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Report | From Grave Circle A to the Hellenistic Theater: The Birth of Agamemnon’s Legend on the West Slope of Mycenae

Citation with persistent identifier: Paschalidis, Constantinos. “From Grave Circle A to the Hellenistic Theater: The Birth of Agamemnon’s Legend on the West Slope of Mycenae.” CHS Research Bulletin 7 (2019). http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hlnc.essay:PaschalidisC.From_Grave_Circle_A_to_the_Hellenistic_Theater.2019

Abstract 

This project combines a comparative study of the ‘biographies’ of the individuals buried in Mycenaean tombs at the west slope of the citadel (Grave Circle A, Grave Circle B, a nearby chamber tomb and the Clytemnestra Tholos) with the emergence of epic memory and hero-cult, from the Late Geometric altars until the Hellenistic theater, which covered the land of the dead with performances and verses. In brief, we wish to explore the possible connection of the actual remains of the ancestors with the legacy created upon them, in – what we believe – was the birthplace of the legend: the west slope of Mycenae.

For that purpose we use Panagis Stamatakis’s detailed excavation diary of Grave Circle A, which was recently discovered at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. This new precious excavation data, together with previous published studies of ours on some hero-cult episodes of the Late Geometric times upon Mycenaean graves, the study of the Hellenistic theater’s establishment upon the royal Clytemnestra Tholos and the search of evidence from ancient sources involving the site of Mycenae, provides the opportunity to examine this topic of interest: the creation of the legend of Agamemnon at the west slope of Mycenae. 

Report

A new and glorious Archaeology was born on November 9th 1876 when Heinrich and Sophia Schliemann began excavating Grave Circle A at Mycenae, known ever after as Mycenaean Archaeology. Schliemann was motivated by a dream to discover the palace and sacred sepulcher of Agamemnon, so well-known from the Homeric epics, Pausanias’s records and ancient tragedy. Setting the stage for an investigation into the distant past, as well as the recent history of archaeological work itself, this project weaves together the ‘biographies’ of the rulers buried at Mycenae and the later legends created on the west slope of the citadel in the historical periods, through a re-examination of the old excavation in light of new data gathered during modern scientific studies.

The excavation of the rich in gold cemetery at Mycenae was completed in a particularly short period of time, without the necessary recording procedures, even by the standards of those times. As a result, everything we know from Schliemann’s and later publications is fragmentary and incomplete.[1] Thankfully, investigations were supervised by Panagiotis Stamatakis, the Ephor of Antiquities, a tireless and meticulous archaeologist. From the very first day of the excavation he recorded all the details of the work in a handwritten diary, as stipulated by the archaeological legislation.

Considered lost for over a century, the diary of Panagiotis Stamatakis was rediscovered at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens 20 years ago, and thus commenced a multi-disciplinary effort to re-examine the burials in Grave Circle A (Papazoglou-Manioudaki et al. 2009, Papazoglou-Manioudaki et al. 2010, Dickinson et al. 2012). This project, however, did not focus in detail on every single burial and its context, leaving many valuable aspects, such as social status and biographic profiles, in the shadows.

Granted access to the Stamatakis archive in 2016, we started re-organizing the data, identifying Stamatakis’s descriptions of the burials and their belongings in order to clarify the burial contexts of the most conspicuous elites of Mycenaean times. Focusing on the brilliant case of Shaft Grave IV,[2] our ongoing study aims to reconstruct the chronicle of this grave’s use and assign the famous finds to individual burials, in an effort to elucidate their particular ‘biographies’, as we may term the individual character ascribed to each by their gifts and special modes of interment.[3] For instance, the young man who died aged 18, identified with burial O by Samatakis, was offered the most precious assemblage of burial gifts of all Mycenaean times, including more than 50 long swords, various jewels, the largest silver vase of the Prehistoric Aegean (known as Battle Krater), which contained a surprising set of 12 gold and silver cups, a ewer and two ritual vases (rhyta) that altogether consist the earliest sumposium set of the Greek-speaking world. Revisiting Shaft Grave III, Dr Eleni Konstantinidi-Syvridi made a good use of the Stamatakis archive and attributed most of the luxurious burial gifts and some objects of religious character to the main female burial, who was interred with a gold-cladded infant placed upon her chest. Konstantinidi-Syvridi saw in her a possible priestess immensely honoured and well prepared for the afterlife.[4]

