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A cut away view inside the so-called Treasury of Atreus, showing what a Mycenaean funeral might have looked like. Tholoi were not built as individual burial monuments, but as family tombs. As family members died, the older burials would be moved to the side to make room for the most recent. Oftentimes, the older bones would be washed with wine and placed inside an ossuary called a larnax, and the grave goods shifted over.  Or sometimes, the older burials would be dug into the earthen floor.  At least one such burial was hidden from tomb robbers, and survived to be found by archaeologists.

Here, you can see the most recent burial, laid out in the center of the burial chamber.  The door on the side leads into a smaller burial chamber.

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The fresco fragment known as the Lady of Mycenae was found in the Cult House below the palace of Mycenae. She is a rather stolid older lady, with ample arms and a sagging chin, offering necklaces to a deity.

Even though it isn’t a very scientific line of thinking, and there is no evidence that the Mycenaeans understood portraiture in the modern sense, my instincts tell me the woman behind the fresco must have been either Elektra or Clytaemnestra.
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The final version of the Mycenaean Princess.  I exchanged her wide cream sash for a narrower red one that highlights her red flounces and embroidered bodice, and posed her in front of a swallows-and-lilies fresco painting I did back in May.

I am hoping to do the Minoan Snake Priestess soon, but have to find the right doll.

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The Mycenaean Princess is dressed at the height of Bronze Age fashion.  Her maid has dressed her long black hair in ringlets, gathering them, and binding her pin curls under a golden bandeau.  She wears her best costume, soft wool saturated with olive oil to give it a silken sheen, and her best jewelry of gold and amethyst.

The Princess stands 5 1/5 inches tall and is porcelain.  I did not assemble or wig her--that was done for me by artisan Lucie Winsky--but I dressed her in an approximation of 13th century costume using china silk and fine cotton.  Everything, including the embroidery, was hand-stitched.  Her skirt alone took 14 hours, and is not perfect, but then, she’s my first doll.

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In the Minoan and Mycenaean worlds, people often left votive limbs at sanctuaries as thank-offerings to the gods for healing the afflicted body part.  The votives in the photograph are Minoan.

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Fresco from one of the rooms inside the Cult House at Mycenae.  A princess and/or priestess offers wheat ears to two goddesses, probably Hera and Athena; the blank area under the goddesses would have been the altar.  The griffin with the princess/priestess signifies the presence of a divinity, but I can’t say with any certainty what the two naked men between the goddesses represent.


Oct. 6th, 2011 07:00 pm
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𐀺 𐀏



The Mycenaeans were a chariot-using people, and chariots and chariot parts are lovingly inventoried in the Linear B records.  The Mycenaean chariot was small, swift, and typically only carried two passengers; the Iliad speaks of the Greek heroes and their charioteers.

Homer does not mention the chariot actively being used in warfare, merely as a kind of taxi ferrying heroes to and from the battlefield.  By Homer’s time, chariot warfare had gone out of fashion, but in the thirteenth century B.C., the time of the Trojan War, chariots were mobile fighting platforms from which warriors could hack, impale, shoot, or simply run down their enemies.  The Bettany Hughes documentary Helen of Troy includes a wonderful demonstration by warfare expert Mike Loades on how chariots would have been used at Troy.

The Mycenaean chariot was made from lightweight wood or wicker, with a flexible platform of plaited leather or perhaps more wicker.  The front was usually covered with hide or painted leather.  The wheels were also lightweight, and spoked.

Here is a painted clay model of a chariot.  Perhaps it was a child’s toy.  I can imagine a prince like the young Orestes playing with such an object.

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This charming pair of women with a young child is an ivory piece discovered on the palace mount at Mycenae.  It’s been speculated that the women might be goddesses, perhaps Hera and Athena, the patron goddesses of Argolis, and the child squirming between them a divine child.  The clothing detail is so exquisite that experts use the piece as part of their studies to determine what Mycenaean ladies wore, and how they wore it.  The back of the carving has the women (goddesses?) sharing a patterned shawl (possibly Athena’s tasseled aegis referred to in the legends?)

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Back in June, I mentioned kourotrophoi. These ceramic mother-child figures have turned up at Mycenaean sites all over the Aegean, particularly in children’s graves. Kourotrophoi were not exclusive to the Bronze Age; the practice continued into later times.

The kourotrophos might have represented a divine Mother Goddess and Child, like the Christian Madonna and Child, or it could simply have been a form of sympathetic magic. Mycenaean and Minoan Goddess and Divine Child representations have been found elsewhere, and my next post will be devoted to a very special such artifact.

I mention kourotrophoi in my books. Here is a passage from Helen’s Daughter in which Hermione reflects on childbearing and the talismans that accompany it.

As high priestess in Sparta, I had seen women die in childbirth. Sometimes, they asked for me, to give them my blessings, and perhaps avert disaster by it, but though I held their hands, wiped the sweat from their brows, and said the prayers, they died, anyway.

