produced them in the months preceding this destruction, as they are not archives that were intended to be preserved in the long term.

Characteristics of linear B

Linear B is a writing system named after the shape of its signs, in the same way as cuneiform (which is composed of signs made up of incisions in the form of "wedges", cuneus in Latin). It is thus a writing composed of signs formed by lines drawn in clay or painted, sometimes representing stylized things, in cases where it is identifiable. It includes nearly 200 signs, divided into two categories: 87 phonetic signs (and a hundred logographic signs (one sign = one word).

Syllabograms transcribe mostly simple open syllables, of consonant+vowel (CV) type, for example ro, pu, ma, ti, etc. Some signs are simple vowels (V): a, which can be noted by three different signs (homophones), i, u and o. Some syllabic signs are more complex, like twe, pte, nwa, etc. Finally, about fifteen supposedly syllabic signs are still not understood. This phonetic system is simple and flexible. To note the syllables not included in the elaborated corpus of signs, the scribes decomposed them, and in the case of Knossos they wrote ko-no-so; or reduced them, writing for example pa-i-to for Phaistos. This system is more practical for an Indo-European language than a complex syllabary like cuneiform, or than the Egyptian hieroglyphs which rarely note the vowels, even if it is not as practical as an alphabet, a form of writing which is moreover only in its infancy in the Levant at the same period.

As for the logograms, they are used to save the phonetic writing of a word (a sign is thus sufficient to note "sheep" or "chariot") or to specify the meaning of a word written in phonetics, for example in the case where one would associate the drawing of a tripod (shape of a vase with three feet) with the group of phonetic signs ti-ri-po-de. These signs seek to represent the things they designate in the most realistic way possible to facilitate the comprehension, to the point that one could seek to compare the most realistic logograms with archaeological objects exhumed on the Mycenaean sites or painted representations. In the transcriptions of texts in linear B, logograms are conventionally capitalized in the Latin term meaning the designated thing, or its first letters: VIR for "man", OVIS for "sheep", HORD (hordeum) for "barley", etc. This type of sign prevents us from knowing the meaning of the word. This type of signs prevents to know the exact term in Mycenaean dialect, and thus limits the knowledge of the vocabulary of this language.

Nature of the documents

The known documents in linear B are exclusively productions of the administration of the palaces. They are documents whose purpose is to record information related to the management of movable goods stored in this institution, or manufactured on its behalf, their circulation (entries and exits, with the destination or recipients or provenance), even the purpose of these operations, their location; or information on the management of immovable goods dependent on the institution, agricultural land, their location, the people to whom they are assigned. The simplest are nodules, labels, painted inscriptions on vases, and small tablets that record only information about the nature of movable goods or animals, and their circulation. The larger tablets can record more complex operations: lists of operations related to the circulation of goods, or to the management of agricultural land (thus cadastral-type documents).

These are only rudimentary documents, with a temporary purpose, kept for a few months or even a year, but not more; those that have come down to us have not been erased and recycled because their storage place was destroyed beforehand. We do not know of any tablets making annual or multi-year assessments of a workshop or farm. In the majority of cases, the writer of the tablet wanting to record a simple operation may have been content with a few signs, without noting verbs or prepositions. Thus, the sequence e-ko-to pa-i-to OVIS 100 can be transcribed as "Hector Phaistos 100 sheep", to be understood as "Hector in Phaistos (has a flock of) 100 sheep". More complex sentences with verbs can be noted in the case of more complicated operations like cadastral documents. It is therefore understandable that this limits our knowledge of the Mycenaean language.

This documentation has obvious parallels with that of contemporary southwest Asian cultures, which refers more broadly to a similar administrative organization. Nevertheless, compared to the variety of written documentation unearthed at several sites in the contemporary Middle East, such as Ugarit, Hattusha or Nippur, that of the Mycenaean sites seems very limited: no documents of a scholastic, lexicographical, legal, technical, scientific, mythological, cultic, epistolary, diplomatic or historical nature. It is therefore impossible to know about political events or a large part of the religious beliefs and practices. This is in addition to the quantitative gap (a site like Nippur alone has delivered about 12,000 Late Bronze tablets). On the other hand, if we turn the comparison to the Minoan civilization whose writings have not been deciphered, the Mycenaean civilization is at an advantage this time. The palatial archives in Linear B are therefore an invaluable contribution to the knowledge of the society of the Mycenaean world.

The archaeological sources and especially the texts in Linear B give us indications on the organization and functioning of certain Mycenaean states, in continental Greece (especially in Pylos) but also in Crete around Knossos. They make it possible to place these regions of the Mycenaean world in a broader context, that of the Late Bronze Age states attested essentially in the Middle East (Ugarit, Alalakh, Babylon or Egypt for those for whom more sources on current life are available), whose society and economy are dominated by an institution emanating from the central power: the palace. Its real influence is systematically debated because we cannot know exactly what part of society escapes us because we know it essentially through the palace archives, and even only through the latter in the Mycenaean world, which did not deliver any archives of a private nature.

These local sources are, however, too allusive to give an accurate picture, and they do not allow us to understand the general organization of the Mycenaean world. The information on the Mycenaean world coming from other states with political interests in the western Mediterranean (Hittites, Egypt) is complex to interpret. These reservations having been made, it can be recognized that the analysis of these sources allows for attractive and sometimes plausible reconstructions that should not be avoided, even if it should be kept in mind that they are very often impossible to prove definitively.

The Mycenaean States

In the absence of direct written sources, since the Mycenaean tablets document us only on the internal organization of the regional States of Pylos and Knossos (and still in a very imprecise way), the general political organization of the Mycenaean world cannot be known with certainty. The palatial sites whose importance lets suppose that they dominated regional states in continental Greece are Mycenae, Tirynthe, Pylos, Thebes, and at most Midea, and in Crete Knossos and Chania, perhaps to add other important Mycenaean sites like Orchomena, Gla, Athens, Sparta (Ayios Vasileios) or Dimini (Iolcos, towards Volos) which could have been palatial centers but delivered few or no tablets, or Phylakopi in the Cyclades. This leaves aside other regions, such as Phocis, Arcadia, Achaia, Inner Thessaly and North-Western Greece, which seem to remain on the fringe of a palatial system.

