The Palace

In addition to the water system and the artists’ quarters, the acropolis of Mycenae was also the site of the palace complex,, including an eastern villa, called the House of Columns (Fig. 1, L, N). Both, at least in their final forms, belong to the LH III B period, and both, along with most of the rest of the city, as well as several other palaces and towns throughout the rest of the Aegean, perished in flames towards the end of the LH III B period (i.e., ca. 1200 B.C.). While there was a brief re-occupation of the House of Columns before its ultimate abandonment, the palace itself apparently became an uninhibited heap of rubble for the next five centuries, until the Greeks of the seventh (possible late eighth) century constructed a temple on the site.(1)

The palace was the abode of the king, whom the Greeks of the eighth century, and probably earlier as well, (like contemporary peoples in Egypt and Asia) considered to be semi-divine;”(2) even though there was a separate religious complex in the lower city, presumably with its own priesthood, the king most probably still exercised much influence over the spiritual life of his subjects, performing sacred rites for the community as a whole inside the palace.(3) Since the palace grounds were the scene of religious activity in LH III B and from ca, 700 B.C. till the Hellenistic period, some recent authors have postulated that there was a continuous cult there, with the archaic temple and its Hellenistic replacement showing its more impressive manifestations at a later date.(4) As other have noted, however, if some 500 years actually transpired between the end of the palace and the erection of the first temple, with no evidence of cult activity during such a long interval, it is difficult to trace any continuity, and some even question whether the revival of religious activity on the site was a conscious one.(5)

The Greeks of ca. 700 B.C. erected temples over the ruins of LH III B palaces not only at Mycenae, but also at Athens, possibly at Prosymna,(6) and probably at Tiryns, a site which again generated a 500-year “tug of war” between two schools of archaeologists, making that case “problematical.”(7) They also constructed shrines and temples over 500-year-older shrines and secular buildings on Aegina, Calauria, Crete, Delos and Samos; at Mycenae itself, Epidaurus, Olympia, Perachora, Therapne, Isthmia, Brauron, Eleusis, Delphi, Pherai, Thermon, and Tegea.(8)

Once again, those who noted clear evidence of religious activity at most of those sites before 1200 B.C,, and again in the eighth-seventh centuries, postulated an uninterrupted cult, while those who were disturbed by the lack of evidence for religious activity—in many cases of any activity—at those sites during the intervening Dark Age, believe, instead, that after a “prolonged lapse” of centuries, the Greeks of the eighth-seventh centuries sought a “deliberate communion” with their predecessors of the Mycenaean Age.(9) Since the evidence for religious activity not only at each of those places, but throughout the Aegean, is so meager during the Dark Age,(10) both those who believe in continuity of cult places, and those who do not, find it difficult to explain why “the huge increase in [religious and architectural] activity” occurred so late, and why “it had suddenly become so pressing a need” to erect temples to the gods only after some 500 years had elapsed since the destruction and/or abandonment of the earlier structures immediately beneath them.(11)

At Mycenae itself, Archaic and Hellenistic levelling and building operations as well as severe erosion, and the less sophisticated excavation, recording and publication techniques of the early archaeologists, who first cleared the area, make it impossible to ascertain the exact relationship of the Archaic Temple to the LH III B. palace beneath it.(12) At other sites, such as Tiryns, Delos, and Prosymna, however, many scholars once believed—and some still do—that the temples of ca. 700 B.C. followed immediately after the destruction of LH III B buildings beneath them, but because 500 years ought to intervene, most authorities now reject that notion. (13)

Mycenae’s palace, like most other opulent habitations of LH III B Greece, had its interior walls covered with a smooth facing of stucco, which fresco painters decorated with brilliantly-colored designs and scenes. Although Egypt and Crete had had a tradition of mural paintings for centuries, the Mycenaeans, probably under Minoan influence, only began to adopt the art during the late Eighteenth Dynasty. Despite their late start, Vermeule judged the LH III A-B frescoes of Greece to be “perhaps the best of all Mycenaean arts. “(14) After the destruction of the mansions and palaces during the late LH III B-C period, it seems that the Greeks abandoned that art form, along with so many others;(15) once again, as in so many comparable cases, they seem to have revived the craft some 500 years later, when they painted frescoes on the walls of early seventh-century temples.(16) Further west, some authors have detected marked similarities between Minoan-Mycenaean frescoes and sculpture of the Late Bronze Age, and Etruscan funerary murals of the seventh-fifth centuries, again confronted by the now-familiar centuries-long gap between the two groups.(17)

