Day Four, the walk to Mycenae
As it happened, I hadn’t gotten to bed early the previous evening and almost couldn’t sleep due to excitement. Today was THE DAY I’d taken this tour for! I took this particular tour because we were going to walk to Mycenae on foot on the route taken by chariots three and half millennia ago.
We were up in the morning, breakfasted and ready for the bus by 7:00. We drove to Prosymna, a town near a steep, minor hill called Berbati, where there had once been a Mycenaean pottery. The “Mycenaean Road” led up through olive groves and would branch off every now in then. In reality, we were following modern farming tracks and crossing the ancient, rock paved Bronze Age road every so often. The actual Mycenaean Road led in switchbacks up the incline. The first three miles were uphill.
There had been a wider road for chariots and below it and narrower one for foot traffic. Every here and there, amidst olive groves, we would see great boulders collapsed downhill. If there hadn’t been a road, they wouldn’t have been here.
We came upon a structure that was more than a road; it was a watchtower or way station. One corbelled bridge was intact and another one made up a culvert.
Sandy began scrottling on the way, which of course got the rest of us started. Scrottling is looking for potsherds. The way was strewn with sherds, but I wasn’t picking out anything particularly wonderful. Either Lindsay or Linda picked up the top rim of a Mycenaean Jar, with a painted stripe on it, but left it in situ. I would most certainly have picked it up, had I known she wasn’t going to keep it. (I have Mycenaean sherd lust.) I picked up several bits, but I don’t think either of them are Mycenaean.
When we reached the top of a hill, a saddle between two higher ones, the road bed changed to a track. It ran along the inside of a valley wall for a time. The Mycenaean Road was collapsed below us, with huge boulders tumbling down hill, but we were now traveling the actual route since switchbacks were unnecessary. We were walking between thorny bushes and all of us women who were wearing skirts or shorts have scratches on our legs.
It made getting off the path to investigate anything prohibitive, but from that point it was more or less downhill to Mycenae. Just before seeing the postern gate of Mycenae, we came across a large herd of goats, which capped the hike off with rustic authenticity.
Mycenae is so impressive when you’re up there. The position is commanding; the Cyclopean Walls with their giant boulders and lintels are awe inspiring.
It’s well known they were called Cyclopean because later Greeks believed they’d been built by giants. Sandy explained that they hadn’t been as naïve as one might think. Dwarf elephant skulls unearthed in antiquity had this large central trunk cavity that looked as if it could be an eye socket.
We initially approached Mycenae from behind and met Myranda at the Postern Gate. She gave us tickets and told us to meet her at the front, where we couldrefresh ourselves. Our refreshment turned out to be hot, white cheese wrapped in phyllo dough – yum! – fruit, and water.
For me, it was particularly gratifying to bring Iphigeneia to Mycenae, the legendary birthplace of her name and one of the two places that played a seminal role in the imagination of my youth. When I was a senior in high school, I read Whom the Gods Would Destroy by Richard Powell about the Trojan War, and lived in a sort of fog of imaginary displacement for two weeks or so afterward. Up until then, I’d been focused on Middle American Archaeology, Quetzalcoatl and Teotihuacan, and not all that interested in Greece and Rome, but suddenly Greece LOOMED in my mind. When I got to college I read Denys Page’s History and the Homeric Iliad for my freshman Interim term paper. The first semester of my sophomore year, I enrolled in Greek I.
I’ve now been to Troy, Hattusha, Mycenae and Akrotiri. Hattusha is the capital of Hatti and the Hittites. A cache of baked clay tablets were found there that mentioned a country called Wilusa (Ilios) and Taruisa (Troy),and trouble with the Ahhiyawans (Achaians). Akrotiri is a 16th Century Bronze Age city, buried in ash by a volcanoe on the island of Santorini. You can actually walk down its streets and peer in its windows. Mycenae was the next place on my Bucket List.
