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Jan Driessen

16. Human Heads and Crawling Snakes: Ritual Vases in Postpalatial Mycenae

Lena Papazoglou-Manioudaki

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1Continuous habitation and extensive fieldwork in the pioneering days of Mycenaean research, plus the splendor of the Shaft Graves and the legend of palatial Mycenae, have left little space for understanding the Postpalatial period. The ritual vessels presented here come from no stratified deposits and it is hard to specify their date and function. Their features however, jugs with human heads and a ring vase with crawling snakes, belong to an idiom known in the Mainland or Crete in LH IIIC. Little known primary sources, as the P. Stamatakis diaries, and stratified LH IIIC deposits in current excavations at Tiryns support the attempt to put them into context.

  • 1 From the beginning the Aegaeum series provided up-to-date scholarship and was, and still is, a valu (...)

2The 12th c. BC is the beginning of a new era, a transformative period that will shape eventually the Greek world1. In the aftermath of the collapse of the palatial administrative system, the inevitable cultural retreat did not prevent life to continue at the known citadels, Mycenae and Tiryns. Excavations at Tiryns, in the last thirty years, has revealed an organised and socially stratified society that populates densely the Lower Citadel and expands extensively outside the fortification. A shrine with large terracotta figures is in use in the Lower Acropolis and the smaller Megaron T, now a communal hall, occupies the place of the seat of the wanax in the Upper Citadel (Maran 2006: 125-126; 2011: 172-178).

3In the case of Mycenae we do not have a clear idea of the 12th c. BC habitation (Iakovidis 2003), though the meticulous work of E. French (2011) has provided information we can rely on. Besides the inevitable disturbances in the strata, due to an almost continuous habitation, especially in Hellenistic times, we have to take into account H. Schliemann who in 1874 and 1876 excavated a lot of ground, mainly in the area to the west of the Lion Gate, before his search led to its momentous discovery, that was the Shaft Graves. Additionally we do not possess much primary evidence on the excavation of Christos Tsountas in the Acropolis of Mycenae, beyond the graves. It will remain a mystery what exactly was the purpose of a large terracotta rhyton in the shape of a horse (only the head is preserved) from Chr. Tsountas excavation in 1892, which may have been imported to Mycenae in LH IIIC (Papazoglou-Manioudaki 2001), to name just a case related to ritual activities.

4The rituals vases I am about to present come from non-stratified deposits and consequently their exact date and function remain a matter of speculation. This paper is an attempt to put them, as much as possible, into context.

1. Jugs with human heads

5The mouth piece of a jug, with a modelled human head (NAM 1249) was found in H. Schliemann’s material from the Acropolis at Mycenae (Figs 16.1, 16.2, 16.3) and it is one of his early finds (Schliemann 1880: 68- 69, fig. 81).

Fig. 16.1. Jug with human head from Mycenae (NAM 1249)

Fig. 16.2. Jug with human head from Mycenae (NAM 1249)

Fig. 16.3. Jug with human head from Mycenae, drawing

6The jug is wheel-made, of light brown clay covered with the same colour slip. The head and the neck are made separately and then attached to the body. The face is angular with heavy eyebrows, pointed nose and bearded (?) chin. Protuberances form the eyes and mark the cheeks. Traces of faded red colour (vertical lines) decorate the neck, the chin, the top of the head and the strap handle. A band marks the base of the neck. Preserved height 7.9 cm (5 cm neck and head), diameter of mouth on top of the head 1.2 cm.

7According to P. Stamatakis’ diary, who was the Greek archaeologist who supervised Schliemann’s work and was a carefull eyewitness (Papazoglou-Manioudaki et alii 2009: 234-239), it was found on September 7th, 1876. At the time, the Shaft Graves were not yet identified but already fragments of grave stelai were unearthed, in the area west of the Lion Gate. On the interior of the body of the jug the number 1901 in black ink (Fig. 16.1), mentioned also in Stamatakis diary (Fig. 16.4), may be discerned. Number 5 refers to the depth of the excavated soil, from the surface. Follows a list of figurines but immediately below, in Stamatakis inventory, there is a reference to the fragments of the famous Warrior Vase (nos 1902-1946).

