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Mycenea Tombs

Updated on August 20, 2012


To try to discover what Mycenaean tombs tell us about their way of life, I will be looking at three different types of tombs. The first being those found in Grave Circle A, which was the first to be found and excavated, then Grave Circle B, which was found after A, but was built in an earlier time, and finally the Tholos tombs, generally built later than the grave circles.

Grave Circle A
Grave Circle A | Source
Mycenae Bull
Mycenae Bull | Source

Grave Circle A

In 1876, an archaeologist named Heinrich Schliemann, discovered Grave Circle A. It was found inside the Lion Gate, just to the right and they were dated back to being from 1580 to 1500 BC, during the late Bronze Age. Before 1250 BC, Grave Circle A was outside of the Citadel, but the fortification was expanded so that it would fit inside. Inside of the grave shafts were nineteen bodies (one of which was just outside the circle, but clearly still part of the set) with all but one of the shaft graves – shaft grave II – having more than one body inside, which gives us reason to believe that they were probably a family. This suggests that family ties were close knit in this period because they were even buried together. Also, with this information, we are able to find that the tombs were more than likely built specifically for the family before they even died. Every time someone would pass away, they would remove a large slab of stone that covered the shaft and place the body inside, then place the slab back again to prevent grave robbers. However, though grave robbers in ancient Greek times would not have been able to get into the shafts, unfortunately, in more recent times they were able to, so not everything that was buried with the bodies is still there now.

Found inside Grave Circle A were the bodies of nine men, eight women and one child; the body found in grave shaft IV is so far undetermined as it was one of the earliest, therefore had the most degradation. The latest was grave shaft I and it is not much older than the most recent Tholos tombs. The grave shafts inside Grave Circle A were for Royalty and had been embalmed, five being found by Schliemann and one later being found by a man called Stamtakis. With the bodies were also found material goods, which were still intact. Archaeologists believe that when the graves were completely buried, a toast would be made in respect to their lost loved one. The evidence they have for this is cup shrapnel that they found inside. There were also gold cups found in the tombs, suggesting it was an emblem of respect to their dead.

In the Bronze Age, Mycenaean people had strong spiritual beliefs about an afterlife and the fact that we are seeing bodies that have been embalmed and items buried with them, gives evidence for this. They believed that once you die, your body needs to be respectably buried for it to be able to move on and that you also needed objects from the material world to take up with you in the after life. This was not only for use in the afterlife, but they thought that to get to the afterlife, you had to cross a river that charged a fare, so if you did not have items to pay with or that were worthy enough, then you would not get to go to the next life. Due to these beliefs, we know that their way of life must have been – at least in part – governed by this, in order to prepare for death; for example, appeasement of the Gods would have been common with animal sacrifices and libations in order to assure good life after death. These rhytons (below) were used in rituals to pour libations to the gods and were found in grave shaft IV, The lion’s head is made completely of gold, but is not in as good a condition as the bull head. As you can see, part of the lion’s main has begun break away at the bottom. The bull’s head on the other hand, though not in perfect condition, is in better a state. The horns are made out of gold as is the rosette but the head itself is made of wood. The rosette was a symbol of sacrifice, which tells us that a bull would have been a popular animal to sacrifice to their gods. There is also evidence of Cretan craftsmanship; but due to the undeniable patterning on some of the ornaments and grave stelai, which is not standard in Cretan craft, it is likely that it was specifically designed to the wants of mainland chieftains, giving us reason to believe that the bodies found in Grave Circle A, were of chieftains

Not only did the tombs tell us about their religious practices and beliefs, but also a wider range of things as well; for example, from excavating the tombs, they found evidence of trade. Inside the six shaft graves items were found that show evidence that they participated in trade with such cultures as Egyptian (embalming being one clue), Minoan, Cycladic, Cretan and Anatolian. From Minoan culture they found two exquisite and highly expensive – proving this grave site was for royalty – head rhytons, dating from the 16th century B.C.

Grave Shaft IV, proving to have the most valuable artefacts also had a gold vessel, known as ‘the cup of Nestor’. However, there were also many finds in other shaft graves; for example, Grave Shaft III had a funeral diadem made out of a flimsy gold material. Due to the material, we are able to tell that this was not used for everyday adornment, but only for special occasions, such as a funeral and was made for a Mycenaean princess, which means that one of the male bodies found inside Grave Shaft III must have been a prince.

In grave shaft V there was a death mask, used purely for burial rituals and were only given to the very royal. It is unlikely that it was part of their religious beliefs (though not impossible) because women would then, probably have been adorned with them too. When Schliemann found it he believed he was looking at Homer’s son of Atreus from the Iliad, despite the fact that it dated too far back for this to be possible and that the Iliad might have been merely myth, rather than historical. However, since then the mask has been known as the mask of Agamemnon (shown below).

