Bronze Tripods

Somewhere in the area of Grave Circle A and the house which contained the Warrior Vase, Schliemann discovered fragments of a bronze cooking cauldron supported by three legs. Unfortunately, he did not record its exact provenience (which would have helped to fix its precise date),1 but it is of more interest for its relative position in the history of Aegean metallurgy than its specific location inside the citadel of Mycenae.

Both its shape and its area of discovery help to define its chronological limits within the Mycenaean period. Stylistically the tripod cauldron could be as early as the LH III A period, which corresponds to the reigns of Pharaohs Amenhotep III and Akhenaten; both stylistically and stratigraphically it seems to be no later than the LH III C period, so that, in broad terms, archaeologists have assigned its date of fabrication and its subsequent burial sometime within the fourteenth-twelfth centuries.2 Snodgrass recently called its shape “particularly important,” and noted its “close resemblance” to the bronze tripods of the eighth century from3 Olympia. Many archaeologists have long observed that close resemblance, and since it is essentially a utilitarian object, they believed that there must have been a continuous production of similar bronze tripods between the two ages.4

Today one sees that at the end of the Mycenaean Age there apparently occurred “a precipitous decline in the technique and employment of Bronze.” Presumably, the Mycenaeans no longer had access to their sources of copper and/or tin ore to form new bronze, did not have enough old bronze artifacts and scrap to melt down to create new objects, and also lost the technology to cast the metal in complex molds.5 Therefore, despite the close similarities of eighth-century bronze tripod cauldrons to Mycenaean specimens, all the excavation of the last century reveals no evidence for the continuous manufacture of bronze tripods of that distinct form, or, indeed, of any form during the Dark Age.6 Catling, a specialist in the Aegean bronzework of the Mycenaean Age, felt that the close resemblance of eighth-century tripod cauldrons from Olympia and elsewhere in Greece to the Late Helladic examples, as well as the close resemblance of a highly developed eighth-century cuirass from Argos to an example from fourteenth-century Dendra (both places less than ten miles from Mycenae and from each other) implied continuous production for at least those two classes of bronze objects, despite the present gap of centuries in the evidence.7 Snodgrass, also a specialist in metal work, and on the Dark Age as well, took the same position vis-à-vis Catling, with regard to tripods and body armor as he did with chariots, feeling that, despite the close similarities, a 400-600-year gap in the evidence indicated the the eighth-century items did not evolve directly from their Mycenaean antecedents.8

The tripod cauldrons were very effective for heating meals over a cooking fire, but they had their disadvantages. Because of their massive size and weight, their boiling contents and their own heat over the flame, one could not remove them from the fire beneath them, but instead had to ladle what one could of the boiling liquid from their interior. In the LH III C period the Cypriots developed an improved model, consisting of a hollow tripod stand upon which one placed a separate cauldron, which one could remove from the fire, allow to cool, bring to the table, and from which one could pour the contents. Those tripods present similar chronological problems to the one-piece Mycenaean tripod cauldrons which they came to replace. Because there are numerous LH III C examples and a few precisely similar ones in contexts as late as the eighth century, Benson, endorsing earlier opinion, recently called the new tripods “one of the most often cited examples of continuity between the Late Bronze Age and the Geometric Period in the Aegean. ”9

Catling, who studied the numerous tripods, including the Dark Age stands, who noted the close similarity of an example from an eighth-century Athenian context to those of LH III C date, and who did believe, despite the complete lack of evidence, in the continuity of chariots, body armor, and tripod cauldrons during the Dark Age, which separates similar examples, nevertheless dated all the tripod stands to the LH III C period. Rejecting continuity of manufacture after that time, he postulated that all the tripod stands in later contexts were prized antiques.10

It is of no little interest that the bronze tripod stands of the LH III C period, replacing one-piece tripod cauldrons, then supposedly vanishing (except for rare heirlooms and much later clay models),11 followed the same course as, and physically resemble other Eastern tripod stands of the seventh century, which came to replace the eighth-century Greek tripod cauldrons,12 as if history repeated itself with one 500-year throwback evolving from and supplanting another 500-year throwback. It is of still greater interest that a bronze bull’s head attachment, presumably from a cauldron of LH III C date, looks very similar to animal-head attachments found on eighth-seventh-century Eastern cauldrons imported to Greece. Catling and others, noting that resemblance, believed that there must be some kind of connection, but felt perplexed that so many centuries, which offered nothing remotely similar, separated the Mycenaean Age example from its much later counterparts.13 Furthermore, one of the most ornately decorated Cypriote tripod stands, presumably also of LH III C date, showed Levantine motifs which seemed to derive from somewhat earlier ivory carvings, but the one Levantine ivory carving, which Catling considered stylistically closest to that stand, probably belongs to the eighth century, while one of the closest Cypro-Levantine metalwork analogies dates to the seventh century B.C.14

