Tombs of Mycenae: the Forgotten Five

VISITORS TO MYCENAE will always stop off at the Treasury of Atreus (aka the tomb of Agamemnon – see previous blog) to be awed by its size and magnificence. Nor will they be able to miss the intrigue of the tombs of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus and the Lion Tomb – still impressive even if remaining less robust in construction than Atreus. What they all have in common is their accessibility and visibility (and closeness with regard to the last three). Their names bear no relation to whom may have been buried there – they are just ‘labels’ conveniently coinciding with mythical characters from Homer’s 8th century BC poem’s the Iliad and the Odyssey (Atreus’ son, Agamemnon, led the forces against Troy; Clytemnestra was his unfaithful wife who murdered him on his return from Troy; Aegisthus was her lover). The Lion Tomb is so named simply because it’s near the Lion Gate (see previous blog).


What the marbled entrance to the Treasury of Atrues (aka Tomb of Agamemnon) may have looked like in the 13th century BC


Tomb of Clytemnestra (much the same size as Treasury of Atreus – see previous blog for its scale) – triangular hole above the entrance lintel is a relieving triangle to take the weight of the the roof  

What coach encumbered members of the public do not set their eyes upon are the sad cousins of Atreus and Co – the lonely tholos tombs slumbering over the hill of the Panagia ridge, namely the Cyclopean, Epano Phournos, Kato Phournos, Panagia and Genii (the Forgotten Five). In their own rights they bear silent witness to the development of funerary architecture of the Bronze Age of Greece and deserve more attention. Admittedly less impressive in statue to the other four but still no less important for archaeology.


Tomb of Aegisthus (smaller than Clytemnestra) – also with small relieving triangle above entrance lintel


Lion Tomb 

The size of these five tholoi are very similar with their tomb bases varying between 7-10 metres in diameter (the Cyclopean being the smallest, Epano Phournos the larger – comparing with Atreus’ base diameter of 14.50 m) and their scale can be seen from the figures in the pictures. They are also in varying states of disrepair – Cyclopean being the worse for wear whereas Genii is reasonably complete including its roof (it also has three pit graves – sadly empty, so no clues there).


Cylopean Tomb – definitely seen better days

Heinrich Schliemann and his wife, Sophie, excavated the Treasury of Atreus and Tomb of Clytemnestra in 1876 and Christos Tsountas excavated the others during the 1890s (he discovered Aegisthus at this time but it was not excavated until 1922). The British archaeologist, Alan Wace, divided all the nine tombs into three groups for dating and characterized them accordingly:

Group 1 (1510-1460 BC): Cyclopean, Epano Phournos, Aegisthus

Group 2 (1460-1400 BC): Panagia, Kato Phournos, Lion

Group 3 (1400-1300): Genii, Atreus, Clytemnestra

Epano Phournos

Epano Phournos Tomb

Kato Phournos

Kato Phournos Tomb

Looking at the sites today it might be considered that grouping into three is too limiting. Since Wace’s work, a relieving triangle has come to light on the Aegisthus tomb putting it into a category of its own. It is not entirely clear what may have been situated above the lintels of the other two earlier tombs as the roofs have not survived. Genii is hardly in the same category of grandeur as Atreus and Clytemnestra yet it appears in the same grouping (it is of similar but less complex construction). The Tomb of Clytemnestra may have been built after Atreus due to  the fact that it may be slightly more technically advanced with its row of curved stones continuing round the structure at the same level as the lintel (forming a more solid base for the roof structure). It may, of course, have been constructed for the queen of the occupant of the Atreus tomb.


Panagia Tomb

All nine tombs had been robbed in antiquity making dating and interpretation difficult. Only in the dromos of the Tomb of Clytemnestra was a woman’s grave found by Tsountas, along with accompanying artefacts (two mirrors, ornaments and beads) but it helped little in revealing the secrets of the inner domain. However, there is still doubt as to the actual dating of Atreus and Clytemnestra – if the later dating of the mid-to-late 13th century BC (LH IIIB) is correct, then neither may have ever been occupied, their intended occupants having fled following the destruction of the city.


Genii Tomb

Next time, or if/when, you plan a visit to Mycenae, take along some walking boots and ‘head west young man’ – well, westward one and all, over the Panagia ridge (see plan below) and follow the path from which the Cyclopean, Epano Phournos and Genii are visible. Genii needs a bit of tracking in from the path but perseverance will find it. Likewise with the Panagia tomb – the most difficult to find – drop down from the Panagia church, but be careful not to literally drop into the tholos itself (as I nearly did!) as it has no roof (forget health and safety….)


Plan of tomb as at Mycenae (from Wace, 1949): 1. Cyclopean, 2. Epano Phournos, 3. Aegisthus, 4. Panagia, 5. Kato Phournos, 6. Lion, 7. Genii, 8. Atreus, 9. Clytemnestra


Next week: Let’s go to Troy


A friend of mine has just been visiting a Mycenaean site presently under excavation on the mainland of Greece. He reported back to me of the finding of an exciting new tholos tomb. However, as much as he wanted to go and see it, he was unable as it was full of snakes! This was a similar problem encountered by excavators of a tholos tomb at Phourni in Crete in the 1960s.  Who said archaeology is not like Indiana Jones!

IJ snakes


Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

My three College chums, Ginger, Bunty and Rowley, and I were so confident of our knowledge that the weekend before finals, we decided to go up to the West Country and party with some other friends who lived up there. We had such a jolly time and didn’t make it back to College in time for the examination.

We all agreed on the same story for our Professor – we had gone to the country for the weekend with the plan to study, but, unfortunately, we had a flat tyre on the way back, didn’t have a spare, and couldn’t get help for just ages. As a result, we missed finals.

When we put it to him, our Professor thought it over and then agreed we could make up the finals the following day. We were elated and relieved. The next day at the time of the exam our Professor, rather oddly we thought, placed us in separate rooms and handed us each identical question booklets and told us to begin.

The first question on the first page, for 5 marks, was something remarkably simple regarding the identification of the style of Mycenaean walls. No problem I thought and I answered it with a flourish.

 On the next page was written the second question: ‘(For 95 marks)  Which tyre?’