The Trading Networks of Mycenae during the Shaft Grave Period

Giulia Heinritzi
Mar 20 · 15 min read
Figure 1 View of Grave Circle A (left) and the entrance to Mycenae (right)
Photograph by Andreas Trepte,
Figure 1 View of Grave Circle A (left) and the entrance to Mycenae (right)
Photograph by Andreas Trepte,
Figure 1 View of Grave Circle A (left) and the entrance to Mycenae (right). Photograph by Andreas Trepte,

In terms of natural resources, the Greek mainland is quite poor. Resources, such as obsidian, copper, tin, faience, amber, and gold, needed to be imported (Dickinson 1977, 36). By the Middle Helladic (MH) III period (ca. 1650 BCE) there was a notable increase in the prosperity of the mainland and the appearance of an elite class, indicated by the wealth of the shaft graves at Mycenae, which include objects of gold, silver, bronze, precious stones such as faience, and other exotic materials originating from various far-off locations (Broodbank 2013, 371). Thus, the grave goods of the Shaft Grave period (1600 BCE-1450 BCE), particularly those found within the Grave Circles at Mycenae, indicate a growing international connection between mainland Greece with Crete, the eastern Mediterranean, and central Europe (Dickinson 1977, 103 and 108). Therefore, the first part of this essay will focus on artifacts such as ceramic vessels, weapons, precious metals, stones, and ivory that demonstrate the increased contact of the mainland with the eastern Mediterranean via Crete and Crete itself during the Shaft Grave period. It will then focus on the mainland’s connection with central Europe, demonstrated by the presence of amber and the large quantities of gold, within these shaft graves.

Crete and the Eastern Mediterranean

By the MH III period there was, in general, greater prosperity on the mainland. This was indicated by the wealth of the goods found in the shaft graves. Furthermore, there was a strong Cretan influence, as determined by the Cretan imports and the work of Cretan craftsmen. This indicates that during this period the Mycenaeans developed close ties to the Minoan civilization (Dickinson 1977, 107–8; Dickinson 1994, 247). This Cretan influence, demonstrated by the shape of ceramic vessels, objects, and artistic idioms during the MH III period corresponded with the Second Palatial Period on Crete, which saw the expansion of Cretan influence throughout the Aegean. The Cretans, having already established trading connections with Anatolia and the Near East prior to the Second Palatial period, would have had access to luxurious items, such as ivory, ostrich eggs, and exotic stones such as Egyptian alabaster and faience (Dickinson 1994, 247–8; Dickinson 1999, 106; Tartaron 2013, 12). It was this Minoan expansion into the mainland which helped transform Mycenaean culture, essentially disrupting the egalitarian social structures that were previously in place, and introducing, through the use of prestige objects, new ways of distinguishing oneself (Tartaron 2013, 12). Crete then acted as the main conduit for these Near Eastern and Anatolian materials and motifs that made their way onto the mainland (Dickinson 1994, 248). The Mycenaeans, on the other hand, may also have played an economic role in this close relationship to the Cretan palaces, in that they may have supplied metal to Crete.

During the First Palatial period, Crete obtained its metal resources, like tin and copper, primarily from the Near East and Anatolia. However, by the beginning of the Second Palatial Period, the Near East and Anatolia were rife with warfare. Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Syria were affected by the Hittite Old Kingdom and the growth of the Hurrians, while in Egypt there were wars with the Hyksos (Dickinson 1977, 55). These periodic bouts of war not only disrupted trade-routes but would also have increased the demand for metal for the war effort and thus less metal may have been available for trade. This may have initially pushed the Cretan palaces to look for alternative sources, like Mycenae, who’s trading network included the regions of the Balkans, the Alps, and central Italy, which had resources such as tin, copper, and gold (Dickinson 1977, 55; Hughes-Brock 1985, 258).

By looking at the contents of the shaft graves at Mycenae within Circle B and Circle A, one can see the growing presence of Crete as well as the connections to the Near East and Anatolia, in terms of the iconography and materials that were present.

