Grave Circles

Grave Circle A lies directly inside and to the right of the Lion Gate entrance. It contains 6 shaft graves, which contained 19 bodies: 9 men, 8 women, 2 children. Five of these Royal Graves were discovered with their embalmed bodies and grave goods intact by Schliemann ( the last was discovered by a Greek archaeologist named Stamatakis) and their finds nearly fill the main gallery of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Note the Cyclopean Wall behind the circle. The fortification walls were extended in c. 1250 BC to incorporate Grave Circle A within the confines of the citadel; earlier it had stood outside. The incorporation of the circle was probably an attempt by later rulers to appropriate the heroic past as their own.

The shaft graves date to 1580-1500 BC and reveal extensive trading practices and impressive wealth. Found in these 6 graves were objects representing or at least inspired by Mycenean, Minoan, Cycladic, Hittite (Anatolian), and Egyptian cultures. Based on the condition of the finds, scholars suppose that the bodies were laid in on top of a layer of pebbles and grave goods were then placed within the grave. Sherds of cups found near the top of the shafts suggest one final toast to the departed before the graves were filled in with dirt.
Grave Circle A was girded by a double wall, the middle of which seemed to have been filled with rubble. In the photo on the right, we can see how wooden beams would have been fitted into recesses to cover the gap, and then limestone slabs were placed on top. Schliemann originally thought that the wall would make suitable seating for men of “heroic” stature.

Two exquisite finds from Grave IV of Grave Circle A dating from the 16th century BC, on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens: on the left, an embossed sheet gold lion’s head rhyton (a ritual vessel used to pour libations) and on the right, a silver bull’s head rhyton with gold horns and a forehead rosette. Both shapes were inspired by Minoan ritual containers of stone, but the metal “translations” have been found only on the mainland – a sign of early Mycenaean wealth.

This gold death mask from Shaft Grave IV of Grave Circle A depicts a beardless man whose closed eyes lack any detail. Probably made out of gold plate pounded out over a wooden mold, these are strictly funeral masks. Only a few individuals wore these, probably all men. The “mask of Agamemnon” (this is not it) is so named because when the awed Schliemann found it he telegraphed to the King of Greece: “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon.” In fact, Schliemann had stumbled upon royal graves from a period even earlier than the Homeric Age he sought.
On the left, bronze daggers inlaid with exquisitely fashioned gold, silver, and copper figures set in niello to form hunt scenes. On the right, a diadem of gold pieces and individual gold medallions possibly intended for clothing decoration. Many of the foil ornaments are so flimsy that they may have only been used to decorate costumes for special occasions, such as funerals.

Grave Circle B lies 130 meters west of the Lion Gate but the walls were never extended to include it in the fortified area of the citadel. The circle is 28 meters across and contains more cist than shaft graves, all dating to 1625-1520 BC: 16 men, 5 women, 2 children. Forensic evidence proves that they were a large big-boned people who led active – though brief – lives. Dating before Grave Circle A, the graves in Circle B reflect a culture not quite as cosmopolitan and wealthy, but the grave goods found are remarkable nevertheless: swords, vases and in particular that gorgeous rock crystal vase cut in the shape of a duck (illustrations pending).

 

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