By Michael Hinckley
The ancient Myceneans, who lived on the mainland of what is today Greece, were masters of many refined crafts. It was the Myceneans who made war upon the fabled city of Troy as told in Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey. Myceneans were expert metalworkers and their crafts are preserved today in museums around the world.
Myceneans are a group of non-Indo-European people who settled in the Greek mainland and the Peloponnese peninsula sometime around 3000 BCE. They quickly established reputations as master bronze workers, but also were known for fabulous gold and other precious metal objects. Mycenean metalworking technology proved essential in conquering the Minoans of Crete as well as in the war on Troy. Very little of Mycenean society remains except what is recorded by later occupants of Greece, such s Homer.
The Myceneans were a war-like people who used their mastery of bronze to fashion spears, shields, armor, and swords. Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, could be made almost as hard as iron if properly forged. This allowed the metal to resist bending and breaking as well as hold its edge far longer than other metals, including early iron weapons. Bronze was also used in making important components for chariots and ships, such as nails, axle brackets, and armor.
Myceneans improved basic bronze by adding other elements such as sulfur, bauxite (aluminum) and silicon (sand) in order to produce bronzes with different properties such as hardness, flexibility, or color.
Myceneans also worked with gold, particularly after sacking the rich city of Troy. Gold was often beaten into shapes representing animals, people, and was even used to make so-called “death masks,” which were placed on the faces of dead kings before their burial. One of the most famous Mycenean death masks is the mask of Agamemnon, discovered in 1876 by Heinrich Schliemann and on display at the National Archeological Museum of Athens.
Gold rings with scenes depicting the goddesses or gods, as well as wars, have been found at Mycenae and other Mycenean sites. Rings such as these were typically cast into the desired shape first, then the scenes were carved into them so the figures were sunk into the gold. Engraved jewelry with semi-precious stones has also been found in Mycenean burial sites, suggesting the widespread knowledge of gold working and jewelry-making.
Mycenean metalworking went through various stylistic phases that correspond to the three periods; The Early Mycenean Helladic period lasted from about 3000 BCE to 2000 BCE and is the least well known. The Middle Helladic period was shorter, lasting from 2000 BCE to about 1550 BCE and was punctuated by external and internal wars. The Late Helladic period was even shorter still lasting from 1550 BCE to about 1050 BCE and produced most of the metalworks that archeologists have found to date. It is during this late period that Agamemnon and Odysseus were said to have lived. If this is true, then the Myceneans disappeared shortly after the sack of Troy.
Some works that hint at the metalworking techniques and skill of the Myceneans are the swords and daggers found at Mycenae, Messenia, and Attica. They inlaid the blades of some weapons with intricate gold etchings. Two popular themes were war and hunting, most likely because of the belligerent nature of Mycenean society. These swords and daggers were most likely commissioned by the king or his nobles and given as ceremonial gifts. These items, like the death masks, were buried with the person.
After the introduction of the Greek-speaking Dorics, Mycenean cities withered and died and Greek life became decentralized. All knowledge of Mycenean metalworking and writing were lost until a German archeologist named Heinrich Schliemann, convinced that the Illiad was at least partly true, began the first truly scientific investigation in the 19th century. Upon opening the fifth (V) burial pit, Schliemann was reported to have discovered the grave of a Late Heladic period king and exclaimed, “Now I can gaze upon the face of Agamemnon.” In reality, the death mask Schliemann found was far older than the believed life date of Agamemnon, but the name has stuck with the piece to this day. Schliemann’s persistence and other discoveries led to more sites being excavated by other archaeologists, including the search for the lost city of Troy.