For the regions having several palatial centers, it is necessary to refine the analyses: in Argolid, it remains to be determined which center dominated Mycènes, Tyrinthe or Midéa, even if the favors often go to the first; in Crete, Knossos dominates a great part of the island before the destruction of its palace about 1370, after which emerge autonomous centers of which Chania which was before under its control; in Béotie finally, it is possible that Thèbes must face a State of Orchomène (which perhaps dominates the citadel of Gla), prefiguration of the rivalry of the two cities at the time classic. In the current reconstitutions, one would be in presence of at least seven States in continental Greece: Argolid around Mycènes, Messénie around Pylos, Laconie dominated by a site located towards Sparta (Ménélaion or Ayios Vasileios), Eastern Béotie centered on Thèbes, Western Béotie around Orchomène, Attica dominated by Athens, and coastal Thessalie around Volos (Dimini

Was there a state which could dominate all the Mycenaean world at a certain period? That remains impossible to determine. The existence of a kind of Mycenaean koinè around the Aegean does not mean that there was a political power dominating the region. The archaeological traces of a more or less strong Mycenaean influence in Crete, the Cyclades, the Dodecanese or coastal Asia Minor could indicate a Mycenaean political domination at certain times, but such an interpretation of the sources is far from convincing. It is finally the mention in Hittite sources of the 14th-13th centuries BC of a "King of the Ahhiyawa", compared to the "King of the Achaeans" Agamemnon in the Iliad, which is the main argument in favor of the existence of a sovereign dominating the Mycenaean world. Mycenae remains the best candidate as the capital of this supposed hegemonic kingdom (but certainly not "imperial" in view of the documentation), because of the memory that it left in the Greeks of the following periods, first of all Homer, and also because of the importance of the site.

As things stand, it is a study of a Mycenaean world fragmented between several states and other political entities that remains more reasonable. It is thus on their nature that the essential reflections on the politics, the economy and the society of the Mycenaean world are concentrated, even if it is complex to determine to what extent what one observes there is generalizable to the other areas on which this civilization extends.

The palatial administration

The knowledge of the political organization of the Mycenaean society is better at the local scale, thanks to the administrative sources in linear B coming from the palaces of Pylos and Knossos, or from Thebes. It is a question here of "palaces" as an institution controlling a territory, around which gravitate administrators and

The administrative records give us a glimpse of the political organization of the state, which appears to be a kingdom, headed by the wa-na-ka (ϝάναξ

The tablets do not specify either the name of the ra-wa-ke-ta, who is thus probably a single dignitary in the kingdom. One of them, in Pylos, mentions him after the wa-na-ka; he is the only dignitary to have a te-me-no, whose surface is three times smaller than that of the wa-na-ka, and also has dependents. The ra-wa-ke-ta would thus be the second in command of the latter. It has been assumed that he was a warlord, breaking down the term into law-agetas (from λαϜός, which denotes the warrior class in Homer, and ἄγω, "to lead, to drive"), "conductor of the warriors," but the texts do not indicate anything in this sense. Other dignitaries are the te-re-ta, who appear in the texts as the holders of a certain class of lands, the ki-ti-me-na. Their name suggests that they are linked to an office (τέλος), but the nature of which is unknown. Perhaps they perform a religious function. The e-qe-ta, literally the "companions" (of the "knights"), receive food, clothing, and weapons from the palace, but otherwise possess income. They receive important assignments from the palace and their name, close to ἑπετας, "servant," suggests that they are dependent on it. They could have a warlike function.

Besides the members of the court, other dignitaries of the palace are in charge of the local administration of the territory. The kingdom of Pylos is divided into two large provinces, the de-we-ra ka-ra-i-ja, the "close province", around the city of Pylos on the coast, and the Pe-ra-ko-ra-i-ja, the "distant province", around the city of Re-u-ko-to-ro. They are in their turn divided respectively into nine and seven districts, then a whole of "communes". To direct the districts, it seems that the king appoints a ko-re-te (koreter, "governor") and a pro-ko-re-te (prokoreter, "sub-governor") who assists him (terms also attested in the tablets of Knossos). The function of qa-si-re-u (cf. the Greek βασιλεύς

These characters are among the most important social stratum, they are probably the ones who live in the vast mansions found near the Mycenaean palaces. Other people are linked by their profession to the palace, but not necessarily more well-off than the members of the da-mo (literally "peoples", cf. δῆμος

In addition to being an administrative body, the palace is also an economic agent. In the agricultural domain, two batches of tablets provide us with some indications on the land tenure of the kingdom of Pylos, above all those of the palace. But they concern only limited parts of the land. We see two types of land: ki-ti-me-na, which could be a palatial domain, and ke-ke-me-na, which would be a communal domain, cultivated by individuals. A part of the documented palatial lands makes up the te-me-no of the wa-na-ka and ra-wa-ke-ta, already mentioned; these people would thus have a significant public domain due to their function. The other part of the ki-ti-me-na lands is granted as a benefit (o-na-to) to members of the palace administration, such as the te-re-ta, perhaps as a form of remuneration as is the case in the Near East at the same period. The same archives of Pylos show us that the palace levied taxes in kind on members of the rural communities, probably as a fee for the allocation of palatial land. This institution also had workshops: the textile mobilizes a significant number of female workers in Knossos as in Pylos, grouped in several workshops; and for the production of wool, the palace must have had important sheep herds. The metallurgy is also documented in Pylos by a series of tablets which shows that the palace distributed bronze to blacksmiths who then had to return the finished product. Finally, the institution is also an important actor of the exchanges, at the local level by the redistribution of the products of the economy which it collects and stores, and undoubtedly also for the exchanges at long distance, which are however absent from the administrative tablets.

The palace had finally a function in the military organization of the kingdoms, as it is visible in the archives of Pylos, which could testify to a crisis situation preceding the violent destruction of the palace, and thus show us measures which seem intended to prepare for attacks. The palatial institution had offensive and defensive weapons and armor made, stored and maintained, and its stockpiles of metals and its relations with the kingdom's blacksmiths seem to be devoted above all to this. There are also mentions of chariots and horses, which may have been used for combat, but also for transport, their function not being specified. A group of tablets of Pylos mentions the sending of contingents of requisitioned oarsmen, as well as "coast guards" (o-ka) to watch the coast of Messinia, directed by an e-qe-ta. Like the latter, several of the characters of the palatial administration which appear in the management tablets must have had a military function, constituting then a kind of "military aristocracy" of the Mycenaean kingdoms.