Ceramic and Metal Vessels

Evidence of these Minoan influences can be found by examining the shapes and decorations of certain ceramic and metal vessels found within these shaft graves. Within the earliest graves of Grave Circle B, those dating to MH IIIA and MH IIIB, there are far fewer objects and materials that come from this trade connection between the mainland and Crete ( Heitz 2010, Table 1; Hooker 1967, 272).[1] However, the objects that do reflect this burgeoning relationship and greater interconnection within the eastern Mediterranean include: a gold cup within Graves N and Γ along with a faience cup within Grave A, which are considered variants of the Keftiu-type, a Cretan pottery shape (Dickinson 1977, 79). The gold cup from Grave N is also considered to be more closely related to the Middle Minoan (MM) carinated cups and the faience cup from Grave A is considered to be an import from Crete given its close similarities to drinking vessels found within the Temple Repositories at Knossos (Dickinson 1977, 79). Also in Circle B, specifically in Grave M, three askoi were found which are considered to be Cretan imports (Heitz 2008, Table 1).

Within Circle A, many of the cups that were found have a rib around the body, which is similar to MM IIIB and Late Minoan (LM) IA cups on Crete (Dickinson 1977, 79). In Grave V, a gold cup with a ribbon handle embossed with the typical Cretan running-spirals was found. These shapes are typically found on Crete and the Nilotic designs were inspired by Cretan motifs, given that by the Second Palatial period running spirals became a standard decorative motif (Dickinson 1977, 85; Higgins 1967, 144). Within Grave IV, a copper cauldron with a carinated shape was found and on it was inscribed a Linear A symbol, indicative of its Cretan origin (Dickinson 1977, 81). A large silver jug was also found in Circle A, decorated with running-spirals above an arcade pattern with horizontal fluting, which, without the horizontal fluting at the base of the jug, is similar to a bronze jug found in the North-West Treasury at Knossos, and thus serves to confirm the Cretan connection of this artifact (Higgins 1967,147 and 149). Also in Grave IV, four rhyta were found, which is indicative of Cretan influence given that this is a typical Minoan ritual vessel. For example, the artistic conventions used on the Siege Rhyton depict wasp-waisted figures and its shape is similar to the common LM I rhyta (Fig. 2) (Dickinson 1977, 81; Hooker 1967, 269).

Figure 2 ‘Boxer’ rhyton, Haghia Triadha Villa A, Crete, LM period. Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Photograph by author.

Precious Metals and Objects

Figure 3 Type A sword (right), Grave Circle B. National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Photograph by author.

Further evidence of this trade connection between Crete, as well as the trade connections of Crete to the rest of the eastern Mediterranean, is seen on the weapons deposited within the shaft graves and the techniques and motifs used to decorate these weapons. Within Circle B, in Grave Z, a Type A sword was found, which was a Cretan development during the MM II-MM IIIB period (Fig. 3) (Sanders 1961, 17). Furthermore, some of these swords were decorated with ivory or alabaster pommels or handles and decorative features, such as grooves or spirals along the midrib (Dickinson 1977, 68; Heitz 2008, Table 1). Thus, the decoration indicates a Cretan influence while the material demonstrates these new eastern trading connections. However, it is in the Late Helladic (LH) I and II burials where the most ornamental inlaid blades were found. In Grave IV of Circle A, two bronze daggers that were inlaid with gold, silver, and niello and a similar dagger in Grave V were found. The daggers from Grave IV depict a lion hunt and the other depicts a group of running lions. The dagger from Grave V depicts a Nilotic scene with leopards hunting wild-duck, surrounded by papyri (Fig. 4) (Higgins 1967, 141). The imagery on the daggers depict the Cretan artistic convention of wasp-waisted figures (Barringer 2014, 53). Furthermore, the huntsmen in the lion-hunt carry the Cretan figure-eight shield and the lions in both the lion hunt and the group of running lions use the Cretan convention of the Near Eastern ‘flying gallop’ to represent rapid movement (Fig. 5) (Higgins 1967, 141).

