Stand on the ravaged rocks of Mycenae and fall back in time some 3,500 years. Look at the world around you. Will you see a warrior in full bronze armor? Maybe. If he’s an elite charioteer from the late 15th century B.C.
The first Cretan book in my series opens in 1470 B.C., a little early for this suit of armor, but not too early for the boar tusk helmet.
The crowning glory of the archaeological museum of Náfplio, Greece, this set of Mycenaean bronze armor with boar tusk helmet, is the only complete set of armor ever found for this early Mycenaean period. During my stay in Náfplio I visited the museum to see it. The assembled armor stands in a lit glass case in full view when you walk in. The museum offers a film that describes its remarkable discovery by local people in the village of Dendra near Náfplio, a great source of pride for them. The impression of the wearer’s body could be seen inside the hammered bronze.
I had read about the armor and debated whether to put the Mycenaean warriors of my books in metal rather than the leather armor I had initially chosen. When I saw the fine exhibit and the film I debated again. A couple of people watched the film with me and we all returned to the exhibit afterward to observe the armor again. We began to chat about it and I learned that one was a British archeologist named David Mason (not to be confused with another archeologist of the same name). This archeologist was currently working at the ruins of the acropolis at Mycenae.
We discussed the relative merits of this armor, which would have extended to a warrior’s knees. The statement on the exhibit says bronze armor was associated with chariot warriors, their role limited to dramatic displays along lines of combat conducted by foot soldiers.
I doubted whether the Mycenaean king would allow Mycenaean mercenaries serving Crete to take such valuable armor with them. I also wondered how thrilled warriors would be to wear such cumbersome gear and whether it was used much at all. David didn’t argue the point, but he did think it would be cool to have my Mycenaean warriors wear the boar tusk helmet. I agreed and am making the change.
I later found a site online suggesting this bronze armor wasn’t produced until late in the 1400s, which won’t make it a factor until the third book in my series. But boar tusk helmets were used throughout the period. Homer describes them and artwork of the period shows them. The slivers of tusk are attached to a leather helmet, often with bronze cheek guards. A plume or tassel would sometimes adorn the top. Only the tusk slivers were found with the exhibited armor. The original leather would have disintegrated, being biodegradable.
The display includes unique arm guards found at Dendra and greaves to cover the shins. Linen was more commonly used for shin guards, so the bronze may have been more for a show of status.
The earliest bronze was limited when it came to working it into the kind of intricate shaping a helmet would have required, so you don’t find bronze helmets until periods long after my stories.
Even this body armor lacked the sophistication of later metalwork. But it’s pretty impressive when you stand before it, realizing how very old it is.
The Citadel of Tiryns
Those ravaged rocks of the citadels where men might have worn this armor topped my list of things to see in Greece, and I planned to follow suggestions to first visit Tiryns, one of Mycenae’s protectorates. I opted for the short bus ride from the center of Náfplio to that nearby site, which I had passed on my arrival in Náfplio.
At breakfast I was chatting with the hostess when she advised me I should catch the 9:30 bus to Tiryns. Seeing that it was already 9:19, I hurried to my room to brush my teeth, grabbed my hat, and headed out. Didn’t somebody say it was a 5-minute walk to the bus stop? I would test that. I found the ticket office and told the woman at the desk I wanted a return ticked for Tiryns. She said, “Go now, the second bus.”
I rushed out and asked the driver of the second bus if he was going to Tiryns. He nodded and asked for one euro and eighty cents. Good grief, the buses are cheap in Greece!
We rumbled out of the city center in air-conditioned comfort and I soon caught sight of the great stone wall. The bus didn’t slow down, so I called out, “Tiryns!” The driver screeched to a stop. He had forgotten me, but he pulled over along the street near the entrance.
Tiryns is an amazing place, the stones as colossal as reported. The elongated compound stretches over two levels. I guessed the palace was on the high ground, which the attendant confirmed. Low walls marked out many rooms, large and small. Mighty mountains loomed on the horizon.
I couldn’t be sure of the layout but a sense of the power seems clear enough. It’s easy to see how the builders took advantage of the outcropping on which to set the walls. And such walls! The outer bulwarks had to be at least six feet thick.
In my rush I hadn’t gotten water but supposed I could buy it at the site. I explored the ruins until I needed a drink, but the facility had no palatable water. I still wanted to explore Tiryns more fully. The woman at the site assured me it wasn’t far back to a shop. By then the day was heating up and the walk seemed long.