Opening my eyes, I gazed at the kourotrophos standing on the table nearest the bed. She was very old, crafted in an outmoded Cretan style. Her scarlet and black paint was fading, but she had faithfully watched over the confinements of my foremothers for eleven generations, and had not lost a single woman in childbirth.

Purchase Helen's Daughter on Amazon Kindle or at Smashwords.
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Near Leonidio, on the eastern coast of the Peloponnese, heavy rains recently revealed five Mycenaean tombs dating to the fourteenth century B.C.  So far, the excavators have discovered clay vases; there is no word about the condition of any human remains.  Intact Mycenaean burials are rare, so here’s hoping that the occupants were found preserved in their tombs, and can tell us more about health, diet, and life expectancy in the Late Bronze Age.

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The earliest textile fragment found in mainland Greece was discovered in Mycenae’s Grave Circle B (circa 1600-1550 B.C.), and is a piece of thin linen that either belonged to a garment or was part of the shroud itself.

Ri-no (𐀪𐀜) and ma-ri (𐀔𐀪) are the Mycenaean Linear B words for linen and wool, respectively.  The skilled women who worked flax were called rineja, and those who worked wool were called wewesijeja.

Tablets from Pylos, Mycenae, and Knossos give us additional details about the Mycenaean textile industry, and list other jobs related to textile production: dyers, spinners, finishers, sheep-shearers, and fullers.  Most of these tasks were done by women; at Mycenae, men called kanapeu did the fulling.  The textile workers lived on large plantations around the palace, and the palace administration both trained and looked after them; the Linear B tablets list rations for large groups of women and their children, who worked alongside them.

You can read more about Mycenaean textiles here.

Remember, if there is a particular topic you would like to see highlighted on this blog, please drop me a line in the comments.

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This lovely bowl was carved in the shape of a duck from a single piece of rock crystal, and dates from between 1600-1550 B.C.  The rock crystal is Egyptian, but the carving appears to be Mycenaean.  At this time, Mycenaean artists began imitating the exquisite stone vases and vessels which came to them not only through their Minoan and Cycladic contacts, but also from farther-flung regions: Egypt, Syria, and Canaan.

Unlike other arts, such as weaving and fresco painting, which began as imitation but soon took on its own, unique Mycenaean character, Mycenaean stone carving remained true to its foreign prototypes.

The crystal duck bowl was discovered in Grave O in Mycenae’s Grave Circle B.

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𐀷    𐀙   𐀏

wa  na  ka


The wa-na-ka, or wanax, was the title of a Mycenaean Greek king.  From the Pylos Linear B tablets, it seems that, depending on the context, the term meant either the earthly ruler, or a powerful male deity, perhaps Poseidon or Zeus.  It has also been suggested, and is quite likely, that the wanax served as a priest-king as well as chief administrator and war leader.

The Pylos tablets do not name the wanax directly, but a Pylian aristocrat named Enkhelyawon controlled vast holdings comparable with those of a wanax, and thus may have been the king of Pylos sometime around 1200 B.C.

Readers: if there is a particular topic you would like me to cover, please indicate your desire in the comments.

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A few examples of Mycenaean armor survive, none more famous than the Dendra panoply found in an Argive tomb near Midea in 1960.  It is constructed from fifteen separate pieces of bronze, which would have been padded inside with leather, and held together with leather thongs.  It looked something like a barrel when worn, and would have been quite cumbersome.  The cuirass was formed of two pieces, and was hinged on the left side.   When worn, the armor would have protected the wearer from the neck to the knees; the wearer would have supplemented this protection with greaves and arm guards.   Even with this supplemental protection, however, the back of the heels were still vulnerable.  So the legend of Achilles' heel might have some truth behind it.

Armor of this type dates to around 1400 B.C., and was inventoried at Pylos, Tiryns, and Knossos, with the Linear B symbol 𐂫.  It would not have been widely worn, except by the elite, and perhaps only on ceremonial occasions.  By the time of the Trojan War, in 1250 B.C., warriors would have worn bronze scale armor, leather, and/or laminated linen for protection.

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While there is much that we still don't understand about Minoan religion, from the physical evidence it appears that the Minoans had a tripartite belief system. A tripartite altar was found on the western end of the Central Court at Knossos, near the Throne Room, and fresco fragments from the palace's north quarter depict what is probably that same altar as priestesses and other spectators sit on the surrounding terraces presumably waiting for the Bull Dance or some other spectacle.


Below is an artist's rendering of what a tripartite shrine might have looked like. It is not known exactly what the tripartite elements of Minoan religion were, but some have reasonably speculated that the Minoans worshipped the heavens, earth/sea, and the underworld, about which I will discuss in greater detail in a future post. 

