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Lion Gate, Mycenae

The Lion Gate in Mycenae is a relief sculpture that is thought to be the first monumental sculpture found on mainland Greece. It is made of two animals facing each other with their fore paws on two altar-like tables, and a column between them that gets wider as it moves upward. The sculpture is thought to be influenced by Minoan culture, as evidenced by the column's shape and the altar-like tables. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

[piano playing] Dr. Zucker: The approach to Mycenae is substantial and if you were not a friend it was going to be tough to get in. Mycenae is one the great citadels of Mycenaean Culture, that is this Bronze Age culture on mainland Greece that traded throughout the Mediterranean and became quite wealthy and quite powerful between the years of about 1600 and 1100 BCE. Dr. Harris: Right, and there were several cultures that thrive in this area during this Bronze Age period. One being Cycladic located on the Cycladic Islands. Another being Minoan Culture which was the on the island of Crete. Here on the mainland we refer to Mycenaean Culture named after the most powerful of the Mycenaean City States and that Mycenae. Dr. Zucker: Mycenae is located on the top of a small mountain. It is a very steep approach and so it is naturally defensible. In fact, there are two larger mountains on the back, a huge valley leading down to the Aegean Sea in front. Just a glorious space but also one where enemies approach can be seen at a very great distance. Dr. Harris: Walking up this ramp way, we're surrounded by enormous blocks of stones creating very high walls on either side of us. Dr. Zucker: In fact they're so large that they were known as Cyclopean Masonry. That is only the giant Cyclops was large enough to move stones this big. Dr. Harris: Right. The Cyclops was a legendary giant from Homer's Odyssey. This became known as Cyclopean because who could imagine moving these massive stones? Dr. Zucker: I have to tell you, I can't imagine. As you said, we're surrounded by these walls on three sides which means that we are completely unprotected. If we were an enemy approaching, it would be easy to rain arrows, spears, anything down on us. Dr. Harris: Exactly. I would have felt very safe I think in the Mycenaean citadel. We're looking up at the famous so-called Lion Gate. Dr. Zucker: It is perched above a standard ancient building system of post and lintel. On both sides we have uprights post and spanning it across a horizontal lintel. Dr. Harris: The Mycenaean architects wanted to build this wall very high and they used a technique called corbelling. That is, they constructed the stones so that each successive higher layer moved in just slightly and that left this triangular space in the center right over the lintel. Dr. Zucker: The relief above the Lion Gate is the first monumental sculpture that we found on mainland Greece. Since we know what happens in Ancient Greece and Historical Greece much later, we look back to this as art historians and say, "Here is the earliest representation "that we find from Greece. "This is in a sense the great grandfather "of the extraordinary work "that the Greeks will produce." Dr. Harris: In sculpture, absolutely. Dr. Zucker: Right, in sculpture and in architecture. Dr. Harris: Here we have 2 animals facing one another. Their fore paws seemed to be on 2 altar like tables and between them is a column that seems to get wider as it moves upward. Dr. Zucker: Now, that's opposite to the way we understand Greek architecture at a later period but it is very similar to the way that the Minoan's constructed their architecture. So archaeologists often look at that and say, "This is a Minoan style column." Dr. Harris: We know that the Minoan's really influenced Mycenaean culture, so this makes sense. That capital also is reminiscent of Minoan culture. Dr. Zucker: Now, just below the capital archaeologists have hypothesized that the two blocks that the animals have their fore paws on and that the column rest on are two altars. These are also of Minoan form we think. Of course, we have no written records. We really have no solid evidence for any kind of interpretation. But that hasn't stopped archaeologists and art historians from making a lot of very clever guesses about what this might represent. Dr. Harris: Well, we do have objects from Mycenae. We have objects that were found in the graves. It does hep us to conjecture what these animals were and what their lost heads looked like. Dr. Zucker: we can guess that the lost heads turned outward because of the way the dowel holes are placed in the stone. Dr. Harris: And that they were likely of a different material placed on to the bodies of these animals. Dr. Zucker: And at least one scholar has suggested that they might have been bird heads and that these might have been griffins and that the composite nature of the animal might also be reflected by the composite nature of the materials. Again, these are guesses. Dr. Harris: What do the animals mean? What does the column mean? What do the altars mean? Why are they up on their fore paws? You can see all the questions that arise. Dr. Zucker: There is a tradition of having powerful animals standing guard at a gate, and so we might think of these as warding off evil. Also as a terrifying representations that might scare off and terrify enemies. Dr. Harris: If they had that kind of supernatural power we might also conjecture that the column has meaning as well. And we know that in some cases columns could represent deities. Now, it also could be that the columns just represent a city or the idea of the king. Dr. Zucker: Well, the column is above the altar so there is that sense of divinity that seems logical. The fact that there are two altars has led some scholars to suggest that perhaps this has to do with becoming together of two cultures. Again, these are all conjectures. Dr. Harris: These animals do have leonine bodies, or bodies like lions. Dr. Zucker: Or lionesses. Dr. Harris: And they are sculpted with great subtlety. I get a sense of the muscles in legs of the lions and the kind of subtle modelling of the anatomy of these animals. Dr. Zucker: There's something else that's going on here. These are not animals that are represented as animals are naturally. That is they're not on all fore paws. They are standing upright, they are becoming human like. There is nobility. Dr. Harris: It's hard not to think that these also speak to the power of the king who resided inside these Cyclopean walls. Dr. Zucker: Here now, at the end of 2013, the sense of power and majesty is clear to me. One can only imagine how this felt to somebody in 1250 BCE. [piano playing]