Fig. 16.4. Excerpt from Stamatakis’ diary during Schliemann’s excavations at Mycenae

8The possibility of NAM 1249 coming from the house of the Warrior Vase cannot be entirely ruled out. We may now only speculate that the Warrior Vase (NAM 1426), thought to present a funerary rather than a military scene (Burke 2008: 80-84, fig. 4.10), was used as a grave marker over a rich LH IIIC warrior’s grave, furnished with bronze tripods and a Naue II sword. The LH IIIC grave furnished with bronzes in the so-called House of the Tripods, outside the walls of Mycenae, gives us an idea of the actual use of abandoned houses as burial grounds for elite members of the community (French 2006: 45-50; 2011: 26). This specific use of the Warrior Vase, as a grave marker, is supported by recent finds in the area of ancient Olympia where large kraters with rare, for that period, pictorial scenes, such as a procession of chariots or a funerary procession, were put as grave markers over the dromoi of chamber tombs (Vikatou 2012-2013: 70, 307). A different, albeit contemporary, case, is the accumulation of wealth in a domestic context, comprising bronzes and precious heirlooms as represented by the Tiryns Treasure. It does not have a funerary use but legitimates the claim for power of a ruling family in LH IIIC Tiryns (Maran 2011: 172-178).

9Still we have to bear in mind that NAM 1249 could plausibly come from another place, excavated at the same time by Schliemann west of the Lion Gate, and here the Granary is a candidate. The idea is supported by a similar jug with modelled human head (NAM 6245) wich comes from the excavation of A.J.B. Wace in the Granary (Wace 1921-1923: 46-47, pl. VIIc). Only the head and the neck are preserved plus the beginning of the handle. Here the decoration with lustrous black paint is better preserved and decoration of vertical lines covers the neck and the lower face. The mouth is denoted with a slit and protuberances, enhanced by paint, mark the eyes, the cheeks and the chin. Preserved height 5.5 cm, diameter of mouth 1.3 cm (Figs 16.5-16.7).

Fig. 16.5. Jug with human head from Mycenae, Granary (NAM 6245)

Fig. 16.6. Jug with human head from Mycenae, Granary (NAM 6245)

Fig. 16.7. Jug with human head from Mycenae, Granary, drawing

10In this case we have more information on the circumstances of the find. The jug was found in the south corridor of the Granary which was built in LH IIIC Early immediately to the west of the Lion Gate. It was destroyed at the end of LH IIIC Middle (French 2011: 28). The date is supported by painted pottery which includes deep bowls with bird decoration and other specimens in the close style (Crouwel 1991: 22-23, fig. 3, 5).

11The two jugs, excavated by Schliemann and Wace, are the only known jugs with a modelled human head as spout in the Mainland. We know of large hollow figures in LH IIIA2/B and C at Mycenae, Tiryns, Midea, and Phylakopi (Laffineur 2001: 387-389; Demakopoulou 2009: 96-97). The anthropomorphic pots with human head, while the body takes the shape of a piriform vase with no base, belong to a different category which is close to the hollow figures. They come from the Cult Centres at Mycenae and Phylakopi, Melos (Moore & Taylour 1999: 46, pl. 11a) and another piece is known from the Southwest Quarter at Mycenae. It was found near a procession road leading to the Cult Centre (Iakovidis 2013: 65-66, pl. 11). The human head from Thebes belongs also to an anthropomorphic pot and comes from a residential, disturbed context that also comprised human and animal figurines, pictorial pottery and animal bones. Only the hollow head is preserved and a piriform body is assumed. Study has shown the association of this type with the anthropomorphic figures and their participation in ritual processions along with them (Andrikou 2009: 32-36 with references).

12Ritual vessels with modelled human heads as mouths also include the jug from Karphi and the conical rhyton from Moires, both from LM IIIC Crete. The first has three handles and painted curvilinear, spiraliform motifs on the piriform body which has a pointed end. It was found in a room along with another unique rhyton, a cart with three wheels, evidence enough to identify the room as a cult place (Koehl 2006: 86-87, nos 88, 89, pl. 10, fig. 5; Day 2011: 115-118, fig. 4, pl. 14). It is clearly a rhyton and we assume that the Mycenae pieces are rhytons too, with a vase-like body that may be taken as an abstract form of the human body. The conical rhyton from Moires, the upper part of which is modelled as a human head wearing a hat, incorporates the human head in a conical shape, which is a very abstract allusion to the human body (Rethemiotakis 1998: 75-80, fig. 49, pl. 34; Koehl 2006: 176, no 732).

