Nothing quite compares to visiting an ancient site. There is an inevitable sense of wonder at being so geographically close to people so temporally distant. Having frequented every museum London and its periphery has to offer, I know the experience just can’t be matched by objects detached from their context. However, the photograph is a hugely powerful and underrated tool for displaying relics of the ancient world – in their real context. At a time when the presence of foreign objects in British museums has come under fire, the Museum of Classical Archaeology’s current exhibition demonstrates just how revealing a photograph can be.

Mycenae: From Myth to History is an exhibition of around 50 photographs of the ancient Greek citadel Mycenae, a military stronghold in the Bronze Age. They were taken by American photographer Robert McCabe in 1955, tasked with documenting the site by the British archaeological team there at the time. In a way no cast or object could, McCabe’s photographs shows us all kinds of context: how the sun-lit Acropolis shines against the surrounding landscape, how 1950s Mycenae was navigated by jeeps rather than wagons, and how archaeologists’ scaffolding changed the face of the site.

“The photograph is a hugely powerful and underrated tool for displaying relics of the ancient world, in their real context”

The title of the exhibition Mycenae: From Myth to History alludes to the fact that Mycenae’s mythological history is completely interwoven with its real history. One mythical king of Mycenae, Agamemnon, commanded the Greek military in the famous Trojan War, depicted in Homer’s Iliad. Upon his return to Mycenae, he was slain by his wife Clytemnestra, who resented his sacrifice of their daughter in order to ensure clear passage to Troy. This is a mythical tale, written down in the 8th century BC, and yet one of McCabe’s 1955 photographs is captioned ‘Tourists visit the tomb of Clytemnestra’. The site reflects a dual history: one of a real centre of Greek Civilisation in the Bronze Age, and one of the mythical kingdoms founded by Greek hero Perseus.

Tourists Visit the Tomb of ClytemnestraCopyright Robert McCabe.

Of course, Mycenae’s real history did not end with the collapse of its dominance in the late Bronze Age, and this is reflected in McCabe’s photographs. Hints at the 1950s context permeate the exhibition. One image is of the stationmaster at the now disused Mycenae railway station. Another image shows local Agamemnon Dassis with his daughter Panagoula, standing in front of the Belle Helene Inn. Above them a sign reads (in Greek) “Greetings stranger. You will be welcomed here by us.” In a nod to the origin of this quote in Homer’s Odyssey, this photograph sits above the museum’s own bust of Homer. Despite Mycenae’s status as a great ancient city, these modern scenes are reminders that the Mycenaean period was just one scene in the ongoing story of human history.

Copyright Robert McCabe

As well as the locals, the photographs are also populated by the archaeological team conducting the excavations, as well as frequent glimpses of their scaffolding. This is indicative of the historical context in which the British have entered, excavated and often extracted from foreign sites to fill their museums, something we are not usually reminded of in the museums themselves. This is clearly an ongoing conversation behind the scenes, as the museum has a pair of small boxes asking visitors to vote on whether they think the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece. Despite being tasked with photographing Mycenae, McCabe was evidently also interested in the archaeological process on the site, with many photographs of Alan Wace – leader of the team – and other figures from the party intruding on the otherwise empty landscape. Naturally, the figure we never see is McCabe with his Rolleiflex camera, documenting the action.

Copyright Robert McCabe

I’m a recent convert to photography, or at least to exhibitions of photographs. I was led down the rabbit hole by the Tate Liverpool’s recent exhibition of Don McCullin’s documentary photography. After room upon room of hard-hitting images of conflict and suffering – everywhere from Vietnam to Northern Ireland – the exhibition ended with photographs of Palmyra, an ancient city in Syria, largely destroyed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. These pictures, in contrast with the intense animacy of the war photographs, were powerfully transportive and incredibly still.

The crispness, the intense blacks and totally clear whites, and the beautifully hazy grey skies produced by black and white film create arresting images that you can’t help but stare at. The same goes for McCabe’s photographs, which take advantage of the various angles of the Greek sun. McCabe used the sun to create maximally contrastive images, one photograph showing the ‘southwest extremity of the acropolis in the early morning light, silhouetted against the shadow of Mount Zara with the Argive plain beyond’ (from caption). Indeed, the implicit presence of the sun is how photographs take you out of the museum and onto the Greek plains surrounding Mycenae, in a way that casts, or indeed the original statues and reliefs, cannot.

I’d like to take a moment to mention some beautiful details of McCabe’s photographs. He often harnesses the darkness beneath gateways or entrances to tombs to frame figures of landscapes. I was also struck by the black cracks outlining massive sun-scorched stone blocks, for example surrounding Mycenae’s famous Lion Relief. The stones were described in later ages as Cyclopean, as they were so huge it was thought they were the work of the famous Cyclopes: mythological one-eyed giants. The photographs give us at least a little sense of what it would be like to stand beneath these looming Cyclopean structures. Some less gargantuan bricks are featured in a photograph of Alan Wace looking out from the wall of Grave Circle A, whose bricks are individually captured in various patterns and shades of grey.

“The photographs give us at least a little sense of what it would be like to stand beneath these looming Cyclopean structures”

I should note at this point that this is a humble exhibition, in contrast with the grand monuments of Mycenae. Photographs are printed or blown up onto boards and attached to the walls of the museum. They are not specially lit nor picked out from the plethora of reliefs on the walls, they even overflow into the entrance way of the Classics Faculty. This is not an exhibition whose majesty will overwhelm you the moment you step inside, but with ancient ruins, references to mythological figures, 1950s’ Greek townspeople and British archaeologists, if you immerse yourself into each photograph you will find layers of myth and history, all perfectly captured on black and white Plus-X film.

Copyright Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge

Mycenae: From Myth to History is open at the Museum of Classical Archaeology until December 10th, with an online version of the exhibition to come. Find out more about the exhibition here:


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