Dark Age Burials

The cult center, along with much of the citadel, perished in a conflagration which swept through Mycenae towards the end of LH III B, i. e, the late thirteenth century, according to the accepted discovery. Digging through the debris of the temple compound, the excavators also found three graves of the eleventh-tenth centuries. All three were simple pits, though two of them had their sides lined and their roofs covered with stone slabs to form “cists.”1 Cist tombs were the most common type of grave at Mycenae, and throughout Greece, during the Middle Helladic period, ca. 500 years earlier. The sudden, widespread adoption of that type of burial and the rites that accompany it ca. 1125 B.C. have struck several prehistorians as both an “innovation,” when contrasted to Late Helladic burials, and, at the same time, ” a resurgent phenomenon” when compared to the vogue 500 years earlier—a return to ancestral tomb types and burial rites after the destruction of Mycenaean civilization. That kind of grave became “the most characteristic form in both eras,” and the graves of both periods are so closely similar that often excavators cannot decide to which age some cists belong, unless they contain the distinctive grave goods of one period or the other2—goods which, as we noted above, also, at times, look extremely similar, despite the 500 years separating them.3

The tomb type did survive into the Mycenaean Period, but was not nearly as common then as before and after, and seems not to span the entire time between its two major peaks before ca, 1550 and after ca. 1125.4 Because it is difficult to trace such continuity between the two ages, because the graves made “an almost universal take-over,” supplanting the Mycenaean tomb types, and they constitute” one of the distinguishing features” of post-Mycenaean culture, which was “radically different from the old Mycenaean civilization” that it supplanted, those who reject a 500-year continuity or some strange revival after 500 years, postulate the influx of new people from the north, who retained burial customs whose popularity in Greece had been on the wane for half a millennium. Still, as we shall observe presently, the evidence for the hypothetical immigrants is highly questionable. Many archaeologists reject the notion, and even its adherents cannot show a spread of the new tombs from the north to the south, but they find it easier to face “the present geographical gap in the evidence” than the chronological gap.5

The presence of the graves in the cult center, presumably destroyed long before, requires two assumptions: first, that the inhabitants of Mycenae decided to forsake their traditional cemetery grounds where for centuries they had interred their dead in the relatively soft ground away from their dwellings, outside and to the west of the citadel wall; and, second, that they chose, instead, to bury their dead inside the city itself, which required the more laborious task of digging the graves into a thick mantle of eroded debris and a cement-like mass of calcinated stones and fire-hardened brick within the former temple complex. Desborough, who published the graves, considered it “extremely unlikely that people living outside the walls” would enter the citadel for the sole purpose of burying their dead therein,6 but the fact remains that there is no clear evidence that people inhabited the citadel at that time.7

The condition of the two cist tombs is also revealing. One of them showed the effects of a subsequent fire so intense that, in addition to the ashes it left over the grave, it bleached the stone cover slabs and the stone walls of the grave, and even burned the bones of the skeleton it contained.8 Such a great burning over that spot is difficult to explain if the grave is later than the cult center,9 but it would be much easier to see as the result of the tremendous fire that destroyed the citadel towards the end of LH III B—if the tenth-century grave was, in fact, earlier than the LH III B10 cult center. Desborough termed the second cist “sub-mural,”11 because an LH III C wall rested over the eleventh-century grave—again easy to explain if the grave was older than the LH III C structure; if it was not, however, then one must conjecture that “the buriers decided—for some reason unknown—to destroy part of a wall” of the Mycenaean structure, and for some reason even more difficult to comprehend, they then decided to rebuild the wall of a structure long-since destroyed and abandoned and of no use to them, on top of the grave.”12

The burial circumstances inside the temple complex reminded Desborough of the situation encountered by C. Tsountas at another spot inside the western extension of the citadel walls. To the northeast of the Lion Gate Tsountas excavated some LH III houses and discovered six cist tombs datable sometime within the eleventh-ninth centuries. The tombs lay under a deposit over six feet thick of LH III pottery and other remains, which by the accepted chronology should be older than the graves. To explain why LH III material lay over the graves, rather than the graves lying above it or cutting through it, Desborough speculated that even after tremendous fires supposedly flattened the city in the late thirteenth and mid-twelfth centuries, a few houses survived the conflagrations, remained intact for centuries until people entered their ground floors, not to inhabit them, but only to bury their dead, and that only sometimes thereafter the upper stories, still filled with LH III goods, which had somehow withstood earthquakes, fires and the ravages of time, then collapsed onto the graves.13

