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Mycenaean Culture & Art: History & Influence

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  • 0:04 Mycenaean Culture
  • 1:04 Architecture
  • 2:04 Tholos Tombs
  • 2:45 Art
  • 4:10 Mycenaean Legacy
  • 4:49 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Who lived in Greece before the Greeks? Have you ever heard of Mycenae? In this lesson, explore Mycenaean culture and art and learn how it influenced later cultures.

Mycenaean Culture

Jutting out from the mainland between the Aegean and Ionian seas is a rocky land form called the Peloponnese Peninsula. We know it as home to Greece, but long before the Greeks it was home to people of the Mycenaean culture. The Mycenaean culture, which thrived from roughly 1600 to 1100 BC, was powerful, prosperous, and war-like, one of several independent city-states around the Peloponnese Peninsula at the time. Its name came from a site called Mycenae, an important city with a large fortified palace complex.

The Mycenaeans were active traders throughout the region, exchanging goods with cultures in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Anatolia (present-day Turkey), and Spain, among others. Through trade, the Mycenaeans acquired materials like gold and ivory. Prosperous workshops full of craftspeople made goods like ceramics and bronze objects to trade. The Mycenaeans were also warriors, unafraid of conquering other peoples as they grew in power.

Example of a stirrup jar
stirrup jar

Architecture

The Mycenaeans built elaborate architectural infrastructures to support their cities, including bridges, roads, and irrigation systems, but most impressive were the fortifications made by Cyclopean masonry walls, so named because only the mythical mighty Cyclops could have lifted them, and that protected Mycenae from invading enemies. People entered the city through a large entrance gate topped by a heavy stone lintel, or horizontal slab. Above the lintel was a triangular relief of carved lions, which came to be known as the Lion Gate.

Image of the Lion Gate and surrounding Cyclopean masonry
Lion Gate

One of the most important structures at Mycenae was a big fortified palace complex. Inside the palace was a megaron, a large rectangular central hall entered by way of a columned porch. The megaron included a throne and circular hearth surrounded by walls covered with frescoes, or paintings where the pigments were directly applied to wet plaster. The megaron form would become a standard element of later Greek temples.

Tholos Tombs

Mycenaean culture included elaborate burial practices, but only for the wealthy aristocracy. Roughly before 1500 BC, wealthy Mycenaeans were buried in deep shafts where they were surrounded by many gold objects, including face masks and jewelry, ceramic vessels, and weaponry. Later the style of the tombs changed. Tholos tombs were large, conical domed structures built into hillsides that were accessed by ceremonial passages. These tombs also contained rich grave goods, including gold objects of all kinds, jewelry, and weapons inlaid with precious gems. The array of grave goods and sheer size of these tombs spoke to the power and wealth of the Mycenaeans.

Art

Mycenaean artists adapted some design elements from Minoan art. However, Mycenaean art was more stylized and focused less on realism. Mycenaean artists used lots of geometric shapes, like spirals, lines, and concentric circles. When they did portray figures, they were more formulaic in appearance. As Mycenaean art developed, it became increasingly abstract and lacking in any identifiable forms, a component found in early Greek art.

Mycenaeans excelled in goldsmithing including elaborate funerary masks. They also made delicate gold cups with designs pressed into their surfaces and many forms of jewelry, including necklaces, earrings, pins, and rings.

Gold cup covering with spiral design elements
gold cup

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