Mycenaean Greece


Around 1200 BC, the Mycenaean civilization enters a phase of decline, marked by several destructions of palatial sites, the end of the use of writing and the progressive disintegration of the institutions which characterized it. The Mycenaean cultural features gradually disappear after the twelfth century BC, during the period called the “dark ages”. The reasons for this decline have not been elucidated. When the Greek world recovers after 1000, it does so on new foundations, and the ancient Greek civilization that is formed thereafter has largely forgotten the achievements of the Mycenaean period.

The past of the Greeks is known for a long time only by the legends of the epics and the tragedies. The material existence of the Mycenaean civilization is revealed by the excavations of Heinrich Schliemann in Mycenae in 1876 and in Tirynthe in 1886. He believes to have found the world described by the epics of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. In a tomb in Mycenae, he found a golden mask that he called the “mask of Agamemnon”. Similarly, a palace excavated in Pylos is called “Nestor”s Palace”. The term “Mycenaean” was chosen by the archaeologist Schliemann to describe this civilization, before Charles Thomas Newton defined the characteristics by identifying its homogeneous material culture from the findings made on several sites. This name is taken from that of the city of Mycenae (Peloponnese), on the one hand because it is the first archaeological site excavated to reveal the importance of this civilization and on the other hand because of the importance that this city had in the memory of ancient Greek authors (first Homer, who made the king of Mycenae the leader of the “Achaeans”). Thereafter, Mycenae was revealed to be only one pole of this civilization among others, but the term “Mycenaean” remained used by convention.

It is necessary to await the research of Arthur Evans, at the beginning of the XXth century, so that the mycenaean world acquires an autonomy compared to the Minoan world which precedes it chronologically. By excavating in Knossos (Crete), Evans discovers thousands of clay tablets, cooked accidentally in the fire of the palace, around 1440 B.C. He names this writing “linear B”, because he estimates it more advanced than the linear A. In 1952, the deciphering of Linear B by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick, which reveals an archaic form of Greek, projects the Mycenaean civilization from Protohistory to history, and inserts it in its true place in the Bronze Age Aegean world.

On the basis of these tablets, historians describe in the 1960s a world composed of small kingdoms, each with a palatial administration, having experienced the fall of the Minoan civilization and themselves disappeared towards the end of the thirteenth century BC. New discoveries from the 1980s onwards – architectural ensembles, new batches of tablets, nodules, shipwreck cargoes – make it possible to clarify and qualify this picture. They also stimulate mycenological studies and the interest of the general public: thus, a great exhibition entitled The Mycenaean World is held in Athens in 1988-1989 and then moves in several European capitals. It is followed in 1990 of the celebration of the centenary of the death of Heinrich Schliemann.

The fine chronology of the Mycenaean civilization is based on the stylistic evolution of the pottery, well highlighted by Arne Furumark from the stratigraphic levels of the excavated sites. This relative chronology is still valid, but the dating of certain “floating” intervals gives rise to controversy in the scientific world, which also exists for all the geographical areas of the Late Bronze Age (Near East, Egypt). This is particularly true for the early Mycenaean period (Late Helladic I), where the scarcity of associations of Aegean objects with Near Eastern products prevents the true chronological extent of this phase from being reconstructed. However, the progress achieved in radiocarbon dating makes it possible to fix the beginning of the Mycenaean civilization in the second half of the 17th century BC.

The Helladic area is less developed (or “complex”) than the other two during the Middle Bronze Age (Middle Helladic, first half of the second millennium BC), mostly occupied by villages that practice an agriculture that has evolved little since the Neolithic, where cereal cultivation was nevertheless supplemented by the cultivation of olives and vines, and metallurgy has spread. The fortified habitat appears, with Kolonna on the island of Aegina. The material culture is homogeneous in the area, even if the traditions of quality pottery vary from one region to another. The dead are rather buried in inhabited sites, which could refer to a desire to maintain a close link between the living and the dead, and thus to kinship groups. We also find tombs under tumuli, but this does not seem to be a form of burial for the elites as in later periods, since their funerary material does not distinguish them from other types of burial. The presence of a few richer tombs than others and of larger dwellings could indicate the presence of chiefs or at least of dominant groups. The products and ideas circulate between the regions, and with the Aegean islands, as indicated by the Minoan characters of certain types of ceramics elaborated in Argolid and Laconia (Lerne, Ayios Stephanos). The islands of Aegina and Kythera seem to play a role of relay. Indeed at the same time the palatial civilization of Minoan Crete takes its rise, during the period “proto-palatial” (v. 20001900-17001650 BC) then the period “neo-palatial” (v. 17001650-1450 BC), its culture knows an expansion in the Aegean and returns in contact with the civilizations of the Near East and Egypt. The Cycladic area is marked by the Minoan influence, also includes sites of important habitat, perhaps a kind of “merchant republics”, documented in particular by the site of Akrotiri on Thera (Santorini). This one is remarkably preserved because it was buried during the eruption of the Santorini volcano, one of the most important events of this period, whose dating is debated: in the second half of the seventeenth century BC (around 1640-1620? (around 1640-1620?), or a century later (c. 1530-1500?). Its impact on the evolution of Aegean cultures is also debated, possible in places in northern Crete but in general not very obvious to detect, in any case the Minoan civilization continued to prosper afterwards.

