The Tombs at the Argive Heraion

Argos, in the south of the Argive valley, or Argolis, was, according to Greek tradition, a very ancient city. It stood four miles from the sea at the foot of a steep hill, which formed its acropolis. In the days of the Trojan war it was reputedly ruled by Diomedes, one of the heroes of that war. In historic times, during the reign of King Pheidon, in the first half of the seventh century, Argos was the leading city in the Peloponnesos; but later it surrendered its supremacy to Sparta.

To the north of the city stood a temple dedicated to Hera: legend has it that it was at this Heraion in the Argive plain that the leaders of the Trojan War assembled and took an oath of loyalty to their cause.1 Legend has it also that this center of worship of Hera was founded at least thirteen Generations before Agamemnon and the Trojan expedition.

Close to the Heraion a cemetery of Mycenaean Age was excavated by Carl Blegen early in his distinguished archaeological career.2 We shall follow him through a series of tombs and see whether Furtwängler’s scheme did insure the archaeologist against any conflicting evidence. We can say at the start that this journey along the graves will not be as problem-free as it should be if the accepted scheme is all true and if the centuries between the Mycenaean and Ionic ages are real and not fictitious.

The cemetery was ascribed by Blegen to the Mycenaean Age, in round numbers, from -1600 to -1200. The only object “definitely datable through foreign analogies was the Egyptian scarab found in Tomb XIV, which may be attributed to the reign of Queen Hatshepsut, not much later than 15— B.C.”3

Here, as in all other places of early Greece, chronology is established through contact with Egypt. And it stands only if, as in this case, Hatshepsut reigned about -1500. Since, however, as was shown in Ages in Chaos, vol. I, Hatshepsut was a contemporary of King Solomon and lived in the tenth century, we are prepared for all kinds of embarrassing finds and strained solutions.

The problem which Blegen faced almost wherever he dug was “the recovery in so may tombs of objects dating from the Geometric period4—a time separated by centuries, actually by more than half a millennium, from that of Queen Hatshepsut—this on the conventional timescale. We can start our survey with any one of the fifty-two excavated tombs, since the problem is not confined to one or to several among them.

“Tombs IX, XIX and L had . . . clearly been disturbed, and the discovery of geometric pottery on or just above the Floor permitted the disturbance to be approximately dated. . .?” That kind of disturbance was it? “There was nothing to suggest that the tombs had been deliberately rifled,”5 and, as we shall presently see, even had the tombs been rifled, the perplexing problem would persist.

Tomb IX is most instructive: “The tomb had been entered and disturbed in the Geometric Period. . . . Practically all braces of Mycenaean occupation had been removed and the earth filling the chamber contained objects of Geometric date, which continued down to the floor itself, at a depth of 2.90 meters below the surface of the grounds. . . . Just above the floor were recovered two spherical beads of glass paste, probably dating from the Mycenaean period.”6 Where geometric ware was found in the fill it was thought to have a later date of deposition, but how with the Mycenaean ware in the fill, above the geometric ware on the floor?

Let us turn to tomb XIX and once more quote Blegen, since the issue is of decisive importance. The tomb “was opened and entered in post-Mycenaean times, and the objects which were then deposited in the chamber make it clear that the date of the intrusion is to be assigned to the later part of the Geometric Period.”7 But for what purpose were the tombs opened? “The purpose of this reopening of the tomb in Geometric times was not definitely ascertained. No traces of bones came to light, and it did not look as if this deposit of bronzes and other objects was of a sepulchral character.” Then, what moved people to deposit their pottery and bronze in tombs over half a millennium old? “The tomb may have become in effect a simple shrine” of the cult of the dead. There was no rifling of the tomb, nor a second burial: the objects were deposited to honor ancestors whom nobody could remember.

About tomb L Blegen wrote: “Most of the fill of Mycenaean times, except for a few centimeters above the floor, had disappeared, and the earth and the debris removed in the course of our excavations contained may Geometric sherds and a few fragments of bronze.”8

In all the three cases cited above the sole basis for claiming disturbance was the finding of Geometric pottery—and not only in the fill of the tombs, but “on or just above the floor.” If the “disturbance” is of a later date than the time the sepulchers were made, how could the ware have come to lie under the fill, on the floor? If the tombs were opened in the Geometric period, how could the objects put in by the disturbers find their place with the Mycenaean ware, on the floor?

“In eight further instances [tombs VIII, X, XXVI, XXXIV, XXXVII, XL, XLIII and XLIX] similar deposits came to light.”9 Let us examine them one by one.10

The Geometric deposit in tomb XXVI “was apparently not of a sepulchral nature, but in all respects similar to that brought to light in the chamber of tomb XIX”11—that is, a votive deposit—though here it did not rest on the floor itself. It looked as if the roof had caved in; but instead of pilfering the contents of the thus-exposed tombs, the pious Geometric people, descendants of five centuries, added objects of their time to the ancient funerary equipment.

The contents of tomb XXXIV evoked the following admission on the part of the excavator: “the date of this [Geometric] deposit is more easy to determine than its significance. The oenochoe for “wine pourer” . . . is of the Geometric style; the skyphosis a typical Protocorinthian fabric . . . the unpainted vessels and the bronzes are of types one might expect in the same association? and the whole deposit might be as late as the end of the eighth century.”12

In tomb XXXVII “a number of small Protocorinthian sherds and many fragments of bronze, bronze wire and a bronze pin of a Geometric type were found down to within half a metre of the floor.”13 The roof was found to have collapsed.

