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Mycenaean Architecture: History, Characteristics & Influences

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

You have probably seen ancient Greek architecture, but did you know that this architecture was influenced by the Mycenaeans, the earliest Greek-speaking civilization? Find out more about Mycenaean architecture in this lesson.

Mycenaean Civilization and Architecture

Greece is famous for its incredible art and stunning architecture, but did you know that this architecture was not original to the ancient Greeks? Many of their architectural styles were actually products of the Mycenaean civilization, who were the earliest Greek-speaking people.

The Mycenaeans were influenced by the Minoan civilization from the island of Crete who were, in turn, influenced by the Egyptians and Mesopotamians. The Mycenaeans lived on the island of Crete after they took it over from the Minoans, as well as on the southern part of the mainland of Greece. The Mycenaean civilization was probably a nation composed of various city-states, maybe not even under one central government.

Characteristics of Mycenaean Architecture

The Mycenaeans were a warring people. Not only did they engage in battle to defend themselves and take over new land, they also enjoyed fighting. Because of their warlike nature, it was important for them to build defensive structures. One of these types of structures was the citadel, a fortified city or part of a city. The Mycenaeans typically built their citadels on hilltops and contained most of the city inside of them, including the palace.

The borders of the Mycenaeans' citadels were Cyclopean walls. Cyclopean walls were made from enormous stones and they were given that name because, according to legend, they were built by giants since the stones were so large. Inside of the walls of the citadels, the Mycenaeans built cisterns. These structures were built to hold water for the civilization and were usually underground. The Mycenaeans created a pipe or tunnel system to carry water from natural springs outside of the citadel into the cisterns inside of the citadel to supply fresh water.

Mycenaean Citadels and Palaces

Mycenae

Now that we understand the general characteristics of Mycenaean architecture, let's look at the citadels and palaces of some of the most important Mycenaean cities.

Perhaps the most important Mycenaean city - and the one for which the civilization was named - was Mycenae. Mycenae was located near the city of Corinth and, since it was built on a hilltop, the citadel was built in different levels. People would enter the citadel by way of a propylon, which was a large and elaborate gateway. The propylon of Mycenae is one of the most famous of the civilization and is called the Lion Gate because it's decorated with lion sculptures. The propylon was built from ashlar, or cut stone, but had two wooden doors that could close to keep the city guarded.

The palace at Mycenae was located in the center of the city. The structure of this palace was a standard of what most palaces in the civilization were like. It was built mostly from ashlar, but a wooden framework and plaster were also used in the construction. To make archways, the architects used a technique called corbelling, layering pieces of ashlar to create a pointed archway that would still support the rest of the structure.

One of the most important features of the palace was the Megaron, which was a large rectangular room. The Megaron was used as a center of economy and trade as well as a throne room for the king - it was even used for religious ceremonies, too. Inside the Megaron, there was a hearth and four columns surrounding it. While the Megaron was the most important room in the palace, there were also a variety of other rooms, such as living chambers for the royals. There were also storerooms and workshops for storage and production of goods for agricultural products and imports.

Remains of a Mycenaean Megaron - notice the remains of the hearth surrounded by the pillars
Remains of a Mycenaean Megaron

Tiryns

The palace at Tiryns was located nearby Mycenae, somewhere near Argos, which was south of Mycenae. Even though the civilization was named after Mycenae, the palace at Tiryns was probably older than the palace at Mycenae.

The palace at Tiryns could be entered by a Great Ramp, which was a large walkway leading up to the palace. This was quite different from the palace at Mycenae because the entrance to that palace was through guard rooms in the south of the city. Tiryns also had different levels in their citadel, which were connected by a gate called the Great Propylon. Tiryns and Mycenae both had underground cisterns to provide fresh water to the city. However, Tiryns used tunnels to supply this water while Mycenae used clay pipes.

Pylos

The palace at Pylos was quite different from those of Mycenae and Tiryns. Unlike those cities, which were on the eastern side of the mainland of Greece, Pylos was on the west side of the mainland located nearly on the Mediterranean Sea.

Perhaps because of its location, the palace at Pylos was not fortified and was not part of a citadel. The palace was two stories and contained much of the same features as the other palaces, with rooms like the Megaron, storerooms, and workshops. The palace was named the Palace of Nestor in honor of a famous king who was renowned for his wisdom and fighting in the Trojan War.

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