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by Archaeology Newsroom

Mycenae. The greatest archaeological fallacy?

Modern archaeological literature about the Mycenaean era begins with the telegram Schliemann sent to King George on November 28, 1876, in which he announced the discovery of the royal tombs at Mycenae.

Schliemann was proud of his excellent knowledge of Homeric geography, which presumably guided his mattock with such success. However, as a matter of fact, it was Pausanias’ description, not Homer’s that led him to Mycenae, as he confesses in the same telegram.

It should be stressed here that there is a huge gap between the Homeric and the political geography of late antiquity. The Homeric poems supply a geographical and archaeological picture, which, according to the standards of studies in Greek Prehistory, is quite antiquated. The political geography presented in these epics, although real and accurate at the time of their composition, was already dated by the time of the wide dissemination of the Homeric poems and quite misleading, since many place-names had meanwhile fallen into oblivion. The modern debate concerning the location of the Homeric Ithaka gives us only a faint idea of what the situation was like in antiquity. We have no guarantee that the Greeks of historic antiquity ascribed Homeric place-names to the correct locations, a mistake that was perpertuated thereafter, a fallacy, that is, that first of all applies to Mycenae for the following, at least three, reasons:

a. Mycenae remained totally or almost uninhabited for long intervals between the end of the Mycenaean and the beginning of historic antiquity.

b. Ancient Greek authors admit that most of the cities of the putative kingdom or Agamemnon had different names before they were given the Homeric ones.

c. There is no reference in the Homeric epics that the kingdom of Agamemnon, and consequently its capital, was located in the north-eastern Peloponnese.

Before the eighth century B.C. there is no evidence whatsoever either in the epics or anywhere else that connects Mycenae with Argolida.

Furthermore, philological and archaeological data seem to agree that on the one hand, the ancient Greeks gave Homeric names to cities of the northern Peloponnese, in replacement of the existing ones, and that on the other, we possess historical and archaeological information concerning important place-names in the south Peloponnese, which are identical with those of the kingdom of Agamemnon.

The Homeric Mycenae, a coastal and propably unwalled city, should be sought west of the Cape of Maleas, in the Bay of Neapolis (Pavlopetri?) or Plytra, locations which both controlled the two main sea routes connecting the Aegean with the Ionian Sea and also Greece with Crete and Egypt. Finally, we must decide, whether the time has come to put things, or rather names, straight, reconsidering, at the same time, the entire Homeric question as well as the question of putting Greek Pre- and Proto-history on an entirely new basis.