Later Use of the Grave Circles

Not very long after the Shaft Grave burials, a Mycenaean ruler disturbed one of the interments in Circle B, enlarging its shaft to form an entrance to a new “built tomb,” with a stately chamber and saddle-shaped roof constructed of stone blocks. Enough ceramic material remained in the tomb, after its subsequent robbery, to indicate an LH II date for its fabrication and use, Since the LH II pottery phase corresponds to the reign of Pharaoh Thutmose III,.G. Mylonas, the tomb’s excavator, assigned it to the fifteenth century B.C. The tomb type is foreign to Greece, with the example from Circle B constituting its sole appearance in the country. Archaeologists have discovered the type at roughly the same period on Crete (also one example) and Cyprus and especially in Syria, where it originally developed. Mylonas saw “striking parallels” to the tombs of Syria and Trachonas on Cyprus;1 but, as he had noted earlier, there was a problem with Trachonas since, despite its close proximity to Syria, its example is 500 years younger than those of Syria.2 There are tombs of the “right” date on Cyprus, notably at Enkomi, but the 500-year problem still exists and has grown with time.

Excavations have found similar Iron Age built tombs in large numbers on Cyprus, in Asia Minor, Urartu, Palestine and at Carthage, none dating earlier than ca. 950 B.C., and most belonging to the ninth-seventh centuries. Noting the same “striking parallels” between the examples of 1550-1200 B.C. And those from 950-600 B.C., numerous archaeologists have tried to connect the two groups. A 250-year gap separates them, however, with the earliest Iron Age tombs resembling not the latest Bronze Age examples, but the earliest ones, ca. 600 years earlier, with developmental stages running parallel after a 600-year interval, Furthermore, although excavators assume that Syro-Phoenicia was the place of origin for both groups, especially since the Iron Age examples encircle that region and appear at Levantine colonies, there are, in fact, no such tombs known from Syro-Phoenicia during the second period.3

The built tomb of Circle B marks the last burial inside the Grave Circles. The Mycenaean rulers turned from simple, stone-lined shafts (and the one Syrian built tomb), sunk into the softer rock of the relatively flat land west of their citadel, to the neighboring hilly slopes to the west and southwest. There they excavated long, unroofed corridors into the hillsides, then hollowed out gigantic circular tombs which they lined with stone, capping them with corbelled, stone-built domes, resembling huge beehives, over which they heaped a tremendous mounds of earth. They also began to protect their citadel with thick walls of stone.

In the LH III B period, which began towards the end of the Eighteenth Dynasty and extended through the subsequent reigns of the Ramesside pharaohs,4 both Grave Circles, abandoned for centuries, experienced renewed activity. Circle B, the farthest from the citadel, and possibly silted over with wash and forgotten during the centuries of disuse, suffered an ignoble fate when the workmen excavating the last of the great beehive tombs (the so-called Tomb of Clytemnaestra, to which we shall return), sliced through the eastern portion of the Grave Circle, and heaped the earthen mound to cover that tomb over the rest of Circle B.5

Circle A, on the other hand, enjoyed a completely different lot during the same period.6 Like Circle B, the beehive tombs,and all the other graves of rich and poor residents or Mycenae, Circle A originally lay west of, and outside the settlement proper, both during the period of its burials in MH-LH I, and at the time of the first extensive fortification of the city in LH III A. When the “thirteenth-century” Mycenaeans decided to enlarge their city, by building another, longer wall in the area of the “prehistoric cemetery” to the west, they faced the problem of what to do with Circle A. We already saw some evidence of the disrespect for their dead predecessors which the Mycenaeans displayed at Circle B, when the owner of the built tomb violated the earlier Shaft Grave he expropriated, only to have his own tomb pillaged after his death, and again when the excavators of the beehive tomb destroyed part of Circle B and heaped dirt over the rest of it. In fact, they were notorious for their lack of piety towards the deceased, building structures over earlier tombs, robbing the dead, and casting aside their bones.7