Meanwhile, in the winter of 2007, we studied a series of small Mycenaean finds which had been kept in the storeroom of the National Archaeological Museum under the vague label ‘Mycenae’. Together with Dr. Eleni Konstantinidi-Syvridi, we identified the group as deriving from a long-forgotten chamber tomb south of Grave Circle B and near the Clytemnestra Tholos at Mycenae (Protonotartiou-Deilaki 1990, 89 and Antonaccio 1995, especially 47-8). The tomb had been investigated by Ioannis Papadimitriou, as part of his major excavation of Grave Circle B (Papadimitriou 1952 and 1953).[5] The tomb was used for at least one male burial of the warrior elite of the early 14th century BCE. It soon collapsed, but in the late 8th century BCE it became a place of memory for the cult of the dead with the construction of an altar on top of the fallen roof at which Geometric kraters and cups were dedicated.[6] The altar and its offerings appear to have been directed towards honoring figures who must have been considered as protagonists of local myth or Homeric lore. The resulting publication detailed the Mycenaean use of the tomb as well as the rich evidence for honoring the dead and ancestors in post-Mycenaean times, found both inside the grave and in the surrounding area (Konstantinidi-Syvridi and Paschalidis 2011 and 2015).

Figure 1. Inscribed sherd inv. no NAM Π1761, found by Schliemann at Mycenae (Photographic Archive of the National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

Figure 1. Inscribed sherd inv. no NAM Π1761, found by Schliemann at Mycenae (Photographic Archive of the National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

In the 7th century BCE, the remains of the chamber tomb and the Geometric altar were abandoned and covered by the debris of the citadel’s west slope. In the early 5th century BCE, the cult of a hero is recorded to have been performed either upon the remains of Grave Circle A, or in its surrounding intra muros area, due to the discovery by Schliemann of an inscribed ostrakon: “I belong to the Hero” (Fig. 1).[7] Much later, and after Mycenae was destroyed and deserted by the Argives and colonized once more in the 3rd century BCE, the Hellenistic theater of Mycenae was built on the west slope, outside the cyclopean walls. The chamber tomb and the area around Grave Circle B were filled anew. Stone seats of the koilon were placed on top of the built dromos of the nearby Clytemnestra Tholos, which was used as a suitable foundation. The tholos tomb, then still visible, was also covered with earth. Although the choice of the theater’s position was largely dictated by the natural formation of the slope, the presence of the ancient tombs in the area must have held some significance, judging from the fact that Grave Circle A seems to have remained visible and deeply respected until the end of antiquity (Gallou 2005, 21). In a place where memories were never absent, as noted by Pausanias, the performance of drama should have included an aspect that honored the heroic ancestors. The performances of the “misfortunes of the House of Atreus” – in the words of Elektra – a breath away from the royal tombs themselves, must have especially electrified both actors and audience alike.[8]

Do certain burials of the Mycenaean past correspond to the later celebrations in honor of the heroes-ancestors? Were the ancestral cults related to the still visible tombs and were the tombs identified as the heroes from the Homeric epic? Our project combines a comparative study of the ‘biographies’ of the individuals buried in Mycenaean tombs (Shaft Grave IV at Grave Circle A, Grave Circle B, the nearby chamber tomb and the Clytemnestra Tholos) with the emergence of epic memory and hero-cult, from the Late Geometric altars until the Hellenistic theater, which covered the land of the dead with performances and verses. In brief, we wish to explore further the possible connection of the actual remains of the ancestors with the legacy created upon them, in – what we believe – was the birthplace of the legend: the west slope of Mycenae.

