Lesson 29: Narrative

Post-Palatial Twilight: The Aegean in the Twelfth Century B.C.

  1. Architecture
  2. Burial Customs
  3. Bronzes
  4. Representational Art
  5. Concluding Comments


Although the palaces were never rebuilt at Mycenae and Tiryns after the destruction at the end of the LH IIIB period, these sites were certainly not abandoned in the LH IIIC phase. At Mycenae, houses within the citadel were rebuilt both on their old foundations and on entirely new ones. Major structures like the “Granary” just inside the Lion Gate continued to be occupied until well on into the LH IIIC period. At Tiryns, recent excavations by the Germans suggest that the Lower Town outside the walls (Unterstadt) was extensively rebuilt in the early LH IIIC period after the flash flood that had overwhelmed most of its LH IIIB predecessor and required the construction of the great dam to the east of the site (see handout on “Mycenaean Public and Funerary Architecture”). Outside the walls of Tiryns to the southeast, a large and impressive megaroid building with a central hearth and three internal columns set in a row was built in advanced LH IIIC. Within the Lower Citadel (Unterburg), a number of substantial buildings were erected, as well as the tiny shrine against the west fortification wall. The fortifications at Mycenae and Tiryns no doubt continued to function, although the evidence from Tiryns indicates that the underground water-supply system there went out of use and was filled with a large deposit of late LH IIIB and LH IIIC rubbish, the same being true also of the water-supply system at Athens. A magnificent LH IIIC fresco of a life-sized, elaborately coiffed and bejewelled female figure at Mycenae indicates that wall-painting was still practiced as a major art, at least at some sites. Substantial amounts of LH IIIC architecture are also known from Lefkandi, Asine, Korakou, and Teichos Dymaion.

Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that Mycenaean civilization survived the disasters of ca. 1200 B.C., the 12th century on the Mainland was clearly a turbulent period. In the Argolid, Mycenae suffered another major destruction by fire within the citadel ca. 1150/1125 B.C. and the large magaron outside the walls at Tiryns was destroyed at about the same time. The large number of distinct LH IIIC levels at Lefkandi attest to repeated destructions at that site. In the islands, the destruction of the twin shrines at Phylakopi and of the temple at Ayia Irini, both ca. 1120 B.C., may have been due to a massive earthquake, but the destruction by fire of Koukounaries on Paros two generations or so earlier was probably due to human agency. The late 12th century and the early 11th is characterized by a general decline from which Mycenaean culture did not recover. Burials of this period in cist graves are known from the Acropolis at Athens and from within the citadel at Mycenae. This transformation of Mycenaean walled citadels into burial grounds presumably represents their abandonment as major centers of settlement. Messenia and Laconia furnish little evidence of occupation at any point in LH IIIC and were probably only sparsely occupied throughout the period.

The 12th century in Crete appear to have been equally unsettled. It seems likely that there were influxes of Mainland Greek migrants to the island at various times during this period, and the unsettled nature of life on the island during the LM IIIC period is reflected in the appearance of refugee settlements such as Karphi (on a peak high above the Lasithi Plain of central Crete), Kavousi-Kastro, Chalasmeno, and Katalimata (on peaks and a virtually inaccessible ledge overhanging a ravine at the northeast end of the isthmus of Ierapetra), Erganos (on a steep acropolis in the southwestern foothills of Mt. Dikte), Kastro Kepahala (on a high ridge near the north coast and just west of Heraklion), Kastri (on a steep acropolis above the earlier LH IIIA-B settlement at Palaikastro in east Crete), and numerous other sites explored and mapped during the 1980’s and 1990’s by K. Nowicki.


Burial Customs

Two new funerary practices make their first significant appearance on the Mainland in the latter half of the LH IIIC period: cremation and individual burial in cist tombs. Cremation appears in LH IIIC chamber tombs at Perati in eastern Attica and at Ialysos on Rhodes, as well as in the cemetery of “Submycenaean” cist graves in the Kerameikos of Athens. This mode of burial is generally considered to have been introduced into the Aegean world from the east, possibly from Anatolia (cf. the cremation cemetery of Troy VIh, the presence of numerous cremations in Mycenaeanizing chamber tombs at Müskebi near Bodrum on the west Anatolian coast, and Hittite burial customs). Although cist grave burial was considered by Desborough to be an intrusive feature in late Mycenaean Greece, a custom introduced from the north (Epirus), most scholars now consider it to be simply a revival of Middle Helladic burial customs. In fact, individual cist grave burials had never entirely disappeared in Greece during the period of Mycenaean palatial civilization, and it is probable that, during the unsettled times of the LH IIIC period, people were reluctant to go to the effort of digging out large chamber tombs for collective burial when the chances of their remaining settled in a given area for any length of time were relatively slim. Chamber tombs disappear as a Mainland Greek burial form before the end of LH IIIC, and tholoi persist only in a very few areas such as Messenia and Thessaly.



