CULTURE

Mycenaean engineering still a wonder to behold

The fortified hill of Mycenae rises in the foreground, the high, rocky peaks of Mount Profitis Ilias and Mt Zara framing it from behind to the north and south. Visitors today are drawn to the citadel by stories of Homeric heroes, post-Trojan War tragedy and the exciting early archaeological discoveries of Heinrich Schliemann. Stunningly impressive are the massive stones the ancient Mycenaeans piled up in their cyclopean walls and the sheer enormity of the lintel blocks ? some weighing over 100 tons ? still to be seen spanning the Lion Gate, the so-called ?Treasury of Atreus? and other such tholos (or ?beehive?) tombs. One is amazed at the engineering feats of a people capable of building these edifices over 3,000 years ago.

The marvels of Mycenaean engineering are not limited to the fortresses at Mycenae, Tiryns and elsewhere, however, or to Late Bronze Age cemetery sites. The Mycenaeans were also concerned with managing their landscape so as to develop a road network, preserve their settlements from flooding and create fertile plains for agriculture where inland lakes once stood.

Examples of Mycenaean engineering can be seen just below the site of Mycenae, where a seasonal riverbed was once spanned by a wide, solid bridge. Today only one side of the bridge survives but the ingenuity of the river crossing and the bridge?s alternating courses of large and small blocks ? designed as a bonding system to provide structural strength ? continue to impress. More complete examples of Mycenaean bridges are also visible to the left of the road from Nafplio to Epidaurus. Standing about 12-14 kilometers from Nafplio in the area of the Aghios Ioannis and Aghios Dimitrios villages, two well-preserved Mycenaean bridges mark the route of an east-west Mycenaean highway that parallels the present-day Epidaurus road. Visitors wishing to gain insight into Mycenaean travel conditions can walk between the bridges for a distance of about 2.5 km. These preserved bridges illustrate the Mycenaeans? use of the corbel arch, also to be seen in the well-known galleries of Tiryns.

About 4 kilometers east of Tiryns stands another remarkable feature of Mycenaean origin: a large dam constructed of earth faced with cyclopean masonry that diverted seasonal rainwater from a natural streambed into an artificially carved channel. This labor-intensive project protected the lower town of Tiryns from flooding by rerouting occasionally troublesome runoff further to the east. Such large-scale thinking and management of the landscape is particularly apparent in Boeotia (Viotia), where an enormous plain around the fortified site of Gla was created when Mycenaean engineers drained southern Greece?s largest inland body of water, Lake Copais. The Mycenaeans achieved this feat by cutting canals and erecting a series of dams.

Thanks to the rich agricultural land that subsequently occupied the former lakebed, Late Bronze Age farmers were able to cultivate wheat and other cereal grains on a scale that seems to have made the area the breadbasket of Mycenaean Greece. Well-constructed roads equivalent to Mycenaean highways were not seen again until at least the 5th century BC, while Lake Copais, which gradually reformed after the decline of the Mycenaean civilization circa 1100 BC, was not drained again until the arrival of modern engineers in the 19th century.