Unlike Circle B and so many other graves in the vicinity, the Mycenaeans treated Circle A, which lay directly in the path of their urban expansion, with a reverence singular for that age. They extended their fortification wall farther than mere concern for defense or for urban planning dictated, enclosing Circle A within the city proper. They made sacrifices and dedicated idols inside the circle.8 Although space inside the citadel was at a premium, and the inhabitants crowded buildings around that area, many of them over older graves, some of which they plundered,9 they spared Circle A. In fact, they decided to raise its level as a whole, to correspond to the higher grade of the city’s interior—a massive engineering feat, requiring the construction of a giant retaining wall to the west over five meters high, adding tons of earth above the graves until they formed a higher, even surface, then raising the old grave stelae to the new level to designate the individual burials below. At the new surface they constructed a new enclosure wall of two concentric rings of stone slabs filled with earth and capped by horizontal stone slabs.10

Considering the lack of respect for other, neighboring, tombs, the building all around but not above Circle A, the vast labor that went into deflecting the city fortification around the circle, and into creating the circle as it now appears, as well as the contemporary sacrifices and dedication of idols, some scholars have considered Circle A as a sacred burial precinct,11 unique for thirteenth-century Greece, The next evidence of such a practice in Greece—again involving older graves sunk into the earth and lined with stone walls or stone slabs encircled by a later wall to form a sacred precinct—took place in Attica at Athens” and at Eleusis roughly 500 years later.12 Scholars regarded the latter two cases as the beginnings of hero shrines in Greece, stating that “respect for older burials is something quite new at this time [the eighth century]” and “foreign” to all earlier periods.13 The similar instance from Circle A stands in isolation 500 years earlier. It is of further interest for the cult at Circle A itself, that, as with nearly every other example of real or presumed thirteenth-century cults throughout the Aegean, there is a sharp break soon after its initiation;14 yet, again, as in most other cults, people, apparently stirred by the same feelings as their predecessors, re-established worship and dedications at Circle A some 500 years later,15 as if there suddenly arose “the revival of some kind of consciousness in a people who had previously lacked it” during the intervening half millennium.16

From the above account we see that the late nineteenth-century savants, who were forced to “throw aside all that we have learnt of the development of early Greek art” (Hall), when Egyptian chronology made the Shaft Graves of Circle A and all their contents no later than ca. 1450 B.C.,17 were not alone in their problems. Even a century after Schliemann’s fabulous discovery, and despite all the finds since then, including Circle B, still the stelae, grave construction, and many of the contents of the Shaft Graves of both circles, the built tomb of Circle B, and the cult at Circle A prove vexing to contemporary archaeologists,” With the beginning of the Eighteenth Egyptian Dynasty redated by over 500 years, the Shaft Graves would belong to the eleventh-tenth centuries, the built tomb would fall into the late tenth century, and the special honor accorded to the dead of Circle A would date to the eighth century—all linked in time with similar items and traits of a supposedly later era. Under such a revision they no longer stand isolated from 400-600-year-later, but still comparable artifacts and customs of the eleventh-eighth (and later) centuries, with which some late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholars synchronized them, and with which even current scholars still compare, and seek (despite difficulties) to relate them.


  1. Mylonas, Mycenae and the Mycenaean Age, p. 107

  2. Idem, (1957), p. 164; cf. Velikovsky, p. 183.

  3. E. Sjöqvist, “Enkomi” in E. Gjerstad et al. SCE I (Stockholm, 1934) pp. 570-573; A. Westholm, “Amathus” SCE II (Stockholm, 1935) p. 140; A. Westholm, “Built Tombs in Cyprus” Opuscula Archaeologica (henceforth pp. Arch.) II (1941), pp. 30, 32-53, 57; E. Gjerstad, SCE, IV.2 (Stockholm, 1948), p. 239; Karageorghis, (1967b), p. 123; C. Picard, “Installations cultuelles retrouvées au Tophet de Salambo,” Rivista degli Studi Orientali. 42 (1967), pp. 189-199; G.C. and C. Pickard. The Life and Death of Carthage (tr. by D. Collon) (London, 1968), pp. 47, 52; D. Ussishkin, “The Necropolis from the Time of the Kingdom of Judah at Silwan, Jerusalem,” The Biblical Archaeologist, 33 (1970), pp. 45-46; For a fuller discussion, see Isaacson, (1974), pp. 14-15.

  4. Hankey-Warren, (1974), pp. 147-148, 150.

  5. Ibid., p. 145, 152, n. 2; Mylonas, (1966), p. 98. The earthen mound of the beehive tomb, which also covered the Grave Circle, explains why no one knew of the circle, intersected by that tomb, after the discovery of the latter ca. 1807, or when workmen constructed the present road, a cistern and an aqueduct over the western side of the circle in modern times, until its chance discovery in the 1950s (Mylonas, (1957), pp. 130, 143-144). If wash already covered the circle before LH III B, the apparent disrespect of that period might have the same explanation as more recent encroachments—ignorance of its existence.

