The Riding Goddess of Mycenae

“In the summer of 1954, while Dr. Papademetriou and I were investigating the new Grave Circle of Mycenae, we removed the fill to the south of that circle; it proved to have been the dump of a previous excavation. Its position seems to indicate that in all probability it was made up of earth removed either by Mme Schliemann or by Tsountas from the dromos of the Tomb of Clytemnestra. Among other objects found in this earth were two carved gems, one of which bears the figure of an animal, and the other a design not only interesting for its excellence of its workmanship but also important because of the subject represented,” wrote archaeologist George Mylonas in the introduction of his book Ancient Mycenae: The Capital City of Agamemnon (Princeton 1957).

Tomb of Clytemnestra, 1953. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Katherine Biddle More Scrapbook.


The Accidental Discovery of Grave Circle B

The Tomb of Clytemnestra had been robbed by Veli Pasha, the Ottoman Governor of the Morea, in the early 19th century; he had, however, missed the dromos. Years later, in 1876, it was cleared by Sophia Schliemann, while her husband Heinrich was digging the shaft graves of Grave Circle A. The Tomb was properly excavated by Christos Tsountas in 1897, who conducted excavations at Mycenae from 1886 until 1902. After WW II, the Greek Archaeological Service undertook the restoration of the Tomb of Clytemnestra, which, by then, was falling apart and needed urgent care. The restoration, which started in the spring of 1951, was completed by the fall of that year.

George Mylonas, ca. 1957. Photo: ASCSA Archives, George Mylonas Papers.

While recreating the mound that once covered the Tomb, the workmen discovered fragments of funerary plaques (stelai), some of which were still standing. A rescue excavation below one of the plaques revealed a shaft grave very similar to the ones that Schliemann had excavated in 1876. John Papademetriou (1904-1963), Ephor of Argolid, went back to the site in November of 1951, this time in the company of George Mylonas (1898-1988), who was on a sabbatical leave from Washington University at Saint Louis. (For Mylonas, also read “The Spirit of St. Louis Lives in Athens, Greece.” The two men knew each other well from the time when they were studying archaeology at the University of Athens, as students of Christos Tsountas (1857-1934). A careful examination of the area around the newly discovered shaft grave revealed the existence of a second grave circle dating to the 17th/16th centuries B.C.

The Athens Archaeological Society decided to conduct a systematic excavation in the following year (1952), assigning the direction of the project to Papademetriou and Mylonas. In terms of finds it yielded, the excavation of Grave Circle B proved as rewarding as that of Grave Circle A in 1876; more importantly, however, the shaft graves of the new Circle were dug and recorded in a careful and systematic manner, using the latest recording methods: Demetrios Theocharis (who would later direct important excavations himself) made detailed plans and drawings, Lawrence Angel, one of the most famous physical anthropologists of his generation, studied the skeletal remains, while Nikolaos Tombazis, an accomplished photographer, was assigned the photographic documentation of the dig.

John Papademetriou and Demetrios Theocharis, Mycenae 1953. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Katherine Biddle More Scrapbook.

Archaeology, however, is an ever evolving and expanding discipline that follows closely the latest technological advances. About sixty years later, in 2015, the excavation of another shaft grave (that of the Griffin Warrior), this time at Pylos, would have stunned Mylonas and Papademetriou —were they alive— not only by the richness of its content but also by the recording and analytical methods that excavators Jack L. Davis and Sharon Stocker had at their disposal and applied to their dig: from photogrammetry, reflectance transformation imaging (RTI), and X-ray fluorescence analysis (XRF), to palaeobotany, micromorphology, sediment analysis, and DNA analysis — just to to name a few.

A Modern Mycenaean Feast

Nikolaos Tombazis’s photos were included in the books and articles that followed the excavation of Grave Circle B. After retiring from India where he worked for 30 years as a commercial representative of the Rallis Brothers firm, Tombazis (1894-1986), the father of architect Alexandros Tombazis, launched a new career as a free-lance photographer on archaeological excavations, including Mycenae. His rich photographic archive has been deposited at the Benaki Museum, which recently organized an exhibit in his honor, including photographs from India and Greece. Of the many included in the publications of Mylonas’s excavations at Mycenae, one, however, stands out, because it captures the entire excavation team in the summer of 1953: nineteen men, two puppies, and a tall girl with a bright smile, Katherine (Kate) Biddle, a student and classmate of Nike Mylonas at Vassar College. Sixty years later, Kate would inquire, through the good offices of Professor Kenneth Scott of Dartmouth College, if the American School would be interested in acquiring an album of hers with photos from the excavations at Mycenae. (See also my essay in Akoue 62, Spring 2010, p. 15.)

Mycenae 1953. The excavation team that dug Grave Circle B. Front row, center: Kate Biddle, George Mylonas, Nikolaos Tombazis, John Papademetriou (behind Tombazis) and Demetrios Theocharis (with hat). Photo: ASCSA Archives, Katherine Biddle More Scrapbook.

