Art and Architecture of the Ancient Aegean Civilizations
Portico at the Palace at Knossos / Wikimedia Commons
Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 04.10.2017
The Aegean Bronze Age
Sculpture of the Cyclades
Cycladic art during the Greek Bronze Age is noted for its abstract, geometric designs of male and female figures.
The Cyclades are a group of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea that encircle the island of Delos. The islands were known for their white marble, mined during the Greek Bronze Age and throughout Classical history.
Their geographical location placed them, like the island of Crete, in the center of trade between Greece, Egypt, Asia Minor, and the Near East. The indigenous civilization on the Cyclades reached its high point during the Bronze Age. The islands were later occupied by the Minoans, Mycenaeans, and later the Greeks.
A map marking the Cyclades islands / Wikimedia Commons
Cycladic art is best known for its small-scale, marble figurines. From the late fourth millennium BCE to the early second millennium BCE, Cycladic sculptures went through a series of stylistic shifts, with their bodily forms varying from geometric to organic. The purpose of these figurines is unknown, although all that have been discovered were located in graves. While it is clear that they were regularly used in funerary practices, their precise function remains a mystery.
Some are found in graves completely intact, others are found broken into pieces, others show signs of being used during the lifetime of the deceased, but some graves do not contain the figurines. Furthermore, the figurines were buried equally between men and women. The male and female forms do not seem to be identified with a specific gender during burial. These figures are based in simple geometric shapes.
Cycladic Female Figures
A Cycladic female figure. Marble. Cyclades, Greece. c. 2500 BCE / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The abstract female figures all follow the same mold. Each is a carved statuette of a nude woman with her arms crossed over her abdomen. The bodies are roughly triangular and the feet are kept together. The head of the women is an inverted triangle with a rounded chin and the nose of the figurine protrudes from the center.
Each figure has modeled breasts, and incised lines draw attention to the pubic region with a triangle. The swollen bellies on some figurines might indicate pregnancy or symbolic fertility. The incised lines also provide small details, such as toes on the feet, and to delineate the arms from each other and the stomach.
Their flat back and inability to stand on their carved feet suggest that these figures were meant to lie down. While today they are featureless and remain the stark white of the marble, traces of paint allow us to know that they were once colored. Paint would have been applied on the face to demarcate the eyes, mouth, and hair. Dots were used to decorate the figures with bracelets and necklaces.
Cycladic Male Figures
A Cycladic male figure with the harp. Marble. Santorini, Greece. c. 2500 BCE. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Male figures are also found in Cycladic grave sites. These figures differ from the females, as the male typically sits on a chair and plays a musical instrument, such as the pipes or a harp. Harp players, like the one in the example below, play the frame harp, a Near Eastern ancestor of the modern harp.
The figures, their chairs, and instruments are all carved into elegant, cylindrical shapes. Like the female figures, the shape of the male figure is reliant on geometric shapes and flat planes. The incised lines provide details (such as toes), and paint added distinctive features to the now-blank faces.
Other Cycladic Figures
[LEFT]: These terracotta bovine figures may be oxen or bulls, 2200-2000 BCE / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
[RIGHT]: These flat, abstracted figurines of the female body provide one example of how its representation evolved in Cycladic art, 3300-2700 BCE / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
While reclining female and seated male figurines are the most common Cycladic sculptures discovered, other forms were produced, such as animals and abstracted humanoid forms. Examples include the terra cotta figurines of bovine animals (possibly oxen or bulls) that date to 2200–2000 BCE, and small, flat sculptures that resemble female figures shaped like violins; these date to the Grotta–Pelos culture, also known as Early Cycladic I (c. 3300–2700 BCE). Like other Cycladic sculptures discovered to date, the purposes of these figurines remain unknown.
The Protopalatial period of Minoan civilization (1900 to 1700 BCE) and the Neopalatial Period (1700 to 1450 BCE) saw the establishment of administrative centers on Crete and the apex of Minoan civilization, respectively.
Discovery and Excavation
Map of Minoan Crete / Wikimedia Commons
The Protopalatial Period is considered the civilization’s second phase of development, lasting from 1900 to 1700 BCE. During this time the major sites on the island were developed, including the palatial sites of Knossos, Phaistos, and Kato Zakros, which were the first palaces or administrative centers built on Crete.