  6. Mylonas and others have the activity at Circle A precede that at B by ca. 30 years, while Wace and others had the activity at Circle A follow that at B by ca. 50 years or more (Mylonas, (1966), pp. 119-120). Still, all agree on an LH III B date for both.

  7. Ibid., pp. 106-107, 109; Vermule, (1972), pp. 88, 299-230. 

  8. Mylonas, ibid., pp. 24, 28-31, 90, 94-96; idem, “The Cult of the Dead in Helladic Times,” in G. Mylonas (ed.) Studies Presented to P.M. Robinson I (St. Louis, 1951), pp. 96-99; Wace, (1921-23), pp. 104-105. 

  9. Mylonas, (1966), p. 96; Wace, Mycenae: An Archaeological History and Guide (Princeton, 1949), pp. 51, 61, figs. 18, 69, plan 3;Vermeule, (1972), p. 84. 

  10. Mylonas, ibid., 90-96; Vermeule, ibid., p. 84.

  11. Mylonas, following Wace, originally (1951, pp. 96-99) regarded it as such. He later changed his mind, since Circle B not only did not receive similar honor, but was violated at about the same time; and because Circle A, which did not have a doorway, showed no evidence of doors to bar the uninitiated and animals (1966, pp. 178-179), As to his first reservation, Circle B might not have suffered deliberate abuse if it was not visible at the time (see n. 5 above); or, even if so, if the two circles represented two different groups, one might have been in esteem, the other in disfavor centuries later. As to the lack of doors, the Mycenaeans had other devices for blocking passages, such as skins, curtains, stone slabs, clay slabs, etc. (cf. Blegen-Rawson, (1956), pp. 38, 111, 152, 161); they could have even used a fence or a rope cordon. Of far greater concern for the safety of the fortress as a whole is the fact that two entrances into the citadel from the Northeast (Fig. 1 P, Q) near the vital water supply, had no doors to bar them (Mylonas, (1966), pp. 18-19, 32. Mylonas (loc. cit.) postulated that troops could protect them, and also envisioned an honor guard for Circle B (Mycenae: A Guide to Its Ruins and Its History [Athens, 1972], p. 57, fig. 25).The same could apply to Circle A. Whether sacred or not. Circle A was obviously very special to the people of Mycenae.

  12. Athens: H.A. Thompson, “Activity in the Athenian Agora: 1966-1967,” Hesperia, 37 (1968), p. 60; Eleusis: Mylonas, (1955), p. 60; idem, Eleusis and the Eleusian Mysteries (Princeton, 1961), pp. 62-63.

  13. J. N. Coldstream, “Hero-cults in the Age of Homer,” JHS, 96 1976), p. 11; Cf. Kurtz-Boardman, (1971), pp. 298-302.

  14. Some modern writers like Desborough (1972, pp. 278-287), Dietrich (1970, pp. 16-25) and N. D. Papachadzis (“Religion in the Archaic Period” in The Archaic Period [ed. G. Christopoulos and J. Bastias; tr. P. Sherrard] [London, 1975], pp. 25-26), bothered by the present lack of archaeological material to fill 500-year voids at numerous centers of religious activity—the one matter for which everyone believes in continuity throughout that half millennium—postulate that there was no break. Other recent authors, like Snodgrass (1971, pp. 130-131, 192-194, 275-279, 394-401, 408-409, 422; Archaeology and the Rise of the Greek State [Cambridge, 1977], pp. 25-32), Coldstream ([1976], pp. 8-17; Knossos: The Sanctuary of Demeter [London, 1973], p. 181), O. Dickinson (“Archaeological Facts and Greek Traditions,” Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of the University of Birmingham, 17.2 [1973-4], p. 40), and R.A. Tomlinson (Greek Sanctuaries [London, 1976], pp. 15, 20-21, 28, 64, 71, 78-80, 90, 124) are as perplexed as their colleagues, but do see a 500-year lacuna in the evidence (and cf. F. Grace, “Observations on Seventh-Century Sculpture,” AJA 46 (1942) p. 341).

  15. Coldstream, (1976), pp. 9-10.

  16. Snodgrass, (1971), p. 194.

  17. See above “The Grave Circles,” ns. 2, 22.