As you can see, Cretans used a lot of spirals in for the chieftains in their patterning. Just above the two large rings, there is a carving of a soldier in a chariot, going off to war, giving evidence that Mycenaean people were indeed were fighting men. The militaristic side of Mycenaean civilisation is also indicated on other tablets such as these.

We can tell from the tombs that it was from the Late Bronze Age period; not only by the archaeology, but also from items inside the tombs. The reason for this is that many of the items, including death masks (see below) and rhytons were made from bronze, which was the most frequently used metal after it had been discovered. Another example of an item from the Bronze Age is a Niellodagger, made from bronze and overlaid with gold and silver. This tells us that the Mycenaean people were part of a warrior race as this was not the only weaponry found in shaft graves.

Looking at the image above, you can see the intricate artwork that went into the design. It is picturing a group of soldiers fighting a large lion. One of the men has already been killed, while two of the lions are fleeing. This art suggests that not only are they warriors in the battlefield, but also hunters; this scene could be possible training for men, though it is hard to say for sure.

Grave Circle B
Grave Circle B | Source

Grave Circle B

In the 1950’s, a man called Papademetriou discovered a second grave circle, known as Grave Circle B; though over lapping in the time period to Grave Circle A was actually constructed earlier, dating as far back to as 1620 BC and the latest at 1520BC. This is known from the architectural evidence and also, unlike Grave Circle A, the wall was never extended for it to be included inside the citadel. Reasons for this could be because it was built further away from the Lion Gate, therefore the walls would have had to had been extended too far, but also because the bodies found in Grave Circle B were not of as greater status or wealth as those found in Grave Circle A, so the need to do so might not have been justified. When excavated, it was found that there was little inside the graves because they were so old. Another possible reason for this is that the Tholos tombs were later built on top of them so it ended up being damaged, with some of the material inside, destroyed in the process. From what was found there, though we can tell that the items weren’t as expensive, but were still beautifully handcrafted items, and like Grave Circle A, also consisted of weaponry.

There were several more bodies found in B, compared to A. It had sixteen male, five female and two children and all appeared to be big boned people, suggesting a lot of activity was placed in their brief lives. One of the more interesting bodies found was in Gamma 51, where a young man was buried. He had a scar on his left eye, which was probably from a battle that led to his death, giving evidence to show that soldier in ancient times were often very young. However some archaeologists believe he was killed by a lion (possibly while hunting or training), because of the stele found there depicted a man fighting one; however, this could have been simply decorative. This wasn’t what made this body so different from the others though. What was discovered is the evidence suggesting he underwent a surgical procedure called trepanning. If this is correct then it means that the Mycenaeans were far more advanced than any race at the time because it would indicate that they had become sophisticated enough to attempt doing surgery, even if it was not successful. It is also possible that the surgery was from a previous wound, not the one that caused his death; this is because, if he were in battle, then it is unlikely there would have been time to remove the wounded from the battle for recovery. If this were so, then it would mean that the surgery was in fact successful. Seeing evidence of surgery tells us that the people must have been studying medicine and biology to some degree, with a rudimentary knowledge of chemistry to be able to give treatments to patients.

Inside the tombs, the bodies were found to be laid out straight, flat on their backs and placed with all their jewellery, which unlike the jewellery found in Grave Circle A, was made of beads instead of gold. This could be because they were not as rich, or perhaps that they had not yet developed a way to make gold jewellery.

Although the items were not as valuable as those found in Grave Circle A, it still tells us that there was a greater wealth around this time than in earlier periods. As with Grave Circle A, the patterns for jewellery were spirals, meaning that their style of art did not change over that period of time an example of this is a gold armlet. This was the only gold jewellery found in Grave Circle B, and could be from its latest period, when it was becoming possible to make it, informing us of the progress Mycenaeans were making through time.

Despite the fact that Grave Circle A generally had more prestigious artefacts, the gold armlet found in Grave Circle B is one of the finest pieces of jewellery found out of the two.

Pottery was also found, for example, there was a crystal vase in the shape of a duck, which was one of the more significant finds in the shaft graves. It was a bowl made out of rock crystal, with the handle carved as the neck and head of the duck; this piece of craftsmanship, found in grave shaft O is another example of Minoan work. They would have been buried with pottery, possibly to use in the after life, or as a way of honouring their dead.

Although it was originally believed that the death masks were a mould, created to resemble the face it belonged to, looking at the electrum mask, found in Grave Gamma, it appears unlikely. This is because the mask does not appear to fit the face of the corpse in anyway. One assumption that could be made is that it is merely a basic representation of the one buried with it, but it is impossible to know for sure.

