The Mycenaean culture & its legacy

The Keftiou (better known as the Minoans)

More than 700 years before Homer a ‘Minoan’ civilisation (Arthur Evans’ name for the Keftiou, although it is claimed that he was not the first to use it – and he probably was not!) had been flourishing in Crete. Evans is a controversial figure in archaeology these days – not least for his imaginative ‘reconstructions’ at Knossos. Evans became the Ashmolean’s keeper in 1884, inheriting very little in the way of Aegean artefacts. Ten years later he made his first visit to Crete. It is worth keeping in mind that he wanted to specialise in ‘non-Classical’ Greece, believing that the Classical period had a stranglehold over thinking. And in this he was right for, for the first time, the World could see that Crete had had its own civilisation.

However, Crete had always been subject to environmental disasters and sometime around 1550 BC [and it is fair to say that the date is highly disputed], it was hit by the massive impact from geophysical activity on Thera (Santorini) and an ensuing tsunami.

The Achaeans (Mycenaeans) and the Minoans

The Mycenaean culture, from the mainland, appears to have stepped into the Minoan vacuum. By 1450 BC it is clear that Mycenaean pottery has completely replaced Minoan. [That, of course, does not imply that all of the interactions were one way. For example, the Mycenaeans seem to have absorbed some deities from their Cretan neighbours and it is possible that imitating Cretan output became a major concern. Hughes returns to this issue amongst a few chapters which seem to have been dumped in an appendix. Her particular focus is how much the status and perception of women in the Mycenaean world was influenced by Keftiou conceptions. Of course, there are other interpretations of the whole relationship. Minoan art seems to have changed quite dramatically but ‘the Palace period’ could be more of a cultural exchange than conquest.]

Personally, I don’t think she has judged any of this quite right, although she knows both civilsations backwards. The switch of cultural focus and the destruction of the ‘New Palace culture’ was felt much more keenly in places such as Keos.

‘Palace’ jar in marine style with octopus and murex c. 1450 BC with (in the background) large storage jar of 550 litres from Magazine X, Knossos, c. 1500 BC.
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford © Simon J Kyte

Mycenae & Achaea

The discovery of Mycenae will be discussed in the section on Schliemann (which will follow this one). For now, it is important to realise that we are not dealing with a unified state but rather a federation of city-states. For much of the remainder of the time, they seem to have been involved in internal micro-warfare.

Tiryns – Ancient even in Mycenaean times
© Simon J Kyte

Achaea was much larger than the modern administrative unit. [It might even originally have meant the Aegean?] It is very probably the “Land of Ahhiyawa” mentioned in the Hittite texts. Perhaps the oldest centre was Tiryns – where remnants of some buildings from 2400 BC are still traceable. To the west, Pylos was evidently burned and a large number of Linear B tablets baked as a result. We should also include Thebes, Midea, Orchomenos, Gla, Argos and Helen’s supposed home city, Sparta. It was evidently a bellicose society since shaft graves across its known territories are packed with swords.

Mycenae from the road back to the village
© Simon J Kyte

Critical to understanding the links between the two cultures was the deciphering of Linear B (Linear A and Cretan ‘hieroglyphics’ – they are not actually hieroglyphs – remain untranslated). This was accomplished by Michael Ventris as late as 1952. Unlike most other decipherments, he did not use a bilingual script. Even he had thought that Linear B was not Greek until that point.

Ashmolean AN1910.218 from Magazine XV, Knossos ‘me-no tu-zo ko-pi’
Some names are recognisably ‘Greek’ – in the third line, ‘wo-di-je-ja’ like rhodi-, therefore ‘Rosie
Other names must be of Keftian (or some other) origin.
© Simon J Kyte

Millawanda – a Mycenaean colony (Miletus)

Mycenae is not the only city discovered from the Mycenaean culture. There is the strong-walled Tiryns and Midea are within a long stroll. Further away to the west is Pylos and we now know there were also important centres further north such as Orchomenus . But the culture also appears to have had a colony on the ‘Turkish’ side of the Aegean at Miletus. This seems to have brought it into some friction with the Hittite Empire.

Map of the Hittite Empire at its greatest extent, with Hittite rule ca. 1350-1300 BC represented by the green line.
The Hittite Empire c. 1350 BC
By Near_East_topographic_map-blank.svg: Sémhurderivative work: Ikonact – Near East topographic map-blank.svg for the background mapThis map for the information, CC BY-SA 3.0,

So, Millawanda may not have been the only aspirational holding on the ‘Anatolian / Asian’ side of the Aegean for the Achaeans. Hughes speaks almost as much of the Hittites as of the Achaeans, particularly with regard to the status of women. But Hatusa (Boghazkoy, now renamed Bogazkale) was a long way away; Troy and the Western coast may have been in Hatusa’s sphere of influence but these states were exposed to the other side of the Aegean.

The nineteenth century saw the gradual rediscovery of the Hittites. Finally, a mass of diplomatic tablets was discovered by a German excavation team. But at the time nobody could read them. [Below you can watch the 1985 documentary by Michael Wood.]

‘In Search of the Trojan War’: Empire of the Hittites (BBC Michael Wood)
Please note I am not responsible for external, embedded links.



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