Illuminating Mycenaean Treasures: Exploring the Glittering Gold of Ancient Greece

In the last two centuries, archeologists have discovered numerous gold objects from the Mycenaean civilization, mostly from burial sites. These discoveries have provided fascinating insights into how cultures produced gold thousands of years ago.

When looking back on the late Bronze Age period of c. 1750 to 1050 BC, the Mycenaeans were the first distinct Greek culture to dominate the mainland. Despite their early foundations, the Mycenaeans developed an advanced urban civilization using a written language, now called Linear B, by modern historians. Mycenaean gold discoveries show that this advanced civilization had materialistic roots, though historians still have many questions surrounding the origins of these precious metals.

For example, did the Mycenaeans mine the gold themselves or source it by trading and war?

One of the most monumental Mycenaean gold discoveries was at the grave circles of the ancient site of Mycenae. Heinrich Schliemann discovered Grave Circle A in 1876 following descriptions by Homer and Pausanias, and then archaeologists Ioannis Papadimitriou and Georgios Mylonas discovered Grave Circle B in 1952 after someone accidentally stumbled upon the site a year prior. Both grave circles contained numerous gold objects dating back to the Mycenaean civilization.

Inside Grave Circle A, archeologists found over 33 pounds of gold, making it one of the most substantial finds in European history. Each grave circle contained an array of precious metal objects, including jewelry, decorative weapons, ornaments, funeral masks, and more.

One of the most iconic finds from the grave circles was the Death Mask of Agamemnon, named after Mycenaean King Agamemnon. The legendary Mycenaean king led the Greeks during the Trojan War, according to the Iliad. Recent research by archeologists shows that the mask may actually be about three centuries older than Agamemnon’s time, though.

The Death Mask of Agamemnon was crafted from one large sheet of gold that was heated and hammered against a flat, wooden surface. The mask’s intricate details come from a chasing process that requires sharp tools for etching.

Grave Circle A contained six other similar death masks, with all but one belonging to adult males. The other mask seemed to belong to a child’s face.

Grave Circle B, on the other hand, contained a death circle made of electrum, a gold-silver alloy material, placed next to the deceased rather than on their face. The lack of death masks and material in Grave Circle B led archeologists to believe that the deceased individuals were of a lower wealth class compared to Grave Circle A.

One of the more recent Mycenaean gold discoveries was in 2019 when archeologists discovered the Royal Tombs at Pylos, which are thought to once have been the seat of Nestor, the eldest Greek ruler who fought in the Trojan War. The large, underground chambers of the tombs collapsed over time and became buried beneath a mess of rubble and vines, creating a challenge for archeologists.

The team of excavators ultimately discovered that the burial pit floors and walls were embellished with gold leaf. Beyond this, the tombs contained various artifacts, including gold, jewelry, bronze, and different gemstones. One major find was a gold pendant depicting the Egyptian goddess Hathor, which archeologists believe could be a potential trade link between the Egyptians and Mycenaeans from around 3,500 years ago.

This brings us back to the initial question of how the Mycenaeans sourced their gold. “Numerous objects of gold displaying an impressive variety of types and manufacturing techniques are known from the Late Bronze Age (LBA) contexts of Mycenaean Greece, but very little is known about the origin and processing of gold during the second millennium BC,” M. Vavelidis and S. Andreou explain in an academic paper on the topic.

Despite the array of gold linked with the civilization, the Argolid region of the Mycenaeans is largely deprived of gold. Because of this fact, the Mycenaeans either traded to receive their gold or mined it elsewhere.

“Ancient literature and recent research indicate that northern Greece is probably the richest gold-bearing region in Greece, and yet very little evidence exists regarding the exploitation of its deposits and the production as well as use of gold in the area during prehistory,” Vavelidis and Andreou continue to explain.

When examining the chemical composition of the Mycenaean artifacts when compared to the composition of gold deposits in neighboring regions, it’s clear that a large portion of the gold was locally sourced from portions of Greece. This research reveals that some of the Mycenaean gold may have come from Northern Greece. All of this evidence points toward the potential that ancient Greek civilizations may have been producing their own gold.

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