Lesson 21: Narrative

Mycenaean Public and Funerary Architecture: Fortifications, Drainage Projects, Roads, and Chamber Tombs


Methods and Materials

Mycenaean fortification walls tend to be built along the edge of a sharp change in elevation in the local topography so that the masonry of the wall combines with the natural contours of the site to create an even more formidable obstacle for would-be attackers. The walls are usually founded in extremely shallow beddings carved out of the bedrock. “{Cyclopean}”, the term normally applied to the masonry style characteristic of Mycenaean fortification systems, describes walls built of huge, unworked limestone boulders which are roughly fitted together. Between these boulders, smaller hunks of limestone fill the interstices. The exterior faces of the large boulders may be roughly hammer-dressed, but the boulders themselves are never carefully cut blocks. Very large boulders are typical of the Mycenaean walls at Mycenae, Tiryns, Argos, Krisa (in Phocis), and the Athenian Acropolis. Somewhat smaller boulders occur in the walls of Midea, whereas large limestone slabs are characteristic of the walls at Gla. Cut stone masonry is used only in and around gateways, conglomerate at Mycenae and Tiryns and perhaps both conglomerate and limestone at Argos.

Dates and Building Programs

Three-part building programs have been detected at both Mycenae and Tiryns, although it is unclear whether the various stages of building at the two sites are contemporary. At both sites, the earliest fortification systems are dated to the later LH IIIA period, while the final fortification networks (including water-supply systems at both sites) are dated to the advanced LH IIIB period, ca. 1250 B.C. The Mycenaean fortifications of the Athenian Acropolis are said to be of LH IIIB date, although the evidence for such a dating is not very abundant. The water-supply system at Athens can, however, be dated quite confidently to the end of the LH IIIB period, this system being in all probability an imitation of the functionally similar arrangements at Mycenae and Tiryns. Gla’s fortifications were apparently built all at once in the early LH IIIB period. The walls at Midea, Argos, and Krisa have yet to be dated accurately.

The major extension of the Tirynthian fortification system to the north in that site’s third phase of fortification building used to be considered as the enclosure of a large open space in which herds of animals might be kept during times of siege, but the German excavations directed by K. Kilian in the late 1970′s and early 1980′s within this {Unterburg} [i.e. Lower Citadel] have shown that the space in question was fairly densely occupied by houses. Both at Mycenae and at Tiryns, a major feature of the extensions built in the third phase of fortification at these sites was the inclusion of tunnels leading from within the walls of these extensions to underground water sources outside the walls. In both cases, the water sources in question lay at relatively low levels beneath the hilltops which were enclosed within the walls, and the builders of these fortifications evidently rejected the option of weakening the fortification circuit as a whole (or perhaps simply of marring its visual impact) by including the water sources within the walls. Sally ports were located fairly close to the tunnels leading to the water sources in order to provide defense of these water supply systems in case a besieging enemy tried to foul the water or destroy the tunnels themselves. The tunnels leading to the water sources were cunningly camouflaged where they extended beyond the area actually enclosed within the fortification walls. The water supply systems at Mycenae, Tiryns, and Athens are clear evidence for a concern with siege warfare never before attested during the Aegean Bronze Age except in the form of an apparently earlier (and possibly ancestral?) LH II or IIIA underground water source just outside the fortification wall at Ayia Irini on Keos. The construction of the large south and east galleries at Tiryns, presumably facilities for the storage in quantity of surplus agricultural produce, can be viewed as reflecting the same concern on the part of their builders.

A feature peculiar to Mycenae and Tiryns is the construction of a number of rather small, corbel-vaulted chambers within the thickness of their fortification walls. At Mycenae, these are located in a stretch of the north wall, while at Tiryns they occur frequently in the walls of the “Unterburg”. The function of these chambers is not always clear, nor need it have been one and the same for all. Some were simply storage spaces like the somewhat similar but much larger chambers which comprise the bulk of the south and east galleries at Tiryns. Others may have functioned as guardposts. Yet others, furnished with arrow slits, seemingly served as archers’ watchports.