Mycenae’s palace, like many other contemporary structures, was a multistoried building, with its walls formed by vertical and horizontal timbers, between which the builders packed rocks in a matrix of clay. As we noted above, the workmen covered the interior walls with a smooth layer of plaster, which painters decorated with beautiful frescoes. The outer faces of the palaces external walls presented a more difficult problem, since their wood and rubble composition was both aesthetically unattractive, and also too vulnerable to the elements. To remedy that situation, the Mycenaean builders decided simultaneously to mask, beautify, protect and strengthen the exposed exterior. Thus they quarried fairly large boulders of poros limestone, which they sawed into rectangular blocks, laying them in even courses, known 0.3 ashlar masonry, to present a solid architectural façade.

Although the Egyptians and Minoans had long been masters of monumental architecture in general and ashlar construction in particular, the Mycenaeans were again relatively late to adopt those skills, with the palace marking one of their last and finest accomplishments. Their earliest stone architecture of note consisted of the huge beehive tombs, at first constructed of rubble. With time they began to adorn them with ashlar façades and to line their entrances, which they had (rat through earthen embankments, with ashlar retaining walls. Finally they changed from sawn poros blocks to much harder conglomerate rock, which they hammered into blocks not only for the façades and entrance walls, but also for the construction of the tombs themselves. Similarly, they began to employ huge, rectangular blocks of hastier-dressed conglomerate, laid in even courses, to sheath some portions of their older fortification systems, and as the exterior for new, thick, rubble-core walls which they added to the earlier enceintes, such as the Lion Gate. It was only relatively late that the Mycenaeans began to erect large buildings of stone and to face them with ashlar masonry.(18)

Despite that late start, the relatively short period of use, and their rather restricted application of monumental construction techniques, the Mycenaean builders “reached a high state of development” and “proved their greatness.”(19) In fact, whereas Vrmeule felt the highest esteem for those who painted the frescoes on the interior walls of buildings like the palace, Desborough considered that “above all . . . the architects and stonemasons arouse one’s admiration. (20)

As was true in the case of the frescoes, the Greeks seen to have suddenly lost the skills to shape some blocks, to create ashlar walls, or to erect impressive constructions of any kind by the end of the Mycenaean period. “Such artist and craft were not to be seen again in Greece” during the obscure centuries following(21) the destructions of the Late Helladic palaces. During the Dark Age the Greeks seem to have made only snail structures of unbaked mud bridk, at most having a low foundation of unworked pebbles set in mud—in many ways reminiscent of the architecture 500 years earlier. With time they again began to erect a few stone walls, but those usually consisted of unworked rocks in a matrix of mud, at best having only their outer faces squared.(22)

Suddenly, ca. 700 B.C., the Greeks of Corinth and Isthmia, both less than twenty miles northeast of Mycenae, again erected large structures made of poros limestone, sawed into rectangular blocks, and laid in even courses:(23) “a striking token of the recovery of lost skills” employed half a millennium earlier,(24) Since both buildings are so early in the series of Greek temples, and follow 500 years of very meager architecture, one might expect them to be pretty “primitive”, but the excavators found both structures to be surprisingly sophisticated.(25) Since the construction of large-scale buildings of rectangular poros blocks laid in the ashlar technique seems to have ended 500 years earlier, and there seems to be no intermediate stage after the mudbrick and pebble walls, and before the erection of those two temples, it is difficult to show that they continued the Mycenaean tradition or evolved from the intervening, native Greek works. In the present overview of Greek architecture, those two temples “appeared suddenly”, as a “revolutionaryinnovation” by an ingenous, yet anonymous, Corinthian inventor.(26)

