Friday, April 3, 2015

The Mycenaeans: Their Burials

Another central aspect of Mycenaean material culture were their cyclopean tombs. Using their famed masonry style they built spectacular burial chambers for the nobility. Earlier kings and nobles were buried in the so-called two grave circles at Mycenae, which were areas of shaft graves surrounded by a low limestone wall. Later nobles were buried in large and elaborately decorated beehive-shaped buildings, called tholos tombs. Sometimes the bodies were buried in a sitting position, or underwent slight mummification. Some wore rich masks of electrum or gold. These interesting traditions stand in stark contrast to the iron age practices of cremation, then deposition in a golden funerary urn (both of which are seen in the Iliad). It is estimated that in total (in both grave circles) there were around 30 pounds of gold.

Grave Circle B, Mycenae

Mycenae has two examples of cyclopean tombs, both of which greatly illuminate the social condition of the city's nobility. The earliest one is Grave Circle B (GCB). It was built outside the citadel between 1,675-1,650 BCE and used for around 100 years til 1,550 BCE. It is comprised of a 92' circle surrounded by wall 5' thick and 4' high. It houses 26 graves: 14 shaft and 12 cist, and in the 14 shaft graves were 24 bodies. 6 of the 14 shaft graves were solely reserved for families and each of which had multiple occupants. The shaft graves were marked on the surface by a tumulus, yet 4 of which had stele. The stele monuments reached up to 7' high, and 2 stele (Alpha and Gamma) were engraved with hunting scenes.

A diagram of GCB and shaft graves at Mycenae

During its first period, from 1,650-1,600 BCE, burials were small and shallow without many grave goods. This was similar to other MH period burials. Throughout the first 50 years graves became larger, filled with more goods, and female burials begin. Diadems are found on all sexes and age groups, although eventually female burials begin to contain an increased amount of ornaments. These early Mycenaean elites had begun to festoon their eternal possessions with expensive foreign objects, by 1,600 BCE up to 50% of graves had Cycladean imports.

A reconstruction of GCB during this period, 1,650-1,550 BCE

During the latter 50 years of use (1,600-1,550 BCE) these trends continued and accelerated. Nobles were buried by this period with even more Cycladean imports and now with Minoan imports as well. More women were buried than men, and male burials in comparison were poorer. Perhaps Mycenaean culture during these 50 years began to adopt the Minoan social function and prestige of a priestess class. Even while that occurred, these 50 years heralded the emergence of a male warrior aristocracy in Mycenae, with male burials becoming associated with sets of tableware, drinking vessels, and various weapons. Besides their possible difference in social status, the men and women buried during these 50 years were undoubtedly rich. The women are dressed in ornate clothing bedecked with earrings, necklaces, gold bands, and silver pins. Men are dressed with weapons, and gold trimmed clothing. Grave Nu shows traces of a boar tusk helmet, expressing its owner's wealth.

By far the most interesting artifact recovered from GCB is an electrum death mask. This metal mask was found not on someone's face, but on a box beside a body. This is the earliest precious death mask found, death masks are found in both GCB and the later Grave Circle A (GCA) but in the later graves are gold and are stylistically different. In shaft Gamma, the male electrum mask wearer was found with his sister, suggesting a clan based nobility. Many of the men buried had wounds, which were most likely caused from warfare and some of which may have been fatal. GCB charts the rise of early Mycenaean elite culture, one in which rich women attained prominence while men fought and died in battle. The identity of the individual buried with the electrum mask is unknown, possibly a king. Besides the death mask, another fascinating object found in GCB is a rock crystal duck-shaped bowl, found in shaft omicron. It is disputed whether it was made by a Mycenaean or a Minoan, either way it is a magnificent piece of both labor and artistry.

The electrum death mask from shaft Gamma at GCB, Mycenae, 1,650-1,550 BCE

The rock crystal bowl with a duck from GCB, Mycenae, 1,600-1,500 BCE

GCB was miraculously found intact, being reached by archeologists only because it was not looted in antiquity. Many later (15th century and onward) Mycenaean tombs suffered that terrible fate. Around 1,550 BCE for whatever reason GCB became disused, with the nobility setting up the nearby GCA for their burials. Depending on the accuracy of the dating, there may have been some overlap as the latest graves of GCB (Alpha, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, and Omicron) are contemporaneous with the earliest graves at GCA. The newer GCA between 1,600-1,550 BCE as GCB fell into disuse. It was built in a similar manner to the other grave circle, also being built outside the palace walls and used as a repository for the ruling elite of the city. It contains 6 shaft graves, with 19 bodies in total. Each grave at GCA had a mound and a stele erected above it. Both GCB and GCA were local continuations of this widespread MH (middle Helladic) tradition.