One thing I regret is that I never rechecked the Author’s Bio on the dust cover of Whom the Gods Would Destroy, the novel that started this Trojan obsession of mine. Richard Powell taught at a college in Dubuque. I could actually have met him before he died, had I but known. I bet he was fun. It’s gratifying that Geneia loved the book as much as I did. There may ber one more destination in the making. Sandy told us that just last year the Mycenaean palace of Sparta, where Paris met Helen, was most probably found and is being excavated. How exciting is that!!!
Sitting in the Guard’s Cubbie inside the Lion Gate.
There are the remains of a Megaron on top of the citadel;. It was the least protected part of the ruined palace and it may have been knocked down when the palace was burned at the end of the Bronze Age and scavenged as the years went on for building stone. The graves had been robbed in antiquity, save the ones that Schliemann excavated, from which we saw later at the National Museum in Athens, came incredibly rich hoards of gold. Naturally I’ve seen the Mask of Agamemnon etc. many times in publications, but I was unprepared for how much gold there really was, not just utensils and masks, but rosettes galore, decorative repoussé gold pieces that had been sewn to the funeral shrouds. Sandy commented that these finds, evidence of sudden great wealth, were consistent with a possible expedition against Troy, but I think the Shaft Graves are too early to be contemporary with a sack of Troy. They are generally acknowledged to be from the 16th Century BC. Most scholars now believe that Troy VI was sacked around 1250. Mycenae’s epithet in Homer is “rich in gold,” and it certainly was.
The Shaft Graves inside their ancient circle
We can get an idea of what the megaron of Mycenae must have been like by looking at artist’s reconstructions of the megaron at Pylos.
We went through the Museum rather rapidly. There was a selection of the pottery taken from the site, as well as a reproduction of the Mask of Agamemnon and some of the jewelry. We arrived at the Site about 11:00 AM and then toured it, so by the time we had lunch it was early afternoon. We stopped at the Treasury of Agamemnon, which is what Pausanias was told it was, the place where Agamemnon kept his wealth – actually, as everyone now knows, it was a tomb and the finest and largest tholos tomb found to date — and we stood in the midst of it and marveled at its high ceiling.
We went to a family-run hotel just down the road called La Petite Planete. It was within walking distance of Mycenae and would be an excellent place to stay if one wanted to rent a car and explore the region. There are sites everywhere in the Argolid, all sorts of shaft graves and other tholoi. Sandy told us about a new site being excavated in Sparta, on a hill beneath a church, which is entirely Mycenaean and quite likely to prove to be the Palace of Sparta, Helen and Menelaus. How thrilling! They’ve just begun digging, but have already verified that it is a palace! We were completely disgusting from our long walk and tour of Mycenae, so we were given some time to refresh ourselves before dinner. I went into the pool and forgot to take off my watch. I immediately called to Richard I, who was reading on the side of the pool, to grab it from me, towel it off and put it in the sun to dry. He was sitting and reading in the last of the afternoon rays. After that I showered and made myself presentable. I had a very interesting time chatting with Jeremy. He and Linda had both graduated as dentists, but after having practiced together for about four years, they decided that they more running a business than they were helping others maintain their health. It wasn’t what they’d signed on for, so they went back to school. Both ended up working in a Teaching Hospital. Linda went into pediatrics and Jeremy stuck with dentistry. It must be the reason they have been all over the world. Jeremy is a consultant and has often been asked to speak. They lived for some time in Sri Lanka, but seem to have traveled everywhere. I asked Jeremy what it was they’d liked about Sibelius, and he said it was the suggestiveness of the music, the way it makes one envision mysterious, brooding forests. He’d been given an album of En Saga and Finlandia by his father when he was a teen and had been completely entranced by it. I loved hearing that. I played Sibelius throughout college and it got into my blood.
We talked about other composers. I told him about the movie, Summer in February, the story of Alfred Munnings, his first wife, an artist’s colony on the coast of Cornwall and a love triangle. It was a bygone world in which you could simply wander around, paint people in rural areas, like gypsies and country horse fairs and live on practically nothing, meeting at the local pub in evenings for a rollicking time spent with other artists, like Laura Knight.
That’s another story though….