Bronze Age Greece: Mycenaeans and the Origins of Western Civilization

A prehistoric culture from mainland Greece, now called the Mycenaeans, inherited the fabulous brilliance of Minoan Crete. When the Bronze Age collapsed, all signs of state-level society disappeared from Greece, and both Minoans and Mycenaeans disappeared from history. Only their oral tales remained, composed half a millennium later by Homer into the Iliad and the Odyssey, and these have stood ever since like colossi dominating Western literature. Yet most scholars came to assume that Homeric tales and even the society they described largely were fiction. Then a few romantically-minded 19th-century amateur archaeologists (most memorably Heinrich Schliemann) took those tales seriously and those brilliant predecessors of the ancient Greeks exploded from obscurity. Humanities West is delighted to bring the Mycenaeans to you, including the archaeologists who uncovered the latest Mycenaean finds (2017), as this still-young archaeological field continues to deepen our understanding of our Western Civilization.

Marines’ Memorial Theatre, San Francisco

609 Sutter Street, San Francisco

Tickets at City Box Office 415.392.4400


FRIDAY, MAY 3, 2019

7:30 – 9:30 pm 

Once Homer Was EnoughDouglas Kenning (Sicily Tour). Western Civilization once knew the Late Bronze Age Aegean only through the Homeric tales. Yet these were stories adrift from history; archaeology caught up with Homer barely a century ago. For twenty-six centuries before that, Homer stood like a colossus over Western culture, even as educated opinion generally denied that the civilization he sang of actually had existed. Let us stand a moment in this beautiful innocence, when myth was our only window on the Late Bronze Age Aegean. We’ll begin with the mythic backstory (e.g. the Judgment of Paris), follow the storyline through the Iliad and Odyssey, and finish with a mention of other Mycenaean-derived myths, those connected to the Iliad story (e.g. Trojan Horse, the Oresteia) and those not (e.g. Perseus, Theseus, Bellerophon and Pegasus). We’ll illustrate the stories as Western civilization always has, with great art, and suggest what they might tell us about the historical Mycenaeans. 

Lecture / Performance / Demonstration: Mycenaean Literature, Music, and Performance Culture – What Do We Know? What Can We Reconstruct? / Mark Griffith (Classics, UC Berkeley). No literary or musical texts survive from the Bronze Age Greeks; but our steadily-growing knowledge of several of their neighbors’ literatures and musical performance traditions, along with vital clues preserved within the poems of Homer and Hesiod, enables us to recreate—or to surmise with some degree of confidence—key elements of the song-types, dances, instrumental tunings, and epic stories about gods and heroes that they adopted from and shared with those neighbors. This lecture will explore the rich visual, documentary, and literary evidence recovered from Bronze Age Anatolia (Hittites, Luwians / Trojans, and others), from Crete, and from the Levant (especially Ugarit) that can help us to fill in some of the missing pieces of Mycenaean performance culture.

SATURDAY, MAY 4, 2019, 10 am – 4 pm

Bronze Age Myth Morphs into History / Ian Morris (Classics, Stanford). Archaeology discovers a people we’ve been reading about for 2,700 years but didn’t know existed. Legend and story become real as archaeology rises to claim authority away from literature in deciding matters of the past, a story that includes Schliemann, Evans Blegan, and the rest. Standing now on archaeology and history, what do we know about the late Bronze Age context given archeological finds in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Asia Minor? Who were the Minoans? How and why did they give way to the Mycenaeans? Why and how did the Mycenaeans rise to regional dominance?

The Griffin Warrior of Pylos, Bronze Age Archaeology, and Homer Today / Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker (co-presenting) (Archeology, University of Cincinnati). University of Cincinnati excavations at Pylos resumed in 2015 after Carl Blegen, discoverer of the Palace of Nestor, suspended his campaigns in 1969. Blegen and other 20th-century archaeologists shaped the field of Greek prehistory after Schliemann’s discoveries at Mycenae in the 1880s. Our reexamination of Blegen’s finds produced new results reminiscent of practices described in Homer’s Odyssey, including evidence for burnt animal sacrifice. Finds from new excavations shed light on the 15th century BCE, when the Mycenaean civilization was being created on the Greek mainland. The 2015 discovery of the grave of the so-called “Griffin Warrior,” along with four gold rings, is of great significance for the study of Minoan and Mycenaean ideology. This unique, undisturbed burial affords an unparalleled opportunity to examine Early Mycenaean funerary ritual, gender association with grave goods, and burial structure. Other discoveries from this grave suggest that myths and legends of the sort incorporated in the Homeric poems were already in circulation at the dawn of the Mycenaean civilization.

