Until the amateur archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann began excavating the supposed site of the city of Troy, writes Hilary Green, people believed that the story of the Trojan War was just a legend. Schliemann proved that not only had Troy existed, but it had been destroyed and rebuilt many times. He then moved on to excavate Mycenae, the city of Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks, and found evidence of a rich and sophisticated society, where the palaces were decorated with beautiful frescoes and the dead were buried with their faces covered by masks of beaten gold. Yet for three thousand years, the only indication that Mycenae had ever existed was the Lion Gate which was still visible above the ruins.
The City of Pylos
What happened to destroy Mycenae and its associated cities so completely that they were consigned to the realm of myth? The first clues came when Carl Blegen from the university of Cincinnati began to excavate the city of Pylos on the west coast of the Peloponnese. Pylos was the fabled city of King Nestor, who plays a large role in the Iliad. Sure enough, Blegen uncovered the remains of a palace and surrounding buildings situated on top of the hill of Epano Englianos. It was a sumptuous building, with a wide courtyard leading to a colonnaded portico that gave entrance to the megaron, the main hall and throne room of Nestor and his descendants. (Pictured is the Lion Gate, the entrance to the city of Mycenae and the only evidence of its existence that was visible before Heinrich Schliemann started excavating).
In the centre of the room was a circular ceremonial hearth and the floor, walls and ceiling were decorated with coloured patterns and beautiful frescoes depicting animals and sea creatures and, in one place, a seated figure playing a lyre. It had obviously been the centre of a rich and cultivated society, but the evidence showed that it had been destroyed in a great conflagration, some two or three generations after Nestor’s time.
Among the ruins were many clay tablets incised in an unknown script. What surprised the archaeologists was that similar tablets had been discovered in the ruins of Knossos on Crete. It had been assumed that there was no connection between the Minoans of Crete and the Achaeans of Mycenae and Pylos. In Knossos the tablets were written in two different scripts at different periods, but no one was able to read them. They were known simply as Linear A and Linear B. The Pylos tablets were written in Linear B. The question was, in what language? Had the Minoans come to Pylos? Or had the Achaeans gone to Crete? It was not until two Englishmen, Michael Ventris and John Chadwick, cracked the code that an answer emerged. To everyone’s surprise, the language proved to be an early form of Greek.
Preparations for Invasion
Most of the tablets are simply bureaucratic records of taxes received, in the form of wheat or olive oil or wine, and items given out, like seed corn. But in the highest and therefore most recent layer they tell a very different story. They carry orders for a census of all the chariots in the kingdom and the chariots that required it to be repaired; for ships to assemble at a point off the coast; for men to be sent north to a frontier town; even for the bronze votive vessels from the temples to be requisitioned and melted down – presumably to be made into weapons. It is clear that Pylos was preparing for an invasion. The layer immediately above these tablets shows evidence of a devastating fire. Among the ruins are crushed jars which once contained olive oil, which presumably helped to fuel the conflagration, together with fragments of ivory and delicately painted cups and vases. Clearly, when the attack came the Pylians were unable to withstand it.
Who were the attackers? Later Greek historians named them as the Dorians, a Greek speaking tribe from further north, driven to seek new land by pressure from other tribes moving in from north and east. How were they able to overcome the much more sophisticated Achaeans? The most likely explanation seems to be that they had discovered the secret of smelting iron, which meant that they were able to arm many more of their people than was possible with the limited supplies of bronze available to the men of Pylos.
Excavations at Mycenae show that around the same time that city suffered attack and was partly burnt; but the damage was made good and the defensive walls were extended and strengthened, to include access to a vital fresh water spring. The Myceneans, too were preparing to defend themselves. But within a hundred years Mycenae too had succumbed, as had Tyrins and other Achaean cities. Only Athens survived the onslaught and it was a matter of pride for later Athenians that they had never been defeated.
These events form the basis of Hilary’s recently published e-book, THE LAST HERO, the story of Alkmaion, the last prince of Pylos and his struggle to save his people and recover his inheritance.