Women of Mycenae in ancient Greece

This video is called Mycenae, Treasury of Atreus.

From British weekly The Observer:

DNA explodes Greek myth about women

British researchers have unearthed evidence that proves Helen was much more than a chattel

* Robin McKie, science editor

* Sunday June 1 2008

Women in Ancient Greece were major power brokers in their own right, researchers have discovered, and often played key roles in running affairs of state. Until now it was thought they were treated little better than servants.

The discovery is part of an investigation by Manchester researchers into the founders of Mycenae, Europe’s first great city-state and capital of King Agamemnon‘s domains.

‘It was thought that in those days women were rated as little more than chattels in Ancient Greece,’ said Professor Terry Brown, of the faculty of life sciences at Manchester University. ‘Our work now suggests that notion is wrong.’

Mycenae is one of the most important and evocative archaeological sites in Europe. According to legend, Agamemnon led his armies from Mycenae to Troy to bring back Helen – the wife of his ally, Menelaus – who had run off with the Trojan prince Paris.

The citadel was first excavated in the 1870s by Heinrich Schliemann, who uncovered tombs containing crumbling bones draped with jewels and gold face masks. ‘I have discovered the graves of Agamemnon, Eurymedon, and their companions, all slain at a banquet by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthos,’ he told the King of Greece.

In fact, the graves have since been dated and shown to be too old for those of Agamemnon. Nevertheless, Mycenae has since proved to be a treasure trove of archaeological riches. Most recently, these have involved scientists using a range of new techniques, including facial reconstruction work carried out by Manchester researchers John Prag and Richard Neave. They recreated the faces of seven individuals whose skeletons had been excavated at a circle of graves inside the citadel.

The images provided scientists with a family picture album for the rulers of Europe’s first great city-state. However, genetics experts have now taken this work a stage further by attempting to extract DNA from 22 of the 35 bodies found in the grave circle. ‘The facial reconstructions were carried out 10 years ago, but it is only now that scientists have developed sensitive enough techniques to get DNA from skeletons as old as these,’ said Brown. ‘In each case we had to deal with a single cell’s worth of DNA.’

The genetic material isolated by the scientists is known as mitochondrial DNA, which humans inherit exclusively from their mothers. However, of the 22 skeletons that were tested, only four produced enough DNA for full analysis. Nevertheless, findings from these provided a shock for the team from Manchester.

While two of the males had DNA that indicated they were unrelated, the genetic material extracted from the remaining pair, a man and a woman, revealed they were brother and sister. They had been thought to have been man and wife.

‘To be precise our DNA evidence suggests the pair were closely related, possibly siblings or possibly cousins. However, the facial reconstruction work of Prag and Neave also shows they were very similar in appearance which indicates they were brother and sister,’ said Brown.

The critical point, he said, was that the woman was thought to have been buried in a richly endowed grave because she was the wife of a powerful man. That was in keeping with previous ideas about Ancient Greece – that women had little power and could only exert influence through their husbands.

‘But this discovery shows both the man and the woman were of equal status and had equal power,’ he said. ‘Women in Ancient Greece held positions of power by right of birth, it now appears.

‘The problem has been that up until recently our interpretation of life in Ancient Greece has been the work of a previous generations of archaeologists, then a male-oriented profession and who interpreted their findings in a male-oriented way. That is changing now and women in Ancient Greece are being seen in a new light.’

Most literature comparing the status of women in ancient Greece unfavourably to, eg, ancient Egypt, is about the first millennium BCE, by the way, not about the older Mycenaean period.

7 thoughts on “Women of Mycenae in ancient Greece

  1. Administrator on December 20, 2008 at 6:59 pm said: Edit

    Dec 20, 9:31 AM EST

    NY exhibit unveils women’s lives in ancient Greece


    NEW YORK (AP) — A woman’s place has never been just in the home – not even in ancient Greece.

    The proof is in an exhibit titled “Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens” – a collection of artifacts that correct the cliched idea of Athenian women as passive, homebound nurturers of men and children.

    In the display covering Greek life, art and religion, women play important, vibrant roles, as do their goddesses – from lover to priestess to political peacemaker to protagonist of public festivals.

    “Today’s woman has more in common with the woman of ancient Athens than one imagines,” said curator Stella Chryssoulaki. She pointed to a vase showing a group of women who escaped city life, getting together in the countryside for a three-day festival honoring their beloved god Dionysius. They talked and shared lots of wine, leaving their husbands behind.