Daily Life at Mycenae: Work, Worship, and the Wanax / Kim Shelton (Classics, UC Berkeley). This talk explores life at a Mycenaean palatial center during the Late Bronze Age that highlights the everyday experiences of a bustling, energetic world with monumental architecture, large-scale craft production, and religious ritual. What is Mycenaean culture and how is it discovered through archaeological excavation at the site? The Late Helladic culture developed from a combination of traditional Greek characteristics and contact with the Minoan culture on Crete. A complex palatial state formed out of this that is accessed through their settlement and mortuary architecture, their arts and crafts, many of which were traded on an international scale, and through a fragmentary textual record. We will discuss the potential daily activities and responsibilities of the people at Mycenae, whether King Agamemnon or Joe Mycenaean.

Mycenaeans North and South: Beyond the World of the Palaces / Sarah P. Morris (Classics and Archaeology, UCLA). Recent research has greatly enriched the material record of the Bronze Age in northern Greece, especially Thessaly (once the northern “boundary” of the Mycenaean world) and Macedonia. Approaches to this record stress “decreasing integration” (Feuer), palaces without centralized polities (Pantou), and a gradual fall-off in seal use (Eder). A key advantage of this “periphery” is the survival of Bronze Age communities long after the Mycenaean collapse, thanks to their very distance from central polities. Since the Neolithic, northern Greece engaged aggressively with networks spanning the Balkans and the Aegean, linking interior resources and maritime trade via powerful riverways in a crucial interface for north-south traffic in metals, timber, and amber. Central Macedonia offers stratified settlements of the Late Bronze Age, while cemeteries abound south of the Haliakmon River with Late Bronze Age cist-graves containing offerings inspired by southern Greek artifacts and burial customs. Recent excavations, including those at ancient Methone (Pieria), trace a growing picture of the trans-Mycenaean Bronze Age in the north Aegean, where signs of contact with southern Greece long outlast the palatial era to shape post-Mycenaean identities and memories.

Panel Discussion with the presenters.


Jack Davis received his doctorate in Greek prehistory from the University of Cincinnati, where he is currently employed as Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology. Jack is co-director of the current Cincinnati excavations, where in 2015 he assisted in the excavation of the Tomb of the Griffin Warrior and is collaborating with Sharon Stocker in study of finds from the grave. His particular expertise lies in landscape archaeology. In addition to the Palace of Nestor excavations, Jack has directed archaeological projects at Nemea in Greece and in Albania. Jack lives in Cincinnati with the couple’s two cats, Genci and Kalypso, but spends as much time in Greece as possible.

Mark Griffith (PhD, Cambridge) is Klio Distinguished Professor of Classical Languages and Literature, Professor of Classics and of TDPS (Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies) at UC Berkeley. His research interests include Greek Literature, Drama, Music, and Performance. Selected Publications include The Authenticity of Prometheus BoundAristophanes’ FrogsGreek Satyr Play; editions of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound and Sophocles’ Antigone; articles on Greek tragedy and satyr-play, Vergil, Hesiod, lyric, mules, early Greek education, music, and performance.

Douglas Kenning (PhD, University of Edinburgh, Scotland) enjoyed a career of two decades as an assistant professor of literature and history at universities in Tunisia, Japan, and Italy. Prior to and concurrently with that he has been a professional biologist, actor, army officer, Manhattan taxi driver, study-abroad academic director, and writer of books, articles, and stage plays. Currently, he lives half of each year in the San Francisco Bay Area, giving talks and lecture series on subjects related to ancient Mediterranean civilizations, and half of each year in Siracusa, Sicily, where he leads Sicily Tour, an organization offering history and myth-focused small-group tours around Sicily and the greater Mediterranean basin.