Imagery of the tripartite shrine made it as far as Mycenae, where a delicate golden piece was found among the burials of Grave Circle A (circa 1500 B.C.).  If you saw the program The Exodus Decoded, then you saw journalist Simcha Jakobovici present this little appliqué as evidence that the Ark of the Covenant was made by Mycenaean goldsmiths, and that the piece itself is a view of the Ark with the doves, with the Tabernacle's high altar behind.  Sadly, no.  Jakobovici does not know his Aegean archaeology.  The gold work represents a Minoan tripartite shrine, with sacred doves and the horns of consecration. 



Aug. 19th, 2011 01:18 pm
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Fresco painting in the ancient world was buon fresco, which means painting on a thin layer of fresh, wet lime plaster.  The process involved laying down a layer of plaster, waiting an hour, then painting.  Fresco painters would have had seven to eight hours to complete their work, until the plaster became too dry to work any longer; the plaster would be completely dry within twelve hours. 

The process of mixing pigments with wet plaster would have fixed the colors and made the fresco more durable; had the Mycenaeans and Minoans worked a secco, or on dry plaster, their paintings probably would not have survived.  However, it was this same chemical process of mixing pigments with the alkaline plaster that limited the color palette.  This is why you see only reds, yellows, blues, whites, and blacks in Mycenaean and Minoan frescoes.


Aug. 14th, 2011 10:08 pm
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Menelaus, king of Sparta, and husband of Helen, is often portrayed as a gooseberry.  He's considered a fool for leaving Helen alone with Paris, not to mention he ends up as the biggest cuckold in Aegean because of it.  Moreover, he's a second-rate warrior, though certainly not lacking in courage.

To give the king of Sparta his due, he's actually one of the most sympathetic characters in the story of the Trojan War, and not such a fool as people think.  Of course, he shouldn't have left Helen and Paris alone, but his Cretan grandfather's funeral called him away at the most inopportune time.  And, true, Helen may not have been happy as his wife, seeing as the marriage was a political one arranged by their families, and Menelaus certainly had his infidelities with the palace slave women.  But he left her in the care of her parents and two brothers, and had no reason to think Paris would violate the sanctity of his guest-right, or that Helen would abandon their children to take up with a young foreigner who wasn't even heir to the Trojan throne.  

In The Odyssey, Homer portrays Menelaus as generous and good-natured, and remorseful over the war's human cost.  Menelaus doesn't share the same interests as Agamemnon and the rest of the Greek coalition; his goal throughout the war is to regain his wife, the treasure Paris stole, and his personal honor.  He risks his life to accompany Odysseus on the diplomacy embassy to Priam's court to ask for Helen's release and return of his treasure.  Had the Trojans capitulated then, the Spartan contingent most likely would have withdrawn from the fighting, and taken a number of other contingents with it, thus bringing the Greek offensive to an early end.

Menelaus has not fared so well on film, however.  Filmmakers tend to forget that he is a redhead.  While Wolfgang Petersen got it right in 2004's Troy, with the casting of Brendan Gleeson, 2003's dreadful TV miniseries Helen of Troy got it wrong by miscasting a dark haired James Callis next to Rufus Sewell, who is probably the sharpest, best-looking Agamemnon I have ever seen.  Even Hallmark's 1990's miniseries The Odyssey, which does such a marvelous job portraying the Mycenaean palace of Sparta, gives Menelaus elaborate black corkscrew curls.

Brother, what is this new brunette look you're sporting?

Don't mess with redheads.

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A few weeks ago, someone asked why I had used Minoan artwork for the cover art of The Young Lion, the point being that the novel is set in the Mycenaean culture.

The lazy answer is that my stock photo choices were rather limited.  The other answer is that the lion/griffin figure on the cover actually is Mycenaean artwork.

The Mycenaeans took over Knossos in 1450 B.C., two hundred years before the Trojan War, and it was a Mycenaean king, Idomeneus, who led the second-largest contingent to Troy.  So the ruling class that commissioned the artwork you see today at the reconstructed Knossos and in the nearby Heraklion Museum was Mycenaean.

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The Mycenaean cosmetic palette was quite simple: kohl or lampblack for the eyes, galena or malachite for the eyelids, red ocher for the lips and cheeks, and a foundation of white lead oxide, or perhaps white clay powder.  It's not clear how often women, particularly noblewomen, painted themselves, but they could not have worn white lead on their faces every day and survived for very long.  I suspect the white paint, like the breast-baring bodices, was used only on ritual occasions, when the women transformed themselves into priestesses and agents of the divine.

Perfume during this period had an olive oil rather than alcohol base, and was manufactured by mixing sweet herbs like coriander, saffron, or cumin, or fragrant flowers like iris, narcissus, or lily with the oil.  The Mycenaeans also used olive oil as a skin emollient and hair conditioner, and the higher classes impregnated their garments with oil then rinsed them to give them a satiny sheen.

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