13These vases seem to reflect an attempt to combine both the person who performs the rites and the vessel which contains the liquid offering. The ritual use of the Mycenae jugs cannot be denied and the presence of LH IIIC pictorial pottery provides an additional element to support the notion of Postpalatial ritual activities in an appropriate place, close to the Citadel’s entrance.

2. The ring vase with crawling snake (s)

14The lack of information creates an even greater problem where the find-spot and date of another peculiar vessel, the ring vase with plastic decoration (NAM 5427), is concerned. The inventory of the Prehistoric collection in the NAM does not provide any information, besides stating simply Mycenae as provenance. It probably comes from the excavation of Christos Tsountas in the Citadel. The same is true for two more fragmentary ring vases (NAM 9877, 9878) that were inventoried long after Tsountas had left the National Museum (1904) and ceased his field work at Mycenae, to teach at Athens University.

Fig. 16.8. Ring Vase from Mycenae, NAM 5427

Fig. 16.9. Ring Vase from Mycenae, NAM 5427

Fig. 16.10. Ring Vase from Mycenae, drawing

Fig. 16.11. Ring Vase from Mycenae, drawing

15The ring vase (NAM 5427) is wheel-made, of fine light brown clay, pink in the core and covered with a smooth slip (Figs 16.8-16.12). More than half of the ring is preserved, mended from fragments, circular in section. The spout has the form of an attached conical rhyton with high swung handle and broad lip. Only the base of the second spout is preserved and this was presumably also in the shape of an attached vessel. The beginning of the basket handle, which originally spanned the circular body, is still preserved on the ring. Decoration in lustrous black/ brown paint, in the form of two rows of freely drawn rosettes between bands, covers the ring on the upper side. The rhyton has a panel decoration with vertical chains of tiny circles on the body while vertical lines cover the broad lip. A row of horizontal tiny lines between broad bands covers the back of the rhyton’s handle. Max. height 16 cm, diam (ext.) 26.8 cm, (int) 19.8 cm, diameter of the circular section ext. 3.55, int. 2.55 cm.

16The most interesting feature of the ring vase is the plastic decoration on the body. There is, first of all, the very schematic ‘bull’s head’ (Fig. 16.8) at the base of the conical rhyton-spout and its obvious religious implications which has received some attention (Bignasca 2000: 61-62,221: E8,pl. 24; Koehl 2006: 274, ill. 13). More important, however, is the relief snake (s) crawling around the ring body among the field of rosettes, which has mostly passed unnoticed. The body of the snake (s) is covered all over with paint enhanced by two rows of applied white dots. There is at least one serpent’s head distinguishable exactly at the breakage point of the ring, its eyes and mouth depicted as slits (Fig. 16.10) and we may reconstruct another snake facing it, its body in the opposite direction. Moreover the so-called ‘bull’s head’ could represent the ending of the two tails of the snakes. The breakage exactly at the base of the rhyton obscures this crucial point and it has to be said that, even if there are two tails, the body of the snake seems uninterrupted.

Fig. 16.12. Ring vase from Mycenae, detail: the snake’s head

17The shape itself of the ring vase also makes a direct allusion to a coiling snake. A fragment of a ring vase from Mycenae (NAM 9877) has a body painted monochrome on the upper side, enhanced with rows of applied white dots (Fig. 16.13), a direct reference to the snake (s) on the ring vase NAM 5427. Another fragment, also from Mycenae (NAM 9878), has a decoration that combines floral and spiral elements (Bignasca 2000: 221, E9-E10, pl. 24) that we also see in the painted decoration of the conical rhyton with the human face from Moires on Crete, mentioned above. The presence of simple ring vases in cultic or funerary contexts is exemplified by the ring vase found at Tiryns in the ‘house of the priestess’ which finds a parallel with an identical decoration (hooked parallel chevrons) in the early LH IIIC ring vase from the warrior’s chamber tomb at Krini in Achaea (Papazoglou-Manioudaki 1994: 192, fig. 14, pl. 31).