There is another way to view the “late” graves under the LH III buildings in the western citadel, which fits the special circumstances at the site, if one applies the revised chronology. The town of Mycenae was originally much smaller in size, and rested entirely on a hard limestone promontory. The inhabitants, in order to remove the deceased from the dwellings of the living, to perform burials with some ease, and to follow religious precepts, buried their dead outside of the first city wall, in the softer ground, and to the west—the region of sunset and death. When the rulers decided to enlarge the citadel in the LH III B period, they extended the fortification wall into the ancestral cemetery to the south and west. They enclosed the shaft graves of Circle A and accorded them special reverence, but built their structures over numerous other graves of the MH-LH II period (seventeenth-fifteenth centuries),14 which, for the most part, were cist tombs—like “the 500-year-later” ones. In fact, the excavators of the temple complex found a Middle Helladic cist tomb inside the religious center and not far from the eleventh-tenth-century ones they discovered;15 but because of the 500 years currently placed between them, they assumed the former cist was covered by the later structures, while the other cists cut into them (despite problems with fire and the overlying wall). If the LH III B period belongs not to ca. 1350-1200 B.C., but some 500 years later, the discovery of the typologically identical, but supposedly 500-year-older cists beneath the LH III B buildings in the same area.

Despite the 500-600 year problems we have already noted at the cult center regarding temples, Homer, ivories, idols, tomb types and stratigraphy, the excavators found one type of object there which, more than any other factor, has served to fix the absolute dates for Mycenae’s period of greatness. Inside the temple was a faience plaque bearing the throne name of Pharaoh Amenhotep III. Quite a few identical plaques have turned up in Mycenae,16 and the pattern of Eighteenth-Nineteenth Dynasty objects together with Mycenaean material throughout the Aegean, the Levant and Egypt itself, establishes a synchronism. Egyptologists assign that king’s reign to the early fourteenth century B.C., hence the dates for, and all the chronological problems with the Mycenaean Period, Velikovsky17 places the same man in the ninth century. The direct effect of such redating for Mycenae is obvious.


  1. Desborough, (1973), p. 91

  2. Snodgrass (1971), pp. 153, 184, 384 respectively, and cf. pp. 183, 363; cf. Andrewes, (1967), p. 35; N. Verdelis, “Neue geometrische Gräber in Tiryns,” Ath, Mitt., 78 (1963), p. 56; Styrenius, (1967), p. 161; C. Thomas, “Found: The Dorians,” Expedition, 20 (1978), p. 22. 

  3. Cf. pp. 7-13 above. 

  4. Snodgrass, (1971), pp. 177-184, did try to bridge the period, but the examples are extremely few for so long a time, do not remain at any one locale throughout the period, and do leave some blanks, hence Desborough (1972, pp. 108, 266, 269) and Dietrich (1970, p. 20) remained unconvinced. 

  5. Desborough, ibid., p. 269. For the dispute over northern immigrants, see ns. below. 

  6. Desborough, (1973), p. 101.

  7. Excavations have revealed no evidence of structures of the eleventh-ninth century over the cult center (ibid., p. 91), or, for that matter, anywhere in the citadel. There are some potsherds from that period inside the city (loc. cit. p. 100; idem, (1972, p. 365), but as Desborough himself noted (1973, p. 100), they are negligible in quantity. He cited Mylonas’ undocumented statement (ibid., p. 101 and “Shaft Grave Art: Modern Problems,” n. 34) that there were dwellings of that date higher up on the citadel. In fact, Wace (1949, pp. 23-24, 84-85, carefully studied the area in question, and said that it was abandoned at that time, a conclusion with which Mylonas, on a later page of the same book that spoke of habitation, agreed, thereby effectively negating his earlier remark (1957, pp. 17, 63), More recently, Mylonas again noted that there was no evidence of Dark Age dwellings on the summit (Mycenae’s Last Century of Greatness [London, 1968], pp. 30-31, 38.) 

  8. Desborough, (1973), p. 92; Megaw, (1964-65), p. 10. 

  9. It would take a lot of fuel to generate a blaze hot enough to scorch the stones and the skeleton in the grave, but there were no structures on the spot from LH III C times till the Hellenistic Period—supposedly some eight centuries later. Furthermore, since the area has constantly filled with debris from higher up the slope from the time of the LH III B destruction, there should have been a very thick protective mantle of earth and rubbish between the tenth-century grave and any flammable Hellenistic structures centuries later (cf. Desborough, 1973, p. 91; Megaw, ibid., p. 10; Taylour, (1973), p. 260; K.A. Wardle, “A Group of Late Helladic III B Pottery, etc.,” BSA, 68 (1973), pp. 302-303). 

  10. Wardle, Ibid., p. 303. 

  11. Desborough, (1973), p. 100.

  12. Ibid., p. 91.

  13. Ibid., pp. 98-99. 

  14. Cf. above “Later Use of the Grave Circles,” ns. 7-9. 

  15. J.P. Michaud, “Chronique des Fouilles en 1973,” BCH, 98 (1974), p. 604. 

  16. Taylour, (1969), pp. 95-96. 

  17. Velikovsky, (1952), pp. 229-33