Ian Morris is a historian and archaeologist. He has dug in Britain, Greece, and Italy, most recently as director of Stanford’s excavation at Monte Polizzo, a native Sicilian site from the age of Greek colonization. He began his career studying the rise of the Greek city-state, then moved on to ancient economics, and now works on global history since the Ice Age. He has published fourteen books. In addition to digging and writing, he regularly speaks to academic, business, government, and strategy groups, and has been a visiting professor in the University of Zurich’s executive MBA program. He has held several research awards, including Guggenheim and Andrew Carnegie fellowships, and has won a Dean’s Award for excellence in teaching and several literary prizes. He lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains with his wife, one dog, five cats, two horses, and a peacock.

Sarah P. Morris (PhD, Classics, Harvard) is Steinmetz Professor of Classical Archaeology and Material Culture, Aegean and Classical Greek Archaeology, and Greek Literature at UCLA. She is a classicist and archaeologist in the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA. She taught at Yale University before joining the UCLA faculty, where she has served as Department Chair at UCLA and chair of the Interdepartmental PhD program in Archaeology at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology. Her training and research involve the interaction of Greece with its Eastern neighbors, in art, literature, religion and culture. Her chief book on the subject, Daidalos and the Origins of Greek Art (1992) won the James Wiseman Book Award from the Archaeological Institute of America for 1993. She has also edited (with Jane Carter) a volume of essays, The Ages of Homer (1995), on the archaeological, literary, and artistic background and responses to Greek epic poetry. A practicing field archaeologist, she has worked in Israel, Turkey, Greece, and Albania, and has recently begun a new project at Methone in northern Greece. Her teaching and research interests include early Greek literature (Homer, Hesiod and Herodotus), Greek religion, prehistoric and early Greek archaeology, ceramics, Greek architecture and landscape studies, and Near Eastern influence on Greek art and culture.

Kim Shelton (PhD, University of Pennsylvania) is Associate Professor of Classics and the Graduate Group in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology, and Director of the Nemea Center for Classical Archaeology at UC Berkeley. She is the author of several publications on Mycenaean pottery, figurines, cemeteries, the Tsountas House Area of the Cult Center and her on-going excavation at Petsas House in the settlement of Mycenae. She also has on-going excavations at the panhellenic Sanctuary of Zeus in Nemea where research is centered on questions of the prehistory and protohistory of the sanctuary area and the development of cult, and in a new collaboration with the Korinthian Ephorate of Antiquities at the Mycenaean cemetery of Aidonia, where the TAPHOS project is preserving cultural heritage through the excavation of partly looted and unlooted chamber tombs together with public outreach and education.

Sharon Stocker received her doctorate in Greek prehistory from the University of Cincinnati, where she is currently employed as a Senior Research Associate. She manages the university’s excavations at the Palace of Nestor in Pylos, Greece. Sharon is co-director of the current Cincinnati excavations, where in 2015 she spent more than six months in the Tomb of the Griffin Warrior. Her particular expertise lies in the analysis of ceramics of the Middle Bronze Age and Early Greek colonization in the Western Mediterranean. In addition to Pylos she has directed archaeological projects in Albania. Along with archaeology, Sharon has a passion for sailing. She lives in Pylos with her cat Nestor.


Related Events

April 17, 2019     6:30 – 7:30 pm Humanities West Book Discussion, led by Lynn Harris. Book TBD. Commonwealth Club of California, 110 The Embarcadero, SF.

April 25, 2019 The Penelope Poems / Patti Trimble and Julia Norton, poetry performance salon, venue TBD.

April 30, 2019    6:30-7:30 pm  Fireside Chat  / George Hammond. Orinda Library. Orinda

May 15, 2019          6:30 – 7:30 pm Humanities West Book Discussion, led by Lynn Harris. Book TBD. Commonwealth Club of California, 110 The Embarcadero, SF.


Resources Materials

Classical Myth compiled by Douglas Kenning

Recommended resources for the myths that plausibly echo back to Bronze Age Greece:

Original Sources

Hesiod, Theogony, the earliest and definitive work on myths of Creation up to mankind.

