The Lion Gate, Ancient Mycenae, Greece

Mycenae (Μυκήνες) is one of the most important archaeological sites of Greece. The fortified citadel is nested over the fertile plain of Argolis near the seashore in the northeast Peloponnese.

Mycenae is the largest and most important center of the civilization that was named "Mycenaean" after this very citadel. Mycenaean is the culture that dominated mainland Greece, the Aegean islands, and the shores of Asia Minor during the late Bronze Age era (circa 1600-1100 BCE). The Mycenaean Era occupies the tail end of the Helladic Civilization, which flourished in mainland Greece since 3000 BCE.

The Mycenaean Civilization

The Mycenaeans used a syllabic script that is the earliest form of Greek, attesting to the continuity of the Greek civilization from the early Bronze Age era. Many archaeological sites, cemeteries, and Tholos Tombs of the era have been unearthed throughout Greece, and the discovered artifacts speak of a people with strong cultural presence, a centralized political system with a King at the top, with strong commercial ties to the rest of the Bronze Age Mediterranean centers, and a militaristic attitude.

Their extensive contact with the mainland Helladic and Mediterranean cultures (Minoan, Cycladic, and Levantine) enriched their existence and allowed for the development of a unique cultural identity that's evident in their legends, art, and architecture. Archaeological and tablet evidence indicates that the Mycenaeans dominated the area around the Aegean sea and assimilated the diverse amalgam of local people into a homogeneous culture from the Levant to Sicily and northern Africa.

Their influence and power is most evident in the magestic citadels and palaces, in the grand royal burials, and in the extraordinary grave goods that included luxurious jewelry, weapons, and vessels of all kinds. The vast majority of the funerary artifacts unearthed (beginning with Heinrich Schliemann's excavations on the site) are made of precious metals, such as gold, silver, and bronze, as well as precious stones and crystals like lapis lazuli which originated in central Asia. They traded mainly oil and ceramic vessels and imported "Anatolian or Caucasian tin and Syrian ivory" (Vermeule, 255). They also manufactured and traded weapons and tools with the raw materials they imported, and there are indications that they were involved in mercenary wars and even piracy.

Mycenaean artistic output is generally characterized by an austerity of decoration, symmetrical composition, repetition, and disciplined formal arrangement, with limited subject matter that depicts mostly nature, hunting, and war scenes. The sculpture can be safely considered "crude" in execution, consisting mostly of low relief stone carvings, but the craftsmanship of their decorative arts is exceptional. In terms of written records, Mycenaeans have left us with countless Linear B which almost exclusively contain catalogues and official records of a very stout bureaucracy which itself denotes a complex political and economic organization that was uniform throughout their area of influence.

The end of the Mycenaean civilization came in 1200 BCE and lingered until the middle of the 11th c. BCE. The causes of this end have been debated for the last two centuries, and while several theories have emerged as dominant, no definitive answer has emerged to date. Among the most credible theories is the emigration of Dorians and Heraclids (Tribes that lived hitherto in central Greece) which destroyed all the Mycenaean centers - except Athens -, and the hypothesis that social upheaval from within forced the civilization into decline. The Sea People that decimated the shores of the eastern Mediterranean at that time are also credited with direct or indirect involvement in the demise of Mycenaean civilization, with some scolars indicating that the Sea People might have been Mycenaeans forced to flee their invaded homeland.

Naturally, a combination of the above theories has also been suggested as the cause for the disappearance of the Mycenaeans. No matter what the cause, the effects of this rapid decline were devastating and resulted in what we consider to be the Greek Dark Ages when population declined dramatically, major cities ceased to exist, and literacy disappeared for the next three hundred years.


Many of the legends of Ancient Greece have their origin, and refer to the this late Bronze Age Era we call "Mycenaean".

The founding of Mycenae is lost in prehistory, but according to Greek legends, it was founded by the legendary hero Perseus - son of Zeus and Danae, daughter of the king of Argos, Acricios - who left Argos for Tyrins and later employed Cyclopes to build the walls of Mycenae with giant stones that no human could move (thus the characterization of the walls as "Cyclopean").

