The Treasury of Atreus

Below the great citadel of Mycenae, a passage into a hillside leads to a massive beehive-shaped tomb.

The Treasury of Atreus, Mycenae, c. 1300-1250 B.C.E.



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Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] Just down the hill from Mycenae, the great citadel of the Mycenaeans — the Bronze Age Greek mainland people that traded as far away as Italy and North Africa — there is in a hill, an enormous tomb, which is sometimes known as the “Treasury of Atreus.”

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:22] Or the “Tomb of Agamemnon.”

Dr. Zucker: [0:24] The type of tomb that we’re looking at is called a tholos, or a beehive tomb. This is one of two types of tombs at Mycenae. These are the larger of the two types. The other are shaft graves within a larger circle. The tholos are truly monumental, and this is the largest of them all.

Dr. Harris: [0:42] These date to a slightly later period of Mycenaean history. They are clearly expressions of power. The ruling elite were buried in those tombs.

Dr. Zucker: [0:53] We’re going to walk in, walking along a passageway that’s built into the side of the hill with huge blocks of stone that have been cut quite finely and fit together very closely. Some of the stones are just of such a large scale that it’s hard to imagine people being able to move them.

Dr. Harris: [1:09] Right now, it looks very spare, but this had carvings.

Dr. Zucker: [1:13] It may have had relief sculpture, and there was also finer kinds of more decorative stone. I can’t wait. Let’s go in. We’re now entering the dromos, which is the entrance pathway.

Dr. Harris: [1:23] The walls on either side rise above us, giving an unmistakable impression of a grand, monumental space.

Dr. Zucker: [1:33] It’s ceremonial, and it feels as if we are entering the earth. There’s a slight grade upward.

Dr. Harris: [1:38] The entranceway, it tapers inward as it moves up. Look at that deep and heavy lintel stone that moves back through that doorway.

Dr. Zucker: [1:46] It’s made out of two pieces, and we estimate that it weighs over a hundred tons.

Dr. Harris: [1:51] The kind of vaulting that we see above the lintel is called corbelling, where the stones are cut and placed so that each one, as it moves up, moves slightly inward, creating this triangular space above the lintel known as the relieving triangle. [In] the “Lion Gate” in Mycenae, that space is filled with a relief sculpture.

Dr. Zucker: [2:11] We don’t think this was, but again, there were complex stones that would’ve faced this rougher masonry, and we know that at least some of it was imported from Egypt.

Dr. Harris: [2:19] There were columns on either side that were decorated. Some of these are located now in the Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Dr. Zucker: [2:26] There were very complex patterns. There were zigzags, there were spirals.

Dr. Harris: [2:29] Chevrons.

Dr. Zucker: [2:30] It was a really ornate space. An enormous amount of treasure was expended to make this.

Dr. Harris: [2:35] We know that the Mycenaean people buried considerable treasure with their dead. These tombs, though, have been robbed.

Dr. Zucker: [2:42] We’re now at the threshold, and we can feel the coolness of the interior space. It’s empty, it’s dark, and it’s massive.

Dr. Harris: [2:49] It’s long. This entryway is 10, 15 feet deep.

Dr. Zucker: [2:53] As we enter into the domical space itself, we are in a round chamber beside the entranceway. The actual burial chamber to the right is completely circular. Some architectural historians have hypothesized that there may have been carved bulls around the bottom, but it rises to an enormous height above us.

Dr. Harris: [3:12] This is a real engineering achievement, to create a domical vaulted space this high and this wide. This is not post-and-lintel architecture but the creating of round arched spaces.

Dr. Zucker: [3:25] In fact, this will be the largest domical space until the Pantheon in Rome.

Dr. Harris: [3:30] More than a thousand years later.

Dr. Zucker: [3:32] It is using that corbelling technique. Each of these stones pushes inward ever so slightly and is cut at an angle so that you have this smooth transition up to the apex with a capstone. The width and height of the space are almost equal. There really is a sense of perfection here, a sense of the ideal.

Dr. Harris: [3:50] It’s obvious that this circular space, this enormous vault had symbolic meaning for the powerful person who was buried here.

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Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "The Treasury of Atreus," in Smarthistory, December 14, 2015, accessed April 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/the-treasury-of-atreus-mycenae/.