The palace of Knossos is then destroyed around 1370 BC (beginning of the RM IIIA2). (beginning of RM IIIA2), but it continued to function for an undetermined period of time, before being abandoned, perhaps soon after its previous destruction, or much later, around 1300 (the end of RM IIIA2). The main batch of tablets from the palace of Knossos can be dated to one of these two destructions, but it is not known which one, assuming that they all date from the same moment.

The beginning of the fourteenth century sees the reunion of the “markers” of the Mycenaean civilization, identifiable on its main sites (Mycenae, Tyre, Pylos, Thebes): the citadels, the royal palaces, two dominant types of tombs – the tholos tombs and the chamber tombs – which all take on more and more monumental aspects, and finally the increasing use of linear writing B, which is documented on the continent from this period. The continental palaces are now managed by a Minoan-style administration, perhaps as a result of a transfer following the destruction of Knossos. More largely the Mycenaean area extends geographically, in direction of north (until the mount Olympe), of the east (towards Epirus) and the east (in Dodecanese), in addition to Crete, and the Mycenaean influence becomes dominant in the Aegean world in the current of the XIVth century BC, its contacts extending towards Macedonia, Asia Minor, also in the west until Sardinia. The Hittite sources evoke for the first time the Ahhiya, country which one commonly identifies with Mycéniens (Achaeans) at the beginning of XIVe century BC.

The 13th century (HR IIIB) is the best documented period, both architecturally and epigraphically (most of the written sources date from the last period of the palaces since they are frozen by their destruction, thus c. 1200-1180 BC). It sees this growth continuing. The palatial complexes of Mycenae, Tyrinx, Pylos and Thebes reach then their apogee, as well as the defensive architecture, on the sites of Mycenae or Gla, and the royal tholoi tombs of Mycenae or Orchomena, and the evolutions are spotted on the few excavated secondary sites (Ayios Stephanos, Nichouria, Tsoungiza, Asine, etc.). The number of inhabited sites increases. The construction programs are thus very dynamic, and they undoubtedly also concern the communication infrastructures. The tablets in linear B make it possible to grasp the functioning of the palatial systems of continental Greece (especially Pylos) and those of Crete. They attest to the existence of a framework that organized various types of economic activities. The sources plead in favor of the coexistence of several kingdoms, directed from the principal palaces by an elite at the head of which is a monarch, the wanax, having an administration and specialized workers. On the other hand, it seems that the construction of tombs in tholos does not follow the general trend, perhaps because of a control put in place by the central power.

The Mycenaean civilization is then relatively homogeneous on the continent in the areas dominated by the palates, and one could speak about a koinè. But the elements of diversity are always important and that certain areas close to the great centers ignore the palatial system, in particular in the Peloponnese Achaïe, Arcadie, Elide, and in north Phocide, Thessalia, and Northern Greece presents a cultural profile different from that of the Mycenaean areas.