The Perseid dynasty ruled the area from Mycenae from at least three generations. Eurystheus, the last of the line, was the one who commissioned Herakles (Hercules) to perform his twelve labors, and when he was killed fighting the Athenians, Atreus, the son of Pelops became the king of Mycenae and started the Atreid dynasty. Atreus' son, Agamemnon led the expedition against Troy - the story immortalized in the Homeric Illiad - but was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra upon his return to Mycenae.

There are several explanations about how the place took it's name. Homer indicates that it is named after a beautiful nymph called Mycene, while other theories credit the mushroom-shaped pommel of Perseus' sword, or the local mushroom (mykes) he used as a cup to drink water on the site where the Perseia spring spontaneously appeared.

Photo Gallery

  • The Lion Gate

    The Lion Gate guards and provides the main access to the citadel. The two lions arranged symmetrically around a column is the first example of representational monumental sculpture in the European continent. While its significance has been lost to the depths of history, its placement above the main gate of the most powerful citadel of late Bronze Age has led to speculation that it symbolized something important like a family crest of a coat of arms.

    The triangular shape of the sculpture acts as a relieving triangle for the door below: its shape distributes the weight above the door to the sides and away from the horizontal lintel, protecting it form breakage. The relief sculpture is carved of gray limestone, but the heads of the lions were added on (probably made of steatite or metal) and have been lost since antiquity.

    The gate was closed by a double, heavy wooden door which were secured by a sliding bar. It is dated to about 1249 BCE, and it was added during the second building phase of the citadel.
  • Cyclopean Walls

    Part of the Cyclopean walls on the northeast side of the Lion Gate.

  • Grave Circle A

    One of the most striking and significant features of the archaeological site is the excavated Grave Circle A seen in these photos. This was the location of the royal burials that have yielded a host of priceless Mycenaean funerary artifacts, now displayed mainly at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens and at the Mycenae Museum. The graves within are dated to the end of Middle Helladic and early Late Helladic Eras, and they were originally part of the expanded cemetery that lay outside the citadel, and were enclosed in the expanded wall sometime in the 13th c. BCE.

    In this photo: Grave Circle A is visible on the right. Immediately to its left the square foundations belong to the complex where the Warrior Crater was found. The house group of the "oil merchants" is visible in the background of the image, outside the citadel walls.

    Grave Circle A has a diameter of 27m and it is located immediately to the right inside the Lion Gate. The circular burial area is enclosed by a double ring of upright dressed stone slabs which were probably filled with rubble and capped with more rectangular slabs to give a solid wall appearance. An opening in the slabs provided access to the burial site. Ten rectangular funerary stele marked the six shaft graves in which 19 skeletons were found interred in a contracted position.
  • Ruins of the Cult Centre of Mycenae. It consists of five building complexes one the southwest slop of the citadel. They date to the early 13th c. BCE. Among the artifacts found in the ruins are the wall paintings and the clay figurines exhibited at the Mycenae Museum. The Cult Centre was destroyed in late 13th c. BCE and the site was occupied by houses which were used until the end of the Mycenaean period.
  • The Palace of Mycenae

    The palace occupies a central location atop the citadel. It was accessed from the south through two guard rooms. The state rooms were arranged around a central court which led to the Megaron with its four columns arranged in a square around the sacred hearth. In Mycenaean times the palace was lavishly decorated with vivid frescoes and mosaics.

  • Photos from the excavations at the east end of the citadel, behind the royal palace: Artisan's quarter (top left); House of Columns (top center); Building Gamma (top right), and Building Delta (left).