    Contrary to the popular perception of the Athenian female rituals as wild orgies, “there was no sex.”

    It was a religious rite, but also “a way to get out of the house and talk and exchange feelings,” Chryssoulaki said. “It was kind of like group therapy – and then they went home relaxed and ready for the stresses of daily life.”

    Resentful husbands gave these gatherings a bad name, but actually Dionysius “was a gentle god, both somewhat masculine and feminine,” she said.

    The 155 artifacts illuminated in cases and on pedestals in the Manhattan exhibit are mostly from Greece, with contributions from the Vatican, Russia’s Hermitage Museum, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and other top art sources in Italy and Germany.

    Just steps from Fifth Avenue, “Worshiping Women” is located in the Onassis Cultural Center in the basement of a modern Manhattan skyscraper, Olympic Tower, that on a higher floor houses the American offices of the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation. It’s named after the son of the late Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who was married to Jacqueline Kennedy; his son and heir, Alexander, had died young in a plane crash.

    The center’s mission is to promote Hellenic culture, and it sponsors exhibitions in the underground gallery such as “Worshiping Women,” which opened Dec. 10 and runs through May 9. The show was conceived by Nikolaos Kaltsas, director of the National Archaeological Museum of Greece in Athens, and Alan Shapiro, professor of archaeology at Johns Hopkins University.

    While women in Athens couldn’t vote and were told whom to marry, the exhibit is packed with objects that attest to their vital roles in everything from food and sex to birth and death.

    Women were part of both politics and religion, which in those days overlapped.

    A large earthen vessel depicts a scene from Homer’s “Iliad” in which a Trojan priestess receives Greek warriors who had come to recover Helen from Troy. “The priestess secures the peace,” said the curator.

    A key depicted on another vase was kept only by a woman who opened the door to the treasures in the temple of the priestesses.

    A small bronze statuette of Athena shows her as armed and dangerous, leading Athens’ warriors against Troy. And on a black vase, she’s a thinker, etching words onto the waxen surface of a “laptop” notebook with a sharp wooden stick that served as a writing tool.

    A tiny vase to be filled with wine for ritual tastings could be carried by a girl.

    “Women in Athens, were they invisible?” asked Chryssoulaki. “No!”

    Greek myths, with all their blood and guts, are not for the faint of heart – and neither are parts of this exhibit.

    Athena, the goddess of wisdom, came from the brain of her father, Zeus. And Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, was born when Uranus was castrated by his son, who pitched his severed genitals into the sea. From the turbulence – “aphros” means sea foam in Greek – arose the erotic Aphrodite. She became both the lover and surrogate mother of the god Adonis, whom she shared with the goddess Persephone.

    And we thought modern life was complicated.

    But the mythical births of Athena and Aphrodite have real meaning to the modern mind: as a battle of emotion vs. intellect. “Myths were a way to see human life,” concluded Chryssoulaki.

    In the exhibit, life is also reflected in sculptures and tiny objects like a ritual bowl that a woman who baked bread for a living donated to a temple – representing about 10 percent of her meager income. Her name is noted on the bowl.

    “You see, even poor, ordinary women left a mark, they played a role – and they were part of the life of the gods,” said Chryssoulaki.


    On the Net:

    Onassis Foundation exhibit: http://www.onassisusa.org/occ.art.htm


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  3. Graven naar mensen en middelen in Mykeens Griekenland

    In de 13e eeuw v.Chr. werden in Mykeens Griekenland ambitieuze programma’s van monumentale bouwwerken uitgevoerd. Hoe werden mensen en middelen ingezet en welke socio-economische invloed had dat? De Leidse archeologe dr. Ann Brysbaert gaat het met een ERC Consolidator Grant onderzoeken.

    Innovatieve benadering

    Naar de bouwwerken zelf is al veel onderzoek gedaan. Maar nog niet is gezocht naar antwoorden op vragen als: wat was de invloed van deze arbeidsintensieve bouwwerken op de lokale politiek en economie, en hoe reageerde de bevolking op het voortdurende bouwen en andere veranderingen? Ann Brysbaert wil met haar team antwoorden vinden door middel van verschillende innovatieve benaderingen.
    Onderzoek aan de oostmuur van de ruïne van de citadel Tiryns. De ‘menselijke maat’ op de foto geeft een idee van de grootte van de bouwblokken en van de hoeveelheid arbeidskracht (letterlijk) die het bouwwerk moet hebben gevergd.