Palace and society

The socio-economic organization of the Mycenaean kingdoms known from the texts thus seems to be roughly bipartite: a first group works in the orbit of the palace (as an institution), while another works for its own account, generally within the framework of a subsistence economy that escapes the available documentation. It would seem that a distinction can be made among the dignitaries attested in the tablets between those who depend directly on the palace and are therefore close to the sovereign (e-qe-ta "companions" of the king, ko-re-te-re, pro-ko-re-te-re) and the local dignitaries supervising the village communities (others occupy an intermediate position, serving the palace for specific missions but without being part of its administration (qa-si-re-u, ke-ro-te). It is therefore not necessary to envisage a rigid separation between these two spheres, for nothing prevents people working for the palace from having conducted their personal affairs at the same time. Moreover, the archives which one has are very limited, and do not relate to all the population of the States studied, and this more especially as the reconstitution of the economic and social organization of the Mycenaean world is largely dependent on the files of the palaces of Knossos and Pylos, or of Thebes and not of the other States.

A recurring question concerning the Mycenaean states of Pylos and Knossos is the place that the palace would have had in the overall economy and society of the dominated territory. It was thought at one time that the palace was an organization with a vast hold on the economy and society, playing the role of principal employer and redistributor of the resources it collected. This view was marked by the fact that the written sources come only from the palace, but also by the "substantivist" approach to the ancient economy that had previously been dominant, as well as by the example of the reconstructions of the economies of the ancient Near East, and of Mesopotamia in particular, that were then in use, seeing them as strongly framed by the palaces (and sometimes also the temples). Since then, these interpretations of institutions exerting a broad hold on Bronze Age society and economy have been nuanced, and recent studies on the role of the palace of the Mycenaean states have largely relativized its place. This institution is increasingly seen as essentially serving the kings and the elite, providing them with a source of wealth and a means of control over the population. But it remains to be seen whether the palace still played an important role in the economy of the kingdom, or whether it was negligible.

The management of the palatial economy of these states was more precisely taken in charge by scribes, who do not seem to have been professional scribes but rather administrators who knew how to read and write. The archives found are the work of only a few dozen of these scribes at the most (about a hundred at Knossos, about fifty at Pylos). They note the entries and exits of products, give the work to be done, and are in charge of the distribution of the rations. There were some offices specialized for the sheep breeding or the textile in Knossos. But the texts are grouped in important batches only in Pylos; in general they are dispersed and not very numerous. Nothing thus testifies to a true bureaucracy framing the society in these States, and inescapable for the good course of the economy. The economic strategy of the palace administrators would seem to be more oriented towards the satisfaction of certain needs: subsistence and remuneration of the elites who were also the administrators, and their supply of prestige goods; management of strategic products for the state, above all armaments; perhaps ensuring surpluses to face up to possible shortages that might affect the population; or even investment in remunerative productions (oil, wool). In concrete terms, the sectors in which it is most present are agriculture, textile production and metallurgy.

It is also necessary to highlight the fact that the written documentation poses problems that are reminiscent of those of architectural and artistic documentation: coming from the palatial institution, it therefore reflects a vision of Mycenaean society that is that of the elites, who are the same as those who thought, built and organized the buildings that have been uncovered, for whom the great majority of the tombs that are known were built, and who commissioned most of the handicraft productions

The economic activities of the Mycenaean period are accessible to us through archaeological studies documenting in particular the artisanal productions, and sometimes on their circulation which lets suppose circuits of exchanges, as well as by the study of the agricultural products consumed by the populations having lived in the excavated sites. While until the Middle Helladic period, the subsistence economy with a local purpose was almost the only one attested, the productions being rarely specialized or disseminated on a supra-local scale, the early days of the Late Helladic period saw the establishment of more prosperous societies, practicing more varied and specialized activities, and the circuits of exchange became considerably longer. The gradual establishment of palatial structures and the traces of their functioning that appear in their archives in linear B from HR III onwards confirm this impression. It is for this last period that we are thus best documented on the economic activities of Mycenaean Greece, above all in this palatial institutional framework on which the essential of the excavations was concentrated and in which one found the administrative texts.


The agricultural production, which is the most important activity as for any ancient society, but not the best documented, is dominated by a polyculture associated with a breeding of small livestock. The first times of the recent Helladic period saw the definitive establishment in continental Greece of the "Mediterranean triad": cereals, vines and olives, following the expansion of the cultivation of the latter from the Aegean islands, above all Crete, which had been practicing it since the Ancient Bronze Age.

The cultivated cereals are wheat and barley. The annual income of cereals is estimated at 982 000 liters in Knossos, against 222 000 liters in Pylos. There are also plantations of olive trees, for the production of olive oil. This one is not only used for food, but also for the body care, the perfumes or the lighting. The Mycenaeans knew other oilseeds: flax, saffron (ka-na-ko), sesame (sa-sa-ma), as well as probably the castor and the poppy. Vines were cultivated, often in association with olive and fig trees, and even other intercrops. Several varieties of wine were produced: honeyed, sweet or sweet wines. A tablet from Mycenae mentions a crater, which suggests that the wine was already mixed with water, as in classical times. The wine was distributed during great religious festivals: a tablet of Pylos mentions the distribution of 11 808 liters of wine to nine localities during such an event. The excavations of Cretan sites (Phaestos in particular) have uncovered maies of lever presses used to press oil or wine. The rooms of the palaces sheltered vast reserves of wine or oil, as in the building located just north of the palatial complex of Pylos, where 35 jars were buried, each containing from 45 to 62 hectoliters. These elements allow us to consider the existence of an agriculture which goes beyond the search for the subsistence for these productions and within the framework palatial, in particular that of the fields from which the principal notables profited.

The tablets mention coriander, probably in the form of seeds (ko-ri-(j)a-da-na) as well as leaves (ko-ri-ja-do-no), fennel (ma-ra-tu-wo) and cumin (ku-mi-no), as well as peppermint (mi-ta) and spearmint (ka-ra-ko). Again, it is not known whether these plants, known today as spices, are used in cooking or whether they have other uses, for example medical. The texts do not mention any legumes, but plant remains attest to the consumption of peas, lentils, beans and chickpeas.

