Mycenaean is the term applied to the art and culture of Greece from ca. 1600 to 1100 B.C. The name derives from the site of Mycenae in the Peloponnese, where once stood a great Mycenaean fortified palace. Mycenae is celebrated by Homer as the seat of King Agamemnon, who led the Greeks in the Trojan War. In modern archaeology, the site first gained renown through Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations in the mid-1870s, which brought to light objects whose opulence and antiquity seemed to correspond to Homer’s description of Agamemnon’s palace. The extraordinary material wealth deposited in the Shaft Graves at Mycenae (ca. 1550 B.C.) attests to a powerful elite society that flourished in the subsequent four centuries.
During the Mycenaean period, the Greek mainland enjoyed an era of prosperity centered in such strongholds as Mycenae, Tiryns, Thebes, and Athens. Local workshops produced utilitarian objects of pottery and bronze, as well as luxury items, such as carved gems, jewelry, vases in precious metals, and glass ornaments. Contact with Minoan Crete played a decisive role in the shaping and development of Mycenaean culture, especially in the arts. Wide-ranging commerce circulated Mycenaean goods throughout the Mediterranean world from Spain and the Levant. The evidence consists primarily of vases, but their contents (oil, wine, and other commodities) were probably the chief objects of trade.
Besides being bold traders, the Mycenaeans were fierce warriors and great engineers who designed and built remarkable bridges, fortification walls, and beehive-shaped tombs—all employing Cyclopean masonry—and elaborate drainage and irrigation systems. Their palatial centers, “Mycenae rich in gold” and “sandy Pylos,” are immortalized in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Palace scribes employed a new script, Linear B, to record an early Greek language. In the Mycenaean palace at Pylos—the best preserved of its kind—Linear B tablets suggest that the king stood at the head of a highly organized feudal system. By the late thirteenth century B.C., however, mainland Greece witnessed a wave of destruction and the decline of the Mycenaean sites, and the withdrawal to more remote refuge settlements.
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