    Onderzoek aan de oostmuur van de ruïne van de citadel Tiryns. De ‘menselijke maat’ op de foto geeft een idee van de grootte van de bouwblokken en van de hoeveelheid arbeidskracht (letterlijk) die het bouwwerk moet hebben gevergd.
    Heel veel arbeidskracht nodig

    Het bouwen in de prehistorie ging zonder moderne ingenieursvaardigheden en materieel zoals kranen. Daarom roept het verrijzen van een ontzagwekkende reeks citadels, graftombes, waterwerken, bruggen en wegen in Mykeens Griekenland, in de regio Argolida, veel vragen op. Het kan niet anders of er kwamen enorme hoeveelheden arbeidskracht aan te pas en dat over een periode van 200 à 300 jaar.
    Geïnvesteerde arbeid berekenen

    De archeologen gaan de bouwprocessen indelen in stappen: van de winning van steen in de steengroeve tot en met de bouw. Het team wil via intensief veldwerk ter plekke economische data verzamelen door middel van architectural energetics. Hiermee is de geïnvesteerde arbeid te berekenen in termen van tijd en hoeveelheid arbeiders. De methode bestaat uit het opmeten in 3D van alle bouwstenen, om daarmee het gewicht en de massa van de stenen te bepalen. Met de uitkomsten van deze berekeningen kan vervolgens worden uitgerekend hoeveel mensen en middelen nodig waren om de stenen te winnen, te transporteren naar de bouwwerf en er de bouwwerken mee te realiseren.

    Plattegrond van de citadel Tiryns.
    Completer plaatje van kleurrijk mozaïek

    Deze veldberekeningen worden aangevuld met onder meer al beschikbare data-sets van vestigingspatronen en –dichtheden. Ann Brysbaert en haar team gaan die combineren met archeobotanische, geomorfologische en klimatologische informatie. Ook de sterftecijfers in de Argolida worden in het onderzoek betrokken. De gebruikte methoden op zich zijn niet nieuw, wel het combineren ervan. Om met Ann Brysbaert zelf te spreken: ‘De combinatie van methoden schildert een completer beeld van het kleurrijke mozaïek van intensieve en geïntegreerde menselijke activiteiten.’

    Hoe combineerden de Mykeners al dat werk?

    Door de werkwijze hoopt het team allerlei inzichten te verwerven in regionaal pre-historisch landgebruik en menselijke activiteiten. Ann Brysbaert: ‘Het is duidelijk dat de mensen die in de bouw werkten, niet tegelijkertijd in de landbouw werkzaam konden zijn, terwijl zij en hun families wel moesten eten en de nodige werktuigen moesten maken. Hoe deden ze dat dan? En waren er wel genoeg mensen beschikbaar in de regio, of waren mensen van elders nodig om zowel intensief en langdurig te bouwen als te voorzien in de dagelijkse behoeften?’
    Alleen al de horizontale stenen balk bij de ingang van het Mykeense koningsgraf van Atreus weegt 1200 kilo.

    Alleen al de horizontale stenen balk bij de ingang van het Mykeense koningsgraf van Atreus weegt 1200 kilo.

    Hoe leefde men in crises?

    Rond 1200 v.Chr. stortte de Mykeense beschaving in. ‘Tot nu toe is nog niet precies achterhaald hoe dat kwam hoewel hierover al heel wat theorieën gepubliceerd zijn’, zegt Ann Brysbaert. ‘Wel is duidelijk dat niet alleen de Mykeense beschaving het onderspit delfde, maar dat er in een veel groter gebied interne en externe conflicten woedden en zich andere vormen van neergang manifesteerden. Om zowel het lokale beeld als de relatie met de veel bredere situatie te begrijpen, is het cruciaal te ontdekken hoe de mensen rond 1200 v.Chr. leefden met dergelijke crises.

    Project overstijgt de tijd

    De archeologe gelooft sterk in de betekenis die haar onderzoek voor de huidige tijd kan hebben. ‘Mijn project heeft tot doel te laten zien hoe mensen in het verleden in moeilijke tijden omgingen met veranderingen in hun situatie, ten goede of ten kwade, zodat ze zo normaal mogelijk verder konden met hun leven. Dat is van alle tijden. Daarom ben ik ervan overtuigd dat het SETinSTONE-project de Mykeense tijd en regio overstijgt: het is universeel en globaal omdat het laat zien hoe je het heden kunt proberen te begrijpen door greep te krijgen op het verleden.’



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