Tholos Tombs

Design of the tombs clearly changed over the centuries as we found out in 1981, when the Tholos Tombs were discovered; they are the latest tombs to be found in Mycenae and the most recent that we know were made. The nine Tholos tombs found at Mycenae date back to between 1525-1275 BC. There is a radical design change in the Tholos tombs, compared to Grave Circle A and B, which were basically just large circles with either cist or grave shafts in them that went down several meters, then with a slab of rock over them, whereas the Mycenaean Tholos tombs had a dromos (entrance) instead of a hole in the ground. They were also known as beehive graves because of their circular honeycomb structure (see below). These transformations in the tombs are most likely to do with the Mycenaean’s realisation of practicality. Having to remove a heavy slab every time a body needed to be buried is hard work, time consuming and economically insensible, but with increase in trade, resulting in broader travelling, new ideas were formed as in how to make a more practical structure for the tombs.

The Tholos tombs in Mycenae were not the only ones around at the time; some archaeologists believe that the earlier Minoan tholi are somehow connected the Mycenaean ones, and believe that the Mycenae tholi in fact descend from, or at least were developed from those in the Minoan period. However, there are several differences between them, making some archaeologists think that there is not a connection between them. Whereas the Minoan Tholi were place above ground on flat land, the Mycenaeans generally built theirs in hillsides or underground and covered them in earth, but Minoans did not. One big difference between them is what they were used for. Minoan tombs were used for their whole population, but we have discovered that only royalty were able to be buried in Mycenaean Tholos tombs. It is likely that the inspiration for the tholi tombs were from the Minoans and they simply designed in their unique way.

The Tholos tombs are categorised into three groups, depending on their archaeological similarities or differences. It starts off with the earliest Tholos tombs, which were not of great design and then onwards to the most recent. The changes they made in the tombs, shows that they were perfectionist, and strived to improve themselves – maybe to compete with other monuments they had seen on their travels, such as the great pyramids in Egypt.

Unfortunately all the Tholos tombs were robbed, with only a few fragments of pottery left. The fragments did however tell us that the Cyclopean tomb was the oldest. When it comes telling what might have been in the tombs, we will never know for sure, but we can get an idea, based on what was found in the Tholos tombs at Vaphio in Laconia. There were several pieces of pottery and an incense stick, which suggests ceremonial rituals that could have been performed at the time, but most the items were weaponry such as a sword, two spear heads and six knives. Spears were most likely used for hunting more than battle because in battle you would not be able to retrieve your spear once thrown into the midst of the fighting. These findings would seem to verify what was in the robbed graves because of all the weaponry found in previous tombs and the evidence that the bodies found in the Tholos tombs were a warrior people, suggesting much of a man’s day would either be spent in military training, or even pottery making black figure pots, depicting the warriors who go off to war.


It is an undeniable fact that the tombs in Mycenae tell us a lot about their way of life, but they can’t tell us everything. For example, for a race that has a lot of art, such as pottery, wall paintings, etc, we are unable to learn anything about their musical interests as there is no indication in the tombs of what type of instruments they might have played.

Despite the evidence of a possible surgery, it is limited to how much it can tell us about their medical advancements at that time; we cannot be a hundred percent sure or not if the surgery worked, or even what they attempted to do in the surgery itself.

There wasn’t much evidence about Linear A or B in the tombs. Linear B being a vital piece of Mycenaean history and tells us that they had a written language of symbols, which the tombs did not provide; the tablets tell us about information such as their farming and trading practices beyond what the bodies and goods found inside the Grave Circles or the Tholi could. The tablets gave information that the tombs do not, for example they give insight into their diet and the agricultural foods they would have grown. We know they ate a lot of wheat, olives and grapes, but hardly any fish or other types of meat.

Even with the evidence that we do have from the tombs, it is important not to put too much emphasis on what we have been presented with. They would suggest that the Mycenaeans were a war-like race, and though this is true to an extent, it is impossible to know how accurate the evidence is at showing us how far that extent goes. Spyros Iakovidis believed that the great walls surrounding the citadel were for showing off their power and status, whereas Cathy Gere argued that it was built as a fortress for defence. Neither can be proved with what little evidence we have, so we cannot assume either one is the correct interpretation.

In conclusion, the tombs give us details into the Mycenaean culture, such as their social classes, their trading habits and their strength in battle, however there are not the only source of information out there that can tell us about this fascinating culture, as it does not provide us with knowledge, for example what they did for social gatherings, or what children did for fun; overall it gives us an interesting look into the past, but unfortunately a fragmented and incomplete one.


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    • rafken profile image


      6 years ago from The worlds my oyster

      As always with archeological finds, they usually leave us with more questions rather than supplying us with answers. Thanks for the info.


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