Forging Society at Late Bronze Age Mycenae

Person conducting research: Dr Stephanie Aulsebrook
Country: Greece
Site name: Mycenae
Type of site: settlement and extra-mural cemeteries
Involved institutions: WAUW
Research Assistants: Monika Łapińska, Paulina Jurkowska

Description of the research: This project is focused on Mycenae, the foremost centre on mainland Greece during the Late Bronze Age (17th – 11th C BC) and the relationship between its inhabitants and metals. Metals have a very varied role in prehistoric societies; they can be used for the manufacture of a diverse range of objects including tools, weapons, vessels, jewellery and armour but their comparative rarity and unique properties meant that they also had a significant role in the political economy.

In general, archaeologists have directed their attention towards the latter and that has meant that our understanding of the use of metals in the daily life of the community as a whole is not so well understood. To address this imbalance, my project has three underlying objectives:

1) to ascertain which social practices included metal artefacts and which did not.

2) to investigate access to metals within the community.

3) to reconstruct the typical biographies for different types of metal artefacts and explore atypical situations.

To achieve these aims, the first part of this project involves the creation of a database covering all known metals finds from Mycenae, as far as is possible. Published data will be supplemented by hands-on examination of the material. Once the database is completed, the data will be subjected to a series of qualitative and quantitative analysis, with the production of distribution plans a key priority. This type of holistic approach has not been attempted before and it is envisaged that this methodology ought to provide information concerning the usage of metals across the entirety of the community at Mycenae.

Project financing: SONATA 14 NCN competition

Current progress: the bespoke project database has been designed and is now live. The majority of the data available from the main publications of the site has now been entered and the focus has moved to checking through the preliminary excavation reports, typological catalogues and unpublished field notes. Here is an example of a catalogue entry:

Example of Entry in Database

The database currently contains more than 15000 metal artefacts excavated from Mycenae. Of those, more than half come from documented Late Bronze Age contexts. The majority come from mortuary contexts; for example, the famous Circle A shaft graves discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 account for more than 2500 of these artefacts alone.

Despite disruption due to the pandemic, three research expeditions have been completed, to the National Archaeological Museum at Athens, the Archaeological Museum at Mycenae and the Mycenae Archive at the University of Cambridge, UK. Visits to the museums enabled hands-on analysis of a selection of material that has provided vital evidence about their lifecycles. Access to the original fieldnotes has allowed past archaeological recording strategies for metal artefacts to be reconstructed and has uncovered some interesting finds of metal objects that had never been published.

As the project moves into its last stages, the chief aim is to create a publicly accessible database covering the most informative objects, as a resource for future study, and the final publication of the results.

Publications (all open access):
Aulsebrook, S. 2022. The impact of archaeological recording on the study of metal artefacts. Mycenae 1939: a case study. Annual of the British School of Athens 117: 415-455.
Aulsebrook, S. 2022. Forging ahead or foiled again? A new direction for cross-craft analysis with case studies from Late Bronze Age metalworking in the Aegean, in S. Aulsebrook, K. Żebrowska, A. Ulanowska and K. Lewartowski (eds.) Sympozjum Egejskie. Papers in Aegean Archaeology 3. Turnhout: Brepols: 99–112.
Aulsebrook, S. 2020. Understanding the role of metal within the Late Bronze Age community at Mycenae: challenges and potential approaches. Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean 29(2): 237–264.