Grave Circle A, Mycenae

In the early 1,500s BCE when GCA was built, Mycenae proper included a small unfortified palace. Throughout the life of GCA Mycenaean nobility began to become fabulously wealthy, much more so than their predecessors. GCA was only used for around 50-100 years until 1,500 BCE when it too fell into disuse. By 1,500 the wealthy had stopped using shaft graves in a funerary area and became to built themselves individual grand tholos tombs. The native funerary tradition which developed both GCB and GCA had been superseded, as the wealthy desired even more elaborate tombs. Tholos tombs themselves had first developed around Messenia in the southern Peloponnese, and had spread throughout the Mycenaean world.

Golden diadems and other objects found in GCA by Heinrich Schliemann

Detail of the golden diadem from Shaft grave III at GCA, Mycenae

Inside the graves at GCA are gold masks, weapons, ornate staffs, gold rings, buttons, bracelets, and gold and silver cups. Of the 19 bodies in GCA, 8 are men, 9 are women, and 2 are children. Each shaft contained 2-5 bodies and only grave II had a single burial. Boar tusks for helmets were found in grave IV, and golden masks were found in graves IV and V. The most famous Mycenaean object ever found was a gold death mask from grave shaft V at the GCA: The Mask of Agamemnon. Other precious objects such as “Nestor's cup” and the silver Siege Rhyton were lying by the side of the deceased in shaft IV as well. Most graves had a full panoply of weapons, especially swords, which had beautiful carvings on them showing various hunting and fighting scenes. It is obvious that such activities were the common past times of the nobility during this period, yet the artistry involved shows that there was a vast network of artisans working silently behind such high status individuals. The decorate daggers are specifically considered objects d'art, they are worthless to use in actual combat. This is precisely because they were never intended for actual use, but signify the rank of the individual they are buried with. The ornate staffs and a scepter also found in shaft IV were also products of conspicuous consumption.

On the left, the golden “Mask of Agamemnon” from shaft V at GCA. On the right, golden octopus ornaments sewn onto the clothing of “Agamemnon”. To form the facial details it was likely hammered against a wooden mold

A reconstruction of Nestor's Cup, a gold cup found in shaft IV at GCA. A similar cup is described in the Iliad as, “four handles...around each...a pair of golden doves was feeding. Below were two supports.” While this cup is not four handled, it does include doves on the handles with supports beneath

An elaborately decorated gold box from grave V, GCA

Various Mycenaean gold ornaments from GCA and GCB

A silver rhyton in the shape of a deer, from grave IV, GCA
Shaft graves IV and V are by far the most elaborate of any graves at GCA or the earlier GCB. Shaft grave V includes various gold and silver objects such as: The Mask of Agamemnon, Nestor's Cup, and the Siege Rhyton. Grave V also includes two other golden funerary masks, complete with weapons suggesting these burials were of elite warriors. Shaft grave IV also includes elaborate weapons, ornate staffs, a scepter, and three other funerary masks. While III is not as elaborate as IV or V, it does include the burials of two children covered in gold leaf suits, one of which has holes made for its eyes. In total in shaft grave IV there are 11 silver vases, 5 golden vases, 22 bronze vases, 8 clay pots, 2 gold rhytons, 3 silver rhytons, and 2 oyster shell rhytons (which were imported). In addition to all these objects, in this shaft is an alabaster vase imported from Egypt, and amber seals imported from the Baltics (carved locally). It is entirely unknown who (more specifically who's family) is buried in shaft IV of GCA. In classical myths, the Perseides are the founders of Mycenae yet this fact is entirely ahistorical. Whoever this family was, they were one of the richest and most powerful families in Mycenae. They would have been one of the most powerful families across the Mycenaean world during their culture's early period.

On the left, an alabaster vase most likely imported from Egypt, found in GCA shaft V. On the right, a gold lion's head from GCA

A beautiful wooden box with dogs from either GCA or GCB, at Mycenae

Two gold leaf funerary suits made for children, from shaft IV at GCA

One of the five golden masks found in shaft graves IV and V at GCA, made in a similar style to the much earlier electrum death mask in GCB

One of the five golden masks found in shaft graves IV and V at GCA, this one was made with a sly smile revealing the bearer's personality

Graves in GCA included many objects of foreign influence during its lifespan (1,600-1,500 BCE). The inclusion of Minoan objects such as bull heads and double axes show an adoption of certain aspects of Cretan culture. Most of the objects in the shafts are decorated in a quasi-Minoan style but were most likely made locally. While the artists and nobility of the city looked to their Minoan neighbors for stylistic guidance, the objects they created do show the skill of their native artisanal talent. There were aspects of Mycenaean art which were unique to their culture alone, such as specific hunting and fighting scenes, not every detail was copied from Crete.