Acknowledgments

I am grateful to the Center for Hellenic Studies for supporting my on-going project with a four-week residence at the CHS campus. During my stay there in April 2019, I had the perfect opportunity and the ideal conditions to focus and work on the history of Mycenae and the irresistible power of the Late Bronze Age ruins, which was imposed on the Mycenaeans of the first millennium BCE. I am grateful to Professors Gregory Nagy, Richard Martin and to the Emeritus Professor Anthony Snodgrass for their useful insights on my topic. I am indebted to Lanah Koelle and Zoie Lafis, for their help in just about everything. I owe my sincere thanks to my co-Fellows Drs Katerina Ladianou and Nicolas Bertrand and to Dr Georgios Tsimpoukis for their immense help in various parts of my study, which will be included as a separate chapter in my forthcoming monograph on Panagiotis Stamatakis’s excavations in Mycenae.

Select Bibliography 

Antonaccio, C. M. 1995. An Archaeology of Ancestors. Tomb Cult and Hero Cult in Early Greece. Boston.

Blakolmer, F. 2007. “The Silver Battle Krater from Shaft Grave IV at Mycenae: Evidence of Fighting ‘Heroes’ on Minoan Palace Walls at Knossos?” In EPOS. Reconsidering Greek Epic and Aegean Bronze Age Archaeology, ed. S. P. Morris and R. Laffineur,  AEGAEUM 28:213-224. Liège. 

Dickinson, O. T. P. K., L. Papazoglou-Manioudaki, A. Nafplioti, and A. J. N. W Prag. 2012. “Mycenae Revisited Part 4: Assessing the New Data.” BSA 107:161-188.

Gallou, C. 2005. The Mycenaean Cult of the Dead (BAR International Series 1372). Oxford.

Jeffrey, L. H. 1961. The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece. Oxford.

Konstantinidi-Syvridi, E. 2018. “Mycenae, Shaft Grave III. Tomb of the High Priestess?” Journal of Prehistoric Religion 26:47-60.

Konstandinidi-Syvridi, E., and C. Paschalidis. 2011. “Honouring the Dead behind the Scenes. The Case of the Chamber Tomb by Grave Circle B at Mycenae.” In Honouring the Dead in the Peloponnese, ed. W. Cavanagh, S. Hodkinson, and J. Roy. online

http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/csps/documents/honoringthedead/konstantintidi-syvridiandpaschalidis.pdf

Konstantinidi-Syvridi, E., and C. Paschalidis. 2015. “Life and Death at Mycenae at the End of the Prepalatial Period. The Case of the Chamber Tomb South of Grave Circle B.” In Mycenaeans up to Date: The Archaeology of the NE Peloponnese – Current Concepts and New Directions, ed. A.-L. Schallin and I. Tournavitou, 405-431. Stockholm.

Lefèvre-Novaro, D. 2004. “Les offrandes d’époque Géométrique /Orientalisante dans les tombes Crétoises de l’Âge du Bronze: Problèmes et hypotheses.” Creta Antica 5:181–197.

Mylonas, G. E. 1957. Ancient Mycenae. The Capital City of Agamemnon. Princeton.

———. 1973. Ο Ταφικός Κύκλος Β των Μυκηνών. Athens.

Papadimitriou, I. 1952. “Ανασκαφαί εν Μυκήναις.” Praktika tis en Athinais Archaeologikis Etaireias, 427–472.

———. 1953. “Ανασκαφαί εν Μυκήναις.” Praktikatisen Athinais Archaeologikis Etaireias, 205–210.

Papazoglou-Manioudaki, L., A. Nafplioti, J. H Musgrave, R. A. H Neave, D. Smith, and A. J. N. W Prag. 2009. “Mycenae Revisited Part 1: The Human Remains from Grave Circle A: Stamatakis, Schliemann and Two New Faces from Shaft Grave VI.” BSA 104:233-277.

