The Grave Circles

Immediately south of the Lion Gate and the Granary, Schliemann discovered a circle (Fig. 1, D), which contained six royal graves.1 In the 1950’s I. Papadimitriou and G. Mylonas discovered a second circle outside of, and to the west of the Lion Gate. That circle (Circle B), containing twenty-four more princely graves, is, for the most part, contemporaneous with Schliemann’s (now called Circle A), beginning a bit before it and discontinued while Circle A was still in use. The two circles have furnished some of the richest and most exciting finds to come from Mycenae, or, in fact, from any prehistoric European site. Since the graves’ contents are mainly contemporaneous with the early Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt, archaeologists have assigned them to the seventeenth-sixteenth (or early fifteenth) centuries B.C.2

Seeking the origin of such grave circles, N. G. L. Hammond recently maintained that they came to Mycenae from Albania. Comparing the Mycenaean examples to Albanian grave mounds, he saw “close analogies in the details of the burial customs, the structure of the mortuary chambers, and the contents of the graves.”3 Regarding the construction technique, “the similarities indeed are remarkably close.”4 The weapons from the Albanian graves also display “astonishing similarities” to those from the Mycenaean Grave Circles.5 After considering several factors, Hammond concluded that “the answer can only be that the tumulus-burials of Albania . . . are the antecedents” of the Mycenaean burials.6

There is a very serious drawback, however. F. Prendi, the excavator of the Albanian graves, at first claimed that, typologically, those burials belong no earlier than the eleventh century B.C.; he has continued to assign them 500-600 years later than does Hammond.7 A. M. Snodgrass agreed that “at first sight Hammond’s dating . . . seems a natural one,” because the earliest Albanian pottery and weapons do resemble material of, and immediately preceding the early Mycenaean Period.8 Further analysis, however, ran Snodgrass “up against the fundamental difficulty of chronology.”9 Since Albania was extremely conservative throughout antiquity, he felt that there could have been a centuries-long “time-lag” between the creation of goods in Greece and their transmission to Albania, or, alternatively, that they could have arrived in Albania at the time of their manufacture in Greece, and remained in vogue in the north for centuries, without evolving as they had to the south.10

Perplexed by the latest items from the Albanian grave mounds, some of which seemed to belong to the twelfth century, as Hammond claimed, while others seemed to be 600 years later, Snodgrass still decided to follow Prendi rather than Hammond. He thus assigned the Albanian graves not to the sixteenth-eleventh centuries, but to ca. 1100-600 B.C.11 More recently, Emily Vermeule, a noted Bronze Age archaeologist and art historian, and J. V. Luce gave credence to Hammond’s case.12 If, however, Prendi and Snodgrass are correct in assigning the earliest Albanian material to ca. 1100 B.C., then, despite “close analogies,” “remarkably close,” indeed “astonishing” similarities (Hammond), those graves obviously cannot be the “antecedents” and models for graves which are 500 years older at Mycenae.13

Over a number of the interments in the two Grave Circles of Mycenae stood twenty-two stone stelae, some plain, others decoratively carved. If they really belong to the seventeenth to sixteenth centuries B.C., several authorities see a 500-year discontinuity before the custom of placing tombstones over graves resumed its vogue in Greece.14 More important than the 500-year problem is the subject matter on some of the sculpted stelae. The scenes of hunting and battle depicted, as well as the general carving technique, remind one very much of Syro-Anatolian relief sculptures—especially those six to seven centuries later in date.15 The ninth century “neo-Hittite” relief of a stag hunt from Malatya in North Syria is strikingly close in iconography to the “sixteenth-century” stele above one of the graves at Mycenae (Figs. 2A and 2B).16

Figure 2A: Hittite stag hunt carving
Figure 2B: Mycenaean stele with same motif

The burials inside the two Grave Circles consist of stone-lined shafts. In addition to the bodies of the Mycenaean rulers and their families, the graves contained much wealth in the form of gold masks, inlaid daggers and swords, gold and silver cups and goblets, gold jewelry and foil, etc. Almost immediately after the discovery of such objects in the first Grave Circle, dating controversies arose.

