Virtually within spitting distance of the fortified citadel of Mycenae is a large, underground tomb that carries the misleading name “Treasury of Atreus”. I’ll get back to that designation later on in this article; for now I want to focus on the tomb itself.
The monumental structure is what we today classify as a tholos or “beehive” tomb. This is the most impressive, most ostentatious form of funerary architecture in the Aegean. Tholos tombs were constructed in the centuries leading up to ca. 1200 BC, when most of the Mycenaean palaces were destroyed.
Tholos tombs were cut into the soft earth of low hills. A long walkway or dromos – the Greek word for “road” – leads to the entrance of the burial chamber. The dromos is flanked by stone walls. When the chamber was in use, the dromos would be filled with earth, probably to help hide the tomb, but also to make it more difficult for robbers to get in.
These tombs were used to bury multiple people and were likely used by particular families. Whenever someone new had to be added to the tomb, the dromos would be cleared out and then filled back up again once the funeral and accompany ceremonies were over.
Despite the best efforts on the part of the builders to hide the tomb and/or make it more difficult for tomb raiders to gain access, it was nevertheless looted repeatedly. In fact, all tholos tombs were raided in ancient times. As a result, it is difficult to say who exactly was buried here. Due to the tremendous effort involved in its construction, those who were entombed must have belonged to the upper echelons of society, and may have included the ruler or king – wanax, as per the Linear B tablets – of Mycenae itself.
A closer look at the tomb
The date for this tomb in particular, the largest and most ornate of all tholos tombs, is a matter of some contention. Some suggest it dates to the ceramic phase Late Helladic IIIA1, say around 1370 BC, while others believe it should be dated to the middle of Late Helladic IIIB, or ca. 1250 BC (French 2002, p. 69). Since the tomb was probably used over a longer period of time, it may well be that it was first constructed in the fourteenth century. Consensus, however, seems to associate the tomb with the (re)building projects at Mycenae of around 1250 BC.
The main burial chamber has a circular groundplan; there is also a small side chamber. Walls of horizontal courses of stone blocks rise up to the ceiling. The blocks themselves become slightly smaller the higher you go and the courses have an ever decreasing diameter. The result is that the chamber has a corbelled ceiling. The inner room has a height of more than 13 metres.
During its construction, the workers likely made use of the surrounding hill to support the chamber’s walls. Larger blocks were dragged up the hill and then slid into place from above. The entrance to the tomb is monumental and consists of a large door that must once have been sealed off using massive wooden doors. The doorway was originally flanked by half-columns of green marble, carved with spirals and zigzags.
At the top of the doorway is a massive stone lintel that perhaps weighs as much as 120 tons. Above it is a relieving triangle. It recalls the one one above the Lion Gate of the citadel of Mycenae, which in that case was filled with a sculptured relief (see the featured image that accompanies my article on the Bronze Age Collapse). The relieving triangle at the tomb’s entrance was originally filled with slabs of red and green marble to keep the soil that was loaded into the dromos from spilling into the chamber.
The basic structure of a tholos tomb recalls the simpler chamber tombs that were common during the Late Bronze Age. I described these my article on the Late Minoan cemetery at Armenoi in Crete. Briefly, a chamber tomb also consists of a dromos and a burial chamber (thalamos), but is much smaller and simpler. Chamber tombs are also cut into rock, rather than built using stone blocks in relatively soft earth.
What’s in a name?
The tomb is known by the designation “Treasury of Atreus”. It is also referred to in Greek as the “Tomb of Agamemnon”. Both of these names are misleading: in the former case because it is not a treasury nor is there any evidence to show it belonged to the fictional Atreus; in the latter case, it almost certainly didn’t belong to the equally fictional Agamemnon.
There is mention of a certain “Attari(s)siya(s)” in Hittite texts, which may be how the Hittites rendered the Greek name “Atreus”. He is identified as a “ruler” – not a king, probably a high-ranking noble – of Ahhiyawa (“Achaea”, i.e. some part of Mycenaean Greece), but there is no evidence that links this figure to the tomb, or that he forms the basis for the Atreus from myth. For more, see Text 3 in Gary Beckman et al., The Ahhiyawa Texts (2011).
As a quick refresher, according to the stories of the Trojan War, Agamemnon was the commander of the Greek forces that set out to besiege the city of Troy in order to retrieve the beautiful Helen of Sparta. Agamemnon and his brother, Menelaus, the king of Sparta, were the sons of Atreus.
The misleading designations for this tomb were given to it in modern times. However, they have an ancient precedent. In his description of the Argolid, the Greek travel-writer Pausanias, who lived in the second century AD, noted that near Mycenae (2.16.6):
there are also underground chambers of Atreus and his children, in which were stored their treasures. There is the grave of Atreus, along with the graves of such as returned with Agamemnon from Troy, and were murdered by Aegisthus after he had given them a banquet.
As I have explained before, the ancient Greeks from ca. 800 BC onwards had no knowledge of what we refer to as the Bronze Age. They did encounter objects and especially structures from that time period, including tholos tombs, but they had no idea what to make of them. Instead, they created a mythical past of their own; these relics of a bygone era were interpreted as part of that imagined past.
It is unfortunate that early archaeologists of the modern era decided to give monuments like this tomb designations that reinforce a link to ancient Greek mythology. Firstly, because it falsely suggests that there is some “kernel of truth” in the many stories that the ancient Greeks made up centuries later to make sense of their world.
Secondly, because it robs the remains of the Aegean Bronze Age of an identity of its own. Imagine what are understanding of the Aegean Bronze Age would be like if we didn’t tie this tomb to Atreus or his son. Imagine how we would look at the remains of ancient Troy without constantly referencing the Homeric epics. Imagine what our understanding of Bronze Age Crete would be like if it wasn’t associated with the mythical King Minos.
Without these associations, we would be in a much better position to appreciate the Aegean Bronze Age for what it was. You don’t need Greek mythology to make the Aegean Bronze Age interesting. Doing so anyway is not just a mistake, but also a crying shame.
- Philip P. Betancourt, Introduction to Aegean Art (2007).
- John Boardman, The Archaeology of Nostalgia: How the Greek Re-Created Their Mythical Past (2002).
- Elizabeth French, Mycenae: Agamemnon’s Capital (2002).
- Donald Preziosi and Louise A. Hitchcock, Aegean Art and Architecture (1999).
- Louise Schofield, The Mycenaeans (2007).