Figure 4 LH I, Inlaid Dagger found Tombs V in Mycenae: det.: Leopard Among Wild Ducks & Fish.
Figure 5 LH I, Inlaid Dagger found Tombs IV in Mycenae: det.:

There are also eastern influences in these daggers. Not only does the dagger from Grave V depict an Egyptian landscape but the use of niello was invented in the east. The technique of niello (a black metallic alloy of silver and sulphur) originally began in Asia Minor ca. 2300 BCE and then spread to Syria, with examples found in Byblos by 1800 BCE which was an area that had strong commercial contact with Crete during the Shaft Grave period (Dickinson 1977, 82; Higgins 1967, 141; Laffineur 2010, 448; Preziosi and Hitchcock 1999, 152). Thus, the use of the niello technique and exotic landscapes must have been learned through Crete, rather than by direct trade, since whenever eastern artifacts or traits appear in these graves they are accompanied by Minoan objects or objects with Minoan artistic conventions (Hooker 1967, 277).The use of exotic techniques for crafting objects, as well as the use of exotic materials, such as faience and ivory not previously seen on the mainland, could easily have been obtained through the vast trading contacts of the Cretan palaces. These were then applied to other objects (Dickinson 1977, 54).

In Circle A, from Graves I and III, fragments of ivory pyxidis were found. Although the material is exotic, coming from the Near East, the geometric design is of local manufacture (Dickinson 1977, 81). There were also pieces of faience goblets, but the first faience object to appear on the mainland was a chalice found within Grave A in Circle B (Foster 1979, 119 and 123). Within Grave II was a pale-yellow faience jar with four legs, with its shape being similar to an Egyptian cylindrical alabastron. However, similar shapes have occurred on Crete as well and as such were inspired by Cretan and eastern influences (Foster 1979, 121–22). The technique of faience manufacture originated in northern Mesopotamia and it was during the 3rd millennia BCE when Egypt became an important centre for faience manufacture (Foster 1979, 26 and 33). The Minoans began producing objects in faience by the MM I period, since the first faience objects were found in the Vat Room deposit at Knossos in a MM I context (Foster 1979, 57 and 153–4). It has been argued that the trade of faience may also be linked to the trade of amber. Faience artifacts found in Europe are primarily concentrated in the regions north of the Black Sea, a region which the Mycenaeans were already exploring, and if a Transylvanian connection to the amber trade is believed, then trade routes sent faience to the north and west and sent amber to the south and east through a complex system of middlemen and down-the-line exchanges (Foster 1979, 165).

Another area affected by Cretan artistic tradition and its eastern connections is jewelry. Found within Grave III in Circle A is a gold earring, supposedly in the Cretan tradition, which happens to be the only earring found within a Mycenaean context and the only object to use granulation (Higgins 1967, 165). Granulation originated in the Near East and was learned through contacts between Crete and the Near East (Preziosi and Hitchcock 1999, 61). Furthermore, three cut-out ornaments found within Grave III in Circle A depict the figure of an octopus and butterfly which are both common in Cretan motifs (Higgins 1967, 168).

One final example of an eastern Mediterranean influence on mainland objects found within these burials is a silver pin in the shape of a crook with a gold pendant also from Grave III. Although the embossed figure could be interpreted as a Cretan goddess holding a double garland, it may also depict a Hittite motif found on Hittite cylinder-seals, which were artifacts used in the cultural commerce between Anatolia and the Aegean (Hooker 1967, 278). On some of these cylinders is a depiction of a goddess with her arms extending to her sides, holding two curved bands near her waist, while a semicircle frames the rest of the image. Thus all three elements found on Hittite cylinder-seals that depicts this goddess is present on this pin. Considering that it has been suggested that some of the gold ornaments found within Grave III may have an Anatolian origin and given the fact that the Cretans expanded into Anatolia during this period, it is entirely possible that the Mycenaeans copied certain artistic motifs of Anatolia (Higgins 1967, 278).

Although the shaft graves at Mycenae contain many objects that show influence from Crete and materials and iconography from the eastern Mediterranean and Anatolia, the Cretan palaces should not be credited with all the new techniques, motifs, and vessel shapes that appeared during the Shaft Grave period. There were innovations such as the enamelling technique that are credited to the Mycenaeans (Higgins 1967, 108 and 172). Thus, the Mycenaeans were not entirely dependent on Cretan palatial craftsman and their trading network, demonstrated in the following section.