  • The Northeast Extension was constructed in the late 13th c. BCE. Its purpose was to safeguard the water supply and the underground cistern. It has two corbelled openings that lead outside the wall, one of which is visible in this picture.
  • The underground cistern is an impressive engineering feat that allowed the citadel unlimited and secure water supply. The picture on the left shows the corbelled tunnel to the underground water pool that was supplied through underground pipes from a nearby natural spring. Visible to the right of the same photo is the second wall opening of the Northeast Extension. The photo on the right depicts the complex engineering that was involved in the construction of the corbelled tunnel to the cistern.
  • The Northern (Postern) Gate, the subject of the photo on the left, was constructed during the second building phase around 1250 BCE. It was secured with a double wooden door bolted by a sliding bar.

  • The second wall opening of the Northeast Extension - the one next to the underground cistern entrance - as it appears from the outside.
  • Grave Circle B

    Grave Circle B is located outside the walls of Mycenae and predate Grave Circle A by three centuries (beginning burials estimated at1650 BCE). The large circular wall contained 25 graves, and the funerary artifacts found in excavations were precious objects of gold, ivory, rock crystal.

    The two photos on the left show several of the excavated shaft graves in Grave Circle B, while the photo on the right is of Grave Rho which is a built tomb, created later in the 15th c. BCE.
  • Tomb of Clytemnestra

    In the proximity of Grave Circle B, and overlapping part of it, is the Tholos Tomb of Clytemnestra. While its name implies that Agamemnon's wife was buried in it, there is no such evidence. The area was buried during Hellenistic times and a theatre was constructed. Part of the stone seating of that theatre are visible in the (far left) photo above through the neat circular arc above and to the left of the Dromos. The tomb was looted by Veli Pasha during Ottoman rule, but otherwise is in excellent shape and shows exceptional masonry craftsmanship.
  • Tomb of Aegisthus

    Plan and elevation of Aegisthus Tomb as it appears at Mycenae outside the monument itself. Such superb signs accompany most individual points of interest throughout the archaeological site of Mycenae.

    The Tomb of Aegisthus is among the earliest examples of Tholos Tomb construction. It was built in the early 15th c. BCE and its mostly built by small stones (compare with the well dressed stones of the Clytemnestra and Agamemnon Tombs). Just like the other eponymous tholos tombs in the area whose name is includes a historical or legendary person, there is no evidence that Aegisthus was buried in this tomb.
  • Lion Tomb

    The Lion Tholos Tomb is named thus due to its proximity to the Lion Gate. It is dated to the early 14th c. BCE.

  • General view of Mycenae in its environment.
  • Treasury of Atreus

    The Treasure of Atreus, built between 1350 and 1250 BCE, is one of the latest of its kind and it is the best preserved tholos tomb found. It's function as the tomb of Atreus, the father of Agamemnon, is by no means certain, but it is an architectural masterpiece indicative of the level of craftsmanship that Bronze Age masons had reached. Its entrance is framed by megalithic elements and the entire monument is constructed with exceptionally well dressed stones. The tomb was never buried by earth and remained always visible throughout the centuries, so it is no surprise that it was robbed in antiquity and we have no indication of the persons buried within, or of the accompanying artifacts that certainly were buried alongside them.

    The dromos (corridor leading up to the entrance) is 35m long by 6m wide and its carefully laid stones were waterproofed in the back with a layer of clay. The monumental door opening is about 5.5m high with the characteristic relieving triangle crowing its lintel that consist of two massive stone slabs, of which the inner-most weighs approximately 120 metric tons.

    The tholos itself is 14.5 meters in diameter and 13m high. It is made of 33 concentric circles of dressed stones where one circle overlaps the one immediately below towards the inside, until the concentric circles end in a single stone at the very top (corbelling). Once all the stones were in place, masons carved away the overlapping parts of the stones leaving a smooth wall.

    The entire structure is awe inspiring. Note in this picture the distortion of a wide-angle lens that shows the top of the tomb to be leaning forward toward the entrance, where in reality it is located directly above head. to the left of the picture the entrance to the adjacent rock-cut chamber (off limits to visitors today) which was probably decorated with sculpted slabs on the walls.

    Once again, the superb drawings of the plan and elevation of the Treasury of Atreus provides visitors with valuable information on the site.

  • Reconstruction, aerial photo, and a scale model of Mycenae.