The livestock farming does not know changes in the composition of the livestock, but seems to have known an increase of the quantity of heads of cattle. Sheep and goats are the most present animals, which is logical in a Mediterranean environment; cattle and pigs seem rarer: the tablets of Pylos mention approximately 10.000 sheep, 2.000 goats, 1.000 pigs and about twenty oxen. The horses are essentially intended to pull the war chariots. The fishing of molluscs or fish could provide a food complement, especially on the coastal sites.


Since the beginning of the recent Helladic period, the traditional local craft industry is coupled with a craft industry that becomes more and more specialized, following the emergence of more complex socio-political structures. This allows the emergence of a standardized mass production in certain sectors, above all ceramics, textiles and metallurgy. This development is linked to that of trade, both in a regional and "international" context, which offers new outlets and allows the supply of certain raw materials such as metals. In the mines of Laurion, the extractive activity develops: one finds there silver, lead and also copper.

These changes are linked to the emergence of palatial centers, whose archives allow us to glimpse the functioning of certain craft sectors (but which are never "industrial"). The archives of Pylos show a specialized work, each worker belonging to a precise category, and having a specific place in the stages of the production, in particular in the textile. Everything was done under the control of the palace administration. Buildings serving as workshops have also been uncovered in the vicinity of Mycenaean palaces, for example the "House of shields" in Mycenae, which served as a place for the manufacture of objects made of ivory, earthenware and stone. The handicrafts found on the sites and in the necropolises show us the extent of the activities of the craftsmen of the Mycenaean world: terracotta pottery, metal work (mainly bronze and gold), the making of seals, food processing, etc. The tablets show us the textile craft industry, impossible to apprehend by archaeology; it is with metallurgy the field whose organization is best known, undoubtedly because they were the two fields which interested the palace most for strategic reasons. On the other hand, the organization of ivory work, well identified by archaeological finds, escapes documentation.

Textile activity is a sector that probably did not see any notable technical changes during the Late Helladic period, but did experience structural changes within the palatial framework, directed by a centralized administration. The tablets of Knossos thus make it possible to follow the entire production chain, managed by a handful of officials dividing up among themselves the supervision of precise fields of activity. First of all, the breeding of the sheep flocks, which included many heads of cattle that were counted and sheared. The wool obtained then passes into the artisanal domain by being distributed among the weavers (often women) who work it. Then, the tablets count the finished products which are then recovered and stored in the palace stores. The textile workers were up to 900, organized in about thirty workshops (the textile production being thus decentralized, unlike the administration), and paid by rations. The archives of the palace of Pylos show that one worked there especially linen, which grew in local fields and was undoubtedly obtained in good part by tax levies. The fabrics produced are not well known: the storage tablets mention different colors, especially on their bangs, and different qualities. It is not known how they were used after storage.

The metallurgy is well attested in Pylos, where the palace counts in its files approximately 400 workmen, whose workshops are dispersed on more than 25 localities of the territory, and thus seem little dependent on the institution. It distributes the metal to them so that they carry out the required work: on average 3,5 kg of bronze by blacksmith. This is done as a sort of chore for the institution (ta-ra-si-ja), which also involves textiles and other products. Their remuneration is unknown, as they are mysteriously absent from the lists of rations distributions. At Knossos, a few tablets testify to the manufacture of swords, but without mentioning any significant metallurgical activity. In any case, it is often in connection with the army that this production seems to be organized, or else to make luxury objects intended for export or for the cult.

Potters (ke-ra-me-u) are also mentioned in the epigraphic sources, although few ceramic workshops are known. They appear notably in lists of workers employed by the palace. Ceramics are indeed essential for the functioning of the palatial economy: they serve as containers for stored and moved foodstuffs, notably for the distribution of rations and offerings to the gods. They were also essential furniture in this period for everyday uses such as cooking and eating.

The craft of perfumery is also attested. The tablets thus describe the manufacture of perfumed oil: rose, sage, etc. We also know from archaeology that the workshops that were more or less dependent on the palace included other types of craftsmen: goldsmiths, ivory workers, stone workers, oil pressers, etc.

Product exchanges

Trade remains curiously absent from the written sources, which do not document merchants. Thus, once the perfumed oil of Pylos was stored in small jars, we do not know what happened to it. Large stirrup jars that contained oil have been found in Thebes, Boeotia. They bear inscriptions in linear B indicating their origin, western Crete. However, the Cretan tablets do not mention any exports of oil. We have little information on the distribution circuit of textiles. The Minoans exported fine fabrics to Egypt; no doubt the Mycenaeans did the same. Indeed, they probably took over the Minoan knowledge of navigation, as evidenced by the fact that their maritime trade took off after the weakening of the Minoan civilization. Certain productions, in particular fabrics and oil, even metallurgical objects and ceramics, were probably intended to be sold outside the kingdom, because they were too important in quantity for the only interior consumption. But it is not known in what way. It is however obvious that the development of exchanges was a condition of the development of the Mycenaean civilization, of its palatial structures, and of its Aegean expansion.

We can turn to the finds of objects on archaeological sites, following the traces of the Mycenaean expansion in the Aegean and beyond, to identify long-distance trade circuits. Numerous Mycenaean vases have thus been found on the shores of the Aegean, in Anatolia, Cyprus, the Levant, Egypt, but also further west in Sicily, or even in Central Europe. The testimony of the Uluburun wreck has already been mentioned above. But if all this indicates that Mycenaean products and perhaps Mycenaean merchants were moving over a vast area, probably for commercial reasons, the nature of the products exchanged remains enigmatic. Even the sources of supply of metal in Mycenaean Greece remain poorly established: it seems that lead and silver came from Laurion, which implies their circulation within continental Greece and the Aegean world, whereas the probable origin of copper is Cyprus, thus in the context of long-distance exchanges, but without decisive proof.

The circulation of Mycenaean goods on a regional scale is also traceable thanks to the "nodules". Thus, 55 nodules, found at Thebes in 1982, bear an ideogram representing an ox. Thanks to them, one was able to reconstitute the itinerary of these cattle: coming from all of Boeotia, even from Euboea, they were conveyed to Thebes to be sacrificed. The nodules aim to prove that they are not stolen animals and to prove their origin. Once the animals have arrived on site, the nodules are removed and collected to establish an accounting tablet. The nodules are used for all sorts of objects and explain how the Mycenaean accounting could be so rigorous. The scribe does not have to count the objects himself, he relies on the nodules to establish his tables.

