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?’




SO WHAT EVER HAPPENED to Minoan Crete? Well, we don’t really know. All the palace sites, bar Knossos, we destroyed around 1450 BC but whether by man or nature is unclear. If by earthquake then why not rebuild as had been done before? It was once thought that the volcanic eruption at Thera (now Santorini, the island due north of Crete) may have caused the downfall of the Minoan civilization (either by volcanic ash or tsunami) but the dating doesn’t fit (the volcano was either between 1627-1600 BC according to radiocarbon dating or 1550 BC if you go along with Egyptian dating references).


Bronze Age ‘Greece’ 

What we do know is that the Mycenaeans from mainland Greece took over at Knossos. This is evidence by, amongst other ‘things’, Linear B (ancient Mycenaean Greek writing) which was found at Knossos. We need to be careful with the use of the word ‘Greek’ here. Greece didn’t exist as a country during this period (Bronze Age 3000-1100 BC); it was made of various kingdoms, one of which was Mycenae in the Argolid on the Peloponnese of mainland ‘Greece’ (or maybe Ahhiyawa – a name on Hittite texts which could possibly be the Mycenaeans -or Achaeans as Homer referred to them). Remember, this is prehistory so we can never be sure of anything. You can almost make it up as you go along and few could dispute you. Well, as long as you were vaguely sensible about it all……..

Now the citadel of Mycenae was impressive. It was a fortress and constructed by warmongers.

 mycn aerial

‘bird’s eye’ view of the citadel of Mycenae – very defensive (Grave Circle A is foreground centre – the circular bit, get it? – and the Lion Gate entrance is to the left of it in the shadows)

It’s not surprising that it took over Minoan Crete. It was a war-machine. And Crete was positioned central to three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa; so whoever controlled Crete, controlled a major trade link and have been very wealthy. Mycenae would have liked that idea.

lion gate 1

The Lion Gate entrance

lion gate2

and just to give you an idea of the size of the stones leading up to the actual Lion Gate, Sarah is a scale

Heinrich Schliemann excavated at Mycenae in 1876. But he didn’t discover it as its Lion Gate entrance had been open to the world to see from at least the beginning of the 19th century (the Brit. Edward Dodwell had drawn a picture of it in 1805). However, Schliemann opened up the entrance and the Grave circle A just inside the entrance. Here he found treasures buried with the dead, including the ‘Mask of Agamemnon’. Had he gazed on the face of Agamemnon as he claimed (allegedly). Well, no. If Agamemnon had existed it would have been around the destruction of Troy circa 1250 BC (more on that another day). The mask was dated to 1600 BC. Maybe Agamemnon’s great great great ….. grandfather. Maybe not.

gca sch

Grave Circle A as excavated (we’ll use that term loosely) by Schliemann in 1876

mask of aga

The ‘mask of Agamemnon’ – well, not really

Also at Mycenae we can find the impressive tholos tombs of Agamemnon (aka Treasury of Atreus – but it’s not a treasury) and Clytemnestra (circa 1250 BC). Clytemnestra was Agamemnon’s wife who did away with him on his return from the Trojan War (woman scorned and all that). This is according to Homer, an oral poet of around 750 BC (more on him later). They are, indeed, tombs but probably not of Agamemnon or Clytemnestra – it’s poetic licence (sorry, I’m being a spoilsport). On the other hand, check the dating out …………


The Tomb of Agamemnon, aka The Treasury of Atreus – well, neither actually

atreus insde

19th century drawing of the inside of the Tomb

So what happened to the Mycenaeans. Well we don’t really know (heard that before somewhere). They just came to an end and that’s that. If a Trojan War really did take place with the Mycenaeans and allies besieged Troy then it may well have weakened its position on the home front. Whilst the ‘cats are away’ in Troy, ‘the mice do play’ at home. The ‘mice’ may have been disgruntled peasant taking advantage of their masters’ absence. Who knows……


Next week: the forgotten tholos tombs at Mycenae

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:

In December, I had been visiting the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to deposit some finds I had recently discovered in Tiryns.  On departing, I observed a member of the constabulary writing a parking ticket. I approached him and said, “I say, Officer, it’s Christmas, give a chap a break.”

He ignored me and continued writing the ticket.

“What a cad”, I uttered.

He stared at me, then at a worn tyre on the vehicle and wrote another ticket.

“Bounder”, I exclaimed.

He noted a cracked light and wrote another ticket.

“Scoundrel” I yelled.

He wrote another ticket for a faulty bumper.

Well, this went on awhile – the more abuse I gave him, the more tickets he wrote.  By the time I had run out of expletives he had planted some dozen or so tickets on the windshield of the vehicle.

Of course, it was no concern to me as my vehicle was parked around the corner.