At both Tiryns and Gla, access to major gates in the fortifications is by way of a long, fairly steep, and artificially constructed ramp. At Mycenae, such a ramp leading up to the Lion Gate is a natural feature of the local topography at the site. In general, Mycenaean gateways are so designed that an attacker would have to present the side on which he would normally carry his offensive weapons (the right side, unshielded if he wanted to wield these weapons effectively) toward the defenders in approaching the gate. The second, or inner, gate leading to the palace area at Tiryns in that site’s third phase of fortification is virtually identical in its plan and elevation to the Lion Gate at Mycenae, and most scholars view one as a conscious imitation of the other, although it is impossible to state with any degree of certainty which was the first to be built. Both Mycenae and Tiryns have one major entrance and one minor (or postern) gate, as well as one or more “sally ports” in the extensions representing their third phase of fortification construction. Gla is unusual in having four major gates located at roughly the cardinal points of the compass. This peculiarity is a further indication of a specialized function for this Boeotian citadel that distinguishes it from the standard Mycenaean fortress. Athens and Midea appear to have been normal in having one major gate and a postern.

Distribution of Fortified Sites

The distribution of Mycenaean citadels in the late Mycenaean period is a peculiar one. Such fortresses are common in the Argolid (Mycenae, Tiryns, Midea, Argos, Asine, and possibly Nauplion) and in Boeotia (Gla, Eutresis, Haliartos and several other minor sites around the Copaïc basin, possibly Thebes and Orchomenos). In Attica there is only the Athenian Acropolis, while in Messenia and Laconia there are no known LH IIIB fortification systems of any importance. One question which immediately arises is against whom were such fortifications intended as a form of protection. At least two possible varieties of response suggest themselves: (a) against attackers from other Mycenaean political entities; (b) against attackers from outside the Mycenaean cultural sphere. Since the Argolid has most often been considered to have been ruled by a single Mycenaean monarch in the later 14th and 13th centuries B.C., the second answer has normally been the preferred one, and support for the notion of an external, non-Mycenaean threat to the Argolid has been seen in the trans-Isthmian fortification wall of the LH IIIB period discovered and partially cleared by Broneer. However, it is by no means impossible that the major Mycenaean centers in the Argolid were each ruled by independent princes. Greek legend suggests that there were at one time independent kingdoms based on Thebes and Orchomenos in Boeotia, while in the Argolid we know of mythical kings at Mycenae (e.g. Atreus, Agamemnon), Tiryns (e.g. Heracles, Diomedes), and Argos (e.g. Acrisios). The paramount importance of Agamemnon in Homer’s Iliad has led most scholars to assume that the king of Mycenae dominated the Argolid, and this view has received support from the wealth of the Shaft Graves and the large number of tholoi (including the magnificent Treasury of Atreus; see handout on Mycenaean Tholos Tombs) at that site. Nevertheless, few scholars are now willing to consider Homer a reliable historical source for the Mycenaean period, and the Shaft Graves and most of the tholoi are in any case features of the early Mycenaean era and not of the 13th century B.C. The fortifications and palatial architecture of Tiryns are at least as impressive as those of Mycenae in the later Mycenaean period. Now that Linear B tablets have been discovered at both sites, a fact suggesting that the two may well have maintained independent administrative archives, there seems to be no compelling reason to assume that Tiryns was controlled by Mycenae at this time. If the two were in competition, their similarities in defensive architecture may even be viewed as evidence for a 13th century B.C. “arms race”! At the same time, in Messenia where the Linear B tablets from Pylos suggest that the entire province was controlled by a single monarch, there is no evidence at all for LH IIIB fortified citadels. Should we not interpret this fact as indicating the absence of inter-Mycenaean rivalries and competition in this region? Presumably, the king of Messenia was confident of his ability to protect his capital by keeping his enemies, whether Mycenaean or non-Mycenaean, far from Pylos itself, whereas the monarchs at Tiryns, Mycenae, Midea, Argos, Asine, Eutresis, Thebes (?), Orchomenos (?), etc., controlling significantly smaller kingdoms and lacking significant buffer zones with which to protect their capitals, felt forced to invest in defensive architecture on a grand scale.

The Source of Inspiration for Mycenaean Fortification Systems

Mycenaean fortification architecture clearly owes nothing to Minoan inspiration. Not only are Minoan fortifications virtually unknown after the end of the Protopalatial period but all Mycenaean fortification systems date from a period well after the collapse of Minoan power in the southern Aegean. It is possible that the idea of fortification programs on a grand scale was adopted from the Hittite sphere of influence in central Anatolia. However, in terms both of scale and of architectural details, Hittite fortifications are quite different from those of the Mycenaean citadels. Perhaps the most likely sources of inspiration for Mycenaean defensive circuits are the fortification systems at such Cycladic sites as Phylakopi and Ayia Irini or even closer island centers such as Kolonna on Aegina. On the other hand, much of what is most distinctive about Mycenaean fortification architecture may in the end prove to be the product of purely indigenous developments from humble Middle Helladic antecedents.