An ornamental bull's head object from shaft IV at GCAshowing artistic influence from the popular Minoan bull head rhytons

While GCA fell into disuse around 1,500 BCE, hundreds of years later it was re-purposed by Mycenaean rulers. Around 1,250 BCE (about 250 years after the last burial) it was enclosed by a wall within the acropolis at Mycenae. At this time it was given a double ringed peribolos wall of nicely cut low limestone slabs. The site itself became a temenos, or sacred precinct as a circular construction (likely an altar) was built above a grave at the site. Older stele were re-erected, being refurbished for a new viewing public. Three of these newer stele include chariot scenes, a reminder of who the audience is, as well as the warfare of the period. The entire GCA complex had been re-planned in the mid 13th century BCE Mycenaean nobility as a monument to their now historic and mythical rulers living hundreds of years previous. The structure's existence as a symbol of its people had become remade, refashioned into a cultic site so as to link their current 13th century rulers to their 16th century forebears.

The front, side, and back of a painted grave stele depicting warriors from Mycenae. This was most likely erected and painted in the renovation of GCA around 1,250 BCE. The reconstructive work was done by Gillieron and son around 1918-19, the original stele was found 1893

A reconstruction of GCA during this period, by Professor Wace

This redesign also included changing other structures around the city. GCA was incorporated into the walled area of town, and nearby Lion Gate was built around this time. These actions were surely connected, as the kings of Mycenae cemented the loyalty of their citizens and ancestors they could not rely on these things alone. They had to ensure their people's survival through cyclopean walls and its ever-staring lions. The Lion Gate is the ego of the king writ large, built to imitate the Hittite capital's Lion Gate and thus to inspire in Mycenaeans a potential for their own wide-ranging empire.

The Treasury of Atreus

The Treasury of Atreus, as seen at the entrance
Also during the great re-design of 1,250 BCE, besides the fearsome walls and painted gravestones, the nobles of the period created a glorious tomb fit for a king. This was a tholos tomb, built very unlike the shaft graves of the 16th century BCE. It is called the Treasury of Atreus, although it is unknown who is actually buried there, and it was built just outside the citadel. It is a large round structure resembling a beehive, with a long hallway leading to its inner chamber. Many believe the burial to be the city's Wanax or another high leader, as it is by far the most impressive tholos yet excavated in the whole of Mycenaean Greece. The lintel stone above the doorway weights 120 tons, and for over 1,000 years it was both the tallest and widest dome on earth (usurped by the Temple of Hermes in Baiae and the Pantheon in Rome during the CP). It was still awe-inspiring enough to be mentioned by the Roman writer Pausanias and then almost two thousand years later still visible in 1879 when Heinrich Schliemann excavated GCA.

A diagram of the Treasury of Atreus

Reconstruction of the entrance of the Treasury of Atreus

Reconstruction of the carvings around the facade of the Treasury of Atreus

Reconstruction of one of the columns at the Treasury of Atreus, now at the British museum

You enter the tholos through an uncovered hall, called a dromos, which is 36 meters long. At the entrance are Mycenaean half columns made from green limestone and intricately covered with zigzag motifs (one such object now seen at the British museum since being stolen by Lord Elgin). The entrance also includes rosette designs above the architrave of the door, and beautiful spiral decorations with red marble. The capitals of these columns seem to be influenced by Egyptian examples, and includes inlays of rare materials such as red porphyry and green alabaster. The interior of the tholos was decorated with plates of a metal, possibly gold, silver, or bronze. The elaborate beauty and detail put into the construction of the Treasury of Atreus marks it as a late blooming flower placed precariously in a soon-to-be-plowed field.

A view from the interior of the Treasury of Atreus

Visitors entering the Treasury of Atreus

Within 50 years the palace structure of Mycenaean society would collapse, eventually leading to the erasure of its foundational culture. The builders of this tomb were some of the last truly wealthy nobles of the rich Greek bronze age. While there was never a period in which there were no nobility in Greece, by 1,000 BCE people who lived in a similar social position would have no palaces, no scribes, and no grand tholos tombs. The entire renovation of Mycenae would end up being a futile last grasp at their fading power. While the megalithic buildings in their city may have convinced the populace that their strength would be unchallenged, not even the worst fears of their kings could have prepared them for their stark fate. No king could have imagined the extent of their utter annihilation. The sole remnant of their existence was reduced to portraying the scenery within a myth, creating a parody of their true lives lived.

A Mycenaean chariot in combat, by Panaiotis

Media Related to GCA, wikimedia commons
Shaft Grave 4 at GCA, Mycenae

Aegean Art, Khan Academy


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