In tomb XL Blegen found the roof in its place, but the drop of the lintel opened access into the chamber—“the opening above the walled door must have been large enough for a roan to enter: a number of objects of post-Mycenaean date, at any rate had been deposited inside the chamber and were found in the fill at a height of I m to 1.60 m above the floor. These objects included a small Corinthian jug, a number of fragments of Proto-Corinthian pottery, representing several skyphoi, a bronze bowl, and a bronze pin.” Blegen concluded: “This deposit of post-Mycenaean objects in the chamber is, I believe, to be interpreted as evidence for a continuing cult of the dead.”14 But is it likely, or even imaginable, that a man would squeeze through a hole in the lintel of a grave in order to put objects in? and that no one else, seeing the opening, would break in to steal the ancient artifacts? Yet this is what Blegen had to assume on the basis of the accepted chronology.

The tombs numbered XLIII and XLIX also contained Geometric deposits besides those identified as Mycenaean.

The finds of Protocorinthian skyphoi in tombs XXXIV and XL were especially on Blegen’s mind. “What is the significance of these objects?” he asked.15

Their significance is in their perturbing the accepted historical time table. Since the tombs were not reused, how good is the explanation that the disturbers—riflers they were not—deposited bronze and pottery of their own age in so many graves? It was absolutely clear to Blegen that none of these graves had ever been reused for burial or second interment.

In the absence of a more reasonable answer to the startling state of things Blegen, as we have seen, arrived at the conclusion that the eighth or seventh century inhabitants of the place were devotees of an ancestors’ cult. Therefore “what we have in a high level in these Late Helladic tombs [-1600 to -1200] are clearly votive offerings which were deposited at some time in the Geometric Period. This evidence, it seems to me,” Blegen continued, “can only mean that the cult of the dead, some traces of which we have already seen within the sepulchers themselves, was still flourishing in the cemetery at the Heraeum long after the Mycenaean age had passed away.”16 But the words “we have in a high level” in the tombs conflict with Blegen’s observation and description: in several tombs the Geometric ware was clearly the earliest-it was on the floor of the tombs—in others mixed with the Mycenaean ware. And since no repeated burials were found in these tombs, Blegen admitted that they presented “a puzzling problem.”

“In tombs IX, XIX and the main chamber of XXVI, the presence of Geometric objects on the floor of the chamber, or near it, suggested that the disappearance of some Mycenaean remains was due to later disturbance. . . In almost every instance recorded or a skeleton lying in order in the tombs at the Heraeum it is clear that the body of the person buried had been laid directly on the floor of the chamber.”17 Is it, then, thinkable that the late worshippers of the dead in some instances added their ware to the Mycenaean ware and in other instances replaced the Mycenaean ware by one of their own time, surrounding the skeleton of the dead with objects five centuries more recent than himself?

* * *

Should we try, on the basis of contact with Egypt, to establish the true age of the cemetery at the Heraion? First, the already mentioned scarab found in tomb XIV—- what is its evidence?

“The cartouche apparently reads, ‘the good favour of Amen’. . . It is of a type common in the time of the eighteenth dynasty and is almost exactly similar to some scarabs of Queen Hatshepsut’s reign, recently found by Mr. Winlock in the excavations of the Metropolitan Museum at Deir el-Bahari. The chronological evidence supplied by this scarab is of no little value in confirming the date of our tomb.” It belonged to a type “used in the early XVIII Dynasty as amulets or charms.”18

“Other Egyptian objects dating from the XVIII Dynasty were round in the Tholos [beehive] tomb at the Heraeum and from the slope below the Second Temple.19

It is not excluded that the older of the tombs date from the time of Hatshepsut of the Eighteenth Dynasty; yet the scarab found and attributed to her reign was not a royal signet, but a charm or amulet, and could be from a later part of the Eighteenth Dynasty. It appears that the cemetery dates from sometime in the tenth or, more probably, the ninth to sometime in the eighth century.20

The state of things at the cemetery of the Argive Heraion calls for a vindication of some of the views of W. Dörpteld and some of A. S. Murray. But before we reverse the verdict, we will follow Carl Blegen to Troy and to Pylos.


  1. Dictys Cretensis 116.

  2. C. W. Blegen, Prosymna, The Helladic Settlement Preceding the Argive Heraeum, vol. I (Cambridge, 1937).

  3. Ibid., p. 261.

  4. Ibid., p. 262.

  5. Ibid., p. 262.

  6. Ibid., p. 165.

  7. Ibid., pp. 59-60.

  8. Ibid., p. 140.

  9. Ibid., p. 262.

  10. Tomb VIII “. . .The earth filling it contained a considerable number of objects dating from the Geometric period” on top of a shallow Mycenaean deposit, (ibid., p. 161) The situation in tomb X was very similar.

  11. Ibid., p. 93.

  12. Ibid., p. 112.

  13. Ibid., p. 124.

  14. Ibid.. p. 133.

  15. Ibid., p. 262.

  16. Ibid., p. 263.

  17. Ibid., p. 262.

  18. Ibid., p. 169.

  19. Ibid., p. 281. Blegen dated the Second Temple to post-Mycenaean times (p. II). Besides objects attributed to the Eighteenth Dynasty, scarabs of “a much later” date, belonging to the Twenty-sixth Dynasty, were found there, too.

  20. Blegen published a more complete survey of what he considered later or intrusive deposits in the tombs in an article In the American Journal of Archaeology 43 (1939), titled “Prosymna: Remains of Post-Mycenaean Date.” Cf. also - J.N. Coldstream assumes widespread cult surrounding the Mycenaean tombs five centuries after they were abandoned and forgotten. It is much more likely that the Greeks of the late eight century remembered ancestors who had not been buried more than a few decades. Cf. also - idem, Geometric Greece (London, 1977) pp. 346 ff.