Before the dawn of Ancient Greece, a vibrant Neolithic and then Bronze Age society thrived in several different cultures found along the Aegean Sea. The Aegean is home to many clusters of islands, and the earliest known Aegean culture, established around 6000 BC, was centered on several of the Cycladic Islands off the southeast coast of Greece. Today these islands appear to be quite barren, rocky outposts with few trees, but by around 3000 BC they were home to a thriving culture of farmers and seafaring traders, and their inhabitants began to use local stone to create not only the famous Cycladic figurines of musicians, but also fortified towns and burial mounds. Several of these islands have quarries of the beautiful white marble that later became the preferred building material in Ancient Greece. To date, however, no habitations have been excavated on these islands.
   Also from around 3000 BC, another Bronze Age culture thrived on the much larger island of Crete, located in the southern area of the Aegean, and this island culture developed into what was later called the Minoan civilization. Minoan peoples are named after their legendary ruler, King Minos, who is described in Homer's epic tales as ruling from his labyrinth-like palace in the ancient city of Knossos. This palace, dating from 1900 BC to around 1100 BC, was discovered by the archaeologists Heinrich Schliemann, who located the site, and then Arthur Evans, who subsequently discovered and excavated the area. Both scholars argued that Homer's tales were not entirely fictional, but could be used to unearth pre-Homeric cities such as the ancient site of Troy in Turkey and the Peloponnesian city of the ancient ruling family of Atreus, known as Mycenae.
   Minoan peoples farmed and maintained herds of animals, but they also fished for food and established vast trade routes across the Aegean and the Mediterranean. This thriving culture is also known for its own system of writing, which was needed in order to keep sophisticated trade account books, while music, dance, and other high levels of aesthetic culture appear in murals painted on the walls of vast palace complexes. The most famous palace, the Palace of Knossos, had beautiful walls made of mud brick and rubble shaped within a wooden framework that was then covered in a veneer of local stone. Certainly the marble constructions of the Cycladic peoples or the alabaster walls of the Mesopotamians must have inspired the use of this new material, called dressed stone. After an earthquake destroyed several parts of the palace around 1700 BC, it was rebuilt and extensively enlarged. This newer palace was multistoried, which was a newer architectural feature made possible by the relatively light materials of wood framing and stone veneer used in construction. Not only did many windowed openings allow light and air into the internal courtyards, but many stairs, open porticoes, and columned rooms set at different levels also allowed light and air to circulate in an unprecedented manner. Organized around a large rectangular central courtyard, the palace complex was divided into quadrants loosely organized into suites of royal apartments, administrative wings, areas for various social entertainments and religious rituals, workshops, and vast storage areas that clearly reveal an extremely centralized urban unit. Wall murals and the various artifacts found on the island attest to a beautiful maritime aesthetic and prosperous culture.
   Although not obviously fortified, the palace enjoyed an island location that was logistically difficult to breach by foreigners and a complexity of design that defied entry by outsiders not familiar with the layout of the palace. These are the two features of the palace that helped to shape the legend of the Minotaur, who lived beneath the palace and was paid an annual tribute of 14 young girls and boys brought from the city of Athens, ruled by King Aegeus at the time but dominated by King Minos of Knossos. One of these sacrificial victims was Theseus, who went on to free his people from this punishing tribute by navigating the underground labyrinth of the palace to slay the Minotaur, all the while untwining a ball of silk thread so that he could then find the exit. Even better known is the legend of the architect of the palace, Daedalus. Because Daedalus had designed the palace, he was not allowed to leave the island of Crete so as not to divulge the secret layout of the palace to foreigners. It was for this reason that Daedalus and his son, Icarus, fashioned wings of bird feathers and wax in order to flee the island, a venture that was not successful because Icarus did not heed his father's warning and flew too close to the sun.
   Ultimately, this Minoan culture did not survive; it was usurped in regional importance by the Mycenaean peoples from the northern Peloponnese. These Bronze Age people, whose earlier origins remain unknown, anticipated many of the great advances of the Ancient Greeks. They spoke a proto-Greek language and came into the Peloponnese around 3000 BC, overthrowing the preexisting Neolithic culture and establishing a more sophisticated culture evident in their expert metalwork and architecture. The citadel at Mycenae, home to the legendary Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and conqueror of Troy, as well as the smaller citadel at Tiryns, where Hercules is reputed to have been born, form the core of what remains of this culture. Unlike the Minoans, the Mycenaean peoples earned a reputation as fierce warriors, given that their territory was centrally located along a major migratory route and was therefore more vulnerable to outside invaders. The citadel at Mycenae, begun around 1350 BC, was built atop a hill and reflects this need for protection, with its huge stone ring walls and an entry that restricts the visitor to a narrow path through the famous Lion Gate of Mycenae, and then into the walled compound.
   The Lion Gate, dated around 1250 BC, is built with megalithic stones that rise up in a post-and-lintel system and are then capped with a keystone, an inverted triangular stone that helps direct the weight of the heavy materials as well as the weight of gravity down through the posts rather than over the center of the weaker lintel. This feature reflects a more sophisticated structural system than previously employed in architecture. Although the use of the keystone here is conflated with the more traditional post-and-lintel system, which is formed with a slight arch to relieve more of the weight, it set the stage for later structural developments found in Ancient Rome. Two lions are carved into the keystone and flank a column, resting their front legs on its base. The use of guardian lions flanking palace entrances was widespread in Ancient Near Eastern architecture, while the elaborate burial rituals seen in Mycenaean tombs attest to Ancient Egyptian influences. Inside the citadel, beehive tombs, formed in a conical shape, housed hammered gold face masks, bronze swords, pottery, and carved figurines. These beehive tombs, made with massive rocks, recall Prehistoric passage graves in New-grange, Ireland, but have a more fully developed corbel vault, in which the stone layers rise up and gradually close inward to a key-stone that anchors the pointed arched roof. Over the entrance, one triangular window allowed a ray of light to enter the dark tomb.
   The citadel at Tiryns, built several hundred years later, reveals more extensive corbelling in hallways that run through the center of the ring walls. Inside the citadel an audience hall, called a megaron, was located in the center of the city. The megaron was fronted by a courtyard and entered through a two-columned porch. The center of the room had a raised roof with open windows, set above a ritual hearth that was surrounded by four supporting columns. This megaron plan anticipated the arrangement of many subsequent Ancient Greek temples.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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