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The Glittering Gold of Mycenaean Greece

Mycenaean Greece gold
A gold Mycenaean death mask found in Greece. Credit: Sharon Mollerus / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

Since the 19th century, several precious gold objects associated with the Mycenaean civilization have been discovered by archaeologists, predominantly at important burial sites where the royals and elite of Bronze Age Greece were buried.

The Mycenaeans were the first distinctly Greek culture to dominate mainland Greece during the late Bronze Age period between c. 1750 and 1050 BC. Their civilization was characterized by palatial states, advanced urban organization, and a written language dubbed Linear B by modern historians. It was during the Mycenaen age that the Trojan War purportedly happened, as retold in Homer’s Iliad.

The discovery of Mycenaean gold sheds light on the material culture of this enigmatic civilization but there are still many unanswered questions. For example, researchers are unsure whether the Mycenaeans crafted all of these items themselves, or whether they were obtained in trade and war.

Mycenaean Greece gold
Mycenaean gold ornaments. Credit: Gary Todd / CC0 / Wikimedia Commons

The Grave Circles at Mycenae

The most famous examples of Mycenaean gold were discovered in two grave circles uncovered at the ancient Bronze Age site of Mycenae. Grave Circle A was discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 based on the descriptions of Homer and Pausanias. Grave Circle B was excavated in 1952 by archaeologists Ioannis Papadimitriou and Georgios Mylonas after workmen accidentally stumbled on the tombs a year before.

Both grave circles, dating back to the 16th century BC, contained impressive amounts of gold objects and other precious items. Unlike other Bronze Age tombs, they had not been discovered by the grave robbers and looted.

Grave Circle A contained 15 kg (33 lbs) of gold alone, making it one of the most substantial archaeological finds in all of Europe. Both grave circles contained hundreds of previous objects including jewelry, ornamental clothing attachments, decorated weapons, and highly distinctive funeral masks.

Grave Circle A
The Grave Circle An archaeological site at Mycenae. Credit: Andreas Trepte / CC BY-Sa 2.5 / Wikimedia Commons

The Death Mask of Agamemnon

The most iconic find is the so-called Death Mask of Agamemnon. Schleimann named the mask after the legendary Mycenaean King Agamemnon who led the Achaean Greeks in the Trojan War according to Homer’s Iliad. However, more recent research has indicated that the mask predates the time that Agamemnon was supposed to have lived by about three centuries.

The Mask of Agamemnon was crafted utilizing a single large gold sheet that underwent heating and hammering against a wooden surface. The intricate details were then added through the process of chasing, using a sharp tool to etch them onto the mask.

There were six other death masks discovered in Grave Circle A. Of the seven masks, six belonged to adult males and one to a child. None of the women discovered at the gravesite were buried with ornate masks.

The masks in Grave Circle A exhibit similar characteristics, featuring flat foil-like layers of gold depicting round, bald faces with round eyes and prominent ears. In contrast, Grave Circle B includes a death mask made of electrum, placed in a container next to a buried body instead of being placed on the deceased. The scarcity of death masks in Grave Circle B suggests that the interred individuals held lower wealth or status compared to the abundance of valuable material found in Grave Circle A, including the death masks.

Mycenaean Greece gold
Mycenaean death masks. The one on the right is the so-called “Mask of Agamemnon”. Credit: Zde / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Xuan Che / CC BY 2.0 / Wikimedia Commons

The Royal Tombs at Pylos

The burials at Mycenae might have provided the most famous examples of Mycenaean gold, but they are not the only Bronze Age tombs where exquisite items have been found.

In 2019, a team of archaeologists discovered Bronze Age royal tombs situated near the royal palace of Pylos, said to have once been the seat of power for Nestor, the eldest among the Greek rulers who fought in Trojan War.

The larger tomb, which was once 12m (36 feet) wide and 4.5 meters (15 feet) deep, had stone walls that once stood as tall as the ground’s height. The underground chambers were originally covered by domes, but over time, the roofs and upper walls collapsed. Consequently, the tombs became buried beneath numerous melon-sized stones and a tangled mass of grape vines. In their excavation efforts, archaeologists from the University of Cincinnati, including Jack Davis, Sharon Stocker, and their colleagues, had to painstakingly clear away vegetation and manually remove the stones.

Mycenaean sword
Mycenaean bronze sword with a gold hilt and featuring a lion motif, from Grave Circle B, Mycenae. Credit: Gary Todd / CC0 / Wikimedia Commons

What they discovered, however, was extraordinary. Among the debris, the floors of the burial pits were adorned with shimmering flakes of gold leaf, which had once embellished the walls and floors of the chambers. The tombs, although lacking the remains of their occupants – suggesting a potential disturbance in the distant past – were nonetheless filled with opulent artifacts such as jewelry, gold, bronze, and gemstones.

A particularly interesting find was a gold pendant bearing the image of the Egyptian goddess Hathor who presided over motherhood and the protection of the dead. The Greeks during later periods drew parallels between Hathor and Aphrodite but it is not entirely clear what she meant to the Mycenaean Greeks during the Bronze Age. In any case, the artifact hints at trade links between the Mycenaeans and Egyptians at the time of the burials, which are believed to be about 3,500 years old.

Mycenaean Greece gold
A gold elliptical diadem. Credit: I, Sailko / CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Gold Mining in Mycenaean Greece

As pointed out in an academic paper authored by  M. Vavelidis and S. Andreou, “Numerous objects of gold displaying an impressive variety of types and manufacturing techniques are known from the Late Bronze Age (LBA) contexts of Mycenaean Greece, but very little is known about the origin and processing of gold during the second millennium BC.”

This raises several questions, namely: where did the Mycenaeans source their gold from? Interestingly, the wider Argolid region in which Mycenae was itself located and where the discoveries were made of numerous stunning golden items, is bereft of gold. If the Bronze Age Greeks did their own mining it was therefore elsewhere in Greece.

According to Vavelidis and Andreou, “Ancient literature and recent research indicate that northern Greece is probably the richest gold-bearing region in Greece, and yet very little evidence exists regarding the exploitation of its deposits and the production as well as use of gold in the area during prehistory.”

Mycenaean earring
16th century BC Mycenaean earring. Credit: Louvre Museum / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, by examining the chemical composition of prehistoric artifacts from two settlements alongside the composition of gold deposits in their nearby regions, it becomes evident that gold was locally sourced in some parts of Greece. This finding also raises the possibility that a portion of the Mycenaean gold may have originated from northern Greece.

Furthermore, the discovery of small stone crucibles, one of which bore visible traces of gold melting, at the archaeological site of Toumba in Thessaloniki, proves that local production of gold items took place very early in ancient Greek history.

Beyond mining, the Mycenaeans may also have obtained gold via trade and war. In some cases, Mycenaean traders may have bought gold for Greek craftsmen to shape into various objects, and in other cases, they would have imported finished items.

The Mycenaeans were well-respected as warriors across the Eastern Mediterranean and sometimes fought in the armies of neighboring civilizations like the Egyptians as mercenaries. The leaders of these Mycenaean mercenary bands may have received gold as payments or gifts in exchange for their martial services.

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