Drainage Projects

The Copaïs of Boeotia

The Copaïc basin was a seasonal lake, never very deep, until the late 19th century A.D. when it was permanently drained and converted into the well-irrigated plain which is now one of central Greece’s most fertile agricultural areas. From inscriptional evidence, it is known that drainage programs were undertaken in the Copaïs in Classical Greek and Roman times as well. The modern drainage of the Copaïs has also revealed that the basin was drained in late Mycenaean times, only to become reflooded sometime near or shortly after the end of the Mycenaean period due to the plugging, whether natural or artificial, of the sinkholes (or katavothroi) at the northeast end of the basin. The Mycenaean drainage of the Copaïs, a massive hydraulic engineering project, provides the only reasonable explanation for the existence of a major Mycenaean palatial site at Gla on a low limestone island rising up from the floor of the basin near its northeast corner. This site is now normally interpreted as a fortified administrative center and military strongpoint designed to protect the drainage network whose focus lies not far to the northeast of the site. In addition to Gla itself, a number of other fortified sites sprinkled around the natural wall of limestone which encircles tne Copaïs on the north, east, and south are interpreted as fortresses designed to ensure the drainage system’s continued, successful operation. The drainage of the Copaïs would clearly have been of immense profit to all those who lived around the former lake. The major site in this area is Orchomenos at the basin’s west end, but Haliartos to the south is also an important site and it is not unlikely that even Thebes, lying at quite some distance to the east of the Copaïs’ east end, would have stood to gain from the vast increase in rich arable land available for cultivation once streams draining into the basin had been channeled into canals leading directly to the katavothroi.

Huge earthen dykes furnished with Cyclopean retaining or facing walls were built along the north and south sides of the Copaïs. Water entering the basin from the south and southwest was channeled between the south dyke and the natural limestone rim of the basin on the south side. At the southeast corner of the Copaïs, this single dyke was doubled across the Bay of Daulos to form a channel 41 meters wide, the inner dyke being some 19 meters thick at this point. A similar canal was created further north where the southern arm of the drainage network crossed the Bay of Karditsa. Along the northern edge of the Copaïs, a much larger dyke was constructed just south of the limestone rim of the basin on this side to channel the much larger amount of water entering the basin from the northwest in the Melas and Kephissos Rivers. This northern dyke is up to 66 meters thick and incorporates within its thickness two parallel walls each a full two meters thick. To the north of Gla, the northern branch of the system is carried across the Bay of Topolia in a large canal framed by two dykes to meet the southern branch at a point northeast of Gla. The combined canal, varying from sixty to eighty meters wide, then extends east to the large Vinia katavothros through which the water flows down to lower-lying lakes to the east. The dykes lining the combined canal measure up to forty and fifty meters across and are lined on the interior with solid stone walls three meters thick.

The scale of this vast undertaking, which includes the construction of the enormous citadel at Gla, dwarfs any other Mycenaean building project yet known. The Treasury of Atreus, even the walls of Tiryns, seem trivial by comparison. The evidence from Gla suggests that the project was initiated and completed early in the LH IIIB period (ca. 1350-1300 B.C.?). Gla was destroyed, and presumably the drainage system along with it, well before the end of the 13th century B.C. Myth, in the form of a story about Heracles and his Theban followers destroying Orchomenos and flooding its basin, suggests that intra-Mycenaean rivalry between Thebes and Orchomenos may have led to the collapse of the system within such a short time of its completion. Thebes itself was destroyed not long afterwards, perhaps, as legend suggests, by a coalition of “Argive” princes (the so-called Epigonoi, or sons of the famous Seven Against Thebes) whom Drews has suggested were in fact Thessalians, a conjecture which makes far better geographical and political sense.

The Tiryns Dam

Located about four kilometers east of Tiryns near the modern village of Ayios Adrianos, the dam was designed to divert the periodic floods running down a streambed directly to the lower town of Tiryns by redirecting these floodwaters into a newly dug channel leading south-southwest around the south, rather than the north, end of Prophitis Ilias, a prominent hill about one kilometer east of Tiryns and the site of its cemetery of tholos (on the west side) and chamber (on the east side) tombs. The new channel, by running around the end of Prophitis Ilias furthest from the site of Tiryns itself, conducted the formerly destructive floodwaters to the sea in a non-destructive path further to the east of the original streambed. The dam project involved not only the construction of a huge earthen embankment lined with Cyclopean masonry across the earlier western streambed but also the digging of a deep channel to the east across the natural contour lines of the Argive Plain. Although not comparable in size to the Copaïs earthworks, this dam was nevertheless an immense undertaking which had as its goal not the creation of new agricultural land but simply the protection of a town from the dangers of periodic flooding. Geomorphological studies in the Argive Plain by E. Finke (now Zangger) have revealed that the dam’s construction can be dated quite closely to the LH IIIB2 period.