One of the graves produced a gold ring depicting warriors in a chariot hunting a stag with peculiar antlers, which one scholar compared to the ninth century Malatya relief. (Fig. 2B), showing the same subject.17 An authority on Greek art, P. Gardner, judged the golden breastplates, diadems, sword handles, buckles and patterned gold discs from the various graves to be products of the Geometric Age (so-named for the geometrical patterns on its pottery).18 He made that assessment before the chronological sequence for pre-historic Greece received its dates from Egypt, which placed the Shaft Grave period some 500 years before the Geometric Age. He also described animal representations on the gold objects as “identical” in style to the seventh/sixth century examples.19 Other late nineteenth-century authors noted still more similarities between the Shaft Grave artifacts and those of the seventh-sixth centuries B.C.20 Because of those similarities Gardner felt that the Shaft Graves were not far removed in date from the seventh century, but because much of the art was obviously more primitive, he decided to allow some time for development, thus assigning the graves to the twelfth-tenth centuries B.C.,21 which is almost precisely where they would fall under the revised dates for the early Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt.

H.R. Hall of the British Museum was so struck by the resemblance of the artifacts from Grave Circle A to “later” material, that he proclaimed that, “if we are not to throw aside all that we have learnt of the development of early Greek art,” at least some of the objects belong to ca. 900 B.C. or later.22 He proposed, therefore, that the Greeks re-opened graves dating to the early Eighteenth Dynasty after ca. 600 years, but instead of looting or re-using them, they piously deposited later material, His theory for those graves is universally rejected23—although, as we shall presently see, it has resurfaced for other graves at Mycenae. The burials and artifacts of Crave Circle A only span about three generations. If they really belong to the sixteenth (or early fifteenth) century, however, as most authorities now assume,24 then their resemblance to later graves and objects seems all the more remarkable, since hundreds of years were to elapse before similar graves and artifacts supposedly re-appeared.

It is true that Gardner, Hall and others formed their opinions seventy-five to a hundred years ago, before anyone suspected that a centuries-long Dark Age followed the Mycenaean Period, separating it by an unbridgeable “gap of emptiness”25 from the later objects which they considered to be similar or identical, and sometimes contemporaneous. Their observations on style are, nevertheless, still valid today. What they had “learned of the development of early Greek art”26 had to be unlearned and re-learned. Even after nearly eighty years of re-education since Hall made that remark, the Shaft Grave contents, like the stelae and the circles themselves, still present “extraordinarily difficult” problems for, and “remain puzzling” to scholars today.27


  1. Schliemann found five of the graves. P. Stamatakes later found the sixth.

  2. Mylonas (1966, p. 236) set the dates at ca. 1650-1510 B.C., while E. Vermeule The Art of the Shaft Graves at Mycenae [Norman, OK, 1975], pp. 8, 49) lowered the final date to ca. 1450 B.C.

  3. N. G. L. Hammond, A History of Macedonia I (Oxford, 1972), p. 275.

  4. Hammond, “Tumulus Burial in Albania, the Grave Circles of Mycenae, and the Indo-Europeans,” BSA, 62 (1967), p. 90.

  5. Hammond, Epirus (Oxford, 1967), p. 343.

  6. Hammond, (1967), p. 91. See also his “The Dating of Some Burials in Tumuli in South Albania,” BSA, 66 (1971), pp. 229-241 and “Grave Circles in Albania and Macedonia” in Bronze Age Migrations in the Aegean (ed. R. Crossland and A. Birchall) (London, 1973), pp. 189-195.

  7. For the opinion of Prendi and other excavators of those tombs, see Hammond, (1971), pp. 231, 240-241 and his references to the publications in Albanian.

  8. Snodgrass, (1971), p. 259.

  9. Ibid., p. 257.

  10. Ibid., pp. 173, 259.

  11. Ibid., pp. 173, 257-261.

  12. Vermeule, (1975), pp. 13-14 n. 22, 26 n. 35, 49; J. V. Luce, Homer and the Herioc Age (London, 1975), pp. 31-32.

  13. Of course, if the Eighteenth Dynasty were moved down by over 500 years, and along with it the contemporary Mycenaean Grave Circles, that problem vanishes.

  14. There were later Mycenaean tombstones (E. Vermeule, Greece in the Bronze Age [Chicago, 1972] , pp. 302, 304, fig. 47) and some scholars (e.g., G. Richter, The Archaic Gravestones of Attica [London, 1961] , pp. 1-2 and M. Andronikos, Totenkult [Archaeologia Homerica III W] [Philadelphia, 1943], pp. 10-11), K. Friis Johansen (The Attic Grave-Reliefs of the Classical Period [Copenhagen, 1951] , pp. 65-66), and D. C. Kurtz and J. Boardman (Greek Burial Customs [London, 1971] p. 38) reject such continuity, having a revival in the eleventh or tenth century. Actually, by the revised chronology those few stones now placed between the sixteenth/fifteenth century examples and the eleventh/tenth century ones, follow both.