Moreover, while having a uniform material culture, nothing indicates that the languages and ethnic groups were, the carriers of the Mycenaean material culture having been able to speak other languages than Greek. It is the case of the languages known as “Aegean” or “pre-Greek”, established in the area before the arrival of the speakers of languages “proto-Greek”. The date of arrival of the latter is debated: current proposals favor the beginning of the Middle Bronze (c. 2300-2100 BC), but some go back to the beginning of the Early Bronze (in any case it is no longer proposed that the development of the Mycenaean civilization coincides with their arrival, as may have been the case in the past. It is difficult to evaluate the evolution of the relationship of the Greek language with these languages which are unknown to us and which it then rubbed shoulders with, and from which it obviously borrowed a lot. Indeed, the Greek lexicon is certainly based on an Indo-European background, but it includes others which are attributable to this earlier background, because they cannot be explained by a Greek origin. It is not known how to characterize them, some attributing them to unknown languages, but perhaps already Indo-European (in particular that of a people which one names sometimes “Pelasges”), or to Anatolian languages, in particular the Louvite spoken in Eastern Asia Minor at the Mycenaean time. In any case, as seen above, we know from Hittite texts that the Mycenaeans had extensive contacts with this region (especially the country of Arzawa), and the texts of Pylos could indicate the presence of people from Asia Minor. The question of the language of the “Minoans” (thus that of the texts in linear A and Cretan hieroglyphs) also arises, since it is admitted that it is not Greek. The texts in linear B coming from Knossos give Greek names of people, but others which are not it, which thus probably belong to the Minoan bottom.

In the Aegean islands, including Crete, the particularities inherited from the Cycladic and Minoan cultures are fading, a sign that these regions have lost their leading role and have become areas under Mycenaean cultural influence. It is difficult to determine whether this is accompanied by population movements from the mainland. The Mycenaean presence on the sites of this area often follows that of the Minoans, which declines after the destruction of around 1450 BC, visible on the Cretan palatial sites. The Mycenaean expansion is done mainly in the direction of the southern part of the Aegean world: Crete, but also the Cyclades, the Dodecanese and the littoral of Asia Minor; the southern Balkans had limited contacts with the Mycenaean world. It is mainly through the diffusion of Mycenaean ceramics that we can assume this, but also through ivory objects of Mycenaean type, even if it is often complex to distinguish exports and inspirations. Moreover, it is difficult to know whether Mycenaean ceramics found outside mainland Greece were exported for their container function or for their own sake. The nature and causes of this expansion are debated. Political aspects have been invoked in several places, notably Crete and the Cyclades, but at the very least commercial motives seem indisputable, even if it is complicated to determine which products were actually traded.

On the Asian continent near these islands, the Mycenaean presence is less strong, for example in the necropolises of Caria (Kos and Müsgebi). Further north, one arrives towards the regions known by the texts coming from the Hittite kingdom, which dominates Anatolia at this period since its central part. The most powerful kingdom of Asia Minor is Arzawa, whose capital Apasa is perhaps Ephesus, and which ends up being subjected and divided by the Hittites. The texts coming from the latter also speak of a kingdom of Ahhiyawa, which could well be that of Achaeans, thus of Mycenaeans. This kingdom is documented by a few tablets relating to political events in western Anatolia, where the influence of the Ahhiyawa king meets that of the Hittite kingdom. At the beginning of the 13th century B.C., its king was considered a “Great King” by his Hittite counterpart, i.e. his equal, in the same way as the kings of Egypt and Babylon, who all had several vassal states but no suzerain. The influence of the king of the Ahhiyawa in the eastern region of the Hittite Empire did not last long, however, and he finally disappeared from the texts. His territory dominated at least a part of Asia Minor, for he had at one time a governor in the city of Millawanda, probably Miletus. On this last site, destroyed by the Hittites towards the end of the HR III A, the Mycenaean influence seems strong, but côtoie that of the Anatolian people. There is some debate about the location of the center of the Ahhiyawa kingdom: many want to locate it in Mycenae or at least in continental Greece, thus making its extension correspond to that of the Mycenaean civilization, while some propose to locate it rather in coastal Asia Minor or on an island such as Rhodes, because these are the only regions that one sees it clearly dominating in the written sources.

The principal Mycenaean sites are fortified, taking support on rocky eminences. They can be situated on acropolises dominating plains, like Athens, Gla or Tirynthe, leaning against a large hill like Mycenae, or on the sea front, like Asine. Some enclosures like that of Gla enclose a space which is not completely built, which seems to indicate that they were intended to serve as a refuge for the surrounding populations. In the major sites of Tyre and Mycenae, where the most important fortifications have been found, it is the palatial buildings, their outbuildings and some residences that are defended. Beside these citadels, isolated fortresses have also been found, probably serving for the military control of territories.