Fig. 16.13. Ring vases from Mycenae, NAM 9877, 9878

18In LH IIIC, ring vases with applied miniature vases, figurines, or bull’s heads are known from the Mainland and the ring vase known as the Boston Kernos presents a fine example. Imitations of these ringvases are found in Palestine (Dothan 1982: 222-225, pl. 7). They are also found on Cyprus (Laffineur 1997), surviving well into the Protogeometric period, especially on Crete (Zosi 2009). Mention should also be made of the Geometric ring vase from Skyros showing a bird and a snake and the Archaic ring vase from the Heraion on Samos with applied human and animal heads, pomegranate, bird and snake (Bignasca 2000: 124, E22, E43). It is within this category that the ring vase NAM 5427 from Mycenae finds its place.

19A LH IIIC date for the Mycenae ring vases seems plausible. Besides the snake (s), secondary elements, as the rosettes, find parallels in the elaborate decoration of vessels of LH IIIC Middle and Advanced as on a stirrup jar from Aplomata, Naxos (Vlachopoulos 2008: 484-485, fig. 43.9) or on the pyxis lid from lalysos, Rhodes (Vlachopoulos 2012: 91, 239, fig. 7, 8). Freely drawn rosettes are of course also on LM IIIB pottery from Crete (Kanta 1980: 183-184, fig. 77, 114) and LH IIIB Mycenae (Iakovidis 2013: 317, pl. 76a).

20The conical rhyton, which serves as the spout of the ring vase, may not be completely out of place in LH IIIC, since a miniature handmade rhyton (NAM 2691), with a height of 10.7 cm from Chr. Tsountas excavation at Mycenae in 1886 (Koehl 2006: 177 no 734, 735, fig. 37, pl. 47) has a panel decoration with simple or fringed vertical lines that fits well with a LH IIIC date (Figs 16.14-16.15). A conical rhyton from Cyprus, with an applied ring kernos on its mouth, found in an Enkomi tomb dated to LH IIIB, gives us a different combination of the two shapes (Koehl 2006: 116, no 615, pl. 39).

Fig. 16.14. Miniature conical rhyton from Mycenae, NAM 2691

Fig. 16.15. Miniature conical rhyton from Mycenae, drawing

21The find spot of the miniature rhyton is again a matter of speculation since Tsountas uncovered a large area within the citadel in 1886, including the Palace area and the later Greek Temple. The presumption that walls excavated in the palace court may be dated to LH IIIC rather than the Geometric period can no longer be verified (Maran 2006: 136-138).

22Composite ring vases, consisting mainly of multiple intercommunicating rings, ending in a miniature cup, are known from the Palace of Zakros (Platon 1990) and the cemetery of Myrsini in Eastern Crete (Smith 2011), both dated to LM IIIA2. The Zakros piece was originally thought to be of LM I date but recently a date within LM IIIA2, the time of the brief reoccupation of the area, was put forward (Platon, pers. comm., October 2015). It has four hollow rings in a cruciform arrangement within a vertical axis. There are applied figures, birds, a fish and a four legged animal. A hard to identify relief figure is placed below the rim. An LH IIIA2 ritual vase from Trachones in Attica, from tombs looted in the 19th c., has four handles in the shape of ring vases, all communicating with the interior of the vase and featuring a schematic animal head on each top, commonly referred to dragon’s heads, though the ears may point to a different species such as a dog (Demakopoulou 2005).

23The chthonic character of the snake, a diachronic symbol of death and regeneration, makes it an appropriate, albeit rare, symbol painted on the LM IIIB larnakes on Mycenaean Crete (Merousis 2012: 310-312). In Mycenaean Greece, the coiled large size serpents in the Cult Centre at Mycenae, dated to LH IIIB, may have served as guardians, associated with the cult of a female deity (Moore & Taylour 1999: 63-66, fig. 21, pl. 23-25). It may be added that a reference to snakes (e-pe-toi), in a ritual context, is deduced from the Linear B archive at Thebes, on a leaf shaped tablet of the Gp series. This may be a reference to sacred snakes, well-known in later Greek tradition, or to deities in the shape of snakes. The ‘snakes’ in the tablet are recipients of offerings, receiving 1.6 to 11.2 litres of wine (Varias-Garcia 2014: 184-186).

