Once part of a large cemetery outside the acropolis
walls, Grave Circle- A was discovered within the Mycenaean citadel by Heinrich
Schliemann, who excavated it in 1876 under the supervision of the Greek Ephor of
Antiquities Panagiotis Stamatakis.
Grave Circle A comprises six rectangular vertical
shaft graves, which measure from 3.0 by 3.5 meters in width to 4.5 by 6.4 meters
in length. These shaft graves consist of two parts: the main shaft itself, which
is cut into the bed-rock and a larger pit surrounding it. After the grave goods
were deposited in the main shaft, a wood or flagstone cover supported by the
shaft's sides was set in place and the larger pit was filled with earth.
The tombs in Grave Circle A contained a total of
nineteen burials: nine males, eight females and two infants. With the exception
of Grave II, which contained a single burial, all of the other graves contained
between two and five inhumations. The deceased were placed on their backs,
generally on an east-west axis. Schliemann cleared Graves IV and Stamatakis
excavated Grave VI one year later. The pottery finds from Graves I, II, III and
VI indicate a range of dates from the end of the Middle Helladic period to the
Late Helladic IIA period, that is, from the 16th to the early 15th centuries BC.
The amazing wealth of the grave gifts reveals both
the high social rank and the martial spirit of the deceased: gold jewelry and
vases, a large number of decorated swords and other bronze objects, and
artefacts made of imported materials, such as amber, lapis lazuli, faience and
ostrich eggs. All of these, together with a small but characteristic group of
pottery vessels, confirm Mycenae's importance during this period, and justify
Homer's designation of Mycenae as 'rich in gold.'
The discovery of Grave Circle A startled the entire
world with its momentous finds. It brought to light a great and hitherto unknown
civilization, and paved the way for the study of Greek prehistory. The
excavation of Mycenae has expanded Schliemann's fame and gave him the title of
the "father of the Mycenaean archaeology".
Shaft Grave I contained three inhumations of women
who were furnished with gold jewelry and accompanied by faience vessels, an
ivory pyxis, two silver cups (one with a gold rim), bronze vessels and several
clay vases. Shaft Grave II contained the single inhumation of a male with
relatively few grave offerings: a gold cup, a thin gold diadem and several
bronze weapons, clay vases and faience vessels.
Shaft Grave III, the so-called 'Grave of the
Women,' contained three female and two infant interments. The women were
literally covered in gold jewelry and wore massive gold diadems, while the
infants were overlaid with gold foil. A great number of gold roundels and other
gold cut-out foils in various shapes with repousse decoration were initially
embroidered onto, either the deceased's clothes, or their shrouds. The jewelry
included large silver and bronze pins with rock crystal heads or with gold
ornaments and sheething, a necklace of amber beads, gold earrings, and gold
seals engraved with hunting or dueling scenes. Miniature gold vessels, faience
vessels and gold scales were also found.
Shaft Grave IV is conspicuous by its wealth and
size. It contained three male and two female inhumations. Two of the deceased
were placed on a north-south axis, contrary to the more common east-west axis.
The three gold death-masks are the par excellence male burial
accoutrements. One male burial also had a gold breastplate. This grave contained
precious gold, silver and stone vases, ritual rhytons (libation vases), either
with intricate decoration, or in the shape of animals, large bronze vessels and
numerous weapons, including a beautiful dagger with an inlaid lion hunt scene.
The deceased were adorned with gold diadems, numerous pieces of gold jewelry, a
variety of cut-out foil ornaments, and belts or straps.
Shaft Grave V contained three male burials. Two of
the deceased wore gold death-masks, one of which is known as the 'Mask of
Agamemnon', a conventional name, since it is dated four hundred years earlier
than the Trojan war. The grave gifts included gold breastplates, elaborate
bronze swords and daggers with inlaid decoration, gold and silver vessels, an
ostrich egg rhyton with applied faience dolphins, and a wooden hexagonal pyxis
with gold revetment. There was less gold jewelry that in the female graves, but
a great number of amber beads.
Shaft Grave VI contained two well-preserved male
inhumations, which were accompanied by a go Id cup, two gold 'knee-bands,'
several bronze weapons, including swords, daggers and spear-heads, and an
assortment of clay vases.