The religious fact is rather difficult to identify in the Mycenaean civilization, in particular when it is a question of archaeological sites, where it remains difficult to locate with certainty a place of worship. As for the texts, only a few lists of offerings give us the names of gods, but do not tell us more about religious practices. Generally speaking, it seems that the border between profane and sacred is not very clear in the Mycenaean world, which makes the identification of the traces of the religious complex.


The Mycenaean pantheon attested by the tablets in linear B already includes many deities that we find in classical Greece. They are designated by the term te-o (theos), and we also find the expression pa-si-te-oi "for all the gods". The term po-ti-ni-ja, Potnia, "Mistress", "Lady", is used to designate various goddesses, accompanied by epithets, and also designates a specific goddess when used in isolation. The deities attested in Pylos and Knossos are Poseidon (po-si-da-jo), Zeus (di-we), while Dionysus (di-wo-nu-so) is attested in Pylos and Chania. Among the other attested deities: Diwia (di-u-ja), the female counterpart of Zeus and probably his goddess in this period, while Poseidon is associated with Posidaeia (po-si-da-e-ja), also Ares (a-re), Artemis (a-ti-mi-ti), Hera (e-ra), one of the "Furies", Erinyes (e-ri-nu), Ilithyia (god assimilated to Ares in later periods). The name of Hephaestus appears¨in the name of a person (a-pa-i-ti-jo). Athena is in the Potnia group, under the name A-ta-na po-ti-ni-ja which can be understood as "Lady of Athens". Similarly, a Si-to po-ti-ni-ja, "Lady of the Grain", could refer to Demeter, who could also appear in tablets from Thebes under the name ma-ka. Many of these readings remain uncertain. Thus it has been proposed to identify Apollo in a personal name with the term s-mi-te-u Smintheus, one of the names of the god in later periods; his name may appear in the treaty in Hittite cuneiform concluded between the Hittites and Alaksandu of Wilusa (Alexander of Ilion

Places of worship

No temple, as an architectural unit well differentiated from other buildings, has been identified for the Mycenaean period. Some groups of rooms integrated in larger buildings, with a central room of generally oblong shape surrounded by small rooms, could have served as places of worship. It is the case in Mycenae, Tyrinus, Pylos or Asinè. Some sanctuaries have been identified, such as Phylakopi, where a large number of statuettes have been found, probably as offerings, and it is assumed that sites such as Delphi, Dodona, Delos or Eleusis were already important sanctuaries, again without decisive evidence. Finally, cult ceremonies, even religious festivals, could have taken place in certain palace rooms, notably at Pylos. This remains however difficult to prove in an obvious way. Indeed, the presence of a spatial organization which seems to be that of a place of worship (with kinds of benches, altars), the presence of statuettes which seem to be deposits of offering, or rhytons which seem to be intended for libations, and the many remains of charred bones of animals having perhaps been sacrificed, all that is not worth a definitive confirmation as for the cultic function of the excavated place, even if that remains the most plausible assumption and the most currently admitted. In the texts we find places where sacrifices were carried out, which are often identified as places of worship, but whose nature cannot be determined, whether they were built or in the open air.

The presence of places of worship appears in any case in the texts, those of Pylos mentioning that each district has nawoi, places where the gods reside, taken care by priests supervised by the palace. The gods are in several cases venerated by group in a place of worship: the sanctuary of pa-ki-na-je (Sphagianes) in Pylos, which returns often in the texts, seems the principal place of worship of the kingdom, where are in particular venerated Potnia and Poseidon. The tablets also indicate to us that divinities had goods: the Potnia goddess thus has herds in Knossos, of blacksmiths in Pylos, of slaves. This perhaps indicates that the sanctuaries were economic organizations as in the Near East. One can moreover suppose the existence of a domestic cult, different from the official cult which is best documented.

Religious practices

There is little certainty about Mycenaean religious practices. "Priests" (i-je-re-u, ἱερεύς

The tablets show us that the palace supervises the collection of the animals and foodstuffs necessary for the current worship but also ceremonies and public banquets, thus of true religious festivals identified by their name, of which some could have been directed by the wa-na-ka or the ra-wa-ke-ta, in particular the festival of the "initiation of the wa-na-ka" in Pylos on the occasion of which more than 1 000 people receive food rations.

More broadly, the combination of the analysis of supposed places of worship, tablets and wall paintings provides an interesting set of sources on festive religious practices in the Mycenaean world. The seals and frescoes represent processions, libations, sacrifices, and musicians. We find some elements of Minoan religious imagery, but not others, such as scenes of "epiphany".

If the funerary practices are well documented, it remains impossible to draw anything conclusive on the beliefs of the Mycenaeans about the afterlife. The burials are largely superior in number to cremations before HR III C which sees a growth of this last practice. The tombs are often accompanied by offerings: vases filled with food and drink, figurines, objects of the deceased, sometimes even sacrificed animals (dogs, horses). But this is done at the time of death, and apparently rarely after burial. Collective tombs are common, but the meaning of this practice remains indeterminable with certainty. Some studies have attempted to go further in the interpretation of Mycenaean burial practices and beliefs, for example by suggesting the existence of an ancestor cult.

The Mycenaean civilization is characterized by its prosperity and by the uniformity of its material culture. The influence of Minoan Crete is strong from the beginning in all the fields of the craft industry, even if a continental originality develops gradually during the recent Helladic. However, some remarkable and original types of objects among the oldest are without posterity. The Mycenaean material culture is known above all by the archaeological finds, in particular the rich tombs which were not plundered in antiquity, but also the habitat. The frescoes and other graphic representations (such as engravings and paintings on vases) provide other clues, as well as the administrative sources in linear B.

Terracotta vases

Archaeology has found a large quantity of pottery for the Mycenaean period, which is characterized by the use of a fine clay, covered with a clear and smooth slip, with painted decoration in red, orange or black. The vases have very diverse forms: stirrup jars, jugs, craters, vases called "champagne glasses" because of their shape, etc.. The sizes of the vases can vary. Mycenaean ceramics appeared in HR I in the southern Peloponnese, probably under the influence of Minoan ceramics. The models are very homogeneous in the whole Mycenaean space at the HR III B, during which the production increases considerably in quantity, in particular in Argolid from where comes a great number of the vases exported out of Greece. Some innovations appear in the forms: thus, the feet of certain cups lengthen progressively, to the point that the old "wine glasses" become "champagne glasses". The decorations are often spirals, chevrons, shells, flowers, etc.. Other vases are decorated with figurative representations, representing in particular scenes of chariots, and later animal scenes with bulls, birds, or kinds of sphinxes.