R.M. Cook and H. Thompson, noting that abrupt, unprecedented revival of ashlar masonry, the extreme proximity of Corinth and Isthmia to Mycenae, and the fact that some of Mycenae’s ashlar walls (e.g., at the Lion Gate) are still extant, have recently suggested that those walls at Mycenae might have inspired the seventh-century architects to return to the techniques employed, then lost, some 500 years earlier.(27) While that view has its attractions, there looms the question of whether untrained people merely gazing upon the outer faces of 500-year-old walls, constructed of rectangular stone blocks, could successfully quarry, trim, transport, lift and set new blocks in the old manner. The Mycenaean ashlar masonry only form a façade to older walls behind it, to solid rubble cores, or to earthen embankments. They did not have to bear the full weight of a roof and did not have to be perfectly plumb, since their solid backing supported them. The Mycenaean blocks were not always perfectly rectangular, and did not need to make precise joins, since only the outer face was of concern; the unseen inner faces might be left partly unworked or else splayed apart, leaving gaps to be filled with wood, rubble and clay.(28) The seventh-century blocks did not form a façade, but comprised the entire wall, only one stone thick, were perfectly rectangular, and had to join one another precisely on all contiguous faces; the walls had to be perfectly plumb to prevent collapse, and had to support heavy roofs. By ca. 700 B.C. the Greeks must have had a sizeable labor force of expert quarrymen, stone cutters, architects, engineers and masons, which seems to have arisen without any previous trace.

For all those reasons, some doubt that the seventh-century Greeks, merely-looking at 500-year-old walls, decided to copy them and immediately succeeded with no evidence of the kind of experimentation through trial and error that one would naturally expect if the Greeks taught themselves anew—and even surpassed the architectural accomplishnents of the predecessors whom they sought to emulate. Since the gap from 1200 to 700 B. C. is so huge, and one can trace no development in Greece itself leading to the achievements of the temple-builders, once again scholars postulate that some area outside of Greece kept the tradition alive for 500 years, and served both to reeducate the Greeks in the long-forgotten construction techniques of their ancestors (whom, it seems, they immediately surpassed), and to instruct them in the mathematics required to shape stone blocks of precise dimensions, with their right angles, and their parallel and perpendicular facesand to lay out and erect the structures.(29)

The Egyptians had a centuries-long tradition of monumental architecture formed by regular courses of hard stone, sawn into rectangular blocks. Therefore, as in the case of monumental stone sculpture, some art historians once more look to the valley of the Nile as the region “of paramount importance” to which Greek craftsmen travelled to see the great buildings, and also to relearn the techniques first-hand at the large-scale construction projects in that land.(30) The fact is, however, that the ashlar temples of Corinth and Isthmia of ca. 700-675 B.C. antedate the re-opening of Egypt to Greek craftsmen by several decades.(31) A third possibility is that the Greeks of ca. 700 B.C.. hit upon the idea of building monumental ashlar structures independent of any foreign or domestic models which might inspire them; and, untutored in the requisite techniques, quickly taught themselves how to create the blocks and erect the temples so successfully—admittedly the least compelling of the hypotheses.(32) Again, one is left to wonder how the Corinthians of ca. 700 B. C., came to recover the skills so suddenly and so perfectly, which the workmen and architects of Mycenae had employed and lost 500 years earlier, and less than twenty miles away.


  1. “There were some pottery fragments from the “intervening” centuries in the area, but no evidence of dwellings or other structures (cf. “Dark Age Burials,” n. 7). By the revised scheme those Protogeometric and Geometric sherds, like the Middle Helladic and early Mycenaean ones found in the same area (Wace, (1949), pp. 84, 87) antedate not only the temple, but also the destruction of the palace itself. The earliest pottery” which ,Wace actually found above the LH III B destruction belongs to the seventh century (Wace, “The Palace,” BSA, 25 (1921-3), pp. 224, 226).

  2. Hesiod, Erga, lines 159f; Homer, passim (esp. Il. XII:23, 312; XVI:604; Od. XI:304, 602-603); Cf. Vermeule, (1972), p. 307.

  3. Vermeule, ibid., p. 233; Tomlinson, (1976), p. 13. Mylonas (1972, p. 40) is correct to point out that the king was not in total control over the religious life of the city, nor was the palace the sole center of worship; but the separation of church and state, which he postulates, seems unlikely for Greece at such an early date. It is clear from Egypt and Near East that the kings exercised tremendous control over spiritual life-usually more than the clergy itself, which tended to act in concert with the kings, often owing their posts to royal appointments, and subject to dismissal or death at the whim of the king. The Iliad shows shows the royal house of Troy as more prominent -than the priesthood itself in performing sacred rites for the good of the city (Bk. VI:86-98, 269-311); it further shows a Greek prophet afraid to offend his king (Bk. I:69-113), and demonstrates that the gods rendered more aid to the suppliant king than to their own priests (cp. Bk. I:393f. to 35-54). Likewise, the Oedipus trilogy of Sophocles shows a Creek prophet afraid of offending his kings, and demonstrates how important the kings’ sets were to the well-being of the state (cp. the Old Testament accounts of good and bad fortune befalling the Hebrews’ because of the piety and impiety of their kings, rather than that of the priests and prophets). Finally, the religious duties of the Athenian “king archon” of the historical period also points to the sacerdotal functions of the earlier kings.

