Archaeology of the Iliad: The Mycenaean Culture

Mycenae, Greece
Michael Condouris (c) 2006

The archaeological correlate for the societies who were participating in the Trojan War in the Iliad and the Odyssey is the Helladic or Mycenaean culture. What archaeologists think of as Mycenaean culture grew out of the Minoan cultures on the Greek mainland between 1600 and 1700 BC, and spread to the Aegean islands by 1400 BC. Capitals of the Mycenaean culture included Mycenae, Pylos, Tiryns, Knossos, Gla, Menelaion, Thebes, and Orchomenos. The archaeological evidence of these cities paints a vivid picture of the towns and societies mythologized by the poet Homer.

Defenses and Wealth

Mycenaean culture consisted of fortified city centers and surrounding farm settlements. There is some debate about how much power the main capital of Mycenae had over the other urban centers (and indeed, whether it was the "main" capital), but whether it ruled over or merely had a trading partnership with Pylos, Knossos, and the other cities, the material culture––the stuff that archaeologists pay attention to––was essentially the same.

By the late Bronze Age of around 1400 BC, the city centers were palaces or, more properly, citadels. Lavishly frescoed structures and gold grave goods argue for a strictly stratified society, with much of the wealth of the society in the hands of an elite few, consisting of a warrior caste, priests and priestesses, and a group of administrative officials, headed by a king.

At several of the Mycenaean sites, archaeologists have found clay tablets inscribed with Linear B, a written language developed from a Minoan form. The tablets are primarily accounting tools, and their information includes rations provided to workers, reports on the local industries including perfume and bronze, and the support required for defense.

And that defense was necessary is certain: The fortification walls were enormous, 8 m (24 ft) high and 5 m (15 ft) thick, built of huge, unworked limestone boulders which were roughly fitted together and chinked with smaller chunks of limestone. Other public architecture projects included roads and dams.

Crops and Industry

Crops grown by Mycenaean farmers included wheat, barley, lentils, olives, bitter vetch, and grapes; and pigs, goats, sheep, and cattle were herded. Central storage for the subsistence goods was provided within the walls of the city centers, including specialized storage rooms for grain, oil, and wine. It is apparent that hunting was a pastime for some of the Mycenaeans, but it seems to have been primarily an activity for building prestige, not obtaining food. Pottery vessels were of regular shape and size, which suggests mass production; everyday jewelry was of blue faience, shell, clay, or stone.

Trade and Social Classes

The people were involved in trade throughout the Mediterranean; Mycenaean artifacts have been found at sites on the west coast of what is now Turkey, along the Nile River in Egypt and the Sudan, in Israel and Syria, in southern Italy. The Bronze Age shipwrecks of Ulu Burun and Cape Gelidonya have given archaeologists a detailed peek into the mechanics of the trade network. Traded goods recovered from the wreck off Cape Gelidonya included precious metals such as gold, silver, and electrum, ivory from both elephants and hippopotami, ostrich eggs, raw stone material such as gypsum, lapis lazuli, lapis Lacedaemonius, carnelian, andesite, and obsidian; spices such as coriander, frankincense, and myrrh; manufactured goods such as pottery, seals, carved ivories, textiles, furniture, stone and metal vessels, and weaponry; and agricultural produce of wine, olive oil, flax, hides and wool.

Evidence for social stratification is found in the elaborate tombs excavated into hillsides, with multiple chambers and corbelled roofs. Like the Egyptian monuments, these were often built during the lifetime of the individual intended for interment. The strongest evidence for the social system of Mycenaean culture came with the decipherment of their written language, "Linear B," which needs a bit more explanation.

Troy's Destruction

According to Homer, when Troy was destroyed, it was the Mycenaeans who sacked it. Based on the archaeological evidence, about the same time Hisarlik burned and was destroyed, the entire Mycenaean culture was also under attack. Beginning about 1300 BC, the rulers of the capital cities of the Mycenaean cultures lost interest in constructing elaborate tombs and expanding their palaces and began to work in earnest on strengthening the fortification walls and building underground access to water sources. These efforts suggest preparation for warfare. One after another, the palaces burned, first Thebes, then Orchomenos, then Pylos. After Pylos burned, a concerted effort was expended on the fortification walls at Mycenae and Tiryns, but to no avail. By 1200 BC, the approximate time of the destruction of Hisarlik, most of the palaces of the Mycenaeans had been destroyed.

There is no doubt that the Mycenaean culture came to an abrupt and bloody end, but it is unlikely to have been the result of warfare with Hisarlik.

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Your Citation
Hirst, K. Kris. "Archaeology of the Iliad: The Mycenaean Culture." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 25). Archaeology of the Iliad: The Mycenaean Culture. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Archaeology of the Iliad: The Mycenaean Culture." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).