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Secret Cistern II

Still detailing the construction of Mycenae's secret underground cistern for Orestes: The High King.  Sadly, very little archeological work has been done on this Late Helladic III feature, so it's very hard to find information about how the construction was carried out.  I'm having to give it my best guess.  If anyone has detailed information, please let me know.

Also, I'm lacking information on the Perseia spring which flowed to the east of the citadel, and to which the cistern was connected via a buried channel of clay pipes.  Pictures would be especially welcome.

Secret Cistern

In the last phase of Late Bronze Age Mycenae, the ruler of Mycenae (whoever he was) undertook the building of an underground cistern which connected the nearby Perseia spring to the citadel mount, insuring access to water during a siege.  This would have been a major engineering project, involving both tunneling into the hill and laying down clay pipes.  It's clear the ruler(s) of Mycenae must have feared attack, but from whom?  Greek legend says that Tisamenus, the last Atreid king of Mycenae, fought against and was killed by the Herakleidai, who then took over the Peloponnese, but archaeology has shown that the Dorians did not establish their presence in southern Greece for at least another two centuries.  The 'Return of the Herakleidai' is a grand-sounding story, but from the available evidence thus far it has no basis in historical fact.

So who built the cistern, and why?

Up until a few years ago, water still flowed into the cistern, which had to be closed, in fact, due to the number of accidents which occurred there.  If you watch the last episode of Michael Wood's documentary series, In Search of the Trojan War, he actually tosses a pebble into the blackness, eliciting a plop as it hits water.

Nowadays, you can visit again, if you're brave enough, and bring a torch which you can rent from the entrance kiosk, but don't expect to find water at the bottom as Wood did; the cistern has been filled in.  Most visitors, however, don't venture that far down.  The cistern isn't an inviting place.  It's cold, owing to the thick limestone plaster which seals in the damp, very dark, and somewhat claustrophobic.  I would not have wanted to be one of the servant women who had to fetch water from down there in antiquity.

The building of the cistern will feature in the upcoming Orestes: The High King.

Minoan Houses

View from Akrotiri, the Minoan Pompeii.  In ancient times, the door and window frames would have been wood fitted together with wooden pegs; today, they are concrete, modeled after casts taken when archaeologists pumped plaster into voids in the compacted ash where organic material had deteriorated.

Minoan architecture made such liberal use of wooden tie beams, uprights, pillars, and door and window frames that some experts believe this practice contributed to the deforestation of Crete.  One reason the Minoans might have done this was that the wood construction helped reinforce buildings against seismic stresses.

As you can see, though, the Minoans managed some rather generous windows, when most contemporary windows elsewhere were small and narrow.  The people of Akrotiri must have enjoyed great natural light and views.

Minoan houses had stone foundations, and the visible sections of the ground floor walls would have been dressed with stone.  While the framework was wood, the upper stories were probably mud brick.  The Minoans used lime plaster to cover the walls and provide a smooth white surface for decoration, and they often plastered the floor as well.  In wealthier establishments, the floor might be bordered with flagstones, and with soft gypsum in the center.  Sometimes the floors were painted with spirals, colored rectangles, and aquatic life; the famous Dolphin Sanctuary fresco at Knossos might have been a floor decoration fallen from the level above.

Evidence from Akrotiri and Knossos indicates that the Minoans also utilized sliding wooden pier and partition doors, meaning the doors could be slid back to provide access and greater light, or closed to seal off a space for rituals, or simply to keep in the heat during the winter.


The Archanes House

This clay Minoan house was found in Archanes, just south of Knossos.  It might have been an architectural model for builders, or, as I prefer to think, it could have been a child’s plaything.

The Lion Gate

Mycenae's famous Lion Gate may be the oldest coat of arms in Europe.  It utilizes a common feature of Mycenaean architecture, the relieving triangle, which was the Aegean Bronze Age's equivalent of the Roman keystone arch, bearing the load of the surrounding masonry. 

The Lion Gate dates to roughly 1300-1250 B.C., to Mycenae's greatest period of renovation and expansion.  Supporting terraces enabled the builders to extend the circuit walls, and bring Grave Circle A within the citadel, while providing more area for workshops, housing, and storerooms.  The Lion Gate was part of a defensive system which included high Cyclopean walls and a bastion, from which defenders would have rained missiles down on attackers.

The lions on the gate might have been lionesses.  They stand upon an altar, with a pillar between them; the pillar was a sacred symbol in Bronze Age Aegean iconography.  Does the altar/pillar represent Mycenae itself?  Are the lions/lionesses goddess symbols, like the griffins one sees the frescoes from the cult sanctuary?  Part of the imagery is missing.  We don't have the heads.  These would have faced outward, due to spatial constraints, and would have been carved from steatite or some other stone, and bolted on.   

In the early nineteenth century, the infamous Lord Elgin passed through Mycenae.  He took the last remaining marbles and bits of carved alabaster from the Treasury of Atreus, and would have taken the Lion Gate, too, had he been able to move the twenty-ton edifice.

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