On the way back I met a British guy who was unsure of his directions to the site’s entrance. I assured him he was on the right track. He had walked from Náfplio and was suffering. I was so glad I hadn’t done that.
By the time I returned to the compound, heat was rising fast, and it was only a little after 11 am. A pleasant breeze softened the warmth on the palace level, and I strolled through rooms, imagining the poignant scenes of my story that take place in some of them.
The citadel of Mycenae
For all Tiryns’s majesty, nothing matched the reigning center of Mycenae. That was my destination the next day. I got up earlier to avoid the rush of the day before. To get to the acropolis of Mycenae I had to catch the same 9:30 bus I had taken to Tiryns. Mycenae was farther inland at 13 miles.
At the bus station there was my friend from Britain who’d walked to Tiryns the day before. We greeted each other, commenting on our continued explorations, and took separate seats on the bus.
The ancient stronghold of the Mycenaeans resonates with the power they wielded over their realm. Note that most of the walls at the top of the ruins are low, their upper portions having long since tumbled away. Imagine high walls and a pitched palace roof extending upward, creating an even more dominating complex. The peaks on either side add to the impact, with deep ravines between them and the mound on which the acropolis was built.
The view from the top gives only a small glimpse of territory ruled and the majesty of the citadel’s position, even on the hazy day I saw it. The great rooms loom above the land below, partly because of their position and partly because the compound has crumbled away on that side.
I scrambled over the site, absorbing the atmosphere, imagining the scenes I had placed there. I could only get a sense of it. The Mycenaeans themselves had changed it considerably from the period of my stories, and time had taken a severe toll. But the contour of land is there. The power is there.
I wasn’t ready to leave when it was time for the next return bus so I visited the small museum on the site, went across to a kiosk for lunch–a large fresh-squeezed orange juice and turkey in a baguette. I was really enjoying the orange juice of Greece. Orange groves are new to Greece since Mycenaean times, but the trees thrive there now.
I turned back to the raw ruins and saw the flowers. A hush settled over me.
Ah yes! Life blooms beside the quiet stones, where deep time stills the voices, the clack of hard-soled boots, clash of swords, death cries, murmurs of desire–all caught in the eternal cycle, reborn in remembrance.
After another climb over the ancient site I went down early, not wanting to miss the last bus.
My British friend was waiting on the porch of a local postal facility looking out on the large parking area where many tour buses came and went. We spoke, and I commented that I hoped we would recognize our bus among all the others, most of them white. He said we’d know it because it would be big and green. We kept watching for the big green bus with the sign “Náfplio” in the window. The time for its arrival came and went. But I wasn’t worried. Yet. The bus that brought us had been late.
When it was a half hour late we began to ask around. The man in the postal building said it had already left. I insisted we had been watching all this time. It never came. Now I was worried. How would we get back to Náfplio? The cost of a taxi would be prohibitive. I talked to the people in the ticket booth. They shook their heads. If the bus hadn’t come by this time it probably wouldn’t. But we could get a taxi to the nearest village, Fihtia, and catch a bus there.
Seeing no taxis at the taxi stop outside the facility, my friend tried thumbing a ride. A couple of cars did stop. Two women would have taken us to another town where we could get a bus, but they had no place for us. Their back seat was full of baggage. Another couple was headed the wrong way. Finally a taxi came. The driver said he would take us to Fihtia for 10 euros. We flinched and agreed to share the cost.
A jovial man, the driver asked where we were from. When he heard England and the US he said we should come live in Greece. We would live long and healthy lives. His father lived to be 104. My companion, a somewhat reticent fellow, told him we weren’t together. “Why not?” the driver asked. We let the question go.
In Fihtia we just missed the bus, which came hourly. So we waited. I finally asked my companion’s name. Andrew. When our chariot came at last, it was a big white bus.
Later I told people about the last chariot from Mycenae that never came, but I began to wonder. We were looking for a green bus. What if our bus was white like so many of those tour buses and we just didn’t see the “Náfplio” sign in windows we were disregarding? In any case we were a few euros poorer, given the taxi fare, but had shared a small adventure. We bid good-bye in Náfplio, laughing over the day’s mishap, and went our separate ways.
My journey leads next to Portugal on the Iberian Peninsula, land of another ancient warrior culture. With that move we leave the world of my first first three books, which center in Crete, and enter the world of Ireland found by a ship in the Cretan fleet and the realms that impact it. The worlds of Crete and Ireland intertwine, but the center shifts for a while.
NEXT: The Magic of Zambujal