As in other cases that we have already seen, and still others as well, the archaeologists’ impasse has also had a direct effect on Homeric scholarship, since Homer mentions bronze corselets and tripods in his epics. One group of scholars heralds those references as accurate memories of the Mycenaean Age, preserved through the centuries, while the other regards them as a reflection of the eighth-century world in which Homer and his audience lived.15 Regarding two sources of literary controversy Homer refers to tripods as prizes at chariot races.

One particular passage, referring to an aborted chariot race for a tripod at or near Olympia shortly before the Trojan War (Iliad XI: 698-702) sparked one of the first chronological debates in Homeric scholarship. Writers of the Roman period argued whether or not the hard made a poetic allusion to the famous Olympic Games of his own day,16 a problem which still troubles modern authors,17 especially since some archaeologists feel that the eighth-century tripods found at Olympia, which so closely resemble the centuries-older Mycenaean examples, were, in fact, as Homer recounted, prizes for the winners of the early Olympic Games.18

The controversy, then as now, compounds itself because of two conflicting chronological schemes’ The Greeks of the classical period attributed the foundation of the Olympic chariot races to a pre-Trojan War hero such as Pelops, Heracles or Atreus,19 at a time when they had come to believe, via Egyptian reckoning, that the Trojan War fell sometime during the fourteenth-twelfth centuries B.C. At the end of the fifth century the Greeks, using native accounts, calculated that the first recorded Olympic Games took place in 776 B.C.20 A dispute then arose between those who assigned the foundation of the Olympics to the thirteenth century, and those who opted for the early eighth.21 As happened with contemporary and analogous debates over the foundation dates of Rome and Carthage—either the era of the Trojan War heroes or the ninth/eighth century22—the ancients decided to resolve the arguments by accepting both traditions—all three were founded in the Heroic Age, abandoned for nearly half a millennium, then refounded at the later date. Pausanias, who over 1800 years ago related that compromise for the Olympics,23 did not end the debate, and, in fact, created yet another 500-year problem for Olympia, which sparked the heated quarrel between Furtwängler and Dörpfeld, which Velikovsky has recorded above Olympia.24

Rather than resolving ancient literary debates over Olympia, chariots and tripods, modern philologists and archaeologists have run into the same problems (and still more) as their predecessors, and for the same reason—Egyptian chronology placed Mycenaean objects and institutions half a millennium before similar objects and institutions again appear.


  1. S. Benton, “The Evolution of the Tripod-Lebes,” BSA, 35 (1934-35), p. 76, n. 5.

  2. loc, cit.; Catling, (1968), pp. 169-170.

  3. Snodgrass, (1971), pp. 281-283.

  4. A. Evans, (1935), vol. II (1928), pp. 629, 637; W. Lamb, Greek and Roman Bronzes (New York, 1929). p. 44; Benton, (1934-35), pp. 76-77; Catling, (1968), pp. 169-170; idem, in Popham-Sackett, (1968), p. 29. 

  5. D.G. Mitten, and S.F. Doeringer, Master Bronzes from the Classical World (Los Angeles, 1968), p. 19; cf. Snodgrass, (1971). pp. 237-238, 284, and Desborough, (1972, pp. 314-318.)

  6. Snodgrass, ibid, pp. 281-285, 399.

  7. Catling in Popham-Sackett, (1968), p. 29.

  8. Tripods; Snodgrass, (1971), pp. 281-285; cuirass; ibid., pp. 271, 345 and idem, Arms and Armour of the Greeks (Ithaca. New York, 1967), pp. 30, 41; idem,(1974). p. 123. To bolster his case for the discontinuity of bronze tripods during the Dark Age, Snodgrass not only pointed to their absence but also to clay models manufactured during the eleventh-eighth centuries, as evidence that the Greeks of that era, between the two periods of similar bronze examples, experienced a bronze shortage, so that they turned to clay substitutes. Actually, clay tripods had a very long history in the Aegean before the advent of the Mycenaean Age, when bronze replaced clay. By a chronological revision, the “Dark Age” clay examples did not come after the Mycenaean Period and before the revived widespread use of bronze tripods in the eighth century; instead, they served as the original models before, and the poorer people’s utensils during the time of Mycenaean metal examples, whose similarity to eighth-century bronze tripods is due to their rough contemporaneity. 