Syllabograms transcribe mostly simple open syllables, of consonant+vowel type (CV), e.g. ro, pu, ma, ti, etc. Some signs are simple vowels (V): a, which can be noted by three different signs (homophones), i, u and o. Some syllabic signs are more complex, like twe, pte, nwa, etc. Finally, about fifteen supposedly syllabic signs are still not understood. This phonetic system is simple and flexible. To note the syllables not included in the elaborated corpus of signs, the scribes decomposed them, and in the case of Knossos they wrote ko-no-so; or reduced them, writing for example pa-i-to for Phaistos. This system is more practical for an Indo-European language than a complex syllabary like cuneiform, or than the Egyptian hieroglyphs which rarely note the vowels, even if it is not as practical as an alphabet, a form of writing which is moreover only in its infancy in the Levant at the same period.

Nature of the documents

The known documents in linear B are exclusively productions of the administration of the palaces. They are documents whose purpose is to record information related to the management of movable goods stored in this institution, or manufactured on its behalf, their circulation (entries and exits, with the destination or recipients or provenance), even the purpose of these operations, their location; or information on the management of immovable goods dependent on the institution, agricultural land, their location, the people to whom they are assigned. The simplest are nodules, labels, painted inscriptions on vases, and small tablets that record only information on the nature of movable goods or animals, and their circulation. The larger tablets can record more complex operations: lists of operations related to the circulation of goods, or to the management of agricultural land (thus cadastral type documents).

Was there a state which could dominate all the Mycenaean world at a certain period? That remains impossible to determine. The existence of a kind of Mycenaean koinè around the Aegean does not mean that there was a political power dominating the region. The archaeological traces of a more or less strong Mycenaean influence in Crete, the Cyclades, the Dodecanese or coastal Asia Minor could indicate a Mycenaean political domination at certain times, but such an interpretation of the sources is far from convincing. It is finally the mention in Hittite sources of the 14th-13th centuries BC of a “King of the Ahhiyawa”, compared to the “King of the Achaeans” Agamemnon in the Iliad, which is the main argument in favor of the existence of a ruler dominating the Mycenaean world. Mycenae remains the best candidate as the capital of this supposed hegemonic kingdom (but certainly not “imperial” in view of the documentation), because of the memory that it left in the Greeks of the following periods, first of all Homer, and also because of the importance of the site.

The knowledge of the political organization of the Mycenaean society is better on the local scale, thanks to the administrative sources in linear B coming from the palaces of Pylos and Knossos, or from Thebes. It is a question here of “palaces” as an institution controlling a territory, around which gravitate administrators and or warriors who are undoubtedly the most important characters of the kingdom, and who play a notable economic role. This situation is in many ways similar to that found in the archives of Near Eastern kingdoms of the same period for which this model of palatial institution has long been studied. However, in Greece no records have been found in a private context, indicating that only the palace clearly kept accounts.

Some earthenware vases are known, but in a fragmentary state. Numerous stone vases (rock crystal, porphyry, serpentine, steatite, etc.), notably rhytons, have also been found on Mycenaean sites, but they originate essentially from Crete during most of the Late Helladic period, before a few productions were made on the mainland in the later Mycenaean periods, from obsidian or porphyry extracted in this region.


The only surviving stone bas-reliefs carved in Mycenaean Greece come from the site of Mycenae, in the early Helladic period. They are thirteen stelae found on the pit tombs of this site, representing in a crude style scenes of war, hunting or animal fights, decorated with decorative motifs based on a spiral. They have no known posterity. The only bas-relief of the late Helladic, but later, comes from the same site: it is the decoration over the “Gate of Lions”. It represents two headless animals identified without certainty as being lions, arranged on either side of a column and resting their front legs on a sort of altar. The decoration has also disappeared. The style of this work is reminiscent of Cretan seals, unlike the older funerary bas-reliefs that are properly Mycenaean.

Among the treasures of the circle A of Mycenae, Schliemann found five gold funerary masks, including the famous “mask of Agamemnon”. In the circle B, a mask in electrum was brought to light. They were made of a sheet of metal shaped on a carved wooden figure. Several of them seem to be portraits of the rulers buried in the tomb where they were found. They are isolated works, without parallel in the Mycenaean world.