These civic centers appear to denote the emergence of a collective community governing system, instead of system in which a king ruled over each town. During this period the Minoan trade network expanded into Egypt and the Near East; the first signs of writing, the still undeciphered language Linear A, appear. The period ended with a cataclysmic event, perhaps an earthquake or an invasion, which destroyed the palace centers.
The Neopalatial period occurred from 1700 to 1450 BCE, during which time the Minoans saw the height of their civilization. Following the destruction of the first palaces in approximately 1700 BCE, the Minoans rebuilt these centers into the palaces that were first excavated by Sir Arthur Evans.
During this period, Minoan trade increased and the Minoans were considered to rule the Mediterranean trading routes between Greece, Egypt, Anatolia, the Near East, and perhaps even Spain. The Minoans began to settle in colonies away from Crete, including on the islands of the Cyclades, Rhodes, and in Egypt.
The most well known and excavated architectural buildings of the Minoans were the administrative palace centers, which were divided into numerous zones for civic, storage, and production purposes; they also had a central, ceremonial courtyard.
When Sir Arthur Evans first excavated at Knossos, not only did he mistakenly believe he was looking at the legendary labyrinth of King Minos, he also thought he was excavating a palace. However, the small rooms and excavation of large pithoi, storage vessels, and archives led researchers to believe that these palaces were actually administrative centers. Even so, the name became ingrained, and these large, communal buildings across Crete are known as palaces.
Although each one is unique, they share similar features and functions. The largest and oldest palace centers are at Knossos, Malia, Phaistos, and Kato Zakro.
The Complex at Knossos
An overview map of the palace at Knossos, Crete, Greece, circa 1700–1400 BCE. / Wikimedia Commons
Several small tripartite shrines surround the courtyard. The numerous corridors and rooms of the palace center create multiple areas for storage, meeting rooms, shrines, and workshops.
The absence of a central room and living chambers suggest the absence of a king and, instead, the presence and rule of a strong, centralized government.
The palaces also have multiple entrances that often take long paths to reach the central courtyard or a set of rooms. There are no fortification walls, although the multitude of rooms creates a protective, continuous façade. While this provides some level of fortification, it also provides structural stability for earthquakes. Even without a wall, the rocky and mountainous landscape of Crete and its location as an island creates a high level of natural protection.
The restored north portico. The rocky and mountainous landscape of Crete creates a high level of natural protection. / Wikimedia Commons
The palaces are organized not only into zones along a horizontal plain, but also have multiple stories. Grand staircases, decorated with columns and frescos, connect to the upper levels of the palaces, only some parts of which survive today.
Wells for light and air provide ventilation and light. The Minoans also created careful drainage systems and wells for collecting and storing water, as well as sanitation.
Their architectural columns are uniquely constructed and easily identified as Minoan. They are constructed from wood, as opposed to stone, and are tapered at the bottom. They stood on stone bases and had large, bulbous tops, now known as cushion capitals. The Minoans painted their columns bright red and the capitals were often painted black.
Restored interior stairwell. Palace at Knossos, Crete, Greece. Circa 1700–1400 BCE. / Wikimedia Commons
Phaistos was inhabited from about 4000 BCE. A palatial complex, dating from the Middle Bronze Age, was destroyed by an earthquake during the Late Bronze Age. Knossos, along with other Minoan sites, was destroyed at that time. The palace was rebuilt toward the end of the Late Bronze Age.
The first palace was built about 2000 BCE. This section is on a lower level than the west courtyard and has a nice facade with a plastic outer shape, a cobbled courtyard, and a tower ledge with a ramp that leads up to a higher level.
A view of the ruins of the complex at Phaistos from the south / Wikimedia Commons
The old palace was destroyed three times in a time period of about three centuries. After the first and second disaster, reconstruction and repairs were made, so there are three, identifiable construction phases. Around 1400 BCE, the invading Achaeans destroyed Phaistos, as well as Knossos. The palace appears to have been unused thereafter.
The Old Palace was built in the Protopalatial period. When the palace was destroyed by earthquakes, new structures were built atop the old. In one of the three hills of the area, remains from the Neolithic era and the Early Minoan period have been found.
Two additional palaces were built during the Middle and Late Minoan periods. The older one looks like the palace at Knossos, although the Phaistos complex is smaller. On its ruins (probably destroyed by an earthquake around 1600 BCE), the Late-Minoan builders constructed a larger palace had several rooms separated by columns.