  9. J.L. Benson, “Bronze Tripods from Koran,” GRBS, 3 (1960), p. 7 and cf. p. 16; cf. Hall, (1914), pp. 132-135; Lamb, (1929), p. 44; J. Charbonneaux, Greek Bronzes (tr. K. Watson) (New- York, 1962), p. 54; Aström, (1972), p. 563. 

  10. Catling, (1968), pp. 194, 216-217, 223; cf. Snodgrass, (1971) pp. 119, 251, 271, 285, 325. 

  11. For heirlooms, see Catling, (1964), pp. 194, 216-217, 223; Snodgrass (1971), pp. 119, 251, 271, 285, 325. Regarding clay “substitutes,” Catling (ibid., pp. 215-217), noted that they did not exist during the time of the twelfth-century bronze stands; “more surprisingly,” rather than immediately replacing the bronzes at the end of the twelfth century, the clay models only started to appear in the late tenth century, but were still “remarkably close to their metal originals.” (p. 215), whose production had supposedly ceased long beforehand the clay “substitutes” ceased being made at the end of the eighth century, once bronze stands began to reappear in Greece. By a chronological revision, the latest “heirlooms” and all the clay “copies” preceded the bronze stands of LH III C date, whose resemblance to seventh-century bronze stands is due to their contemporaneity (cf. n. 8 above).

  12. Snodgrass, (1971), pp. 321, 345; For the resemblance, cf. Boardman, (1961), pp. 132-134. 

  13. Catling, (1968), pp. 154-155; E. Sjöqvist, review of Catling’s Cypriot Bronzework in the Mycenaean World, Gnomon, 3 9 (1965), p. 400. 

  14. Catling, ibid., pp. 197, 222. The ivory carving from Assyria comes from a deposit whose limits are 824-703 B.C. (R. Barnett, A Catalogue of the Nimrud ivories [London, 1957], p. 49).

  15. Corselet: Mycenaean or eighth century: Snodgrass, (1974), p. 123; idem, (1964), pp. 171-177; probably Mycenaean: Dickinson, (1973-4), p. 37; F. Stubbings, “Arms and Armour” in Wace and Stubbings, A Companion to Homer (London, 1962), pp. 506-510, 522n; probably eighth-century: P. Courbin, “Une tombe géometrique d’Argos,” BCH, 81 (1957), p. 356. Tripods: probably Mycenaean: F. Stubbings, “Crafts and industries” in Wace-Stubbings (ibid.), p. 535 (although see p. 419); probably eighth-century: Snodgrass, (1971), p. 436; Dickinson, (1973-4), p. 43.

  16. Strabo VIII.3, 30; Pausanias V.8.2.

  17. W.R. Ridington, The Minoan-Mycenaean Background of Greek Athletics (Philadelphia, 1935), pp. 17-19, 23, 34, 50, 87; H. Schöbel, The Ancient Olympic Games (Princeton, 1966), pp. 19-21, 73, 75, 92, 137, 145. 

  18. J. Sandys, The Odes of Pindar (New York, 1924), p. xxv; Benton, (1934-35), pp. 114-115; Ahlberg, (1971a, p. 198 and n. 1.)

  19. The east pediment of the early fifth century temple of Zeus at Olympia showed Pelops’ chariot race, which many considered the first Olympic Game. Pindar (Olympians X: 55-59), at about the same date, attributed the Games to Heracles. For Atreus, see Velleius Paterculus I:8.1-2. For the Bronze Age in general, see Pausanias V:7.6-8.4, 10.6-7.

