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View from Akrotiri, the Minoan Pompeii.  In ancient times, the door and window frames would have been wood fitted together with wooden pegs; today, they are concrete, modeled after casts taken when archaeologists pumped plaster into voids in the compacted ash where organic material had deteriorated.

Minoan architecture made such liberal use of wooden tie beams, uprights, pillars, and door and window frames that some experts believe this practice contributed to the deforestation of Crete.  One reason the Minoans might have done this was that the wood construction helped reinforce buildings against seismic stresses.

As you can see, though, the Minoans managed some rather generous windows, when most contemporary windows elsewhere were small and narrow.  The people of Akrotiri must have enjoyed great natural light and views.

Minoan houses had stone foundations, and the visible sections of the ground floor walls would have been dressed with stone.  While the framework was wood, the upper stories were probably mud brick.  The Minoans used lime plaster to cover the walls and provide a smooth white surface for decoration, and they often plastered the floor as well.  In wealthier establishments, the floor might be bordered with flagstones, and with soft gypsum in the center.  Sometimes the floors were painted with spirals, colored rectangles, and aquatic life; the famous Dolphin Sanctuary fresco at Knossos might have been a floor decoration fallen from the level above.

Evidence from Akrotiri and Knossos indicates that the Minoans also utilized sliding wooden pier and partition doors, meaning the doors could be slid back to provide access and greater light, or closed to seal off a space for rituals, or simply to keep in the heat during the winter.


 

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This clay Minoan house was found in Archanes, just south of Knossos.  It might have been an architectural model for builders, or, as I prefer to think, it could have been a child’s plaything.

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Mycenae's famous Lion Gate may be the oldest coat of arms in Europe.  It utilizes a common feature of Mycenaean architecture, the relieving triangle, which was the Aegean Bronze Age's equivalent of the Roman keystone arch, bearing the load of the surrounding masonry. 

The Lion Gate dates to roughly 1300-1250 B.C., to Mycenae's greatest period of renovation and expansion.  Supporting terraces enabled the builders to extend the circuit walls, and bring Grave Circle A within the citadel, while providing more area for workshops, housing, and storerooms.  The Lion Gate was part of a defensive system which included high Cyclopean walls and a bastion, from which defenders would have rained missiles down on attackers.

The lions on the gate might have been lionesses.  They stand upon an altar, with a pillar between them; the pillar was a sacred symbol in Bronze Age Aegean iconography.  Does the altar/pillar represent Mycenae itself?  Are the lions/lionesses goddess symbols, like the griffins one sees the frescoes from the cult sanctuary?  Part of the imagery is missing.  We don't have the heads.  These would have faced outward, due to spatial constraints, and would have been carved from steatite or some other stone, and bolted on.   

In the early nineteenth century, the infamous Lord Elgin passed through Mycenae.  He took the last remaining marbles and bits of carved alabaster from the Treasury of Atreus, and would have taken the Lion Gate, too, had he been able to move the twenty-ton edifice.

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The megaron was the great hall of the Mycenaean world, with a universal, three-part floor plan. 

Visitors would enter through a columned porch called an aithousa; this was also where Telemachus and Peisistratus in The Odyssey slept when visiting Menelaus's palace in Sparta.  Mycenaean palaces probably did have a guest room or two for important people, but remember that the two princes arrived in the middle of a royal double wedding, when all the available space was probably taken.  The mistress of the house would make certain that guests sleeping on the aithousa were furnished with blankets and warm fleeces, and that they were fed and washed according to the strict codes of hospitality.

No one entered the megaron after-hours.

Double doors led from the aithousa into the vestibule or prodomos, an area where important petitioners or ambassadors might wait on benches.  A curtain separated the vestibule from the domos, or main area--the megaron itself.

Inside the megaron, a fire burned on the central hearth with its four pillars.  The throne sat not opposite the doors, as you might expect, but on the right as you entered.  Often, there was a second-floor gallery where the court ladies might watch the proceedings.

As to what the megaron looked like, let's start with this famous Piet de Jong reconstruction of the Pylos megaron (throne room), found by Carl Blegen in the 1930s.   Only the first floor survives, with its hearth (still bearing traces of its painted decorations 3,200 years later), the pillar bases, the floor decorations done in painted stucco, and the dais where King Nestor's wooden throne would have sat.

 

 

De Jong's illustration is deceiving, because anyone who has ever visited the archaeological site of the Palace of Nestor in Messenia knows the real megaron is much smaller, only 11 meters wide.  It also would have been darker, as there were no windows, and the only light would have come from the hearth.  It would have been quite smoky as well, especially in winter, as seen in this more realistic painting by Alton Tobey.  Imagine yourself looking over the king's shoulder; the man at his right is sitting in the place of honor.


 

March 2012

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