Like the complex at Knossos, the complex at Phaistos is arranged around a central courtyard and held grand staircases that led to areas believed to be a theater, ceremonial spaces, and official apartments. Materials such as gypsum and alabaster added to the luxurious appearance of the interior.
Minoan painting is distinguished by its vivid colors and curvilinear shapes that bring a liveliness and vitality to scenes.
This fresco from the complex at Knossos depicts a popular fashion for Minoan women. / Wikimedia Commons
The Minoans decorated their palace complexes and homes with fresco wall paintings. Buon fresco is a form of painting where the pigment is painted onto a wet limestone plaster. When the plaster dries the painting also dries, becoming an integral part of the wall.
In the Minoan variation, the stone walls are first covered with a mixture of mud and straw, then thinly coated with lime plaster, and lastly with layers of fine plaster. The Minoans had a distinct painting style with shapes formed by curvilinear lines that add a feeling of liveliness to the paintings. The Minoan color palette is based in earth tones of white, brown, red, and yellow. Black and vivid blue are also used. These color combinations create vivid and rich decoration.
Because the Minoan alphabet, known as Linear A, has yet to be deciphered, scholars must rely on the culture’s visual art to provide insights into Minoan life. The frescoes discovered in locations such as Knossos and Akrotiri inform us of the plant and animal life of the islands of Crete and Thera (Santorini), the common styles of clothing, and the activities the people practiced. For example, men wore kilts and loincloths. Women wore short-sleeve dresses with flounced skirts whose bodices were open to the navel, allowing their breasts to be exposed.
A fresco of a leaping bull found on an upper story of the palace at Knossos, Crete, Greece. Circa 1450–1400 BCE. / Wikimedia Commons
Fragments of frescoes found at Knossos provide us with glimpses into Minoan culture and rituals. A fresco found on an upper story of the palace has come to be known as Bull Leaping. The image depicts a bull in flying gallop with one person at his horns, another at his feet, and a third, whose skin color is brown instead of white, inverted in a handstand leaping over the bull.
While the different skin color of the figures may differentiate male (dark) and female (light) figures, the similarity of their clothing and body shapes (lean with few curves) suggest that the figures may all be male. The figures participate in an activity known as bull-leaping.
The human figures are stylized with narrow waists, broad shoulders, long, slender, muscular legs, and cylindrical arms. Unlike the twisted perspective seen in Egyptian or Ancient Near Eastern works of art, these figures are shown in full profile, an element the adds to the air of liveliness.
Although the specifics of bull leaping remain a matter of debate, it is commonly interpreted as a ritualistic activity performed in connection with bull worship. In most cases, the leaper would literally grab a bull by his horns, which caused the bull to jerk his neck upwardly. This jerking motion gave the leaper the momentum necessary to perform somersaults and other acrobatic tricks or stunts.
Bull Leaping appears to divide these steps between two participants, with a third extending his arms, possibly to catch the leaper.
Flotilla or Akrotiri Ship Procession. This panoramic fresco depicts the Minoans as a highly developed civilization. / Wikimedia Commons
The Minoans settled on other islands besides Crete, including the volcanic, Cycladic island of Thera (present-day Santorini). The volcano on Thera erupted in mid-second millennium BCE and destroyed the Minoan city of Akrotiri. Akrotiri was entombed by pumice and ash and since its rediscovery has been referred to as the Minoan Pompeii. The frescoes on Akrotiri were preserved by the blanketing volcanic ash.
The wall paintings found on Thera provide significant information about Minoan life and culture, depicting a highly developed society. A fresco commonly called Flotilla or Akrotiri Ship Procession represents a culture adept at a variety of seafaring occupations.
Differences in clothing styles could refer to different ranks and roles in society. Deer, dolphins, and large felines point to a sense of biodiversity among the islands of the Minoan civilization.
Landscape with Sparrows, or Spring Fresco. Akrotiri, Thera, Greece. c. 1650 BCE. / Wikimedia Commons
In one room is a wall painting known as the Landscape with Swallows, or as the Spring Fresco. It depicts a whimsical, hilly landscape with lilies sprouting from the ground. Sparrows, painted in blue, white, and red, swoop around the landscape. The lilies sway gracefully and the hills create an undulating rhythm around the room. The fresco does not depict a naturalistic landscape, but instead depicts an essence of the land and nature, whose liveliness is enhanced through the colors and curvilinear lines.