Two new major items of metalwork had appeared in the Mycenaean world toward the end of the LH IIIIB period: the “Naue II” type of cut-and-thrust sword, a superior weapon with a long future ahead of it in both bronze and iron; and the fibula, a safety pin of bronze or gold with an even longer future ahead of it in a variety of different metals. The new sword type became standard by the end of LH IIIC. The earliest fibulae of the so-called “violin bow” type were joined by the variant known as the “arched” type during the LH IIIC phase. Also appearing only after the beginning of the LH IIIC period is a series of long pins of bronze which, like the fibulae, have often been considered to have their origin in non-Mycenaean areas to the north, although some of the pin types are almost certainly Near Eastern (either Cypriot or Levantine) in ancestry.


Representational Art

Although writing, palace buildings and their associated economies, and massive architectural programs of various kinds may have disappeared or ceased suddenly around 1200 B.C., architecture on an impressive scale, figurine manufacture, and a sophisticated ceramics industry continued for at least another fifty to seventy-five years before the repeated destructions at most major sites began to take an inevitable toll. Other artistic media, such as seal-carving and perhaps also ivory-carving, appear to have been in a state of decline well before the destructions and abandonments that characterize the end of the LH IIIB period, quite possibly as a result of the unavailability of the raw materials that artisans working in such media would have required. Still other arts, such as wall-painting, continued to be practised for a brief time in the earlier 12th century before seeming lack of demand dictated their extinction.

Since figurines were typically produced as single figures, whether in human or in animal form, the representational art of this post-palatial era that takes the form of true scenes – two or more figures, objects, or landscape features that are somehow interrelated – is almost entirely restricted to pottery. As in palatial times, the most popular figurally decorated shape is the mixing bowl (krater) used at all-male drinking parties (symposia). The most popular scenes, however, are no longer the unhurried parades of chariots or major sources of protein (chiefly bulls, but also deer, fowl, and fish, possibly all to be interpreted as the principal comestibles at royal feasts) characteristic of LH IIIA1-IIIB amphoroid and bell kraters. Rather, the activities displayed most often on the post-palatial kraters of at least the Greek mainland are scenes of the hunt or of warriors on the march, whether on foot or in chariots.

This post-palatial pictorialism in ceramics peaks about halfway through the LH IIIC period (ca. 1160/1140 – 1120/1100 B.C.), at which point at least two artists working in a four color polychrome style (palce clay ground; lustrous but mottled, iron-based dark paint; matt white, used only as an added color; matt ochre) are active at Mycenae. The better documented of these painted the well-known Warrior Vase depicting two groups of differently accoutered foot soldiers on opposite sides of the vase. Outfitted with horned or horsehair-crested [so-called “hedgehog”] helmets, small shields, and spears, these two groups conspicuously do not wear the armament characteristic of Mycenaean palatial culture, the body shield [of either “figure-of-eight” or “tower” type] and the boars’-tusk helmet. These emblems of a bygone age, in faact, no longer appear in Mycenaean art following the palatial destructions. Their last well-dated use, on present evidence, appears to be in the frescoes that decorated the walls of the palaces at Mycenae, Tiryns, and Pylos burnt to the ground at the end of the LH IIIB period.

The polychromy exploited in a ceramic medium by the painter of the Warrior Vase was a technique he had evidently learned as a fresco painter, to judge from a polychrome-decorated, plastered slab (actually a re-used Shaft Grave stele) from Mycenae that he also appears to have painted. Numerous other features of developed LH IIIC pictorial vase painting – choice of subject matter, rendering of space, employment of various filling ornaments for both human and animal figures as an alternative approach to the use of polychromy, and extensive overlapping of figures – reveal that the artists chiefly responsible for the renaissance in ceramic pictorialism ca. 1160/1140 had transferred their attention to pottery after being trained in other media. The phenomenon of these artists switching media, not only in the Argolid but throughout mainland Greece and the islands, is an eloquent statement about how Aegean society had changed in just a generation or two: the monarchs who once commissioned works of art in a broad range of media for a variety of different purposes (mostly for self-advertisement, but also to reward loyal followers, one imagines, as well as to serve as gifts for peers) either no longer existed or else were simply unable to supply their artisans with the necessary materials.

New choices of subject reveal an attitude suggesting that monarchy, at least of the kind familiar in the palatial era, had been eliminated. The absence of traditional shield and helmet types has already been cited. The animals that used to be the totems of Mycenaean royalty – the lion, the griffin, and perhaps also the sphinx – are now portrayed in cartoon-like ways that seem deliberately to mock the grandeur once attached to these symbols. Thus griffins no longer guard the occupants of thrones, as at Knossos and Pylos, but instead feed their babies in a nest on a well-known pyxis from Lefkandi. Lions don’t guard thrones or other royal emblems such as columns resting on altars, as they once did in the throne room at Pylos or in the Lion Gate relief at Mycenae, nor do they testify to the bravery of heroes who engage them in one-opn-one combats on gold seals or relief-decorated stelai from the Shaft Graves; instead, they are depicted, on a krater fragment from Lefkandi, in rampant, antithetic postures almost as tabby cats playing with a ball of string. Again from Lefkandi, another krater fragment shows an adult sphinx with its downsized offspring in a pictorial context which, like that of the griffins cited above, puts an emphasis more on the domesticity, and hence innocuousness, of these former guardians of royalty than on their awe-inspiring fierceness. That is, creatures that once served kings for their apotropaic qualities now seem to symbolize nurturing or even playful elements in ordinary domestic settings. A light-ground neck-handled amphora from Argos may provide another example of mockery of the royal past. This vase bears three or four motifs on its belly that look vaguely like the ideograms or syllabograms of Linear B. Though not actual Linear B signs, they do make this amphora resemble one of the large stirrup jars inscribed with Linear B in the belly zone that have been found in some quantity in the ruins of the Mycenaean palace at Thebes. Could it be that the Argive vase is a spoof of Mycenaean writing, “nonsense signs” painted on a vase that is similar in function, but decided not of the same type, as the standard transport container of the palatial trade in bulk liquid foodstuffs?

