Everything you need to know and how and why to visit the Ancient Mycenae archaeological site. See the Grave Circles, the Treasury of Atreus (the Tomb of Agamemnon), and the spectacular Lion Gate, only 120 kilometers from Athens.
How to get to Ancient Mycenae
The archaeological site of ancient Mycenae is located on the northeast of the Peloponnese Peninsula in southern Greece, between the cities of Argos and Corinth.
Mycenae is only 120kms from Athens, less than an hour and a half to drive across the Isthmus of Corinth (the neck of land that joins the Peloponnese to mainland Greece).
You can also get to Mycenae via coach or even train, though this can take a little longer and you might need a taxi on the journey’s final stretch.
Mycenae is very close to the incredible coastal town of Nafplio, a whole archaeological destination in its own right! Here you can have wonderful sea views, only a 20-minute drive from Mycenae.
The Myceneans and Mycenaean Civilization
Mycenae is not just an archaeological site: it has also given its name to one of Greece’s most important civilizations.
Mycenean society was hierarchical and patriarchal, dominated by a warrior elite, and organized in a network of city-states based around hilltop palaces.
Supplanting their predecessors, the pre-Greek Minoans of Crete, around 1600BCE (BC), the Mycenean kings dominated modern-day Greece for around five hundred years, making key advancements and innovations before falling into decline during the mysterious Bronze Age collapse of 1100BCE (BC).
The Myceneans left such a great stamp on this period, that the last stage of the Hellenic Bronze Age is now known today as the Mycenean Age. Many of Greek mythology’s most enduring stories, including Homer’s Iliad, have their roots in this time.
It was the Mycenaeans who developed (with help from the Minoans) the first Indo-European writing system, Linear B.
Mycenae was firmly integrated into the Mediterranean’s Bronze Age world and was in frequent contact with great powers such as Ancient Egypt and the Hittite Empire.
Mycenean goods, particularly their ornate bronze metalwork, have been found as far away as Georgia on the Black Sea and Cornwall in England, while their pottery was prized across the region for its colorful and stylish design.
Mycenae Art, especially pots, urns, and other ceramics frequently depicted the warrior culture that was so much a part of everyday life.
Today, however, the Mycenaeans are best known for their impressive, fortified palaces, of which the Archaeological Site of Mycenae is the greatest example.
Archeological Site of Mycenae
The area around Mycenae has been occupied since at least 5000 BCE (BC), but it is thought that the construction of the great citadel we can see today only began around 1350BCE (BC).
The rise of the city of Mycenae mirrored the rise of Mycenean power, and at its peak, the site had grown to become the focal point of the Hellenic world.
But Mycenae’s power could not last forever. In around 1200BCE (BC) the city was sacked during the Bronze Age collapse by invading Dorians, migrating Sea Peoples’, or perhaps the city’s own exploited laboring classes.
Mycenae’s ruins had become little more than a tourist attraction by the Roman period and fell into total obscurity during the Dark Ages.
The site was only rediscovered in 1700 by the Venetians, who identified it via Roman descriptions of its iconic Lion Gate.
Excavations have been ongoing at Mycenae since 1841 at which point the Lion Gate was reconstructed, with key work on the site later undertaken by the rediscoverer of Troy, Heinrich Schliemann.
Citadel of Mycenae
At the center of the archaeological site is its imposing citadel. In around 1350BCE the previously humble settlement at Mycenae was fortified with “Cyclopean walls“, later thought to have been built by the enormous cyclops of Greek legend.
Like nearby Tiryns, Cyclopean walls were used to construct wide and tall fortifications. The stones used in these walls are so large that it was thought only the mighty Cyclops could have moved them into place.
Unlike their Minoan predecessors, Mycenean settlements are known for their focus on the military, and Mycenae was first and foremost to be a strong point, commanding this strategic area around the entrance to the Peloponnese.
That said, the citadel was hardly Spartan. A succession of lavish palaces, tombs of kings, and sacred monuments were built within Mycenae’s walls over the ensuing centuries.
After all, the city of Mycenae was an acropolis, a fortified upper town that was home only to the elite and a testament to their power. Commoners lived outside the protection of the walls on the slopes below the hill.
The impressive Lion Gate marks the main entrance of the Bronze Age Citadel of Mycenae. It has stood guard since its construction in the 13th Century BC (BCE).
It is the only monument of Bronze Age Greece to survive intact, with its iconographic motif still visible today. Situated at the northwest side of the Acropolis, this monumental piece of Mycenaean sculpture is the largest sculpture in the prehistoric Aegean, standing three meters wide and three meters high at the threshold.
The Lion Gate gets its name from the relief sculpture carved into the relieving triangle above the gate’s lintel. On this great slab, two lions or lionesses sit facing a central pillar atop an altar. Unfortunately, the heads of the lion statues have been removed.
The relief has stimulated much debate among archaeologists, who still debate the sex of the lions (or lionesses) or whether they were indeed sphinxes. The presence of the altar and the single column in between the lions may allude to a ceremonial gateway known as a propylaea, with the lions themselves acting as Mycenae’s sanctified guardians.
The Graves of Mycenae
Prominent at Mycenae is a series of graves that are open to the public. Most famous are the grave circles, a series of mostly shaft graves buried deep into the ground.
This grave design was later abandoned in favor of the tholos design, best embodied in the Treasury of Atreus.
Grave Circle A
The first circle of graves was discovered by Heinrich Schliemann, and although probably a continuation of Grave Circle B, it is now known as Grave Circle A.
Dating back to 1600BCE (BC), Grave Circle A contains six shaft graves in which rested the bodies of nineteen royals.
It was here that Schliemann found his famous “Mask of Agamemnon”, a golden face mask over the body of a man that the German archaeologist connected to the mythic hero of the Trojan War.
Grave Circle B
Built up to a century before Grave Circle A, Grave Circle B is situated outside the acropolis walls of Mycenae, comprising twenty-six shaft and more primitive cist graves and containing twenty-four aristocratic bodies.
Archaeologists have used Grave Circle B to trace the changes in Mycenean society, noting that later graves contained richer and more diverse goods, with women seeming to be buried with higher status.
Treasury of Atreus (the Tomb of Agamemnon)
Also known as the Tomb of Agamemnon, the Treasury of Atreus was built around 1250 BCE (BC), well after the older Grave Circles and at the height of Mycenean power.
The Treasury of Atreus is a tholos or beehive tomb, a design that became popular in the late Mycenean period. With its long sloping entrance and huge domed interior, the Treasury of Atreus is magnificent to behold millennia later. And although just one of nine of its kind at Mycenae, the grandeur of this structure dwarfs all the others.
- There are so many things to do in Greece. See all of the best things to do in Greece from Get Your Guide here
- If you’re planning a trip to Greece, check out my Greek posts here and make sure you listen to the Trip Anthropologist travel podcast series on Greece here.
- If you’re planning a trip to Athens, see my comprehensive guide to Athens Ruins: Ancient Greek Sites of Athens and find out how many days to spend in Athens for first-timers.
- Don’t miss my guides to Everything You Need to Know About Visiting the Acropolis and Where to Stay near the Acropolis.
- For the must-see Ancient Akrotiri Minoan city on Santorini, see my blog post here