This is a Kamares ware vessel with an abstract floral design. Minoan, circa 2100–1700 BCE. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Marine style emerged during the late Minoan period. As the name suggests, the decorations on these vessels take their cue from the sea. The vessels are almost entirely covered with sea creatures such as dolphins, fish, and octopi, along with seaweed, rock, and sponges.
Unlike their Kamares ware predecessors, the light and dark color scheme is inverted: the figures are dark on a light background. Like the landscape frescoes at Thera, these paintings demonstrate a keen understanding and intimate knowledge of the marine environment.
Octopus vase from Palaikastro, Crete, Greece. Circa 1500 BCE. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
In the Marine-style Octopus Vase from the city of Palaikastro, the octopus wraps around the jug, mimicking and accentuating its round shape. The octopus is painted in great detail, from each of its distinct stylized suckers to its bulbous head and the extension of its long tentacles. The surface of this vessel is covered by the main image; bits of seaweed fill the negative space.
This filling of the empty space with additional images or designs is another characteristic of Minoan Marine-style pottery. The style is known as horror vacui, which is Latin for fear of empty space. The same aesthetic is seen later, in Greek Geometric pottery.
Minoan Woman, c. 1600-1500 BCE, bronze. / Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete
Minoan sculpture consists of figurines that reflect the culture’s artistic style and important aspects of daily life.
As with their painting, Minoan sculpture demonstrates stylistic conventions including curvilinear forms; active, energized scenes; and long-limbed humans with broad shoulders and narrow waists. Women are often depicted in large, long, layered skirts that accentuate their hips. So far, the majority of sculptures and figurines found during Minoan excavations have been small scale.
The small-scale sculptures of the Minoans were produced in many different materials including ivory, gold, faience, and bronze. The variety of materials acknowledges the extensive trade network established by the Minoans. For instance, faience, an quartz ceramic, is an Egyptian material. Its presence in sculpture found on Crete demonstrates that the material was shipped raw from Egypt to Crete, where it was then formed to create Minoan sculpture.
Bronze was an important material in Minoan culture and many figurines were produced in this medium, mostly created using the lost-wax casting technique.
Snake Goddess from the Palace at Knossos, circa 1600 BCE. / Heraklion Archaeological Museum
One figurine, known as the Snake Goddess , depicts a woman with open arms who holds a snake in each hand, with a feline sitting on her head. The purpose or function of the statue is unknown, although it is believed that she may have been an earth goddess or priestess.
The snakes are considered chthonic animals—related to the earth and the ground—and are often symbols of earth deities. Furthermore, the Snake Goddess is dressed in a layered skirt with a tight bodice, covered shoulders, and exposed breasts. The prominence of her breasts may suggest that she is fertility figure. Although her function remains unknown, the figure’s significance to the culture is unquestionable.
Other figures in similar poses and outfits have also been found among Minoan ruins.
Bull leaper, from southwest Crete, circa 1550-1450 BC / Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete
The Bull Leaper bronze, depicting a bull and an acrobat, was created as a single group. The figures are similar in style and position, as seen in several bull-leaping frescoes, including one from the palatial complex at Knossos.
The bull stands frozen in a flying gallop, while a leaper appears to be flipping over his back. The acrobat’s feet are planted firmly on the bull’s rump, and the figure bends backwards with its arms planted on the bull’s head, perhaps preparing to launch off of the bull. The two figures, bull and man, mirror each other, as the bull’s back sways in the gallop and the man’s back is arched in a deep back bend.
In another sculpture of a bull leaper (c. 1500 BCE), the acrobat is frozen in a forward-facing mid-somersault position. This ivory sculpture from Knossos is the only complete surviving figure from a larger arrangement and is the earliest three-dimensional representation of the bull leap. Experts believe that thin gold wires were used to suspend the figure over a bull.
Bull leaper sculpted from ivory. Knossos, Greece, circa 1500 BCE / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The figures are made with curvilinear lines and the positioning of both figures adds a high degree of movement and action that was commonly found in Minoan art.
While most known Minoan sculpture is small scale, at least one sculpture serves as an exception to this rule. The so-called Palaikastro Kouros (not to be confused with the stylized male sculptures of ancient Greece), which dates to the Late Minoan period (late fifteenth century BCE), stands at almost 20 inches (50 cm) tall.