Homer, Iliad, Odyssey, the greatest stories ever told, allegorical of every variety of human relationship. Good prose translations by E. V. Rieu, W.H.D. Rouse, Walter Shewring, and new translation by Stanley Lombardo. Best translations in verse are by Robert Fitzgerald and Robert Fagles.

Greek Drama. Aeschylus (Oresteia, Prometheus Bound), Sophocles (Antigone, Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus at Colonus, Ajax, Electra), Euripides (Alcestis, Medea, Hippolytus, Electra, Iphigenia in Tauris, Bacchae). Most of the classic dramas used mythic tales, which the dramatists assumed the spectators already knew by heart, as one would expect in a religious ritual.

Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso) 43 BCE-17 CE. Metamorphoses weaves various myths into a fast-paced, fascinating story, with lively and passionate characters. Ovid came from an age and social class very secular, urban, and worldly. He was not a believer, but rather a mythographer, a collector and editor of mythic stories. Still, Metamorphoses has been the best-known source of Roman mythology through the Middle Ages and Renaissance until our times, inspiring many poets, painters, and composers. Douglas Kenning likes the Penguin translation by Mary Innes, but the lively new American translation by Charles Martin likely will become the definitive text.

Apollodorus (a.k.a. Pseudo-Apollodorus), 1-2C CE, was a Roman, like Ovid, and even further removed from the myths when they actually lived. But he was a faithful scholar-collector of what were to him already ancient myths. His Bibliotheca (“Library”), called “the most valuable mythographical work that has come down from ancient times”.

Hyginus, ca. 64 BCE – 17 CE noted author and superintendent of the Palatine Library of Augustus. All his published works are lost. What we have is Fabulae (“stories”), perhaps schoolboy notes of myths, either his own or from one of his pupils. Clumsy, awkwardly written, but representing in primitive form what every educated Roman in the age of the Antonines was expected to know of Greek myth, at the simplest level. The Fabulae are a mine of information today, when so many more nuanced versions of the myths have been lost.

Plutarch (1-2C CE,). One of our most important sources for Greek and Roman biography, his Life of Theseus is especially important for that Bronze Age story.

Secondary Sources

Greek Mythology, by Fritz Graf (Johns Hopkins 1993). Considered by scholars and university teachers the definitive modern introduction to Greek myth, history and influence.

Myths of the Ancient Greeks, Richard Martin (2003). This may be the best collection in English for most people, concise and readable, good for young people, though not as beautifully illustrated as Buxton.

The Complete World of Greek Mythology, by Richard Buxton. This is another clearly written introduction for the general reader. He is perhaps informational, not so much telling the stories as talking about the stories. Still, the splendid pictures weave myth right into art history.

The Greek Way, Edith Hamilton (1930, 1942). No longer a favorite of scholars, but remains a respected classic, still the best-selling mythological work. In translating myth for us now, in being our Ovid, she helped define for the 20C why the Greeks continue to fascinate us in the West.

The Age of Fable, Thomas Bullfinch (1855). The first classic of our times. Still popular (outranked among mythological works only by Edith Hamilton). All that more recent collections have over Bullfinch or Hamilton are more updated scholarly notes and introductions.

The Gods of Olympus, by Barbara Grazios, is a good history of the major Olympian gods, and their role in Western Civilization from their first appearance to modern times.

Gods and Heroes of Ancient Greece (Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library) Gustav Schwab. Perhaps the best easy-reading edition for children.

D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri d’Aulaire and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire (1992). Another good one for kids.

website: — the most useful website for basic Greek myth and story


website: — all things Hellenic–ancient, medieval, modern

The Age of Bronze, Eric Shanower. The Iliad in comic book installments. True to the story (if not to the beauty of the text or the mind-enlarging sense of displacement in time and place that an ancient text gives you); not bad for young teens (or word-allergic adults).

Greek religion in context and influence:

The Religions of Man, Huston Smith. The best, clear, single volume I know on comparative religions.

Douglas Kenning

See also: “This 3,500-Year-Old Greek Tomb Upended What We Thought We Knew About the Roots of Western Civilization.” Smithsonian Magazine, January 2017.