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 1950s 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 Schliemanns (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 Hammonds 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 Hammonds 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 sculpturesespecially 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
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 rejected23although, 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 emptiness25 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 art26 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