24The presence of applied serpents is relative rare but it certainly belongs to the LH IIIC Mycenaean repertory found in funerary or cult contexts. This feature places the ring vase along the known jugs found in LH IIIC chamber tomb cemeteries, on the islands of Rhodes (Ialysos), Kos, Naxos and in the coastal site of Perati in Attica, all preserving painted or relief snakes in pairs coming to drink, from, sometimes strained, side spouts. The content was presumably milk and honey, elements identified in a Perati jug, offered in honour of the dead. The bodies of the snakes may be dark monochrome, covered with applied dots in white paint, as in the Mycenae ring vase, or light brown in color covered with painted black dots (Salapata 2006: 547-549, fig. 9; Vlachopoulos 2008: 486-487, fig. 43.16; 2012: 108-110).

25The LM IIIC cup from Kavousi on Crete with two relief snakes (Gessell 1999) and the fragmentary relief snake approaching a kylix held by the hand of a large terracotta figure, a divine figure known from the LH IIIC shrine at Amyklaion, Laconia (Demakopoulou 2009: 96-97, fig. 10a, b), both coming from a cult context, complete the picture. Geometric amphorae, depicting funerary scenes and featuring crawling relief snakes on the handles have adopted this LH IIIC tradition (Salapata 2006: 549). The basic idea of the rite depicted on all these vessels and implied in Linear B is that the snakes are provided with something to drink, they are recipients of offerings or share the offerings with the gods.

26The Mycenae ring vase does not show a specific rite but rather represents a narrative scene with a strong symbolic character. There is more than an iconic snake, crawling on a field filled with freely drawn, naturalistic rosettes. The background looks like a real floral landscape, but the rosettes may be taken also as solar symbols, inspired by Egyptian and Near Eastern imagery (Marinatos 2010: 131-139). Centuries later, in the Orientalising period (ca. 700 BC), again under the influence of Near Eastern motifs, a similar scene occurs on an early Protocorinthian conical lekythos from Corinth, a body frieze with a snake crawling. Eight-pointed stars and rosettes are depicted among the loops (Stillwell & Benson 1984: 48, no 187, pl. 10). The imagery of the cosmic snake is also known from Late Geometric conical lekythoi where a snake is crawling at the base of the neck, in a field full of swasticas, another sun symbol, or abstract filling ornaments (Moore 2009: 16-17, pl. 1). The scene of the snake crawling in a star-studded field at Mycenae, along with the chariot procession and the funerary scenes from Olympia mentioned above, belongs to the LH IIIC iconography that was adopted in later Greek imagery. A recently published fresco fragment from a LH IIIA2 mansion at Argos on the Greek Mainland, presents a unique scene of a white snake in low relief, with open mouth and red tongue, lifting its body upwards towards a flying bird, all on a blue background (Tournavitou & Brekoulaki 2010: 230-233, fig. 10). Here again there is a drama evolving on the scene that combines celestial (the bird as epiphany of the deity) and chthonic elements (the snake) but it is preserved in a very fragmentary state and its meaning is not easily discernible. Still it is an important contribution to the imagery of the bird and the snake.

27Finally, recent excavations conducted in 2014 at Tiryns have unearthed an exceptional ritual vessel, made of three intercommunicating rings, ending in a mouth modelled as a human head (Maran & Papadimitriou 2015: 54-55, fig. 12, 13; Maran this volume). Two snakes are crawling upwards on the rings. It was found in situ, within a settlement site, which was founded to the north-west of the fortified citadel in LH IIIC. It was deliberately smashed and buried in a pit near the wall of a house with no other ritual paraphernalia. The Tiryns vessel combines in a unique way the human head and the ring vases with crawling snakes thus opening a new perspective for the understanding of the symbolism of ritual activities, performed in a true domestic context in the LH IIIC period.

28The Mycenae vessels are the disiecta membra of ritual activities, at the time considered indispensable for the building of social identities, in the beginning of a new era. Still they contribute a few pieces to the complicated puzzle of LH IIIC Mycenae.



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▪ Stillwell & Benson 1984 = A.N. Stillwell & J.L. Benson, Corinth XV.3. The Potter’s Quarter. The Pottery, Princeton, N. J (1984).

