The Mycenaean tholos tomb consists of an entrance passage leading to a circular burial chamber roofed over with a corbel vault shaped like an old-fashioned beehive. (Tholos is the ancient Greek word for a round building.) The nine tholos tombs at Mycenae are divided into two groups by a long hill called the Panagia ridge. There are four tombs on the east side of the hill. Romantically named, they are, in order of construction, the Tomb of Aegisthus, the Lion Tomb, the Treasury of Atreus and the Tomb of Clytemnestra. (Incidentally, the travel writer Pausanias in the 2nd century AD called it the ‘Treasury of Atreus’, because at that time the structure was thought to have been the treasure house of Atreus, one of the legendary kings of Mycenae.) The other five tombs are located on the west side of the ridge (as shown on the map, right). It has been observed that those on the east side are larger, more ornate and closer to the acropolis than those on the west side, and so are thought to have been built by rulers of Mycenae. The other five were most probably built by members of Mycenae’s aristocracy. Of the four ‘royal’ tholos tombs, three are set close together beside the acropolis hill. However, one – the Treasury of Atreus – stands by itself. Approximately 500m away from the other three, this tomb is located halfway along the east slope of the Panagia ridge. This raises the question: why was the Atreus Tomb built on this particular spot and not next to the acropolis? We need to consider first the position of the tomb, as it would have been seen by travellers approaching Mycenae along certain roads; secondly, how the tomb would have been seen from the palace; and lastly, the view from the tomb itself.
Late Bronze age roads at Mycenae
Mycenae was the focus of a network of well-built roads, a fact first realised in the early 1880s, when Captain Bernard Steffen located and surveyed some of the roads around the citadel. In the early 1990s, the roads were mapped again as part of the Mycenae survey (see the Archaeological Atlas of Mycenae published by the Archaeological Society at Athens). The roads were built for wheeled vehicles like chariots, and replaced unmetalled tracks, which followed natural routes through the landscape. The best-preserved sections of roadway are found on the north-west slopes of the Berbati valley, which lies to the east of Mycenae. They are made up of layers of stones and earth retained by walls of Cyclopean masonry, pierced at short intervals by culverts, which allowed water flowing downhill to drain away. The sections belong to a road known as M1, a highway that connected Mycenae with settlements and valleys to the east and north.
Between the Berbati valley and Mycenae, M1 ran along the north bank of the Chavos, a torrent bed that runs due west to Mycenae, where it becomes a great gorge separating the acropolis hill from Mt. Zara, one of the two peaks that loom above the archaeological site. Near the acropolis, M1 probably followed roughly the same course as the modern country road. Since this road is cut into the hillside, its construction would have certainly destroyed any remains of a Mycenaean predecessor. Walking along the line of the modern country road towards the citadel, you notice a wide U-shaped gap between Mt. Zara and the acropolis hill. This gap – the Chavos gorge – affords a view of the region to the west of the citadel. Looking through it, the Treasury of Atreus gradually appears from behind Mt. Zara until it sits in the middle of the gorge . The tomb then disappears behind the piece of rising ground between the east end of the acropolis hill and the road.
The Atreus Tomb is also visible from the two roads that approached Mycenae from the south. In this direction lay the fertile Argive plain, the major Mycenaean sites of Tiryns, Midea and Argos and, beyond them, the sea. The two roads that ran to the south are called M4 and M7. M7 ran south-west from Mycenae to Argos, although it may even have stretched as far south as Lerna, on the shore of the Gulf of Argos. The other road, M4, ran south-east from Mycenae, linking the site with settlements on the east side of the Argive plain. It has been traced as far as Prosymna, but probably terminated at the citadel of Midea. At Mycenae M4 and M7 converged at a natural crossing over the Chavos where the remains of a bridge built in the Cyclopean technique were discovered.
Walking along the line of either road towards the crossing point, the Treasury of Atreus can be seen in a prominent position to the north-west just before you reach the orchard of olive trees at the foot of Mount Zara. Today the tomb is partially hidden from view by the trees and bushes that surround it. However, it is still a prominent landmark because it is situated immediately to the south of a bowl in the Panagia ridge: the bowl makes the tomb stand out from the rest of the ridge. Of course, the tomb would have been even more conspicuous in the Mycenaean period, when it was not covered in vegetation and its earthen mound, rubble-poros wall and terrace were all in their original condition. It seems clear to me, then, that the Atreus Tomb was sited so that it would be seen by anyone approaching Mycenae from the east, south-east or south-west .
The Pathway to the Palace
But if the tomb was carefully placed for the visitor approaching Mycenae, its position was even more impressive when seen from the Palace itself. The heart of the palace at Mycenae was the megaron or great hall. It was furnished with a throne and a large circular hearth and was decorated with frescoes. When the Treasury of Atreus was built, the megaron was situated on the very top of the acropolis hill. With its entrance facing south, this rectangular building was approached by a path that climbed up to the north-west corner of the uppermost part of the acropolis hill and then proceeded south for a short distance along the western side of the hilltop before turning east onto the actual summit.
