A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Closing in on the people and towns of Homer's Greece
The Lower Town excavations with the imposing citadel 45 feet above the plain. In the distance is Mount Prophitis Elias, a natural protector of the settlement. (Courtesy Christofilis Maggidis, Thalassini Douma)
Ever since Heinrich Schliemann began digging at the ancient Greek site of Mycenae in 1876, generations of archaeologists have worked to uncover the spectacular remains of a Bronze Age superpower that gave its name to a whole civilization. The "Mycenaeans" were not a single people, but disparate groups united by a shared culture that stretched all over Greece and dominated the Aegean in the Late Bronze Age, from about 1600 to 1100 B.C. This was the world of the Trojan War; scholars believe Homer's Iliad describes actual events involving Mycenaean city-states around 1200 B.C. For many ancient writers and some modern excavators, Homer's kings and warriors were based on historical figures who set out for Troy from the citadels that still bear their ancient names--Pylos, Tiryns, Argos, Thebes, and chief among them, Mycenae. Not surprisingly, archaeologists have focused their efforts on uncovering evidence of the elite society ruled by kings, including Agamemnon at Mycenae and Nestor at Pylos.
Christofilis Maggidis, left, field director of the Lower Town excavation, and Spyros Iakovides, director of Mycenae, discuss plans for future work. (Courtesy Christofilis Maggidis, Thalassini Douma)
But one energetic young scholar is turning away from the kings and focusing on the regular people of ancient Mycenae. Despite more than a century of excavation at Mycenaean palace sites, no one has ever excavated a Mycenaean town. Christofilis Maggidis and his team are determined to change that. If he succeeds, questions about Mycenae and other palace sites thought to be similar in sociopolitical organization, can be addressed for the first time. How did trade function outside the strict commercial system regulated by the palace? What was day-to-day social and economic life like? What kind of houses did the Mycenaeans live in and what did they eat?
We know that the Mycenaean elite flourished thanks to their control of rich farmland and ample food supplies, which were protected by rugged mountain ranges. At sites across Greece, excavators have found massive fortification walls built high on citadels surrounding impressive palaces. These royal residences are filled with elaborately decorated rooms featuring brightly colored frescoes fit for royal banquets and receptions. Huge storerooms also found on the citadels speak to the abundance of goods needed for an opulent royal household. At some Mycenaean sites, archaeologists have found rooms crammed with fragments of tablets that record a well-organized and extensive economy controlled by the palaces. And at many sites, rock-cut chamber tombs and stone-built tholos (beehive-shaped) tombs containing stunning gold masks, bronze weapons and armor, and imported gems and pottery create a picture of an impressive elite society. But a civilization like this, which controlled large areas of land, waged long and costly wars, created both land and sea transport systems to support long-distance trade, and amassed great quantities of luxury goods, could not do with only kings and warriors. Maggidis, director of the Dickinson College Excavation Project and Survey in Mycenae, thinks he knows where the rest of the people, until now absent from the archaeological record, might be.
Jarrett A. Lobell is a senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.