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Bronze Age Greece: Schliemann's Quest for Troy

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  • 0:05 Schliemann's Discovery of Troy
  • 1:36 Schliemann's Discovery…
  • 3:49 Overview of Bronze Age…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lecture covers the history of Bronze Age Greece, beginning with the discovery of its greatest city, Mycenae, by Heinrich Schliemann, emphasizing that the quest to find these cities was inspired by works of classical literature. It then describes the architecture of Mycenae and some of the relics found there. Finally, the lesson examines the Mycenaean achievement and its place in Western history.

Schliemann's Discovery of Troy

Heinrich Schliemann searched for the ancient cities of Troy and Mycenae.
Heinrich Schliemann Photograph

For a very long time, scholars believed that the stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey were just that - stories. But one man, named Heinrich Schliemann, was certain that Troy and Mycenae were real places. He believed that Greek epic, when combined with the historical accounts of Herodotus and the geographical accounts of Strabo, provided enough detail to find these ancient cities of myth. Schliemann was not so much what we would call an archaeologist - more of a treasure hunter. Most archaeologists today would not want Schliemann in their clubhouse. Yet Schliemann's discoveries shook the world nevertheless.

After years of searching, Schliemann found Troy, yet the Troy he found did not match the description in the Iliad. This Troy was built centuries later. The Troy he sought was buried beneath several layers of cities. It seems the Greeks were not the first to burn Troy to the ground, nor would they be the last. In his fervor to find the Troy of the Iliad, Schliemann destroyed the cities above it, making no effort to protect or even catalog their contents. It is this behavior that gets so many archaeologists angry at Schliemann, especially since he was wrong about the dating of layers and dug past the Troy of the Iliad and five more layers of city before being satisfied. However, archaeological methods had not yet been established, so we really cannot hold Schliemann too accountable.

Schliemann's Discovery of Mycenae

One of the discoveries at Mycenae
Circular Graveyard Mycenae

Having successfully found Troy, Schliemann felt confident that he could locate Mycenae as well, and oh, did he. The city he found was wondrous. (I've been there myself, and I must say, it's breathtaking.) Unlike Troy, which had been rebuilt and rebuilt several times after the Bronze Age collapse, Mycenae was already a ruin and tourist attraction by Roman times. As a result, Schliemann was unable to mess things up as he did in Troy. The first thing he discovered was a circular graveyard in which he found precious artifacts, including the Cup of Nestor and the Funeral Mask of Agamemnon. Since Schliemann was a treasure hunter and his wife a goldsmith, the historical accuracy of these artifacts has been called into question. However, their discovery sent generations of real archaeologists to the site, and their work revealed an amazingly well preserved city.

Mycenae was built atop a hill. Like so many cities of this age, the center of the city was a Megaron, a gigantic throne room, roofed and pillared with a central hearth open to the sky. The city was protected by a wall made of massive stones, some weighing over 100 tons, with only one entrance, the famous Lion Gate of Mycenae. Later Greeks gave this architecture the name Cyclopean, assuming that only the giant Cyclopes could have built with such large stones. Mycenae also had a subterranean spring, dug deep into the bedrock, to provide the city with water in case of a siege. (Here's me at the bottom of it and very nervous at being nearly 300 feet underground.)

Outside the walls, archaeologists found massive burial chambers called tholos tombs. These tholos tombs were likely used after the circular shaft graves Schliemann had discovered became full. Their distinct beehive shape makes them unique in Western civilization. It also made them easy to find and easy to identify. Unlike the shaft graves, which maintained most of their treasures, the tholos tombs had been pillaged long before archaeologists got there.

Tholos tombs were easliy found during the Schliemann excavation.
Mycenae Tholos Tombs

Overview of Bronze Age Greek History

From their discoveries at Mycenae and elsewhere, archaeologists have come up with the following outline of Bronze Age Greek history:

Mycenaen civilization seems to have begun around 2300 BCE. They were heavily influenced by the Minoans, a civilization on the Island of Crete that dominated the eastern Mediterranean for many years and may have received tribute from the Mycenaeans. From the Minoans, the Myceneans learned how to write, using the old Minoan alphabet, Linear A, to write in Greek, which we call Linear B.

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