▪ Tournavitou & Brekoulaki 2015 = 1. Tournavitou & H. Brekoulaki, The Mycenaean wall paintings from Argos: a preliminary presentation, in Mycenaean Wall Painting in Context. New discoveries, old finds reconsidered, edited by H. Brekoulaki, J.L. Davis & Sh.R. Stocker, (Meletemata 72), Athens, 213-245.

▪ Varias Garcia 2014 = C. Varias Garcia, ‘Snakes’ in the Mycenaean Texts? On the interpretation of the Linear B term e-pe-toi, in Ke-ra-me-ja. Studies Presented to Cynthia W. Shelmerdine, edited by D. Nakassis, J. Gulizia & S. A. James, Philadelphia (2014), 179-188.

▪ Vikatou 2012-2013 = O. Vikatou, Olympia und sein Umfeld während der mykenischen Zeit, in Mythos. Olympia. Kult und Spiele, edited by W.D. Heilmeyer, N. Kaltsas, H.J. Gehrke, G. Hatzi & S. Bochev, Berlin (2012-2013), 68-74.

▪ Vlachopoulos 2008 = A. Vlachopoulos, A Late Mycenaean journey from Thera to Naxos: The Cyclades in the Twelfth Century BC, in Horizon. A Colloquium on the Prehistory of the Cyclades, edited by N. Brodie, J. Doole, G. Gavalas & C. Renfrew, Cambridge (2008), 479-491.

▪ Vlachopoulos 2012 = A. Vlachopoulos, Η Υστεροελλαδική ΙΙΙΓ περίοδος στη Νάξο. Η Νάξος και ο Μυκηναϊκός κόσμος της Μετανακτορικής περιόδου, Vol. B, (Αρχαιογνωσία 10), Athens (2012).

▪ Wace 1921-1923 = A.J.B. Wace, Excavations at Mycenae. The Granary, BSA XXV (1921-1923), 38-61.

▪ Zosi 2009 = E. Zosi, An unusual vase in the National Archaeological Museum, AM 124 (2009), 1-18.


1 From the beginning the Aegaeum series provided up-to-date scholarship and was, and still is, a valuable and reliable source of information to all of us, then at the first years of our professional life. I owe thanks to Professor J. Driessen for inviting me to contribute to this volume in honour of Professor Robert Laffineur, to Prof. J. Maran for showing me his recent dig at Tiryns and the ritual vessel, to Prof. L. Platon for information on the Zakros piece and to Prof. N. Marinatos for fruitful discussions. The photographs are the work of I. Miari and the drawings of G. Nakas. NAM: National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 16.1. Jug with human head from Mycenae (NAM 1249)
Fichier image/jpeg, 13k
Légende Fig. 16.2. Jug with human head from Mycenae (NAM 1249)
Fichier image/jpeg, 13k
Légende Fig. 16.3. Jug with human head from Mycenae, drawing
Fichier image/jpeg, 34k
Légende Fig. 16.4. Excerpt from Stamatakis’ diary during Schliemann’s excavations at Mycenae
Fichier image/jpeg, 105k
Légende Fig. 16.5. Jug with human head from Mycenae, Granary (NAM 6245)
Fichier image/jpeg, 11k
Légende Fig. 16.6. Jug with human head from Mycenae, Granary (NAM 6245)
Fichier image/jpeg, 16k
Légende Fig. 16.7. Jug with human head from Mycenae, Granary, drawing
Fichier image/jpeg, 42k
Légende Fig. 16.8. Ring Vase from Mycenae, NAM 5427
Fichier image/jpeg, 17k
Légende Fig. 16.9. Ring Vase from Mycenae, NAM 5427
Fichier image/jpeg, 11k
Légende Fig. 16.10. Ring Vase from Mycenae, drawing
Fichier image/jpeg, 17k
Légende Fig. 16.11. Ring Vase from Mycenae, drawing
Fichier image/jpeg, 17k
Légende Fig. 16.12. Ring vase from Mycenae, detail: the snake’s head
Fichier image/jpeg, 27k
Légende Fig. 16.13. Ring vases from Mycenae, NAM 9877, 9878
Fichier image/jpeg, 24k
Légende Fig. 16.14. Miniature conical rhyton from Mycenae, NAM 2691
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Légende Fig. 16.15. Miniature conical rhyton from Mycenae, drawing
Fichier image/jpeg, 13k

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