Mycenae 'Rich in Gold', the kingdom of mythical Agamemnon, first sung by Homer in his epics, is the most important and richest palatial centre of the Late Bronze Age in Greece. Its name was given to one of the greatest civilizations of Greek prehistory, the Mycenaean civilization, while the myths related to its history have inspired poets and writers over many centuries, from the Homeric epics and the great tragedies of the Classical period to contemporary literary and artistic creation. Perseus, son of Zeus and Dana?, daughter of Akrisios, king of Argos and descendant of Danaos, is traditionally considered as its mythical founder. Pausanias (2, 16, 3) reports that Perseus named the new city Mycenae after the pommel (mykes) of his sword, which fell there, or after the Perseia spring, discovered there under the root of a mushroom (mykes). According to the myth, Perseus's descendants reigned at Mycenae for three generations. After the last of them, Eurystheas, died childless, the Mycenaeans chose Atreus, son of Pelops, father of Agamemnon and Menelaos, as their king.
Mycenae was founded between two tall conical hills, Profitis Ilias (805 m.) and Sara (660 m.), on a low plateau dominating the Argive plain and controlling both the land and sea routes. The site was first occupied in the seventh millennium BC (Neolithic period). Very little remains of this early settlement because of continuous re-occupation up until the historical period. Most of the monuments visible today were erected in the Late Bronze Age, between 1350 and 1200 BC, when the site was at its peak. In the early second millennium BC a small settlement existed on the hill and a cemetery with simple burials on its southwest slope. Grave Circle B, a stone-built funerary enclosure containing monumental graves with rich grave gifts, indicates that the first families of rulers and aristocrats appeared at Mycenae at approximately 1700 BC. This social structure developed further in the early Mycenaean period, c. 1600 BC, when a large central building, a second funerary enclosure (Grave Circle A) and the first tholos tombs were erected on the hill. The finds from these monuments show that the powerful Mycenaean rulers participated in a complex network of commercial exchange with other parts of the Mediterranean.
The construction of the palace and fortification wall currently visible began c. 1350 BC (Late Helladic IIIA2). The latter saw three construction phases, the first wall being built of Cyclopean masonry. A new wall was erected to the west and south of the early one approximately one hundred years later (Late Helladic IIIB1), together with the Lion Gate, the citadel's monumental entrance, and its bastion. Included in the newly fortified area were the city's religious centre and Grave Circle A, which was refurbished and used for ancestral cults. The famous tholos tomb known as the 'Treasure of Atreus', with its gigantic lintels and tall beehive vault, was probably built during the same period. At approximately 1200 BC, in the Late Helladic IIIB-C period, following a large destruction probably caused by an earthquake, the walls were extended to the northeast so as to include the subterranean well. Successive destructions and fires led to the site's final abandonment c. 1100 BC.
After the collapse of the palatial system and of the 'Mycenaean Koine', the hill was sparsely inhabited until the Classical period. Meanwhile, several local cults of heroes developed in the area, fuelled by Mycenae's fame, which the Homeric poems spread throughout Greece. A temple dedicated to Hera or Athena was erected on the top of the hill in the Archaic period. In 468 BC, after the Persian Wars, in which Mycenae took part, the town was conquered by Argos and had part of its fortification wall destroyed. In the Hellenistic period, the Argives founded a 'village' on the hill, repaired the prehistoric walls and the Archaic temple, and erected a small theatre over the dromos of the tholos tomb of Clytaemnestra. The town was abandoned in subsequent centuries and was already in ruins when Pausanias visited it in the second century AD.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the impressive Cyclopean walls of the Mycenaean acropolis attracted many travellers and antiquaries who did not hesitate to loot the site, taking advantage of the indifference and greed of the Turkish authorities. In 1837, after the Greek Independence, the archaeological site of Mycenae came under the jurisdiction of the Greek Archaeological Society, whose representative K. Pittakis cleared the Lion Gate in 1841. In 1876, after opening several small test trenches in 1874, Heinrich Schliemann began excavating Grave Circle A, where he uncovered five graves. His work was continued in 1876-1877 by trench supervisor P. Stamatakis who uncovered the sixth grave. In subsequent years C. Tsountas (1884-1902), D. Evangelidis (1909), G. Rosenwaldt (1911), A. Keramopoulos (1917) and A. J. B. Wace (1920-1923, 1939, 1950-1957) excavated the palace and cemeteries. In 1952-1955 I. Papadimitriou and G. Mylonas of the Greek Archaeological Society excavated Grave Circle B and several houses, while G. Mylonas with N. Verdelis of the Archaeological Service excavated parts of the settlement. Excavations by the British School at Athens under Lord W. Taylor uncovered the religious centre, while further investigations were conducted by the Greek Archaeological Society under G. Mylonas and S. Iakovidis in 1959 and 1969-1974. In 1950-1955 A. Orlandos and E. Stikas supervised the restoration of the Tomb of Clytaemnestra, the palace, Grave Circle B and the area surrounding the Lion Gate. The project for the 'Restoration-Conservation-Presentation of the Monuments of the Acropolis of Mycenae and its Greater Area', begun in 1998, was overseen initially by the Work Group for the Restoration of the Monuments of Epidaurus and subsequently by the Mycenae Committee, created in 1999.