Central Europe

Within the Shaft Graves of Mycenae there was more than 15 kg of gold found and although Crete exerted quite a bit of influence on the mainland, as expressed in the previous section, Crete does not possess any gold resources of its own, nor do many of the finds demonstrate many signs of being worked on by a Minoan craftsman (Davis 2015, 458). Although the wealth of the Mycenaeans during this period was primarily in gold, it was in gold that was not sourced from the Aegean (Davis 2015, 459). Furthermore, during the latter part of the MH period, the Shaft Grave O in Grave Circle B at Mycenae contained the earliest finds of amber within Greece –a total of 122 pieces (Harding, Hughes-Brock, and Beck 1974, 147–148; Hughes Brock 1985, 258; Heitz 2008, Table 1). Moreover, the amber found in the LH I-II periods was primarily restricted to the Peloponnese, with large amounts contained within the shaft graves; a total of ca. 1290 pieces of amber coming from Shaft Grave IV in Circle A alone (Harding, Hughes-Brock, and Beck 1974, 147 and 148; Hughes Brock 1985, 258; Heitz 2008, Table 3). This suggests that the occupants of these graves were able to control and maintain large amounts of amber supplies and it has been argued that the geological origin for the source of Mycenaean amber came from the Baltics (Harding, Hughes-Brock, and Beck 1974, 148 and 152). Thus, the Mycenaeans may have traded directly from Baltic sources. However, by looking at both the gold and amber found within the shaft graves at Mycenae, a Transylvanian and Pontic connection to the amber trade may be made. An Adriatic connection may also be made given that Mycenae was well-placed to participate in trade, since it is located along the quickest routes, to the west and north of the Mediterranean, through the Bay of Napfalion and the Gulf of Corinth. Thus, Mycenae acted as a gateway community in this trade network (Harding, Hughes-Brock, and Beck 1974, 156 and 159; Davis 2015, 458; Dickinson 1977, 55; Graziadio 1998, 29).

Transylvanian/Pontic Connection

Northwest of Bucharest, at Persinari, Romania, two gold hoards were found which provided evidence of trade contact with the Mycenaeans in the form of a gold sword that imitated an Aegean sword. The second hoard at Perisinari contained 11 daggers with Aegean influence as well (Davis 2015, 459). Similar hoards were also found in eastern Romania, which contained weapons of copper and gold, as well as bronze swords which were identified as being imported from the Greek mainland, and dated to a period just prior to the European Bronze Age (Davis 2015, 459). These heavy cast gold swords and objects corresponded to a time when there was an intensification of gold mining in central Romania which was contemporary with the Shaft Grave period on the mainland (Davis 2015, 459). This trade connection between Mycenaean Greece and Romania may have been undertaken as a mutual need for metal. Romania was rich in gold but not rich in the metal resources required for bronze while the opposite was true for the Mycenaeans, who may have been acquiring tin and copper by direct trade or through middlemen from various areas of the Carpathians, the Alps, and central Italy. This was determined by two factors:

1. LH I pottery was found in areas to the north of Sicily, Sardinia, and the Aeolian Islands

2. Some non-Baltic amber, possibly a European resin, appeared at the end of the LH I period along with amber spacer-beads, such as in Shaft Grave IV, which resembled amber spacers found in western Europe (Broodbank 2015, 431–32; Harding, Hughes-Brock and Beck 1974, 157; Dickinson 1977, 55; Hughes-Brock 1985, 258; Laffineur 2010, 446–7).

Thus the Mycenaeans, particularly at the site of Mycenae, may have taken advantage of the Transylvanian region that was rich in gold but lacked the technology and materials to cast bronze objects. As they filled this economical void they brought back gold to manufacture items such as the “Cup of Nestor” and amber beads and spacers which were found in the burials of Shaft Grave IV, V, and O (Fig. 6) (Davis 2015, 459–60; Harding, Hughes-Brock, and Beck 1974, 157; Heitz 2008, Table 3). Additionally, the neighbouring Pontic region is known to be rich in gold and thus a Pontic connection may also have been created (Laffineur 2010, 447).

Figure 6 Cup of Nestor, Shaft Grave IV.
Photograph by
Patrick Beasom.