Music is alleded to in several new ways on LH IIIC pottery. A {citharode} [singing lyre-player] on a collared jar fragment could be derived from a wall-painting such as the that depicting a bard on the wall immediately flanking the throne in the palace at Pylos. Another jar fragment shows a group of at least three open-mouthed singers belting out either a tune or a military chant as they march in front of a chariot; strongly reminiscent of the three singers on the relief-decorated “Harvester Vase” found in the LM IB destruction level of Ayia Triadha, those on this LH IIIC jar may likewise reflect singing activites depicted during palatial times in wall-painting. A side-spouted jar from Naxos that may have been used in funerary ceremonies depicts a series of schematic, paper-doll-like dancers in what may have been a form of musical ceremony conducted at a burial.

More striking, perhaps, because many of the pieces in question are much better preserved are a substantial number of vases from a surprisingly wide variety of sites that depict ships. The vessels appearing on a pyxis found in the Tragana tholos in Messenia, on a small stirrup jar from a chamber tomb at Asine, and on a larger stirrup jar from the island of Skyros all lack people, were all found in fenerary contexts, and just possibly were all produced for such a purpose. By contrast, a magnificent series of kraters found recently by Dakoronia (1987) ay Kynos-Livadhates in coastal Locris and on now display in the Lamia Museum show warships and on-board combat, as probably do a number of more fragmentarily preserved kraters from Kos. These kraters illustrate ships for the first time ever on the Greek mainland [aside from the stern cabins, or {ikria}, decorating a wall in the palace at Mycenae that have been published by M. Shaw (1980)]; in the islands, these are the first ship depictions since the LC I examples decorating the walls of Room 5 in the West House at Akrotiri on Thera and a somewhat later building at Ayia Irini on Keos. Like the abandonment of body shields and boars’-tusk helmets, this sudden popularity of ships has much to say about the nature of warfare in this period, especially when taken in combination with the prevalence of hilltop refuge sites in both the islands and on Crete.

Stirrup jars of medium size in eastern Attica, the Cyclades, and the Dodecanese become the vehicles in the middle of the LH IIIC period for elaborate pictorial compositions centered around large octopi. These vases are likely to spinoffs of the LM IIIA2-B octopus stirrup jars of Crete, which had included both large vessels for the bulk transport of liquids such as oil and wine and smaller and more carefully decorated containers probably reserved for much more costly perfumed oils. The elaborately decorated LH IIIC octopus stirrup jars of the mid-12th century are usually of an intermediate size, too small for bulk shipments and too large as containers of valuable essences. Given the nature of the times and the size of the jars, the use of such containers to hold oil or wine produced as a surplus for trade thus seems unlikely. Perhaps they held a marine product, such as the nutritious and moderately expensive fish sauce suggested as the possible contents of the so-called “duck askoi” of the Phylakopi I culture in much the same region some eight centuries earlier. The decorative styles of these LH IIIC octopus stirrup jars change noticeably from region to region, eastern Attica, Naxos, Crete, and the Dodecanese each having its own characteristic combination of shape and ornament. In the case of this particular form of post-palatial ceramic pictorialism, its purpose appears to be as a regional marker, a way of identifying the source of the luxury product that each such jar contained.


Concluding Comments

Our knowledge of the LH IIIC Greek Mainland has increased tremendously since Vermeule’s Greece in the Bronze Age was published in 1964 as the result of new excavations at Lefkandi, Mycenae, Tiryns, Teichos Dymaion, Aigeira, Asine, Kalapodi, and other sites. Publications of material from sites excavated before 1965 such as Perati and Korakou, as well as of finds from sites in the Cyclades such as Grotta (Naxos), Phylakopi (Melos), and Koukounaries (Paros), have also dramatically expanded our understanding of post-palatial Mycenaean culture. It is now apparent that the ultimate demise of Mycenaean civilization was a gradual process spread over a full century to a century and a half following the destruction of the last palaces. The growing cultural regionalism throughout the 12th century serves as a prelude to the highly localized character of Greek culture during the Dark (ca. 1050-700 B.C.), Archaic (ca. 700-480 B.C.), and even Classical (480-323 B.C.) ages. Only in the Hellenistic (323-31 B.C.) period does the cultural uniformity which typified the Mycenaean koine during its heyday of the 14th and 13th centuries B.C. reappear in the Aegean.

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