- FUN FEATURES
I’ve traded the balmy paradise of Theologos for the dusty streets of Mykines, and the rocky vastness of Gla for the excavation-pocked field beneath the ancient citadel of Mycenae. The citadel is the main feature of the site; the tourist destination, the home of legend, the archaeological milestone, the citadel referred to by Homer as “rich in gold.”
The best way to describe Mycenae is by the way one approaches it. The road from the mountains in the north of the Peloponnese winds its way down into the Argolid plain, which is picturesque purity. The fields stretch out on the fertile plain and the mountains rise up on either side. The road runs near the middle of the plain, so you hardly see the villages nestled into the mountain passes until you are abreast of them. So, unless you are familiar with the mountains that flank Mycenae you are unlikely to anticipate its approach. Often, that ignorance serves to accentuate the effect of swinging around the bend toward the citadel for the first time. The citadel rises between those two flanking mountains, Mount Zara and Profitis Elias, on a little thumb of rock like a child standing between its parents. Today, it is almost camouflaged against the mountains, the walls fallen and the brush risen to provide a twisting of lines and a splintering of patterns that will make your eye slide right off it from a distance. By the time you truly see it, it is already closer than you’d imagined and it towers over you, its height exaggerated by the slope of the hill.
The village is at the base of this hill, covering roughly a quarter of it. It is a place of parts, one might say. Once, it was an idyllic little town of tourism and archaeology. At “Le Belle Hellene” you can find rooms that were once occupied by Heinrich Schliemann, Agatha Christie, and a number of other persons of historical interest. Archaeologists brought in money and tourists- who brought in more. The town thrived, swelled, and died. Not even archaeology can sustain this town, and the economic troubles of the past decade have not been kind.
The archaeological site of Mycenae, however, is a marvel well worth the visit. Being to the Mycenaean civilization something like what Athens was to the ancient Greek civilization- that is, a cultural cornerstone but not even remotely a capital- it stands something like a “greatest hits” of Mycenaean achievement; walls that, even in ruin, awe the viewer with their size and their masonry; gorgeous rooms and palaces; the remains of frescoes and pottery; the figurines and pots carefully painted; above all, the gold that earned it its epithet in Homer’s Illiad, “Mycenae, rich in gold”
Yet it is only one place, one citadel of many. The citadel has been excavated on and off for the past 100 years and is pretty well picked over by now. Indeed, most of the Mycenaean citadels have been thoroughly excavated. Yet it is absurd to think that all of the people of the era were corralled into these tiny fortresses, high up on hilltops. That would, as you can well imagine, be dreadfully impractical for day to day life.
So reasoning, Dr. Maggidis of Dickinson College began to search for a lower town, some sort of city or suburb that would have stretched out from the walls of the citadel. There was historical reference to such a place- tentative, but present. There was logical reason for such a place. And, through the application of survey techniques such as those I have described, there was even evidence for such a place. Thus, ignoring nay-sayers, Dr. Maggidis began an all out search for the lower town of Mycenae in 2007.
Now, five years later, we tromp down to the slightly sloped field below the citadel where we have been excavating. Five years has turned what was once a farmer’s field of grain and terraces into a dusty excavation, a network of walkways and walls under a canopy of tarps stretched for shade. Five years have left a small mountain of discarded dirt-which grows up and out almost weekly- against the terrace wall below us. Five years have given us a maze of walls, the nature of which is argued over daily. It is, in equal and not unrelated measures, fascinating and maddening.
We’re looking, specifically, for the level that we can absolutely identify as being from the Mycenaean period. We are aided in this effort by a simple accident of nature; the site where we are working was, in the mists of time, situated next to a river. This river was dammed by the Mycenaeans to create an artificial reservoir. After the citadel fell into disuse, the dam deteriorated, broke and flooded the entire area with the sediment that had built up behind it, effectively burying the entire site beneath a very large layer of sediment, which serves to protect the archaeology.
Obviously there is a lot more to it than that- and even if that were all there was to it, there would still be a fantastic amount of work to be done. Both of these things- the complexity and some of the work involved- I will tell you about next week.
Francis Cressotti was born and raised in Cheshire. He attended Dickinson College, where he studied archaeology under Dr. Maggidis and graduated with a degree in that field in 2010. This is his third summer in Greece, where he can often be found climbing mountains. Join him next time to learn more about the excavation of Mycenae.