Adriatic Connection

To acquire amber another trade route may have been established along the Adriatic coasts given the evidence of a western trade circuit from the mainland (Graziadio 1998, 56). A group of Mainland Polychrome Matt-painted (MPM) sherds were found at Filicudi, on the Aeolian Islands, which is the only instance of MPM vases identified so far away from the Aegean during the Shaft Grave period (Graziadio 1998, 58). Furthermore, at Lipari, a rounded cup with spirals for decoration has been linked to Messenia (Graziadio 1998, 58). Scattered finds along the Ionian/Balkin coast may also be indicative of contact with the mainland. This includes the LH IIA Vapheio cup and a short sword imitating a Type A sword from Pazhok in the Balkans. A Type A sword was also found in Tumulus A, Grave 12, in Vajzë, Albania which was probably an import (Dickinson 1977, 104; Graziadio 1998, 63). Furthermore, a sword from Iglarevo in Kosovo was compared to the various Type A swords found within the Grave Circles at Mycenae due to its decoration (Graziadio 1998, 63). Thus, if this trade route along the Corinthian Gulf was being used to export goods from the mainland, and in particular material from the Peloponnese, then it is entirely possible that these routes were also used to bring back items such as amber (Graziadio 1998, 64).


The Shaft Grave period, particularly at Mycenae, not only saw the rise of an elite class but it also saw an increase in its trading network. The Minoans began exerting its influence over the mainland, indicated by the presence of its artistic repertoire and the similar shapes of vessels and the presence of Linear A. Moreover, it was also through Crete that the mainland gained access to the materials and iconography of the east and Anatolia. This was in part due to the Cretan palaces in search for new and alternative sources outside of their pre-existing networks because of the sociopolitical unrest in those areas. However, not all of the wealth or cultural development be attributed to the Minoans and their trading networks as it was the Mycenaeans who established an amber and gold trade with the Baltic, Transylvanian, Pontic, and Adriatic regions. These influences and networks, although slow to appear during the earlier part of the Shaft Grave period, picked up by the later phase indicated by the substantial amount of wealth and the variety of non-indigenous precious objects found in Grave Circle A.

[1] Although there is not much evidence for a strong trade connection between Crete and the mainland in the shaft graves at Mycenae, there was a strong Cycladic connection given the amounts of Cycladic jugs and askoi found within the earlier graves of Circle B. (Hooker 1967, 272; Heitz 2010, Table 1)

Works Cited

Barringer, Judith M. 2014. The Art and Archaeology of Ancient Greece (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Broodbank, C. 2013. The Making of the Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean from the Beginning to the Emergence of the Classical World (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.).

Davis, Ellen N. 2015. “The Gold of the Shaft Graves: The Transylvanian Connection,” in Temple University Aegean Symposium: A Compendium, ed. P.P. Betancourt. (INSTAP Academic Press), 457–463.

Dickinson, O.T.P.K. 1977. The Origins of Mycenaean Civilization (Göteborg: Åströms Förlag).

Dickinson, Oliver. 1994. The Aegean Bronze Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Dickinson, Oliver. 1999. “Invasion, Migration and the Shaft Graves,” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 43, 97–107.

Foster, Karen P. 1979. Aegean Faience of the Bronze Age (London: Yale University Press).

Graziadio, Giampaolo. 1998. “Trade Circuits and Trade-Routes in the Shaft grave Period,” SMEA 40.1, 29–76.

Harding, A., H. Hughes-Brock, and C.W. Beck. 1974. “Amber in the Mycenaean World,” The Annual of the British School at Athens 69, 145–172.

Heitz, Christian. 2008. Burying the Palaces? Ideologies in the Shaft Grave Period (Heidelberg: Universitätsbibliothek der Universität Heidelberg).

Higgins, R. 1967. Minoan and Mycenaean Art (New York: Thames and Hudson).

Hughes-Brock, Helen. 1985. “Amber and the Mycenaeans,” Journal of Baltic Studies 16.3, 257–267.

Hooker, J.T. 1967. “The Mycenae Siege Rhyton and the Question of Egyptian Influence,” AJA 71, 269–281.

Laffineur, R. 2010. “Jewelry,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Bronze Age Aegean (ca. 3000–1000 BC), ed. E.H. Cline. (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 443–454.

Preziosi D. and L.A. Hitchcock. 1999. Aegean Art and Architecture (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Sandars, N.K. 1961. “The First Aegean Swords and Their Ancestry,” AJA 65.1, 17–29.

Tartaron, T.F. 2013. Maritime Networks in the Mycenaean World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).


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