———. 2010. “Mycenae Revisited Part 3: The Human Remains from Grave Circle A at Mycenae. Behind the Masks: A Study of the Bones of Shaft Graves I-V.” BSA 105:157-224.

Protonotariou-Deilaki, E. 1990. “The Tumuli of Mycenae and Dendra.” In Celebrations of Death and Divinity in the Bronze Age Argolid, ed. R. Hägg and G. C. Nordquist, 85–106. Stockholm.

Sakellariou, A. 1974. “Un cratère d’ argent avec scène de bataille provenant de la IVe tombe de l’ acropole de Mycènes.” Antike Kunst 17:3-20.

Schliemann, H. 1878. Mycenae; A Narrative of Researches and Discoveries at Mycenae and Tiryns. New York.

Whitley, A. J. M. 1988. “Early States and Hero Cult.” Journal of Hellenic Studies 108:173–182.


[1] Schliemann 1878.

[2]Shaft Grave IV is the biggest of all, measuring approximately 40 m², and preserved the remains of five adults and 2129 catalogued gifts, that comprise more than 50% of the total treasures found in all Grave Circle A. Furthermore it is the only grave reported to have had an ‘altar’ built upon it, according to Schliemann.

[3]We presented a preliminary lecture on the topic in the Mycenaean Seminar Series at Athens (26.10.2016, University of Athens, central building) and in the Mycenaean Seminar in London (16.5.2018, Senate House, University of London, School of Advanced Study), focusing on the enigmatic case of the youngest adult of all, the prince with the Battle Krater, a burial of unique character. Moreover, we curated the first temporary exhibition of the magnificent ‘Battle Krater’ (see Sakellariou 1974 and Blakomer 2007, 218-224) from Shaft Grave IV, at the National Archaeological Museum, from 25 July to 25 September 2016, see

https://www.namuseum.gr/en/hidden_museum/quot-the-silver-krater-of-the-battle-quot/

https://www.namuseum.gr/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Unseen_krater.pdf

[4] Konstantinidi-Syvridi 2018.

[5] The chamber tomb is also mentioned in Mylonas 1973, 18, pls.1, 5 and discussed in Mylonas 1957, 171; also Whitley 1988, 178 n. 37 and Antonaccio 1995, 47–48, 250 as a case of Iron Age tomb cult in a Bronze Age tomb.

[6]The practice of honoring the dead with feasting especially in the 8th century BCE is found all over the Aegean, see Antonaccio 1995, 199 ff especially 205–207. For the tomb cult of the Geometric period see also Lefèvre-Novaro 2004, 184 with references.

[7] Schliemann 1878, 115, IG iv, 495, Jeffrey 1961, 173, 174.

[8]Aeschyus, The Choephori, verses 84–99.

About Constantinos Paschalidis

Constantinos Paschalidis holds a doctorate in Prehistoric Archaeology (University of Ioannina) and specializes in the archaeology of the Mycenaean period. Since 2002 he has worked as an Antiquities Curator at the Prehistoric Collection of the National Archaeological Museum at Athens, after having collaborated for ten years in excavations at various sites of Greece and Jordan. Since 2012 he has been employed as a Secretary at the Central Archaeological Council. He is also a member of the scientific team in the systematic excavation program of the Mycenaean settlement at Mygdalia near Patras. He has lectured and published studies on subjects related to Aegean burial customs, architecture and pottery, as well as on archival matters, i.e. the history of the Archaeological Service and of the National Archaeological Museum. In 2018 he published his new monograph on the Mycenaean cemetery at Achaia Clauss, near Patras, with special regard to its people, their material remains and culture in context. His current study concerns the re-examination of the material remains from Grave Circle A, Mycenae, under the light of Panagiotis Stamatakis’s excavation diary, an unexpected discovery which enables the re-evaluation and classification in context of the famous royal cemetery. He has also launched the identification and re-examination of the finds from the first systematic excavation in the Atreus Tholos at Mycenae, held by Panagiotis Stamatakis in 1878.

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