From the western side of the upper acropolis, there is a magnificent view of the Argive plain (Map p.15: eye on acropolis, and see photo opposite). The west slope of Mt. Zara and the east face of the Panagia ridge, with the Chavos running between them, fill the foreground. Behind these slopes, there is a great swathe of the Argive plain itself. In the distance, the Artemision range rises above the plain, and the Gulf of Argos and the town of Argos itself lie to the south (left on photo). In the centre of the panorama and forming the focus of the view is the Atreus Tomb. Again, the bowl beside the Treasury of Atreus helps the tomb stand out from the rest of the ridge. Interestingly, the mound of the tomb sits directly below the gorge of the Charadros River, the only discernible break in the mountain range on the western side of the plain. The sides of the gorge seem to point to the tomb, and the hill nestling within the gorge echoes the shape of the mound. Given the route to the megaron in 1350 BC and the superb view of the Argive plain from the west side of the upper acropolis, I am convinced that the Atreus Tomb was set into the east slope of the Panagia ridge so that it would be seen by anyone entering the palace of Mycenae.
The Mound of the Atreus Tomb
The view of the acropolis from the tomb is just as spectacular, for Mt. Profitis Ilias, which rises immediately north-east of Mycenae, serves as the backdrop (Map p.15: eye by Atreus Tomb). Interestingly, viewed from the mound above the tomb, the acropolis hill not only sits exactly in front of Mt. Profitis Ilias, but also has the same silhouette as the mountain. Consequently, the acropolis looks larger and more impressive, and appears to be protected by Mt. Profitis Ilias. This view is peculiar to this specific spot on the Panagia ridge, and so must have influenced the siting of the Treasury of Atreus
The symbolism of the Atreus Tomb site
So why was such a distinctive site chosen for the tomb? The answer, I believe, is connected to a major change in the political geography of the Argive plain in the 14th century BC. In this region in the early 14th century BC, besides Mycenae, there were tholos tombs in use at Berbati, Dendra (the cemetery of Midea), Kokla (near Argos) and Prosymna. By the middle of the century, however, these tombs had been abandoned,m although tholos tomb construction continued at Mycenae. This suggests that by that time Mycenae had gained ascendancy over some of its rivals in the region.
In c.1350 BC the Treasury of Atreus was erected. Bigger, more elaborate and much better built than both the Tomb of Aegisthus and the Lion Tomb, the Atreus Tomb far surpassed its predecessors as an expression of wealth and power. It certainly appears that the king who constructed the Treasury of Atreus had at his disposal the human and material resources of a region considerably greater in extent than that controlled by his ancestors. In other words, the size, decoration and architectural quality of the Atreus Tomb support the suggestion that the territory of Mycenae expanded in the mid 14th century BC. It appears that the builder of the Treasury of Atreus not only wanted to express his status as the greatest and most powerful ruler of Mycenae thus far through the architecture of the tomb, but also through its position in the landscape. The site chosen for the tomb was perfectly suited to convey this message. As stated above, the Atreus Tomb was sited so as to be visible from the trackways/roads that led to Mycenae from the east, south-east and south-west . I believe that the aim of this was to show that the ruler of Mycenae who built the tomb succeeded in acquiring control of settlements in these directions. It certainly seems significant that the tholos tombs abandoned by the middle of the 14th century BC lie to the east (Berbati), south-east (Dendra and Prosymna) and southwest (Kokla) of Mycenae.
We also noted that the palace/acropolis and tomb face each other and that the lines of sight from one to the other, continue to prominent natural features behind (Mt. Profitis Ilias) or in the distance (the Charadros gorge). This has the effect of tying the palace/acropolis and tomb together and also binding both to the landscape. It seems that the aim of placing the Treasury of Atreus in the centre of the panoramic view of the Argive plain from the west side of the upper acropolis, was to remind those who entered the palace of what the ruler achieved in his lifetime. By linking the tomb visually to the Charadros gorge and the hill within it, the viewer is made to survey the vast tract of farmland between the tholos tomb and the Artemision range. Thus, the view cleverly links the palace (the home of the king during his lifetime), the Atreus Tomb (the home of the king in death) and the Argive plain (the domain of the king) together.
This accounts for the position of the Atreus Tomb; however, there are eight other tholos tombs at Mycenae and each one has its own story. For example, the Tomb of Aegisthus was built between the two Grave Circles, but, intriguingly, its entrance passage points towards the Aspis, the low hill that was the centre of Bronze Age Argos. Its neighbour, the Tomb of Clytemnestra, is visible from M4 (its mound sits neatly in the dip between the Panagia ridge and the acropolis hill) and forms the visual focus on leaving the palace through the doorway called the West Portal. I would encourage CWA readers, therefore, to go to Mycenae and not only visit all the tholos tombs, but also to think about the location of each one in the landscape.
This article is an extract from the full article published in World Archaeology Issue 28. Click here to subscribe