It is an example of a Chryselephantine sculpture: it consists of a wooden frame, with thin carved slabs of ivory attached to represent the flesh. Sheets of gold leaf likely represent details such as hair and clothing. Its head consists of a semiprecious green stone called serpentine with rock crystal eyes. Because of its scale and the rareness of its media, experts believe the sculpture was a cult image.
The architecture of Mycenaean citadel sites reflects the society’s war-like culture and its constant need for protection and fortification.
Mycenaean culture can be summarized by its architecture, whose remains demonstrate the Mycenaeans’ war-like culture and the dominance of citadel sites ruled by a single ruler. The Mycenaeans populated Greece and built citadels on high, rocky outcroppings that provided natural fortification and overlooked the plains used for farming and raising livestock. The citadels vary from city to city but each share common attributes, including building techniques and architectural features.
The walls of Mycenaean citadel sites were often built with ashlar and massive stone blocks. The blocks were considered too large to be moved by humans and were believed by ancient Greeks to have been erected by the Cyclopes—one-eyed giants. Due to this ancient belief, the use of large, roughly cut, ashlar blocks in building is referred to as Cyclopean masonry. The thick Cyclopean walls reflect a need for protection and self-defense since these walls often encircled the citadel site and the acropolis on which the site was located.
Corbel vault at Tiryns. This photo shows the offsetting successive courses of stone at the springline of the walls so that they project towards the archway’s center from each supporting side, until the courses meet at the apex of the archway. / Wikimedia Commons
The Mycenaeans also relied on new techniques of building to create supportive archways and vaults. A typical post and lintel structure is not strong enough to support the heavy structures built above it. Therefore, a corbeled (or corbel) arch is employed over doorways to relieve the weight on the lintel.
The corbel arch is constructed by offsetting successive courses of stone (or brick) at the springline of the walls so that they project towards the archway’s center from each supporting side, until the courses meet at the apex of the archway (often, the last gap is bridged with a flat stone). The corbel arch was often used by the Mycenaeans in conjunction with a relieving triangle, which was a triangular block of stone that fit into the recess of the corbeled arch and helped to redistribute weight from the lintel to the supporting walls.
Mycenaean citadel sites were centered around the megaron, a reception area for the king. The megaron was a rectangular hall, fronted by an open, two-columned porch. It contained a more or less central open hearth, which was vented though an oculus in the roof above it and surrounded by four columns. The architectural plan of the megaron became the basic shape of Greek temples, demonstrating the cultural shift as the gods of ancient Greece took the place of the Mycenaean rulers.
Citadel sites were protected from invasion through natural and man-made fortification. In addition to thick walls, the sites were protected by controlled access. Entrance to the site was through one or two large gates, and the pathway into the main part of the citadel was often controlled by more gates or narrow passageways. Since citadels had to protect the area’s people in times of warfare, the sites were equipped for sieges. Deep water wells, storage rooms, and open space for livestock and additional citizens allowed a city to access basic needs while being protected during times of war.
Lion Gate, limestone, circa 1300–1250 BCE, Mycenae, Greece The Lion Gate is famous for its use of the relieving arch, a corbeled arch that leaves an opening and lightens the weight carried by the lintel. / Wikimedia Commons
The citadel site of Mycenae was the center of Mycenaean culture. It overlooks the Argos plain on the Peloponnesian peninsula, and according to Greek mythology was the home to King Agamemnon.
The site’s megaron sits on the highest part of the acropolis and is reached through a large staircase. Inside the walls are various rooms for administration and storage along with palace quarters, living spaces, and temples. A large grave site, known as Grave Circle A, is also built within the walls.
The main approach to the citadel is through the Lion Gate, a cyclopean-walled entrance way. The gate is 20 feet wide, which is large enough for citizens and wagons to pass through, but its size and the walls on either side create a tunneling effect that makes it difficult for an invading army to penetrate.
The gate is famous for its use of the relieving arch, a corbeled arch that leaves an opening and lightens the weight carried by the lintel. The Lion Gate received its name from its decorated relieving triangle of lions one either side of a single column. This composition of lions or another feline animal flanking a single object is known as a heraldic composition. The lions represent cultural influences from the Ancient Near East. Their heads are turned to face outwards and confront those who enter the gate.
