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What we can learn from the Mycenaeans

The Mycenaean civilization of ancient Greek times offers enormous potential for useful information: from innovative construction methods to ways of handling crisis situations as a society. Archaeologist Ann Brysbaert and her team analyse Mycenaean construction processes in the ERC Consolidator project SETinSTONE to extract all the information they can.

The Mycenaeans, a people who lived in Greece between 1600 and 1100 BC, achieved unbelievable things in the field of architecture and logistics. They were able to move 10- to 12-ton stone blocks over distances of ten to twenty kilometres, without cranes or engines, and using humans and animals as their only resources. The largest stone ever moved in Mycenae weighed a massive 120 tons. They used these stones to build walls, sometimes ten metres high, which have remained standing for more than three thousand years. They were able to build not only on flat terrain, but even on mountain peaks. The Mycenaean builders also managed to erect a huge number of buildings in a short period of time, while at the same time ensuring their food supply through agriculture and fishing. Our societies today can learn a lot from their experiences and knowledge of construction planning.

The entrance of the Mycenaean citadel, the ‘Lions Gate’, was the main entrance to the walled complex from the 13th century BC.

Building from micro to macro level

Ann Brysbaert and her eight-member team want to know every detail about how and why the Mycenaeans built on such a scale, from the techniques they used to the logistics, to the Mycenaeans’ motivations and the consequences of the grand structures for their society.

They conduct research at micro, intermediate and macro levels. The micro level involves studying any stone used by the Mycenaeans found in the field. How were they made, how heavy are they exactly, how were they transported, and why did the Mycenaeans choose a particular kind of stone and not one that could be sourced closer? The intermediate level focuses on the question of how these stones were subsequently assembled and why so much effort was expended on them.

Metre-thick and high ‘Cyclopic’ walls of the Citadel of Mycenae. Photo: Ann Brysbaert

Stones and mountains

The macro level studies all the structures in the entire region and their interaction with the surrounding landscape. “A large-scale construction project wrought major changes in the region and the network of villages,” explains Brysbaert.

“To facilitate the transport of building materials, the landscape often had to be altered, for example by clearing land and laying roads. After all, the landscape has a huge impact on the transportation and resources you require. If you have to descend a mountain with a ten-ton block of stone, you can’t use an ox for the work because it cannot stop stones from sliding down. You need people to do that. It’s is a completely different way of expending energy. So, we not only look at transport routes on maps, but we also walk these routes with our own eyes and feet. Studying the route like this shows completely different transport issues than if you only glance at a map to see how something was moved from A to B. We discovered little by little how the Mycenaeans managed their transport logistics.”

Heavy rocks helped along the mountainous Mycenaean transport route. Photo: Ann Brysbaert.

Dealing with crises

The Mycenaean society collapsed around 1200 BC, possibly plagued by numerous setbacks such as natural disasters, lost wars, failed harvests, diseases and broken trade contacts and trade routes. Through her research, Brysbaert hopes to find out to what extent excessive building was also a cause of the collapse. “The construction projects were started by the Mycenaean elite, who brought together all kinds of people and resources. These elites in particular lost everything during the time of the crisis and ceased to exist. I think that was also partly because they continued with their building efforts and wanted to continue growing, even though they no longer had the resources, manpower and credibility. The moral of their story is something we can learn from in this time of crisis. Even today, we often hear that humanity has to stop growing and has to live more sustainably to survive. People are looking for creative ways to accomplish that, such as transition towns; in these contexts, ‘making and creating together’ is important again. The Mycenaean building projects can inspire by demonstrating how not to respond to crisis phenomena such as the ones we currently face.”

SETinSTONE research project
SETinSTONE website
Transitie Nederland: transition towns


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