When the album arrived in Athens, we were surprised to see that, in addition to   excavation photos, the album also contained a series of beautiful landscape photos of Mycenae by Tombazis, as well as several images recording casual moments at the dig, such as the big feast that celebrated the end of the excavation, an event vividly remembered by Biddle. More in her note that accompanied the album:

“At the end of August or early September, when the dig was finished for the year, we had a Homeric feast in one of the tholos tombs near the citadel. The roof of the tomb had long ago collapsed and the debris had been cleared away. Two long tables were set up and a lamb was roasted on a spit over an open fire for several hours. When it was done we had a feast, with wine and other suitable things (salad? grapes? bread, surely) …  One workman stood guard at the circle of graves, as they were still open, with many of the contents in situ. During the feast he came running to Drs. Mylonas and Papadimitriou and reported that some German tourists were walking in the circle of graves, refusing to understand his urgent signals that they were not allowed to be there. Of course he didn’t speak German, and they pretended not to understand his communications. Dr. Papadimitriou ran back up to the site and, in German, angrily ordered the intruders to get out, with heated remarks about having had enough of Germans during the occupation of Greece in World War II.” (Let me add here that Papademetriou was fluent in German, having received his PhD from the Humboldt University  in Berlin, in 1935.)

 

Mycenae 1953. A Modern Mycenaean Feast in the Lion’s Tomb. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Katherine Biddle More Scrapbook.

Mycenae 1953. Dancing in the Lion’s Tomb. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Katherine Biddle More Scrapbook.


The Riding Goddess

To return to one of the two carved gems that Mylonas and Papademetriou found in the summer of 1954, while removing the old excavation fill from near the Tomb of Clytemnestra. Of clear chalcedony, lentoid in shape (0.026 x 0.025 m), the 13th century B.C. gem (NAM 8718) depicts a female figure with raised arms, dressed in Minoan fashion (with a tight girdle and exposed breasts) riding side-saddle on a mythical animal, which has the muscular body of a lion and the head of a wild horse, over waves of the sea. To the modern viewer the scene is reminiscent of the classical myth of “Europa on the Bull.”

Drawing of the Riding Goddess seal from Mycenae. Found in 1954.

A year after Mylonas published the gem, and in the aftermath of Michael Ventris’s decipherment of Linear B and Carl Blegen’s discovery of Nestor’s Palace at Pylos (what a decade for Mycenaean archaeology!), Emily Townsend Vermeule (1928-2001) included the gem in an article titled “Mythology in Mycenaean Art” (Classical Journal 54:3, 1958, pp. 97-108; for a list of Mycenaean images of riding goddesses with previous bibliography, also see Bernard C. Dietrich, The Origins of Greek Religion,  pp. 310-313). Vermeule argued that many classical myths, including that of “Europa on the Bull,” stemmed from sources with a Mycenaean foundation, having assumed their classical form “by corruption, distortion and ignorance” (p. 105). Vermeule, too, would have been happily stunned at the recent discovery of the so-called “Pylos Combat Agate” in the Griffin Warrior Tomb, a chalcedony gem that has “all the grandiosity of scenes like the Greek epics The Iliad and The Odyssey” according to its excavators.

While Mylonas discovered several engraved gems during his excavations at Mycenae, the riding goddess held a special place in his mind and heart. He used it for letterhead and had it also carved on a plaque that adorns the tympanum of the Mycenae Melathron (built in 1967-1972 by Mylonas to serve as the summer base of the Mycenae excavation team, and as an archaeology research center for Greek and foreign scholars).

Lela and George Mylonas in front of the Mycenae Melathron, ca. 1970. Photo: ASCSA Archives, George Mylonas Papers.

It was also recently employed on a commemorative marble plaque at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA), set at the top of the passage that leads to the New Wiener Lab. To facilitate access, the narrow alley between the Davis Wing and the School’s stone compound wall was recently refurbished, thanks to a generous gift from an anonymous donor. Landscape architect Konstantinos Doxiadis transformed the old dirt path into a broad passage with flower beds of rosemary and Japanese pittosporum (“αγγελικούλες”) flanking one of its long sides. The donor also wanted to commemorate George Mylonas and his family with a plaque. What better way to honor him than with the imagery from his favorite gem. In Mycenae: Rich in Gold, Mylonas describes the riding goddess as θεά της ευλογίας (the blessing goddess). Whether she had really blessed his life is another story. Mylonas, nevertheless, believed that she had.

Commemorative plaque in honor of George Mylonas and his family at the ASCSA, 2018.


Note
I would like to thank Jack Davis, Jeff Banks, and Jeff Kramer for tracking down the gem’s CMS number (#167) and for directing me to Mylonas’s Ancient Mycenae.

