Mycenaean Civilization: Funerary Beliefs, Practices & Tombs

Instructor: Joseph Hardy
This lesson covers the burial tombs of the Mycenaeans, and how the artifacts discovered therein have detailed a religious and sophisticated warrior society that spread reached far across the Mediterranean.

Cultural Remains as Clues

Have you ever thought about traveling to ancient Greece and visiting a temple built to Zeus or Athena? Or perhaps taking a ship across the emerald green Aegean Sea as the ancient Greeks once did? Of all the things that might come into your mind as you think of the ancient Greeks, it's unlikely you would imagine a burial tomb.

Few realize that there are countless burial tombs all across Greece that date well before the time of Socrates and Plato. These are the tombs of a fascinating warrior society known as the Mycenaeans that existed between 1600-1400 BCE.

By visiting their tombs and investigating the artifacts contained therein, we can make educated guesses about who the Mycenaeans were and what they believed. Come, let's take a closer look.

Where to Look

Across the countryside of modern Greece are the remains of hundreds of ancient cities that pre-date those of classical Greece. These cities are the home of several impressive tombs similar in form to those found in Egypt, and all allude to the sophistication of a culture that existed well before the time of Socrates.

The most impressive of these cities are the great citadels, or fortresses, that reside high in mountains. These were home to the Mycenaeans, and much of what is known about this civilization is revealed through their incredible graves and the artifacts that lay interred among dozens of discovered bodies.

The Shaft Tombs at Mycenae

Among the earliest graves found in Greece, are those at the great city of Mycenae. The city's existence had been known for some time, yet few artifacts had been discovered. But then, archeological excavations at Mycenae revealed two large circular graves, which have shed incredible light on Mycenaean culture.

Mycenae circle of royal tombs
Mycenae Shaft Tombs

These circular grave sites are composed of many shaft graves, a type of tomb where bodies are placed in a small hole cut into stone. The first grave site, referred to as Circle A, was discovered within the city walls, while a second, Circle B, was made outside of the city.

The graves with their accompanying tombs are very similar in structure and composition. Within the large circular graveyard lay several shaft graves marked by a stele, or stone pillar. Digging under the pillars, archeologists found the remains of several bodies with their worldly possessions alongside them.

It is clear that the bodies were those of rulers and nobility as marked by their large size (due to good health) and the numerous precious objects they were buried with.

Artifacts from Circle A at Mycenae
Artifacts from Circle A

Many of the bodies were found with detailed gold masks placed on their faces. Ornate jewelry and drinking vessels also accompanied them, made from precious metals and materials such as gold, silver, bronze, alabaster and amber. Ceremonial daggers and swords have been discovered as well, suggesting that the Mycenaeans were a warrior culture.

Chamber Tombs

After the discoveries made at Mycenae, other excavations began at Tiryns, Pylos, Vaphei and Dendra, as well as at other sites known to harbor ruins similar to those at Mycenae.

At the city of Dendra, a slightly different tomb was discovered, called a chamber tomb. These tombs, unlike the shaft tombs, were carved into the soft bedrock of a hillside. They took the form of a small round house with a domed roof. Bodies were often buried in the floor of these tombs.

A most remarkable discovery at the tomb found at Dendra is that of a full set of bronze armor. No armor of this type has been found anywhere else in the world.

Dendra bronze armor
dendra armor

Tholoi Tombs

As time progressed, the Mycenaeans grew in power and in craftsmanship. The structure of their tombs became more sophisticated and grander in scale. Tombs called tholoi (tholos, singular) were constructed by cutting vast amounts of dirt and stone from a hill or mountainside.

Into these excavations were constructed conical or beehive shape rooms made of large stones, built to house the dead. The bodies of rulers and royalty were placed in a small hole in the floor along with their worldly possessions.

The Treasury of Atreus, a tholos tomb in Mycenae
Tholos Tomb

Nine tholoi tombs were discovered in Mycenae, though tragically most produced few artifacts as their obvious nature made them prone to looting. One tholos tomb, however, was discovered in tact in the city of Vapheio.

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