On the trail of Agamemnon’s kingdom: new discoveries on the geography of Mycenaean palaces


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A new discovery could help define the boundaries of the kingdom of Mycenae in the Peloponnese in the late Bronze Age, which would partially coincide with those suggested by Homer in the Iliad. Three swords were found, in the characteristic shapes of Mycenaean palatial productions, dating from the 14th century BC, the period of full splendour of the Mycenaean palaces of Mycenae, Tiryns and Pylos. 

On the trail of Agamemnon's kingdom: new discoveries on the geography of Mycenaean palaces
The excavation site at the village site [Credit: University of Udine]

The artefacts were brought to light by archaeologists from the University of Udine, coordinated by Elisabetta Borgna, last August, during the tenth annual excavation campaign at the necropolis of Trapezà di Aighion in Achaia, in the western Peloponnese, where the Udine group has been working since 2010 on a broader project of the Greek Ministry of Culture. 

Discovered during the investigation of one of the apparently simpler and more modest tombs, the swords most likely belonged to warriors residing in a community located on the mountainous foothills of eastern Achaia, from which they controlled the centre of Aighion, the coastal plain and the Corinthian Sea.

On the trail of Agamemnon's kingdom: new discoveries on the geography of Mycenaean palaces
The partially preserved chamber tomb
[Credit: University of Udine]

This year’s discoveries follow on from those of previous campaigns, when the investigation of another tomb – the much wider and deeper Tomb 6 – uncovered rich pottery and jewellery artefacts, as well as a deposit of bronze objects including a large spearhead, which has been preliminarily interpreted as the equipment of a distinguished individual – an official, superintendent or local governor – linked to the central authority of Mycenae.

Last August, archaeologists also conducted investigations in the ancient village identified in 2015 a few hundred metres south of the necropolis. Founded in pre-Mycenaean times, around the beginning of the second millennium BC, the settlement was long-lived. This year an imposing building with a central hearth of the ‘megaron’ type, characteristic of Mycenaean architecture, was brought to light.

On the trail of Agamemnon's kingdom: new discoveries on the geography of Mycenaean palaces
A burial in tomb 8 [Credit: University of Udine]

The research team from the University of Udine was invited to collaborate on the field survey at Trapezà by the director of the Aighion Museum, Andreas Vordos, as part of a large-scale project by the Greek Archaeological Service for the Greek Ministry of Culture in the archaeological area of the ancient city of Rhypes. 

The campaigns started in 2010 and concentrated since 2012 on the funerary contexts – a nucleus of chamber tombs excavated in the sandy substrate of a hillside – are supported, in addition to the University of Udine, by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Institute for Aegean Prehistory in Philadelphia.

On the trail of Agamemnon's kingdom: new discoveries on the geography of Mycenaean palaces
The anthropologist with the students in the field
[Credit: University of Udine]

The political, social and economic system of the Mycenaean kingdoms was rigidly centralised and therefore certain strategic goods, such as weapons, had controlled circulation and limited access. “Produced in central workshops,” explains Elisabetta Borgna, “they were stored in palatial warehouses and were mostly distributed as needed to men called to arms or held by warriors and officers with specific roles within the palatine administration.” 

“It is therefore rare that during the height of the palace age, i.e. when the system of control of the palaces was more efficient and rigorous, weapons were deposited in the tombs, and in particular in those belonging to peripheral necropolises; when they did occur, they were certainly charged with expressing relevant information on the status and role of the deceased.”

On the trail of Agamemnon's kingdom: new discoveries on the geography of Mycenaean palaces
The “megaron” with the hearth in the centre [Credit: University of Udine]

The identification, therefore, of a group of Mycenaean warriors in the Achaean necropolis under investigation is a very significant fact for the historical reconstruction of the political boundaries of the Mycenaean kingdom in the Late Bronze Age. 

“This presence,” Borgna points out, “seems to confirm what Homer says in the second book of the Iliad, when, in the famous Catalogue of Ships, he quantifies the military power of the Achaeans engaged in the expedition to Troy, listing the commanders and the origin of the contingents. The Greek poet relates that Agamemnon himself, king of Mycenae, is said to have led a hundred ships of warriors, recruited not only in the territories immediately surrounding the palace of Mycenae, in Argolida and Corinthia, but also in the peripheral region of Aighialia, that is, the eastern part of Achaia around Aighion, the site of various settlements of which Pausanias would later speak”.

On the trail of Agamemnon's kingdom: new discoveries on the geography of Mycenaean palaces
The hearth during excavation [Credit: University of Udine]

In particular, when referring to “those who lived around Aighion”, “Homer’s words,” concludes Borgna, “refer to communities capable of providing resources in terms of retinue and military strength for major initiatives such as the legendary Trojan War that the poet was preparing to celebrate. The traces now found of those Mycenaean warriors who in the vast Peloponnese served the powerful military organisation of the palaces therefore perhaps represent the historical core of a reality transposed into legend and evoked by the epic tale”.

The megaron, with a regular rectangular floor plan, generally tripartite and with a portico in front, was a planimetric-structural model characteristic of Mycenaean architecture, and in particular of the nucleus of the palaces in which court life took place, which housed the throne room. It was characterised by the presence of a large central hearth, which, interpreting the transition from family authority in the domestic setting to public authority in the ceremonial and institutional setting, represented, in monumental guise, the symbol of Mycenaean power.

The ‘megaron’ building in the Trapeza of Aighion – dating from the beginning of the Mycenaean civilisation (c. 17th century BC), and therefore preceding the foundation of the palaces – can be compared with a number of contemporary structures, interpreted in other settlements as the dwellings of locally emerging groups. The hearth was built on imposing foundations of large stones, bordered by large pebbles and set up with an articulated series of layers of gravel and pebbles on which clay cooking plates rested.

“A complexity,” stresses Borgna, “that seems to be the premise for the flourishing development of the following centuries, so well documented by the necropolis. The dynamics of growth, evolution and extension of the settlement and the relationship between it and the nearby necropolis are among the fascinating aspects still to be clarified”.

Source: University of Udine [trsl. TANN; October 09, 2021]

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