  4. Wace, (1949), pp. 84-86; Dietrich, (1970), p. 21.

  5. Mylonas, (1957), pp. 63-64; Snodgrass, (1971), p. 397: cf. Tomlinson, (1976). The question is whether the Mycenaean five centuries later had any memory of an LH III B cult there.

  6. Cf. n. below

  7. Snodgrass, (1971), p. 398; cf. Velikovsky’s discussion of Tiryns, and my section on Tiryns, below, first published as Isaacson (1974), pp. 11-12.

  8. Cf. “Later Use of the Grave Circles,” n. 14, to which add B. Berquist, The Archaic Greek Temenos (Lund, 1967), pp. 15f.

  9. Snodgrass, (1971), pp. 343, 398 and cf. p. 194.

  10. Two exceptions are the shrines at Knossos and Kea, which have their own 500-year gaps (“A Terracotta Figurine and a Terracotta Head,” n. 12).

  11. Snodgrass, (1977), p. 32 and cf. pp. 25-26.

  12. The early excavators found some fragmentary late seventh-century sculptured stone slabs, presumably belonging to an altar, in the main court of the palace, along with a few architectural members of the Archaic temple re-used in the construction of its Hellenistic successor. (Wace, (1949), pp. 85-86; F. Harl-Schaller, “Die archaischen ‘Metopen’aus Mykene,” Jahreshefte des österrejchischen archäologischen Instituts, 50 [1972-3], pp. 94-116). Wace, (loc. cit.) felt that the archaic temple underlay the later Hellenistic one (Fig. 1, M), and overlay a major cult center of the palace, preserving its orientation and function.
    Unfortunately, so little remains of the first temple that its exact location and orientation remain unknown. For that reason, along with his skepticism that the palatial apartment served a religious purpose, and that people returning after 500 years of abandonment to a huge heap of rubble from a complex system of rooms, could ascertain the putative religious section, Mylonas (1957, pp. 63-64), doubted any religious or architectural continuity. It is extremely unfortunate that we have forever lost the exact geographical, stratigraphical and orientational information concerning the temple’s relation to the palace (and of both to the altar); by analogy to Tiryns, it is at least possible that the temple overlay the throne room of the palace, re-utilizing the base of its walls, and thus aligned E-W, rather than N-S, facing the altar to the West, rather than to the South.

  13. For immediate replacement, cf. inter al., Frickenhaus, (1912), pp. 31-40 (Tiryns), 119-120 (Prosymna); K. Müller, Tiryns III (Augsburg, 1930), pp. 213-215; H. Gallet de Santerre, Delos primitive et archaique (Paris, 1958), pp. 89-91, 216, 278 and Webster, (1964), p. 139 (Delos). Against immediate replacement, cf., inter al., Mylonas, (1966), pp. 48-52 (Tiryns); Snodgrass, (1971), pp. 395-396, 439, n. 36 (Delos), and, in general, cf. “Later Use of the Grave Circles,” n. 14.

  14. Vermeule, (1972), pp. 184-187.

  15. Snodgrass, (1967), pp. 35-36; idem, (1971), p. 399.

  16. O. Broneer, Isthmia I (Princeton, 1971), p. 34; H. Robinson, “Excavations at Corinth: Temple Hill, 1968-1972,” Hesperia, 45 (1976), pp. 228-229. It is possible, as some (e.g., Broneer, ibid., p. 35, n. 52) suggest, that the ornamented terracotta temple models of the eighth century show that the Greeks had already begun to decorate the exterior walls of the temples; but it is just as likely that the potters merely painted those clay models as they did other ceramics, such as vases, a model of a subterranean tomb stone (?), tripods, model granaries, figurines, etc. (Snodgrass, (1971), figs. 57, 70, 100, 116, 119) with no particular concern for a faithful rendering of the original (cf. Higgins, 1967, p. 21).