Treasury of Atreus, Mycenae, Greece, circa 1300–1250 BCE.. The Treasury of Atreus and others tombs like it are demonstrations of corbeled vaulting that covers an expansive open space. / Wikimedia Commons
Ground plan of the citadel of Tiryns, circa 1400–1200 BCE, Tiryns, Greece The citadel site of Tiryns is known for its Cyclopean vaulted tunnels that run next to its walls and its tightly controlled access to the megaron and the main rooms of the citadel. / Wikimedia Commons
The citadel site of Tiryns, another example of Mycenaean fortification, was a hill fort that has been occupied over the course of 7000 years. It reached its height between 1400 and 1200 BCE, when it was one of the most important centers of the Mycenaean world. Its most notable features were its palace, its Cyclopean tunnels, its walls, and its tightly controlled access to the megaron and main rooms of the citadel.
Just a few gates provide access to the hill but only one path leads to the main site. This path is narrow and protected by a series of gates that could be opened and closed to trap invaders. The central megaron is easy to locate, and it is surrounded by various palatial and administrative rooms. The megaron is accessed through a courtyard that is decorated on three sides with a colonnade.
Megaron hearth at the citadel of Pylos. Due to the uniformity of citadel plans throughout the Mycenaean civilization, we can get an idea of how the hearth of the megaron at Tiryns looked by comparing it to its counterpart at Pylos. The holes at the corners of the surrounding square once held wooden columns. / Wikimedia Commons
The famous megaron has a large reception hall, the main room of which had a throne placed against the right wall and a central hearth bordered by four wooden columns that served as supports for the roof. It was laid out around a circular hearth surrounded by four columns. Although individual citadel sites varied to a degree, their overall uniformity allows us to compare design elements easily. For example, the hearth of the megaron at the citadel of Pylos provides an idea of how its counterpart at Tiryns appears.
The Mycenaeans were masterful metalworkers, as their gold, silver, and bronze daggers, drinking cups, and other objects demonstrate.
Grave Circle A
Grave Circle A is a set of graves from the sixteenth century BCE located at Mycenae. The grave circle was originally located outside the walls of the city but was later encompassed inside the walls of the citadel when the city’s walls were enlarged during the thirteenth century BCE.
The grave circle is surrounded by a second wall and only has one entrance. Inside are six tombs for nineteen bodies that were buried inside shaft graves. The shaft graves were deep, narrow shafts dug into the ground.
The body would be placed inside a stone coffin and placed at the bottom of the grave along with grave goods. The graves were often marked by a mound of earth above them and grave stele.
The grave site was excavated by Heinrich Schleimann in 1876, who excavated ancient sites such as Mycenae and Troy based on the writings of Homer and was determined to find archaeological remains that aligned with observations discussed in the Iliad and the Odyssey. The archaeological methods of the nineteenth century were different than those of the twenty-first century and Schleimann’s desire to discover remains that aligned with mythologies and Homeric stories did not seem as unusual as it does today. Upon excavating the tombs, Schleimann declared that he found the remains of Agamemnon and many of his followers.
Grave Circle B
An additional grave circle, Grave Circle B, is also located at Mycenae, although this one was never incorporated into the citadel site. The two grave circles were elite burial grounds for the ruling dynasty. The graves were filled with precious items made from expensive material, including gold, silver, and bronze.
The amount of gold, silver, and previous materials in these tombs not only depict the wealth of the ruling class of the Mycenae but also demonstrates the talent and artistry of Mycenaean metalworking. Reoccurring themes and motifs underline the culture’s propensity for war and the cross-cultural connections that the Mycenaeans established with other Mediterranean cultures through trade, including the Minoans, Egyptians, and even the Orientalizing style of the Ancient Near East
Gold Death Masks
[LEFT]: Mycenaean death mask with a hint of a smile. Gold, circa 1600–1500 BCE. It was found in Grave Circle A, Grave Shaft IV, at Mycenae, Greece. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
[RIGHT]: The Mask of Agamemnon, identified by Heinrich Schliemann. Gold, circa 1600–1500 BCE (?). It was found in Grave Circle A, Grave shaft V, at Mycenae, Greece. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Repoussé death masks were found in many of the tombs. The death masks were created from thin sheets of gold, through a careful method of metalworking to create a low relief.
These objects are fragile, carefully crafted, and laid over the face of the dead. Schleimann called the most famous of the death masks the Mask of Agamemnon, under the assumption that this was the burial site of the Homeric king. The mask depicts a man with a triangular face, bushy eyebrows, a narrow nose, pursed lips, a mustache, and stylized ears.