The Mycenaean period did not yield any large statues, except for a female head (a sphinx?) of plaster painted with bright colors found at Mycenae. Most of the statuary of this period consists of fine statuettes and terracotta figurines, found notably at the site of Phylakopi, but also at Mycenae, Tirynthe or Asinè. The majority of these statuettes represent anthropomorphic figurines (but there are also zoomorphic ones), male or female. They have different postures: arms outstretched, raised to the sky; arms folded on the hips; seated. They are painted, monochrome or polychrome. Their purpose is not certain, but it is very likely that they are votive objects, found in contexts that appear to be places of worship.

Jewelry and ornaments

The rich tombs of the HR I (pit tombs of Mycenae, tholos tombs of Messinia) have delivered jewelry strongly marked by the Minoan tradition, or more original and without posterity, such as diadems stamped in gold leaf. Several advances are noted in the technique during the HR: generalization of filigree, granulation, inlay, gold leaf plating, molded glass paste. Craftsmen made beads in gold, earthenware, glass paste, amber, of various shapes. Applique plates were made in gold leaf to be sewn on fabric; they had again various forms: geometric patterns, naturalistic, rosettes, animals. Gold rings are also found in the tombs. Pins are made of ivory or gold in the early periods of the RH, but bronze pins are more and more numerous in the course of time.


Seals are an important feature of Mycenaean artistic achievements. They could be worn as pendants, bracelets or rings, and served primarily to identify goods, and several seal impressions have been found on clay in palatial sites, but they also had a symbolic and ornamental function. The seals are indeed generally cut in the shape of a lens or an almond and engraved in a quality material, most often a rare stone (some rings are made of metal, notably gold in the case of some found in the pit tombs of Mycenae for HR I. This period marks the beginning of glyptics on the continent, following a strong Cretan inspiration. The dominant themes are warlike: fighting or hunting (notably a bearded man mastering wild animals). Others represent religious scenes, such as a gold seal-ring from Tyre which depicts four demons in procession carrying jugs towards a goddess who is holding a vase that they will probably fill. In HR III, the iconographic repertoire becomes poorer, and decorative motifs such as rosettes or circles appear and become more widespread.


The art of carved ivory has produced several of the most remarkable works unearthed on Mycenaean sites, first of all on the eponymous site of the civilization. The palace of the citadel of Mycenae has thus delivered a group of two goddesses accompanied by a child, strongly influenced by the tradition of Cretan ivories dating from earlier periods, as the characters wear clothes typical of the sculptures of the island. A vast quantity of ivories (nearly 18,000 objects and fragments) were found in two residences outside the citadel, the “House of the Shields” and the “House of the Sphinxes”, which were probably not workshops where these objects were made, but rather where these ivories were added to the furniture they decorated. Remarkable carved plaques have been found there. Other sites have yielded ivories, including a tomb in the Agora of Athens where a blush box (pyxide) carved in an elephant tusk, on which are carved griffins hunting deer, or Spatta in Attica from which comes an ivory plate decorated with sphinxes.

Mural paintings

The mural painting of the Mycenaean period is largely influenced by that of the Minoan period from which it borrows a lot both for the style and for the subjects. Some murals have survived the test of time in Mycenaean palaces. The themes represented are varied: “religious” processions which were already common in Crete, but also scenes of hunting (including bullfighting), and of warlike combats which are thematic innovations. A fresco in the palace of Thebes represents a procession of women dressed in Cretan style and carrying offerings to a goddess. Other fragments of similar scenes have been found in Pylos and Tyre. From Mycenae comes an example of military fresco representing a siege scene, decorating the walls of the megaron of the palace. Other frescoes are made up of geometrical motifs. Some of the ceramics were also painted, with identical themes.


Military objects were found in treasures of the Mycenaean period. The tablets of linear B, found in the palaces and which contain ideograms representing the weapons, also give us indications on the armament (even if these signs express only the concept of a weapon and do not give us the various variants of the weapons), which we can supplement by other figurative representations (frescos, painted potteries).

From the point of view of the defensive armament, which is not well known, the most attested helmet is the one made with boar tusks sewn on leather straps, mentioned in the Iliad. Two types of shields are attested: a type in the shape of eight, and another semi-cylindrical, made of a wooden frame covered by several ox skins. The most impressive find is the armor of Dendra, dated HR IIIII A1. It is composed of several bronze plates linked together in an articulated manner and sewn onto a leather garment.