  15. A.H. Sayce, “The Inscriptions Found at Hissarlik” in H. Schliemann, llios” the City and Country of the Trojans (New York, 1881), p, 700; Vermeule (1975, pp. 16-18) cites sculpture of the “Hittite Empire” which Egyptian chronology places centuries earlier than “Neo-Hittite” work, but which scholars originally dated on internal grounds to the ninth-sixth centuries B.C. (as they once did Mycenaean culture)—an attribution supported by Velikovsky’s revision (I. Velikovsky, Ramses II and his Time [Garden City, NY, 1978] pp. 140-179).

  16. For other, though less striking, analogies, compare fig. 2 B from Mycenae to M. Vieyra, Hittite Art 2300-750 B.C. (London, 1955), pls. 48, 67, 77. As Velikovsky has shown (1978, pp. 165-168), scholars have dated the Malatya sculptures anywhere from the fourteenth century to the eighth because of the conflict between Egyptian and Assyrian criteria, but I follow Vieyra’s ninth-century date (ibid, p. 76) for the stag hunt.
    Early ninth-century sculptures of the Assyrian King Assurnasirpal also show affinities to the Shaft Grave reliefs, but are of much finer execution (see R.D. Barnett and M. Falkner, The Sculptures of Assur-Nasir-Apli II, etc. [London, 1962] , pl. 16, and E. Budge, Assyrian Sculptures in the British Museum: Reign of Ashur-Nasir-Pal, 885-860 B.C. [London, 1914] , pls. 12, 42.)

  17. “Notes on Art and Archaeology,” The Academy, vol. 42, No. 1069 (29 Oct., 1892), p. 393, remarks by Heuzy. See C. Smith’s cogent commentary in “Egypt and Mycenaean Antiquities,” The Classical Review 6 (1892) pp. 463-464. The Malatya relief, while similar in subject matter to the ring, more closely resembles the stele (Figs. 2A, 2B).

  18. P. Gardner in a book review of Schliemann’s Mycenae in Quarterly Review, 145 (Jan. -Apr., 1878) p. 78.

  19. Ibid., p. 80

  20. E.g. C. Schuchhardt, Schliemann’s Excavations (tr. E. Sellers) ( New York, 1891), pp. 180, 318.

  21. P. Gardner, “Stephani on the Tombs at Mycenae,” Journal of Hellenic Studies (henceforth JHS), I (1880), pp. 97, 101, 106.

  22. Hall, The Oldest Civilization of Greece (Philadelphia, 1901), pp. 16, 229.

  23. Hall himself later rejected that theory (Aegean Archaeology, [London, 1915] , pp. 23-24). I hope to chronicle his dramatic turnabout at a later date. Accepting ninth-seventh-century dates for items from Enkomi on Cyprus, and convinced of their contemporaneity with some Shaft Grave artifacts, he sought to downdate the latter by over 500 years. Blasted by Arthur Evans for his heresy, Hall accepted the Egyptian-based dates for the Shaft Graves and all their contents, and added over 500 years to the dates of the Enkomi material.

  24. For their duration, see Hankey-Warren, (1974), p. 150; Vermeule, (1975) p. 8. For the dates, see p. 49.

  25. R. Carpenter, Discontinuity in Greek Civilization (Cambridge, England, 1966), p. 35. Shortly after Carpenter expressed that opinion, Desborough and Snodgrass each wrote extensive volumes on the Dark Age (1972). Both listed and sought to explain the material remains of the period. Both ran into numerous problems, of which we shall list some for Mycenae. Continued excavation reveals more material for the period; but, rather than forming a continuum, the latest Mycenaean artifacts do not flow into the earliest post-Mycenaean ones, with the former looking like and often mixed with 500-year later remains, the latter looking like and often mixed with 500-year earlier remains. That nobody realized the existence of such a Dark Age before Egyptian chronology transferred its dates to Mycenaean culture, see Snodgrass, ibid, pp. 1-21. In the final words of his lengthy tome, meant to illuminate the period, Snodgrass (p. 436) confessed that it “seems to me to deserve the title of a dark age.”

  26. Hall, (1901), p. 16.

  27. Vermeule, (1975), pp. 1, 51.