  20. J. Forsdyke, Greece before Homer (London, 1956), p. 62; G. Mylonas, “Priam’s Troy and the Date of its Fall,” Hesperia 33 (1964), pp. 353, n. 3. The ceremonial date of 1184/3 B.C. was the estimate of Eratosthenes of Alexandria who, writing in the late third century B.C., relied very heavily on the works of Ctesias (late fifth century) and Manetho (early third century). Modern authorities (e.g., Forsdyke, ibid., p. 68; A.R. Burn, Persia and the Greeks [London, 1962], pp. 11-13) completely mistrust Ctesias’ work. Without any direct knowledge, he purported to recount Assyrian history, pushing it back much too far. Even the fall of the neo-Assyrian empire in 612 B.C. (only about 200 years before Ctesias’ own time), he dated some 265 years too early—actually to the period of its foundation (Forsdyke, pp. 68-74). Manetho’s “history” of Egypt is roughly twice as long as modern scholars view it (A. Gardiner, Egypt of the Pharaons [New York, 1972], pp. 61-62). Although even such respected Egyptologists as Hall, Breasted and Gardiner have noted gross errors in the number, order, dynasties, names and reqnal years of Manetho’s list of pharaohs, as well as irreconcilable discrepancies between different versions of the list, they still base much of the present chronological scheme for Egypt on his account (Velikovsky, (1977), pp. 208-209 and ns. 3-5). Velikovsky (ibid., pp. 205-244) has convincingly challenged Manetho’s scheme and the modern one which it helped to create, and in the Ages in Chaos volumes has proposed his revision for the entire structure of later Egyptian history. Despite the faith that the ancients placed in those three late classical sources, even modern scholars, who adhere to the present chronological system, dismiss their calculations as worthless (in addition to those already cited, cf. Dickinson, (1973-4), pp. 34-35). As we shall see below, these three writers all drew on the still earlier texts of Herodotus, Hellanicus and Hecataeus, who also relied directly on fallacious Egyptian accounts to fix dates for events in Greek prehistory - generally four to five centuries too old.

  21. See Velleius Paterculus 1:8.1-2.

  22. For Rome, see Dionysius of Halicarnassus 1. 72.1-74.2; For references to Carthage, see G.C. and C. Picard, (1968), pp. 30-33; Davis, Carthage and Her Remains (London, 1861), pp. 1-2. Of special interest, Appian (Roman History VIII:1,132), accepting both traditions, had Carthage’s foundation both before the Trojan War and in the ninth century. 

  23. Pausanias, V:4.5, 8.5. For recent discussions, see n. 17 above and D.I. Lazarides, “Greek Athletics” in The Archaic Period (1975, pp. 489-493.)

  24. He assigned the earliest temple of Hera at Olympia to the reign of a king whose grandfather fought at Troy (Ibid., V:3.6, 16.1). Contemporary archaeologists, who have studied the actual remains (A. Mallwitz, Olympia und seine Bauten [Munich, 1972], pp. 85-88; H-V. Hernnan, Olympia: Heiligtum und Wettkampfstätte [Munich, 1972], pp. 93-94; S. Kunze, “Zur Geschichte und zu den Denkmälern Olympias” in 100 Jahre deutche Ausgrabung in Olympia [Munich, 1972], p. 11), date the foundation to the mid-seventh century, which is ca. 500 years later than Dörpfeld, trusting Pausanias, maintained. In addition to Velikovsky’s treatment above, see H.E. Searls and W.B. Dinsmoor, “The Date of the Olympia Heraeum,” AJA, 49 (1945), p. 62.
    Ancient debates between those advocating the Late Helladic Period and those championing the ninth-seventh centuries for various events were by no means rare. There are far more instances today, where the ancients unanimously attributed something to the Mycenaean Age, but modern archaeologists and historians can date it no earlier than the ninth-seventh centuries (e.g., Phrygians in Anatolia; Etruscans in Italy; Phoenicians in the Aegean; Phoenician colonization of the West Mediterranean; the Mycenaean [or Trojan] colonization of Sicily, South Italy, Cyrene, Chios, Thera [cf. n. below], Ionia [cf. below “The Design of the Palace,” n. 11], and other regions, the unification of Attica, Athens’ institution of the archonship and its participation in the league of Calauria [cf. below “The Design of the Palace,” ns. 13, 18]; the arrival of the alphabet [cf. n. below]; the first temples to Hera not only at Olympia, but also at Prosymna [cf. n below], Perachora and Foce del Sele in Italy; the temple to Artemis in Brauron; the Isthmian, Pythian, Nemean and Olympic Games; the sculpture of Daedalus; the prominence of Argos; etc. etc.).