Concerning the offensive armament, better known, we notice an evolution all along the HR. The sword, made of bronze, developed from the short dagger and spread throughout the continent during the Mycenaean period. Two types coexist at the beginning: a long heavy sword with a narrow blade, and another lighter one, short and wide. The models developed at the HR III A allow to strike of estoc and size, with a short blade and a more effective guard. Thereafter, the dagger, with a shorter and stronger blade, became widespread. Spearheads, a weapon probably used in combat but little attested in the tombs, tend to become shorter and sharper. Javelin points are also known, as well as numerous arrowheads, which may be made of bronze, but also of flint or obsidian. The warriors could ride on battle chariots, which spread on the continent in the Mycenaean period, but the uneven relief of Greece must not have facilitated its use on the battlefields.

The end of the Mycenaean period poses a set of problems that are still not solved, both from the point of view of chronology and of the interpretation of events.

Destructions and reorganizations

Signs of deterioration of the situation in the Mycenaean world could appear as early as the thirteenth century B.C., perhaps in connection with a decline in long-distance trade circuits which would have generated tensions between states, but this remains to be confirmed. The end of HR III B1 is marked by some destruction, notably at Mycenae. In HR III B2, around 12501200 BC, one notices an increase in the systems of defense of the Mycenaean sites, sign that the insecurity increases. But this is not necessarily a period of crisis, because these levels have provided archaeological material that shows a level of wealth that has nothing to envy that of the previous ones. The end of this period is marked by numerous destructions on a great part of the Mycenaean palatial sites of continental Greece, and this time the palaces are not rebuilt: some like Mycenae and Tyrinus are certainly reoccupied, but in a more modest way, whereas Pylos and Thebes are completely abandoned. Destruction also affects secondary sites, but it is not possible to say to what extent it affects this category of little-excavated habitat. Similar destructions are found in Crete.

The decline is thus clear at the turn of the 12th century BC, when the Late Helladic IIIC begins, which constitutes the “postpalatial” period. The administration characteristic of the Mycenaean palatial system disappeared, the writing of tablets in linear B ceased, luxury goods were no longer imported. But the material Mycenaean features remain for at least a century, so that the period, although without palaces, is characterized as a phase of the Mycenaean civilization. A recovery is detected in several places around the middle of the century, but it is not lasting. The presence of warriors” graves indicates that there is still an elite in the 12th century B.C., but this one has obviously changed in nature and has become more military than administrative, which could be linked to the shift to times of chronic insecurity. Indeed, instability seems to be the watchword of the period, which probably saw important movements of populations and perhaps the rise of insecurity (revolts, pirate raids). The postpalatial period saw a decrease in the number of sites in Greece, which could be very important in certain regions (910th of the sites of Boeotia disappeared, 23 of those of Argolid).9 Some sites like Mycenae or Tirynthe are still occupied, their citadels are maintained and the material culture found there still presents Mycenaean features, but elsewhere the situation is less well known although the discoveries have advanced the knowledge of the period. Changes are noted: the buildings erected on the ancient palaces are of different plan (abandonment of the megaron at Tyre), appearance of a new type of ceramics, called “barbaric” because it was formerly attributed to external invaders, and one could see in the painted ceramics of the period an antecedent of the geometrical styles. The period also sees a continued increase in the practice of cremation. The post-palatial period is therefore not free of creativity and innovation. More broadly, the homogeneity of material culture that was the order of the day during the palatial period came to an end, giving way to greater regional diversity, which implies a diversity of situations in the way the crisis was experienced and in the impact it had.

In Crete, the structure of the settlement changes: the coastal sites are abandoned in favor of inland sites located on the heights, which is explained by a search for protection and an increase in insecurity on the sea. In the Cyclades, contacts with the mainland decline, and it has been proposed that the disturbances observed in some places are due to the arrival of refugees from the mainland. After the period of unrest we find a site with a high level of wealth at Grotta on Naxos, but the situation of the other islands is obscure. On the coast of Asia Minor and Crete groups from the Aegean Mycenaean world or Mycenaean settle in this period, but we do not know how important they are, but they initiate major changes for these regions. More broadly, this crisis is part of a context of collapse of Bronze Age civilizations, which affects the ancient world from the eastern Mediterranean to Mesopotamia, and sweeps away several important kingdoms (primarily the Hittites, also Ugarit) and sees the marked decline of others (Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, Elam).