The functions of these ceramics can be determined sometimes according to their shape, or even thanks to clues provided by tablets mentioning their use within the palace. Their production is of interest to the palace as a container for the storage of foodstuffs, offerings to the gods, but probably also for daily cooking or drinking. The more luxurious painted ceramics were largely intended for export, and are found on sites in Cyprus and the Levant, probably for their own sake, but also in some cases for their function as containers.

Towards the end of the Late Helladic period, Mycenaean ceramics lost its homogeneity, and local styles appeared: the "attic style" in Argolid, deep bowls with simple monochrome decoration, which prefigures the models of the geometric period; It rubs in this same region the "dense style" on which the decorations (the "style with bangs" of Crete, representing thick abstract reasons surrounded by fine lines being used of filling, and the "style with octopus", on the same island, whose painted scenes are dominated by an octopus whose tentacles cover a large part of the surface, surrounded by small birds or fish; certain vases still carry figurative representations.

Metal, stone and earthenware vases

The beginnings of the Late Helladic period saw the production of gold or silver tableware that was widespread in the rich tombs of the period. Several manufacturing methods can be distinguished: chiselled, embossed and, for the first time, plated or inlaid vases. These are drinking vessels such as footed cups or cup-like forms, or canthares, cups with two handles. Two remarkable cylindrical beakers were found in a tholos tomb at Vaphio near Sparta, with a single handle, and Cretan-inspired engraved decoration depicting on one a scene of capturing a wild bull and on the other tame bulls pulling a chariot. In HR III, the types of metal vases become scarcer and bronze becomes the most common metal in the known repertoire, while the tablets show that many vases are still made of gold and we know two silver vases inlaid with gold figures found in Dendra and Pylos. Low cups and cylindrical beakers are no longer found, but various forms of bronze vases are known: tripod cauldrons, basins, footed bowls, lamps, etc.

Some earthenware vases are known, but in a fragmentary state. Numerous stone vases (rock crystal, porphyry, serpentine, steatite, etc.), notably rhytons, have also been found on Mycenaean sites, but they originate essentially from Crete during most of the Late Helladic period, before a few productions were made on the mainland in the later Mycenaean periods, from obsidian or porphyry extracted in this region.


The only surviving stone bas-reliefs carved in Mycenaean Greece come from the site of Mycenae, in the early Helladic period. They are thirteen stelae found on the pit tombs of this site, representing in a crude style scenes of war, hunting or animal fights, decorated with decorative motifs based on a spiral. They have no known posterity. The only bas-relief of the late Helladic, but later, comes from the same site: it is the decoration over the "Gate of Lions". It represents two headless animals identified without certainty as being lions, arranged on either side of a column and resting their front legs on a sort of altar. The decoration has also disappeared. The style of this work is reminiscent of Cretan seals, unlike the older funerary bas-reliefs that are properly Mycenaean.

Among the treasures of the circle A of Mycenae, Schliemann found five gold funerary masks, including the famous "mask of Agamemnon". In the circle B, a mask in electrum was brought to light. They were made of a sheet of metal shaped on a carved wooden figure. Several of them seem to be portraits of the rulers buried in the tomb where they were found. They are isolated works, without parallel in the Mycenaean world.

The Mycenaean period did not yield any large statues, except for a female head (a sphinx?) of plaster painted with bright colors found at Mycenae. Most of the statuary of this period consists of fine statuettes and terracotta figurines, found notably at the site of Phylakopi, but also at Mycenae, Tirynthe or Asine. The majority of these statuettes represent anthropomorphic figurines (but there are also zoomorphic ones), male or female. They have different postures: arms outstretched, raised to the sky; arms folded on the hips; seated. They are painted, monochrome or polychrome. Their purpose is not certain, but it is very likely that they are votive objects, found in contexts that appear to be places of worship.

Jewelry and ornaments

The rich tombs of the HR I (pit tombs of Mycenae, tholos tombs of Messinia) have delivered jewelry strongly marked by the Minoan tradition, or more original and without posterity, such as diadems stamped in gold leaf. Several advances are noted in the technique during the HR: generalization of filigree, granulation, inlay, gold leaf plating, molded glass paste. Craftsmen made beads in gold, earthenware, glass paste, amber, of various shapes. Applique plates were made in gold leaf to be sewn on fabric; they had again various forms: geometric patterns, naturalistic, rosettes, animals. Gold rings are also found in the tombs. Pins are made of ivory or gold in the early periods of the RH, but bronze pins are more and more numerous in the course of time.


Seals are an important feature of Mycenaean artistic achievements. They could be worn as pendants, bracelets or rings, and served primarily to identify goods, and several seal impressions have been found on clay in palatial sites, but they also had a symbolic and ornamental function. The seals are indeed generally cut in the shape of a lens or an almond and engraved in a quality material, most often a rare stone (some rings are made of metal, notably gold in the case of some found in the pit tombs of Mycenae for HR I. This period marks the beginning of glyptics on the continent, following a strong Cretan inspiration. The dominant themes are warlike: fighting or hunting (notably a bearded man mastering wild animals). Others represent religious scenes, such as a gold seal-ring from Tyre which depicts four demons in procession carrying jugs towards a goddess who is holding a vase which they will probably fill. In HR III, the iconographic repertoire becomes poorer, and decorative motifs such as rosettes or circles appear and become more widespread.


The art of carved ivory has produced several of the most remarkable works unearthed on Mycenaean sites, first of all on the eponymous site of the civilization. The palace of the citadel of Mycenae has thus delivered a group of two goddesses accompanied by a child, strongly influenced by the tradition of Cretan ivories dating from earlier periods, as the characters wear clothes typical of the sculptures of the island. A vast quantity of ivories (nearly 18,000 objects and fragments) were found in two residences outside the citadel, the "House of the Shields" and the "House of the Sphinxes", which were probably not workshops where these objects were made, but rather where these ivories were added to the furniture they decorated. Remarkable carved plaques have been found there. Other sites have yielded ivories, including a tomb in the Agora of Athens where a blush box (pyxide) carved in an elephant tusk, on which are carved griffins hunting deer, or Spatta in Attica from which comes an ivory plate decorated with sphinxes.