  17. E.g., Evans, (1935), IV, pp. 187-191; M. Pallottino, Etruscan Painting (tr. M. Stanley & S. Gilbert) (Geneva, 1952), pp. 43-44; S. von Cles-Redden, The Buried people; A Study of the Etruscan World (tr. C. Woodhouge) (N. Y., 1955), p. 143.

  18. Wace, (1949), pp. 136-138; Mylonas, (1966), pp. 16, 20, 33, 48, 67, 73-79, 119, 187; Vermeule, (1972), pp. 116, 123.

  19. Mylonas, ibid., p. 187.

  20. Desborough, 1972, p. 16.

  21. loc. cit.; cf. Boardman, (1964), p. 22; Snodgrass, (1971), p. 369.

  22. Snodgrass, ibid., pp. 369, 383-384; cf. Desborough, ibid., pp. 261-262; Tomlinson, (1976), p. 28.

  23. Broneer, (1971), pp. 1, 12-33, 55; Robinson, (1976), pp. 225, 227 and n. 76, 234.

  24. Snodgrass, (1971), p. 413 (referring to a mid-ninth century wall in Smyrna in Asia Minor, but equally applicable to the early seventh century temples of the Peloponnese. The Smyrna wall was “a revelation in that it finds no [contemporary] counterpart on the Greek mainland.” [p. 298]).

  25. Broneer, (1971), p. 55; Robinson, (1976), pp. 225, 234.

  26. Cook, (1971), p. 192.

  27. Ibid., p. 178; H. Thompson, “The Tomb of Clytemnestra Revisited,” n. 36 (a paper as yet unpublished, but soon to appear in Expedition. Prof. Thompson has very graciously supplied me with an advance copy of his article, to which I owe some references to the more recent literature. He justly observes that the ready access to an abundan supply of poros, which one can shape with relative ease, would facilitate the move to ashlar work (letter to me of March 29, 1979). While that was the case for the Greeks of the thirteenth century and the seventh, those of the intervening period seem not to have taken advantage of the situation, which, along with other considerations, which we shall presently note, calls for some explanation); cf. J.W Graham, “Mycenaean Architecture,” Archaeology, 13 (1900), p. 54

  28. (1956), pp. 35-36, 43.

  29. Drerup (1969, p. 104) noted the “new” concern for measurement, proportion and symmetry among the eighth-century designers of rectilinear buildings (to which one must add their familiarity with the principles of solid geometry).

  30. Tomlinson, (1976), pp. 32-33; Cook, (1971), p. 178.

  31. The first Greeks to re-enter Egypt came from Asia rather than the Peloponnese, were mercenaries rather than students of art and architecture, and arrived no earlier than ca. 664 B.C.. Merchants from Greece proper followed sometime thereafter, and tourists and “students” later still—cf. Herodotus II. l52-l54 anc. A.B. Lloyd, Herodotus, Book II; Introduction (Leiden, 1975), pp. 14-60.
    The Greeks did travel to the western coasts of Asia Minor long before reaching Egypt, but the Asiatic walls, like those of Greece itself, generally consisted of wood rubble, and/or mud brick. Such walls occasionally had a sheathing of stone ortho-stats, with their external faces rectangular and generally sculptured (Frankfort, (1963), pp. 145, 169 and fig. 81, 171 and fig. 83). Some Levantine structures had roughly rectangular blocks, but their walls were usually very thick and laid out in headers and stretchers. Often in complete contrast to Mycenaean and Archaic Greek architecture, their exposed faces retained unworked and rough bosses. There were some instances of thick walls with smoothed, sawn, rectangular blocks as a facing, again in headers and stretchers, but those were not the norm, and soon gave way to the more pervasive use of rubble (Kenyon, (1971), pp. 61, 76-78, 91, 95-96, pls. 30-32, 41-45, 63-64). It is of special interest than the Biblical account of Solomon’s building projects, we read that he generally used vast quantities of wood, and large stones which were roughly shaped at the quarry, but did not dress their faces during construction; the Bible emphasizes that he only used sawn stones to form quarters for the Egyptian princess whom he wed (I Kings 6:7-18; 7:8-12). The Levant is thus a far less likely area than is Egypt, for the Greeks to have learned the use of perfectly rectangular, sawn blocks, laid in even courses to form walls only one block thick (cf. Cook, (1971), p, 178).

  32. Tomlinson, (1976), pp. 32-33.