The quest for causes

What are the causes of the decline of the Mycenaean civilization at this period? Indeed, beyond the destructions, which are not new in the previous history of the Aegean world of the Bronze Age, the most striking phenomenon is the absence of reoccupation of the major sites and the end of the palatial administration, which thus creates a major rupture, and it is that which has stimulated the most reflections. Several explanations have been put forward. Those based on natural disasters (climate change, earthquakes, drought, also epidemics) are often rejected but regularly resurface, and are not necessarily to be ruled out. Two main theories traditionally dominate: that of population movements and that of internal conflicts. The first one attributes the destruction of the Mycenaean sites to invaders. One invokes sometimes the Dorians and sometimes the Sea Peoples. It is now considered that the first, of which the later Greek historians speak, were already present in continental Greece before, and one thus tends not to accept any more the old theory of a “Dorian invasion” sweeping away the Achaean civilization, which does not appear in the archaeological documentation and rests only on linguistic arguments. The movements of peoples occurring from the Balkans to the Near East in this period, mentioned in Egyptian inscriptions designating the invaders under the name of “Peoples of the Sea”, are them well certain although badly understood. It is known that these peoples participate in movements of populations probably responsible for numerous destructions in Anatolia or in the Levant, but the chronology of these destructions is very badly established. The material culture that spread with these migrations has in any case strong affinities with the Aegean world, in particular that of the first Philistines who arrived in the Near East. The mention of a people named Aqweš (which recalls the term “Achaean”) in an Egyptian text of the twelfth century has made some scholars assume that Mycenaeans would have taken part in these population movements, especially since Mycenaeans probably settled in Cyprus around 1200. But once again these arguments remain unprovable, and current research is oriented towards a vision of groups mixing people from various backgrounds (Mycenaean, Mycenaeanized Aegean, Anatolian, Cypriot). The second theory makes fall the Mycenaean civilization during internal social conflicts, pulled by a rejection of the palatial system by the most underprivileged social layers, which would be impoverished at the end of the Recent Helladic. This hypothesis sometimes joins the previous one, when one tries to mix social divisions with ethnic divisions (revolt of the “Dorian” people reduced to servitude according to J. Hooker). Other proposals have directed the search for explanations towards a logic of socio-economic transformation, nuancing the catastrophism: the final period of the Mycenaean civilization would rather see a process of social recomposition, of redistribution of the power in the society, explaining the disappearance of the Mycenaean elites and of the characteristic features of this social group (palaces, tombs, art, writing, etc.), but affecting less the remainder of the society. Because of the chronological uncertainties, it is difficult to be more precise, and explanations based on a single cause seem to be excluded: it is a complex phenomenon based on several factors, in which intervenes a “snowball effect” which makes the situation less and less controllable and explains the extent of the collapse and the chaotic aspect of the situation that follows the destructions.

Towards the “dark ages

Whatever the causes and the modalities, the Mycenaean civilization disappears definitively in the last times of the HR III C, when the sites of Mycenae and Tirynthe are destroyed again, then abandoned, and become minor sites for the remainder of their existence. This end, to be dated to the last years of the 12th century or just after, occurs at the end of the long decline of the Mycenaean civilization, which took a good century before dying out. Rather than a sudden break, the Mycenaean culture disintegrates gradually. After that its main features are lost and are not preserved during the later periods. Thus, at the end of the Bronze Age, the great royal palaces, their administrative archives in linear B writing, the collective tombs and the Mycenaean artistic styles are without posterity: the whole “system” of the Mycenaean civilization has collapsed and disappeared. There is no longer any trace of an elite, the habitat is made up of villages or hamlets grouped together without public or cult buildings, the craft production strongly loses in variety and becomes essentially utilitarian, the differences in the production of ceramics and the funerary practices are strong, including between neighboring regions. The beginning of the 11th century opens a new context, that of the “sub-Mycenaean” phase, whose ceramic material is considerably impoverished compared to the palatial phases. Greece then entered the “dark centuries” of the historiographic tradition, which mark the passage from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, and towards the “geometric” ceramic traditions (the protogeometric period begins around the middle of the 11th century BC). The cultures that developed after the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization were less open to the outside world, their elites were less wealthy, and their socio-economic organization was less complex, even if the pessimistic picture that had previously prevailed was nuanced. At the end of the first centuries of the first millennium B.C., the Greeks of the archaic period, such as Hesiod and Homer, obviously know very little about the Mycenaean period, and it is a new Greek civilization that they set up.