Mural paintings

The mural painting of the Mycenaean period is largely influenced by that of the Minoan period from which it borrows a lot both for the style and for the subjects. Some murals have survived the test of time in Mycenaean palaces. The themes represented are varied: "religious" processions which were already common in Crete, but also scenes of hunting (including bullfighting), and of warlike combats which are thematic innovations. A fresco in the palace of Thebes represents a procession of women dressed in Cretan style and carrying offerings to a goddess. Other fragments of similar scenes have been found in Pylos and Tyre. From Mycenae comes an example of military fresco representing a siege scene, decorating the walls of the megaron of the palace. Other frescoes are made up of geometrical motifs. Some of the ceramics were also painted, with identical themes.


Military objects were found in treasures of the Mycenaean period. The tablets of linear B, found in the palaces and which contain ideograms representing the weapons, also give us indications on the armament (even if these signs express only the concept of a weapon and do not give us the various variants of the weapons), which one can supplement by other figurative representations (frescos, painted potteries).

From the point of view of the defensive armament, which is not well known, the most attested helmet is the one made with boar tusks sewn on leather straps, mentioned in the Iliad. Two types of shields are attested: a type in the shape of eight, and another semi-cylindrical, made of a wooden frame covered by several ox skins. The most impressive find is the armor of Dendra, dated HR II

Concerning the offensive armament, better known, we notice an evolution all along the HR. The sword, made of bronze, developed from the short dagger and spread throughout the continent during the Mycenaean period. Two types coexist at the beginning: a long heavy sword with a narrow blade, and another lighter one, short and wide. The models developed at the HR III A allow to strike of estoc and size, with a short blade and a more effective guard. Thereafter, the dagger, with a shorter and stronger blade, became widespread. Spearheads, a weapon probably used in combat but little attested in the tombs, tend to become shorter and sharper. Javelin points are also known, as well as numerous arrowheads, which may be made of bronze, but also of flint or obsidian. The warriors could ride on battle chariots, which spread on the continent in the Mycenaean period, but the uneven relief of Greece must not have facilitated its use on the battlefields.

The end of the Mycenaean period poses a set of problems that are still not solved, both from the point of view of chronology and of the interpretation of events.

Destructions and reorganizations

The decline is thus clear at the turn of the 12th century BC, when the Late Helladic IIIC begins, which constitutes the "postpalatial" period. The administration characteristic of the Mycenaean palatial system disappeared, the writing of tablets in linear B ceased, luxury goods were no longer imported. But the material Mycenaean features remain for at least a century, so that the period, although without palaces, is characterized as a phase of the Mycenaean civilization. A recovery is detected in several places around the middle of the century, but it is not lasting. The presence of warriors' graves indicates that there is still an elite in the 12th century B.C., but this one has obviously changed in nature and has become more military than administrative, which could be linked to the shift to times of chronic insecurity. Indeed, instability seems to be the watchword of the period, which probably saw important movements of populations and perhaps the rise of insecurity (revolts, pirate raids). The postpalatial period sees a decrease in the number of sites in Greece, which can be very important in certain areas (9

In Crete, the structure of the settlement changes: the coastal sites are abandoned in favor of inland sites located on the heights, which is explained by a search for protection and an increase in insecurity on the sea. In the Cyclades, contacts with the mainland decline, and it has been proposed that the disturbances observed in some places are due to the arrival of refugees from the mainland. After the period of unrest we find a site with a high level of wealth at Grotta on Naxos, but the situation of the other islands is obscure. On the coast of Asia Minor and Crete groups from the Aegean Mycenaean world or Mycenaean settle in this period, but we do not know how important they are, but they initiate major changes for these regions. More broadly, this crisis is part of a context of collapse of Bronze Age civilizations, which affects the ancient world from the eastern Mediterranean to Mesopotamia, and sweeps away several important kingdoms (primarily the Hittites, also Ugarit) and sees the marked decline of others (Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Elam).

The quest for causes

What are the causes of the decline of the Mycenaean civilization at this period? Indeed, beyond the destructions, which are not new in the previous history of the Aegean world of the Bronze Age, the most striking phenomenon is the absence of reoccupation of the major sites and the end of the palatial administration, which thus creates a major rupture, and it is that which has stimulated the most reflections. Several explanations have been put forward. Those based on natural disasters (climate change, earthquakes, drought, also epidemics) are often rejected but regularly resurface, and are not necessarily to be ruled out. Two main theories traditionally dominate: that of population movements and that of internal conflicts. The first one attributes the destruction of the Mycenaean sites to invaders. One invokes sometimes the Dorians and sometimes the Sea Peoples. It is now considered that the first, of which the later Greek historians speak, were already present in continental Greece before, and one thus tends not to accept any more the old theory of a "Dorian invasion" sweeping away the Achaean civilization, which does not appear in the archaeological documentation and rests only on linguistic arguments. The movements of peoples occurring from the Balkans to the Near East in this period, mentioned in Egyptian inscriptions designating the invaders under the name of "Peoples of the Sea", are them well certain although badly understood. It is known that these peoples participate in movements of populations probably responsible for numerous destructions in Anatolia or in the Levant, but the chronology of these destructions is very badly established. The material culture that spread with these migrations has in any case strong affinities with the Aegean world, in particular that of the first Philistines who arrived in the Near East. The mention of a people named Aqweš (which recalls the term "Achaean") in an Egyptian text of the twelfth century has made some scholars assume that Mycenaeans would have taken part in these population movements, especially since Mycenaeans probably settled in Cyprus around 1200. But once again these arguments remain unprovable, and current research is oriented towards a vision of groups mixing people from various backgrounds (Mycenaean, Mycenaeanized Aegean, Anatolian, Cypriot). The second theory makes fall the Mycenaean civilization during internal social conflicts, pulled by a rejection of the palatial system by the most underprivileged social layers, which would be impoverished at the end of the Recent Helladic. This hypothesis sometimes joins the previous one, when one tries to mix social divisions with ethnic divisions (revolt of the "Dorian" people reduced in servitude according to J. Hooker). Other proposals have directed the search for explanations towards a logic of socio-economic transformation, nuancing the catastrophism: the final period of the Mycenaean civilization would rather see a process of social recomposition, of redistribution of the power in the society, explaining the disappearance of the Mycenaean elites and of the characteristic features of this social group (palaces, tombs, art, writing, etc.), but affecting less the remainder of the society. Because of the chronological uncertainties, it is difficult to be more precise, and explanations based on a single cause seem to be excluded: it is a complex phenomenon based on several factors, in which intervenes a "snowball effect" which makes the situation less and less controllable and explains the extent of the collapse and the chaotic aspect of the situation that follows the destruction.