This mask is an impressive and beautiful specimen but looks quite different from other death masks found at the site. The faces on other death masks are rounder; the eyes are more bulbous; and at least one bears a hint of a smile. None of the other figures have a mustache or even the hint of beard.
In fact, the mustache looks distinctly nineteenth century and is comparable to the mustache that Schleimann himself had. The artistic quality between the Mask of Agamemnon and the others seems dramatically different. Despite these differences, the Mask of Agamemnon has inserted itself into the story of Mycenaean art.
A mycenaean hunting dagger with a scene of a lion hunt. Bronze with gold, silver, and niello inlay. Circa 16th century BCE. It was found in Grave Circle A, at Mycenae, Greece. / Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete
Decorative bronze daggers found in the grave shafts suggest there were multicultural influences on Mycenaean artists. These ceremonial daggers were made of bronze and inlaid in silver, gold, and niello with scenes that were clearly influenced from foreign cultures.
Two daggers that were excavated depict scenes of hunts, which suggest an Ancient Near East influence. One of these scenes depicts lions hunting prey, while the other scene depicts a lion hunt. The portrayal of the figures in the lion hunt scene draws distinctly from the style of figures found in Minoan painting. These figures have narrow waists, broad shoulders, and large, muscular thighs.
The scene between the hunters and the lions is dramatic and full of energy, another Minoan influence. Another dagger depicts the influence of Minoan painting and imagery through the depiction of marine life, and Egyptian influences are seen on a dagger filled with lotus and papyrus reeds along with fowl.
Gold and Silver Drinking Cups
The Cup of Nestor. Gold, circa 1600–1500 BCE. It was found in Grave Circle A, Grave Shaft IV, at Mycenae, Greece. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
A variety of gold and silver drinking cups have also been found in these grave shafts. These include a rhyton in the shape of a bull’s head, with golden horns and a decorative, stylized gold flower, made from silver repoussé. Other cups include the golden Cup of Nestor, a large two handle cup that Schleimann attributed to the legendary Mycenaean hero Nestor, a Trojan War veteran who plays a peripheral role in The Odyssey.
Rhyton in the form of a bull’s head. Mycenaean. Circa 1600–1500 BCE. Found in Grave Circle A. / Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete
Silver Siege Rhyton is unique for its depiction of a siege. The scene is only preserved on a portion of the rhyton, but a landscape of trees and a fortress wall are clearly recognizable. The figures in the scene appear to be in various positions, some men fight each other. An archer crouches with his bow and arrow, while others throw rocks down from the wall at the invaders.
A third rhyton in the form of a bull’s head suggests a similarity with the Minoan culture, like the dagger mentioned earlier. The rhyton consists primarily of silver with gold-leaf accents. Its purpose as a ceremonial vessel arguably places the bull in a role of significance in the Mycenaean culture.
Gold diadems. Circa 1600–1500 BCE. Found in Grave Circle A. / Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete
Additional gold trinkets include signet rings that depict images of hunts, combat, and animals, along with other decorative jewelry, such as bracelets, earrings, pendants, and diadems (headbands designating their wearers’ sovereign status).
Bronze armor, including breastplates and helmets, were also uncovered in excavations of the tomb sites.
The Mycenaeans were talented potters whose ceramic styles and decorations reflect their skill and the values of their culture.
The Mycenaeans created numerous ceramic vessels of various types and decorated them in a variety of styles. These vessels were popular outside of Greece, and were often exported and traded around the Mediterranean and have been found in Egypt, Italy, Asia Minor, and Spain.
Two of the main production centers were the Mycenaean cities at Athens and Corinth. The products of the two centers were distinguishable by their color and decoration. Corinthian clay was a pale yellow and tended to feature painted scenes based on nature, while the Athenian potters decorated their vessels with a rich red and preferred geometric designs.
The most popular types of vessels included kraters—large, open-mouth jars to mix wine and water—pitchers, and stirrup jars, which are so named for the handles that came above the top of the vessel. Mycenaean vessels usually had a pale, off-white background and were painted in a single color, either red, brown, or black.
Popular motifs include abstract geometric designs, animals, marine life, or narrative scenes. The presence of nature scenes, especially of marine life and of bulls, seems to suggest a Minoan influence on the style and motifs painted on the Mycenaean pots.