Abbreviations
NAM: National Archaeological Museum
CMS: Corpus der Minoischen and Mykenischen Siegel


The Spirit of St. Louis Lives in Athens, Greece

Have you noticed that in the last ten days the press has been flooded with articles about the Doomsday Clock?  Here are some of the titles: “The Doomsday Clock is the closest to midnight since 1953” (Engadget, Jan. 28, 2017), “Nuclear ‘Doomsday Clock’ ticks closest to midnight in 64 years (Reuters), “Doomsday Clock Moves Closer to Midnight, Signaling Concern Among Scientists (The New York Times, Jan. 26, 2017), and “The Doomsday Clock is now 2.5 minutes to midnight, but what does that really mean? (Science Alert).

Martyl's design of the Doomsday Clock for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Martyl’s design of the Doomsday Clock for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

The Doomsday Clock was created in 1947 by members of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’s Science and Security Board; several of them were part of the “The Manhattan Project” that led to the creation of the first atomic bomb. (For those of you who want to learn more about “The Manhattan Project,” I recommend a drama series that premiered in 2014; although the series was discontinued after the second season, it featured good acting and it was fun to watch. Also see Jack Davis’s Communism In and Out of Fashion, Sept. 1, 2016.)  “Originally the Clock, which hangs on a wall in The Bulletin’s office at the University of Chicago, represented an analogy for the threat of global nuclear war; however, since 2007 it has also reflected climate change and new developments in the life sciences and technology that could inflict irrevocable harm to humanity… The Clock’s original setting in 1947 was seven minutes to midnight.  It has been set backward and forward 22 times since then, the smallest ever number of minutes to midnight being two in 1953, and the largest seventeen in 1991” (after Wikipedia, accessed 28/1/2017). As of January 2017 (and this explains the flurry of articles in the press), the Clock has been set at two and a half minutes to midnight, a reflection of President Trump’s comments about nuclear weapons: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” Trump posted this remark on Twitter on December 22, 2016, and followed it with an even more worrisome comment: “Let it be an arms race,” he said, referring to the Russians.

While reading the history of the Doomsday Clock my eyes happened to fall on the cover of the 1947 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which featured for the first time the Clock (at seven minutes to midnight), and the name of the artist who had designed it: Martyl Langsdorf. Martyl is an unusual name, and I had seen it before. I went to the Archives Room of the American School of Classical Studies (ASCSA or the School hereafter), where we keep the School’s administrative records, and personal papers of its members. There, hanging on one of the walls, was an abstract painting depicting a mountainous landscape, and signed in the bottom left corner: “Martyl.” To my surprise, when I checked our inventory, there was a second work of art, an etching, by “Martyl” in the Archives of the ASCSA. But this one also carried a personal dedication: “To George and Lela with affection and admiration, Martyl.” This meant that Martyl’s other painting had also originally belonged to George and Lela Mylonas. Read the rest of this entry »


Tales of Olynthus: Spoken and Unspoken

Archaeology_Sexism

In memory of Barbara McManus (1942-2015)

In early March of 1928, David Moore Robinson (1880-1958), professor of archaeology at Johns Hopkins University, began large-scale excavations in Chalkidiki. His goal was to discover and investigate ancient Olynthus, the city that King Philip of Macedon had completely destroyed in 348 B.C. Since Olynthus had been abandoned after its destruction, Robinson was hoping to find temples, stoas, and other public buildings of the Late Classical period, without “any boring Roman stuff,” as one of the excavation participants observed. Until Robinson excavated Olynthus, the research focus of classical archaeology in Greece had been centered on the discovery of monumental public architecture and inscriptions. (For a biographical sketch of Robinson’s rich life, see https://dictionaryofarthistorians.org/robinsond.htm) Read the rest of this entry »


Living Like Kings: When the Palace of Prince George Was the Annex of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens

Immediately after the destruction of Smyrna in 1922, a sudden influx of hundreds of thousands of Asia Minor refugees created severe housing problems for all those arriving in Athens, including the incoming students of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (hereafter ASCSA or the School). Its female members could not find any accommodations, whether rooms in a boarding house or a hotel. Until then, only the male students were allowed to board in the School’s facilities. Plans for a female dormitory on a plot of land on the other side of Speusippou Street had been in place since 1916, but construction delays sprang up after communication problems between the School’s Managing Committee, headed by the mighty Edward Capps, and the Women’s Hostel Committee, led by M. Carey Thomas, the dynamic president of Bryn Mawr College.

Academy19_exterior

The palace of Prince George on Academias Street as Annex of the ASCSA, 1926 (American School of Classical Studies at Athens)

To cope with the situation, the School allowed women to live “on campus” for the first time since its establishment in 1881. Elizabeth Pierce (Blegen), Natalie Gifford (Wyatt), and Dorothy Cox were among the female students to stay in the School’s bedrooms in 1922-23 and share bathroom facilities with the male occupants of the building. Not surprisingly, the Managing Committee, unhappy with the solution, expressed its “earnest hope that the emergency arrangements of the year 1922-1923 might not recur….” It was suggested “that an annex might be rented which could be used for the accommodation of the women” (Louis Lord, History of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Cambridge, Mass. 1947, 163). Read the rest of this entry »