Towards the "dark ages

Whatever the causes and the modalities, the Mycenaean civilization disappears definitively in the last times of the HR III C, when the sites of Mycenae and Tirynthe are destroyed again, then abandoned, and become minor sites for the remainder of their existence. This end, to be dated to the last years of the 12th century or just after, occurs at the end of the long decline of the Mycenaean civilization, which took a good century before dying out. Rather than a sudden break, the Mycenaean culture disintegrates gradually. After that its main features are lost and are not preserved during the later periods. Thus, at the end of the Bronze Age, the great royal palaces, their administrative archives in linear B writing, the collective tombs and the Mycenaean artistic styles are without posterity: the whole "system" of the Mycenaean civilization has collapsed and disappeared. There is no longer any trace of an elite, the habitat is made up of villages or hamlets grouped together without public or cult buildings, the craft production strongly loses in variety and becomes essentially utilitarian, the differences in the production of ceramics and the funerary practices are strong, including between neighboring regions. The beginning of the 11th century opens a new context, that of the "sub-Mycenaean" phase, whose ceramic material is considerably impoverished compared to the palatial phases. Greece then entered the "dark centuries" of the historiographic tradition, which mark the passage from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, and towards the "geometric" ceramic traditions (the protogeometric period begins around the middle of the 11th century BC). The cultures that developed after the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization were less open to the outside world, their elites were less wealthy, and their socio-economic organization was less complex, even if the pessimistic picture that had previously prevailed was nuanced. At the end of the first centuries of the first millennium B.C., the Greeks of the archaic period, such as Hesiod and Homer, obviously know very little about the Mycenaean period, and it is a new Greek civilization that they set up.

The rupture created by the "dark centuries" is such that the Mycenaean civilization seems to fall in the lapse of memory and that its social and political characteristics disappear. On the side of the culture, the elements of continuity are debated. A first point is the fact that the Greek language is preserved during this period, even if the Mycenaean writing is forgotten, and that at the end of the dark ages the Greeks turn to the Near East to adopt its alphabet. The vocabulary of the Mycenaean period could be understood because it has many points in common with that of ancient Greek, but the meaning of the words knows notable evolutions between the periods, which refers to the changes which occur in the civilization of Greece. The archaeology also highlights many evolutions, as seen above: the Mycenaean palatial system disappears around 1200 BC, then the other material features of the Mycenaean civilization disappear in the course of the twelfth century BC, in particular its ceramic styles. The abandonment of many Mycenaean sites is another indicator of the radical nature of the rupture that then took place, as well as the evolution of burial practices, settlement and also architectural techniques. A system collapses, then a civilization, and something new is in gestation, on new bases. The fact that the archaeological data remains limited nevertheless prevents us from taking the full measure of the extent of the rupture that is taking place, of its modalities and its rhythm.

The question of the extent of the break between the Bronze Age and the Dark Ages is often asked in the field of religion. Mycenaean tablets have indicated that the Greeks of this period already worshipped the main deities known for the Archaic and Classical periods, with a few exceptions. But the structure of the pantheon seems to present significant differences, and few continuities emerge from the study of the rituals and the religious vocabulary, although the sacrifice to the gods is already the central act of the cult, according to principles that seem to correspond with those of the historical times. Moreover one knows nothing or not much about the functions and powers incarnated by the deities of the Mycenaean period, so the comparison is often limited to the names: but nothing says that the Zeus of the Mycenaean period has the same aspects as that of the archaic and classical periods. As for the question of the continuity of the places of worship, it is not more obvious to solve: there are certainly traces of Mycenaean occupation on certain major sanctuaries of classical antiquity (Delphi, Delos), but nothing indicates with insurance that it is already a sanctuary. In fact, very often when there is continuity of occupation, a sanctuary emerges during the Dark Ages from a Mycenaean site that has no obvious religious role, with a few exceptions (at Epidaurus, at Aghia Irini on Keos). This implies at least the preservation of a memory of the Mycenaean period, even if it is vague, which ensures the continuity of the occupation and even the attribution of a sacred aspect to a site. But the sanctuaries of the first millennium B.C., with their temples and their temenos, do not resemble in any way those identified for the Mycenaean period, which seems to indicate a profound rupture in religious beliefs and practices.

Another recurring question is the extent to which the Homeric narratives, and more broadly the epic cycles, provide information about the Mycenaean period. This goes back to the time of Schliemann's discoveries, who explicitly links his findings at Mycenae and Troy to the Homeric epics (which guided his research), and he is followed in this by the historians and archaeologists of the following decades. One of the pioneers of the history of Greek religion and mythology, Martin P. Nilsson, considered that the heroic narratives referred to the Mycenaean period, since several major sites of this period are presented as leading kingdoms (Mycenae, Pylos), and also that they document a period during which the royal institution is paramount, which corresponds well to the Mycenaean age. Moreover he spotted in the Mycenaean iconography antecedents to certain Greek myths. But these interpretations are far from unanimous, since the Mycenaean images are subject to several very divergent explanations, and that several important sites of the Mycenaean period are not attested in the epic texts, and that some major kingdoms of the epics have not left any trace of the Mycenaean period (first of all Ithaca, the homeland of Odysseus). Since the 1950s, with the translation of the Mycenaean tablets, which allowed us to improve our knowledge of this civilization, then the work of M. I. Finley, and the archaeological discoveries that followed, the consensus that has emerged is that the Homeric texts do not describe the Mycenaean world, which is very much older than the time of their writing (around the second half of the 8th century BC) and very different from what we know today. C.) and quite different from what transpires in these accounts, but the society of their time of writing and those which immediately precede it (thus the Dark Ages), while adding reminiscences of the Mycenaean ages. It has thus been proposed that the Homeric texts would preserve some authentic memories of the ritual traditions of the Bronze Age. A helmet made of boar's tusks similar to those known for the Mycenaean period is accurately described in a passage of the Iliad (X.260-271), whereas this type of object is unknown for the Homeric period, which indicates that knowledge of certain elements of the Mycenaean material culture may have survived.


  1. Mycenaean Greece
  2. Civilisation mycénienne

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