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Mycenaean period

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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timeline of cycladic minoan and mycenean or helladic civilizations in greeceWhilst excavating Knossos (1900-1905), Arthur Evans devised a chronology of the Minoan Bronze Age that was loosely based upon the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms of Egypt. Evans' system was adapted to the Greek mainland (Helladic) and in the islands (Cycladic).

Known as the Mycenaean Period as it was first identified in Mycenae, the period from 1600-1100 BC in mainland Greece is also known as the Late Bronze Age and Late Helladic. Other important sites of Mycenaean culture included Athens, Pylos, Thebes and Tiryns. Palaces of the Mycenaean Era have yielded clay tablets in Linear B script, indicating that Mycenaeans spoke Greek. The latest phase of Knossos also yielded Linear B tablets, revealing that the Mycenaeans had grown powerful enough to seize Crete at ~1450 BC. After seizing Crete, the Mycenaeans proceeded to take control of previously Minoan spherees of influence, trading widely with lands such as Egypt, the Near East and Italy. A severe earthquake in the Argolid and a series of conflicts devastated Mycenaean palaces by ~1200 BC, and Mycanaean culture entered a recension until officially ending ~1100 BC when Greece's Bronze Age ended.

Mycenaean warriors -- with bones often scarred by battle -- were buried with their armor and weapons. Finely inlaid daggers, swords with pommels of carved ivory and breastplates of beaten gold are some of the items amidst warriors' Shaft Graves at Mycenae. Rugged fortifications were enacted to protect palaces brightly frescoed with motifs of battles and hunts. At Pylos there are depictions of warriors fighting men dressed in animal skins. At Tiryns is an image of a hunter with his pack of dogs, spearing a wild boar. Boar were prized for their tusks, which were used for Mycenaean high-status helmets.


Shaft Grave Era

The Shaft Grave Era is distinguished by rich burials with heavily Minoan contents. In the 14th century BC the Mycenaeans built palaces that were Minoan in style except for being centered on a megaron (aka great hall). Also during the Shaft Grave Era the first huge fortifications of Mycenaean citadels were constructed. The Argive plain (northeast Peloponnese) was the nucleus of Mycenaean culture, and today is still dominated by the citadels at Mycenae, Tiryns and Midea. Rich palaces have been found also at Pylos (southwest Peloponnese) and Thebes (Boiotia).

Greek Dark Ages

1100-750 BC

The collapse of Mycenaean civilization in the twelfth century BC was followed by a two or three hundred year 'Dark Age' of cultural poverty. There was a decline in the population, a fall in living standards and many Bronze Age arts and crafts including writing were forgotten.


The Linear B tablets list palace offerings by the Mycenaeans to a plethora of gods and goddesses, occasionally at specific sacred sites. Many names of Classical Greek deities were already recognizable in Mycenaean times, including Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, Athena and Artemis. Large brown-painted terracotta figures, often equipped with hammers or swords, were found in the cult center at Mycenae; these may also represent deities. Fittingly for a warrior society, the Mycenaeans worshipped a warrior goddess.

Mycenaeans Abroad

Mycenaean penetration has been quantified in many Mediterranean lands via pottery finds. To the west in Italy and Sicily. To the east along trading routes. And Mycenaean vases (often in the Pictorial Styl) has been found in Cyprus, the coastal levant and Egypt. Ancient trading ship wrecks -- including the ~1300 BC find at Ulu Burun off modern Turkey's south coast south coast of modern Turkey -- indicate how rich and various was Mediterranean trade in the Late Bronze Age.

Mycenaeans exerted themselves abroad, colonizing islands (including Rhodes) and establishing trading posts on the coast of Asia Minor (notably at Miletus). Tell el-Amarna in Egypt, capital of Pharaoh Akhenaten, yielded much Mycenaean pottery and evidence of Mycenaeans mercenaries fighting broad. A painted battle scene on a papyrus depicts Libyans fighting the Egyptian pharaoh's army, amongst whose warriors are Mycenaean foot-soldiers, as indicated by their distinctive helmets and tunics.

Discovery of Troy and Mycenae

German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann uncovered Mycenaean culture during his 1870-1890 excavations at Troy and 1876 excavations at Mycenae. He wished to prove the historicity of Homer's poems and alleged that a small yet strongly fortified city (Troy II) in the Troy mound was the Troy of the Trojan War. It turned out this Troy II was from the Early Bronze Age (2500-2300 BC) and the relatively minor communities of mainland Greece could not have mounted a military campaign on the scale of the Trojan War. However, Schliemann uncovered at Mycenae the rich Shaft Graves. He thought these may have been the burials of Agamemnon and his entourage who were killed upon returning from Troy. In fact, these burials were ~1600-1450 BC; the wealth of these burials links Middle Bronze Age Mycenae (a period of little welath) with the flourishing 14th 13 centuries BC (a period of maximum Mycenaean expansion).


British Museum