The rupture created by the “dark centuries” is such that the Mycenaean civilization seems to fall in the lapse of memory and that its social and political characteristics disappear. On the side of the culture, the elements of continuity are debated. A first point is the fact that the Greek language is preserved during this period, even if the Mycenaean writing is forgotten, and that at the end of the dark ages the Greeks turn to the Near East to adopt its alphabet. The vocabulary of the Mycenaean period could be understood because it has many points in common with that of ancient Greek, but the meaning of the words knows notable evolutions between the periods, which refers to the changes which occur in the civilization of Greece. The archaeology also highlights many evolutions, as seen above: the Mycenaean palatial system disappears around 1200 BC, then the other material features of the Mycenaean civilization disappear in the course of the twelfth century BC, in particular its ceramic styles. The abandonment of many Mycenaean sites is another indicator of the radical nature of the rupture that then took place, as well as the evolution of burial practices, settlement and also architectural techniques. A system collapses, then a civilization, and something new is in gestation, on new bases. The fact that the archaeological data remains limited nevertheless prevents us from taking the full measure of the extent of the rupture that is taking place, of its modalities and its rhythm.

The question of the extent of the break between the Bronze Age and the Dark Ages is often asked in the field of religion. Mycenaean tablets have indicated that the Greeks of this period already worshipped the main deities known for the Archaic and Classical periods, with a few exceptions. But the structure of the pantheon seems to present significant differences, and few continuities emerge from the study of the rituals and the religious vocabulary, although the sacrifice to the gods is already the central act of the cult, according to principles that seem to correspond with those of the historical times. Moreover one knows nothing or not much about the functions and powers incarnated by the deities of the Mycenaean period, so the comparison is often limited to the names: but nothing says that the Zeus of the Mycenaean period has the same aspects as that of the archaic and classical periods. As for the question of the continuity of the places of worship, it is not more obvious to solve: there are certainly traces of Mycenaean occupation on certain major sanctuaries of classical antiquity (Delphi, Delos), but nothing indicates with insurance that it is already a sanctuary. In fact, very often when there is continuity of occupation, a sanctuary emerges during the Dark Ages from a Mycenaean site that has no obvious religious role, with a few exceptions (at Epidaurus, at Aghia Irini on Keos). This implies at least the preservation of a memory of the Mycenaean period, even if it is vague, which ensures the continuity of the occupation and even the attribution of a sacred aspect to a site. But the sanctuaries of the first millennium B.C., with their temples and their temenos, do not resemble in any way those identified for the Mycenaean period, which seems to indicate a profound rupture in religious beliefs and practices.

Another recurring question is the extent to which the Homeric narratives, and more broadly the epic cycles, provide information about the Mycenaean period. This goes back to the time of Schliemann”s discoveries, who explicitly links his findings at Mycenae and Troy to the Homeric epics (which guided his research), and he is followed in this by historians and archaeologists of the following decades. One of the pioneers of the history of Greek religion and mythology, Martin P. Nilsson, considered that the heroic narratives referred to the Mycenaean period, since several major sites of this period are presented as leading kingdoms (Mycenae, Pylos), and also that they document a period during which the royal institution is paramount, which corresponds well to the Mycenaean age. Moreover he spotted in the Mycenaean iconography antecedents to certain Greek myths. But these interpretations are far from unanimous, since the Mycenaean images are subject to several very divergent explanations, and that several important sites of the Mycenaean period are not attested in the epic texts, and that some major kingdoms of the epics have not left any trace of the Mycenaean period (first of all Ithaca, the homeland of Odysseus). Since the 1950s, with the translation of the Mycenaean tablets, which allowed us to improve our knowledge of this civilization, then the work of M. I. Finley, and the archaeological discoveries that followed, the consensus that has emerged is that the Homeric texts do not describe the Mycenaean world, which is very much older than the time of their writing (around the second half of the 8th century BC) and very different from what we know today. C.) and quite different from what transpires in these accounts, but the society of their time of writing and those which immediately precede it (thus the Dark Ages), while adding reminiscences of the Mycenaean ages. It has thus been proposed that the Homeric texts would preserve some authentic memories of the ritual traditions of the Bronze Age. A helmet made of boar”s tusks similar to those known for the Mycenaean period is accurately described in a passage of the Iliad (X.260-271), whereas this type of object is unknown for the Homeric period, which indicates that knowledge of certain elements of the Mycenaean material culture may have survived.

Related article


  1. Civilisation mycénienne
  2. Mycenaean Greece
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