Did you know that Mycenae and Baden have more in common than people think? Griffins played a special role in Mycenaean art, appearing as mythical, wild creatures. And the griffin is to be found everywhere in Baden, too, as a proud heraldic animal.
So Gryphos, a small Mycenaean griffin, isn't here in the Badisches Landesmuseum by chance – he's visiting a member of his extended family. Since meeting up for our exhibition, they've really been partying hard!
"It was October, torrential rain was pouring down from the Greek sky, and my unshakeable faith in Homer was rewarded with the discovery of the five graves and their tremendous treasures on the acropolis of Mycenae. There was so much gold that we could hardly carry it! Almost 15 kilograms the earth yielded up to us: diadems, leaf decoration, cups, rings, necklaces, pearls, ornaments, masks – among them the mask of Agamemnon.
I shall not hesitate for a moment to announce that I have found here the graves which the author Pausanias in the 2nd century said belonged to King Agamemnon and his companions."
In Mycenae there are two grave circles – the one found by Schliemann, Grave Circle A, and Grave Circle B, excavated in 1951. There, in the more than 30 shaft graves, members of the city's ruling elite were interred successively from the Middle to the Late Bronze Age (17th–15th century BC). The legendary Agamemnon was definitely not buried here, however. Even if Homer’s story about the ruler of Mycenae does possess a kernel of truth, the events took place about 300 years after the period in which the shaft graves were used.
Grave Circle A in Mycenae during the excavations by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876
Kantharos from Shaft Grave IV in Mycenae, 16th-15th century BCE
Vapheio Cup from Shaft Grave III in Mycenae, 16th-15th century BCE
“Mask of Agamemnon“, galvanoplastic copy of gold mask P 624 from Shaft Grave V in Mycenae
This hope was fulfilled in 2015 for the archaeologists Sharon Stocker and Jack Davis near the palace of Pylos. They discovered an undisturbed shaft grave containing the burial of a warrior from the Mycenaean early period (between 1475 and 1450 BC). The warrior was 30–35 years old and quite imposingly tall at 1.70 m. Precious vessels of gold, silver and bronze, weapons and pieces of armour, a bronze sceptre, approx. 50 seal stones and four gold rings went with the warrior on his journey to the next world. Combs and mirrors as well as hundreds of beads ensured he'd look immaculate in the realm of the dead. An ivory plaque engraved with a griffin has given the find-site its name: the grave of the Griffin Warrior.
"What wonderful objects these are! The glimmering gold of the rings and, on the agate, the extraordinarily fine, highly detailed engraving of the combatants – you can see every muscle! A find of the kind that every archaeologist hopes to make at least once in his lifetime!"
“Combat Agate” from the Grave of the Griffin Warrior at Pylos, 14th century BCE
Gold signet rings from the Grave of the Griffin Warrior at Pylos, 14th century BCE
"What? – a clay tablet, inscribed with text, from Mycenaean Pylos!?! I found no evidence of writing. And therefore I was convinced that script was unknown in Mycenae. This wonderful find of written symbols will surely tell us a great deal about the lives and the history of the Mycenaeans."
The first tablets inscribed in linear script didn't come to light until after Schliemann's death, at the start of the 20th century. For a long time scholars believed that Mycenaean Linear B script recorded a non-Indo-European language, the language of the Minoans. This mistaken assumption was finally corrected by the British architect Michael Ventris and the linguist John Chadwick. Proceeding on his hypothesis that the language was an early form of Greek, they succeeded, in 1952, in deciphering the script's approx. 90 syllables and 160 ideograms.
However, it was not literary or historical texts that scribes set down on the tablets, but primarily administrative procedures: the movement of goods, allocations of land, and the organization of palace personnel. The unfired clay tablets mostly haven't survived the millennia, so today we only know a very small number of tablets – those, in fact, that got burnt "accidentally" during a fire, and thus conserved for posterity.
Clay tablet with Linear B script from thePalace of Nestor, late 13th/early 12th century BCE
In the Mycenaean palace, the megaron with the throne room was the centre of power. From here the wanax ruled, dealing with both political and religious matters.
The stony grey that visitors find at Mycenaean ruins today is misleading. In fact, the megaron had rich wall and floor paintings, the throne was flanked by pairs of griffins and lions, and the floor was decorated with images of aquatic animals. These motifs demonstrate the wanax's power over wild beasts and mythical creatures – and hence his close connection with the gods.
A Mycenaean throne room, grand and brightly coloured, as it once must have been – the splendour is truly hard to take in! In the words of Telemachus in the Odyssey: "Treasures without number! The sight fills me with amazement!"
Reconstruction of a Mycenaean Throne Room in the Badische Landesmuseum. Badisches Landesmuseum/Uli Deck
"I found this type of vase most often, while I was working at Tiryns and Mycenae; in the shape of a sphere with a flat base, tapering to a pretty neck, whose top part two elegant handles are attached to. The mouth is the shape of a chimney. These vases bear exceptionally colourful painted decorations!"
Stirrup jars of this type have been found at numerous Late Bronze Age sites throughout the eastern Mediterranean. They are evidence of the wide trading network of the Mycenaean palace centres. The stirrup jars contained fragrant oil, one of the major exports that Mycenaean merchants traded in. In return they acquired raw materials such as glass, exotic woods, ivory, copper or tin.
The Mycenaeans also sought contacts beyond the eastern Mediterranean, in the west and the north. So it was that Mycenaean objects, via intermediaries, travelled so far afield as Sardinia, southern England and northern Germany. Mycenaean artisans liked making ornaments using amber from the Baltic!
Stirrup jars from Mycenae, 1400–1250 BCE
"Of course, the structures known as 'Cyclopean walls' were not built by the legendary race of giants, the Cyclops, as everyone is no doubt aware! No, it was the Mycenaeans who accomplished this unbelievable feat of building. Nevertheless, their cities fell."
In the course of the 12th century BC, the entire eastern Mediterranean went through a phase of turmoil. The Mycenaean cities and palaces were destroyed, too. The majority of the sites were abandoned and not rebuilt.
A convincing explanation for this is yet to be found. Debate centres on natural catastrophes like earthquakes and climate change, but also internal conflicts and rebellions as well as attacks from abroad, for instance by the so-called Sea Peoples. But none of these theories as yet provides a satisfactory explanation of what happened.
The wave of destruction didn't spell the end of Mycenaean culture, however. It wasn't long before crafts flourished again. High-quality ceramic vessels and metalwork, modelled on products from the Adriatic region, characterize this phase.
Detail of the Cyclopean Wall of Tiryns
You have now travelled with Schliemann through his beloved Greece, the land of his legendary heroes. What did you experience? Did ancient times come alive before your eyes? And what do you associate with Greece today? An ouzo in a tavern under olive trees? Swimming in turquoise seawater? Rich Mediterranean food? Or meditative hikes through fascinating mountain landscapes? Tell us...
"Oh Hellas - land of my greatest discoveries, land of my most esteemed lady wife, land of the heroes and poets – it is to you that I have lost my heart!"