Within the Argolid, there is good evidence for a fairly sophisticated road network which linked the major Mycenaean sites in the Argive Plain and even extended beyond that plain proper, north to the Corinthia and east to the eastern Argolid. The evidence consists of bridges across ravines (e.g. at Kazarma in the eastern Argolid; just south of Mycenae itself across the so-called Chaos Ravine) and of drainage culverts built of limestone boulders with corbel-vaulted channels running underneath the roadbed (e.g. several examples on the road from Mycenae to Berbati). The only rationale for such constructions is that they were designed to accommodate vehicular traffic in the form of chariots and wagons. Traces of similar road networks have been found in Messenia (between Pylos and Nichoria), in Attica (between the Attic and Thriasian plains dominated by Athens and Eleusis, respectively) and, it is claimed, in Phocis (between Amphissa and the Maliac Gulf). It is worth noting that carefully constructed roads are not a feature of later Classical Greek civilization until the 5th century B.C. at the earliest.


Chamber Tombs

Unlike tholos tombs with their corbel-vaulted burial chambers, neatly circular or, exceptionally, elliptical in plan, chamber tombs are typically rock-cut rather than built, have irregularly shaped but roughly quadrangular plans, and feature dromoi with unlined side walls that incline inward noticeably toward the top. Because of the multiple inhumation burials which they normally contain, chamber tombs are generally considered to have been family tombs, although there is no particularly strong evidence for their having been designed to hold the members of a family as opposed to some other form of social group.

At some sites, chamber tombs of the normal type (dromos, stomion, and chamber cut out of bedrock) are rare, most probably because the appropriate geological conditions promoting the creation of such tombs – the existence of relatively soft rock under a cap of harder stone – are not available in the immediate vicinity of a site. At Eleusis and Thorikos, for example, the limestone bedrock of the hills on which the sites are located was evidently just too hard for the excavation of chamber tombs. Instead, the Mycenaeans built underground chambers of rubble limestone masonry and employed huge schist slabs to roof them. Short passages approaching these chambers near the end of one long side substitute for the longer dromoi of regular rock-cut chamber tombs and make these built chambers L-shaped in plan. At Vrana near Marathon, burial in built chambers or large cists within circular tumuli continues a local Middle Helladic tradition of burial throughout the Mycenaean period, a tradition also attested in the LH I Tomb V at Thorikos (see handout on Mycenaean Tholos Tombs).

At Tanagra in Boeotia, burials are made in painted larnakes placed within normal chamber tombs, a practice identical to burial habits in Late Minoan Crete but unique to this one site on the Greek Mainland. At Thebes in Boeotia, where a palace existed but tholoi did not serve as an elite burial form, royal burials appear to have been made in gigantic chamber tombs such as the “Painted Chamber” discovered in the early 1970′s. This imposing tomb has two roughly parallel dromoi on a scale comparable to the dromoi of the tholos tombs at Mycenae. In plan, it consisted of two large chambers, placed side by side and linked by an internal doorway. Each chamber was approached by its own dromos, and large portions of the chambers as well as of the stomia leading into the chambers were coated with plaster and decorated with frescoes. The right-hand chamber had benches along some of its walls, also plastered and painted. The chambers were found robbed and the only find reported from within this monumental construction is an ivory pyxis decorated with griffins. Because of its peculiar architectural and decorative features and the lack of any skeletal material within it, Schachermeyr theorized that this complex was not a tomb at all but rather a shrine or mortuary chapel designed to serve some cult of the dead.

Shaft graves of one sort or another, as well as simple pits and cists, continue throughout the Mycenaean period at a number of sites, but single burial, except for children, is the exception rather than the rule. Inhumation is standard. Cremation is very rare until the LH IIIC period, at which time it appears sporadically throughout the Mycenaean world, possibly a fashion imported from the east (Anatolia?) which, however, does not become common until the Protogeometric period of the Early Iron Age.


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