Vessels served the purposes of storage, processing, and transfer. There are a few different classes of pottery, generally separated into two main sections: utilitarian and elite.
- Utilitarian pottery is sometimes decorated, made for functional domestic use, and constitutes the bulk of the pottery made.
- Elite pottery is finely made and elaborately decorated with great regard for detail. This form of pottery is generally made for holding precious liquids and for decoration.
Mycenaean Terra cotta stirrup jar. c. 1350 BCE. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Stirrup jars, mainly used for storing liquids such as oil and wine, could have been economically valuable in Mycenaean households. The arrangement of common features suggests that a stopper is used to secure the contents and the contents are what make the jar a valuable household item.
The disc holes and third handle may have been used to secure a tag to the vessel, suggesting it had commercial importance and resale value. The locations where stirrup jars have been found reflect the fact that the popularity of this vessel type spread quickly throughout the Aegean, and the use of the stirrup jar to identify a specific commodity became important.
Warrior Vase. Terra cotta. c. 1200 BCE. Mycenae, Greece. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Warrior Vase (c. 12oo BCE) is a bell krater that depicts a woman bidding farewell to a group of warriors. The scene is simple and lacks a background.
The men all carry round shields and spears and wear helmets. Attached to their spears are knapsacks, which suggest that they must travel long distances to battle. On one side, the soldiers wear helmets ornamented with horns. The soldiers on the other side wear hedgehog-style helmets. A single woman stands to the left with her arm raised and a group of identically dressed and heavily armed men is marching off to the right.
There is no way to tell which woman is waving goodbye, as all the figures are generic and none specifically interacts with her, nor do they interact with each other. The figures are stocky and lack the sinuous lines of the painted Minoan figures.
Furthermore, while the men all face right with wide stances and appear to move in that direction, their flat feet and twisted perspective bodies inhibit any potential for movement. Instead the figures remain static and upright. The imagery depicts a simple narrative that in the warrior culture of the Mycenaeans must have often been reenacted.
Many scholars observe that the style of the figures and the handles of this thirteenth century BCE vase are very similar to eighth century BCE pottery. Similar spearmen are also depicted in eighth century BCE pottery which introduces a curious 500 year gap in styles.
Mycenaean phi figures. Terra cotta, c. 13th century. BCE. Mycenae, Greece. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Small terra cotta figurines and statuettes are found throughout Mycenaean grave sites and cities. The purpose of these figures is unknown, although they may carry a votive or cult association. Some figurines found in children’s tombs may be toys.
The most common style depicts female figures and are from the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BCE. The figures are small and are divided into two categories:
- Those that look like the Greek letter phi (phi-types), with a rounded upper body shape.
- Those that look like the Greek letter psi (psi-types), which have outstretched arms.
Mycenaean psi figure. Terracotta, c. 1280 BCE. Tiryns, Greece. / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Both figures have heads that are narrow and pinched into a triangle. Details such as the eyes, mouth, and nose are painted on. The bases of the figures are cylindrical and their legs seem to be painted as a visual afterthought. These figures are painted simply with stripes and zigzags, often on the upper body, and details such as eyes are also added in with paint, while breasts are portrayed with clay protrusions.
Female head of a priestess, goddess, or sphinx. Painted plaster. c. 1300-1250 BCE. Mycenae, Greece. / Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete
There are few examples of large-scale, freestanding sculptures from the Mycenaeans. A painted plaster head of a female—perhaps depicting a priestess, goddess, or sphinx—is one of the few examples of large-scale sculpture.
The head is painted white, suggesting that it depicts a female. A red band wraps around her head with bits of hair underneath. The eyes and eyebrows are outlined in blue, the lips are red, and red circles surrounded by small red dots are on her checks and chin.
Bull-headed rhyton. Terra cotta, circa 1300–1200 BCE. Mycenae, Greece. / Heraklion Archaeological Museum, Crete
Rhytons are elaborate, decorative drinking cups that often take the shape of animals. They are usually made of precious materials, such as gold or silver, but they may also be made of terra cotta.
Several Mycenaean rhytons have been excavated, and include one in the shape of a boar’s head and another in the shape of a bull’s head. The bull-headed rhyton may have been influenced by or intended for trade with the Minoans. Both of these rhytons are conically shaped, painted in a single color with abstract shapes, and have defining features, such as ears and eyes.