The German archaeologist and excavator Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) excavated at Troy, Mycenae, and Tiryns. He is often considered to be the modern discoverer of prehistoric or Bronze Age Greece.

Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890)

Schliemann at Mycenae

(The following is an account of the excavations undertaken by Heinrich Schliemann at Grave Circle A at Mycenae and includes edited excerpts from Biers, Stubbings, and Kahane)

Renewal of digging at Troy was delayed by a lawsuit with the Turkish authorities over the "Treasure of Priam", which Schliemann had retained, intact. despite an alleged agreement on equal division of whatever should be found. Meanwhile, he turned to Mycenae.

View of Grave Circle A over the Lioness Gate, Mycenae

Reconstruction drawing of Grave Circle A, Mycenae
(Drawing by Piet de Jong, Annual of the British School at Athens, XXV)

His object there was to discover the graves of Agamemnon and his contemporaries which, following Pausanias, he believed to be located within the Cyclopean walls. He had already in 1874 cut 34 trial pits inside the citadel and within a hundred yards of the Lion Gate had found, besides remains of walls and small painted clay figurines of women and cows, an unsculptured slab which he took for a gravestone. He therefore concentrated on the area and within a few months uncovered the now famous Grave Circle, a double ring of vertical stone slabs about four feet high, enclosing an area about 87 feet in diameter.

Originally the space between the uprights had been covered over by horizontal slabs jointed to them, so as to form what seemed - until the full height was uncovered - a stone bench. Schliemann at first identified this area as the agora, the place of assembly where, in Homer's epic, the elders gathered for debate seated "upon smoothed stones." On the east side the circle was founded upon the out-cropping limestone of the hillside, but most of the space enclosed had been built up to a horizontal level with earth and stones supported on the west side by a big curving terrace wall.

Approximately at this level he found a number of undoubted grave stones with relief carvings of a kind still unusual except at Mycenae. In most cases the upper part of the rectangle is filled with linked spirals, while the lower halves contain rather crude pictorial scenes of warriors driving in chariots or in combat with wild beasts (for example). The stones were the markers for "Shaft Graves" (schachtgräber - a better translation might have been pit graves) which had been cut in the soft rock many feet below, doubtless at a time when the natural slope of the hill was still exposed. Schliemann excavated five of these graves, and a sixth was found and cleared shortly afterwards by Panagiotis Stamatakis, who represented the Greek authorities during the excavations.

The contents of these graves were so startlingly rich that no one could quarrel with their description as "royal," and it is not surprising that Schliemann believed he had discovered exactly what he sought.

The grave pits, which varied in size from about 10 feet by 12 to 15 by 21, and in depth from about 3 feet to 15, were lined for part of their depth with stone walling which had originally supported a covering of stone slabs resting on wooden beams. The dead, 19 individuals in all, including three women and two infants, were laid on a floor of pebbles, often in a contracted rather than extended posture.

Over the faces of some of the men were masks of gold foil. The women had golden frontlets or diadems, and numerous discs of thin gold with relief patterns of spirals, rosettes, butterflies, or cuttle fish, seem to have adorned the robes they wore. The infants were wrapped in gold foil.

Besides personal ornaments - including bracelets, large pins with crystal knobs, signet rings of gold there was a profusion of other objects laid with the bodies: vases of pottery and of faience; large bowls and jugs of bronze; several sophisticated vases of alabaster; cups and stemmed goblets of gold and silver, some plain, some with relief ornament (see the contents of Graves 1–VI. One gold goblet had figures of doves perched on the handles, which for Schliemann at once recalled Homer's description of a golden cup or bowl which the aged hero Nestor had with him at Troy.

Warfare was clearly a prime interest of the people buried in Grave Circle A. Beside the men lay a wealth of bronze weapons spearheads, swords, and daggers. The best of the swords had hilts plated with gold, and pommels of ivory or crystal. Subsequent cleaning showed that some dagger blades had exquisite pictorial scenes of animals and hunting inlaid with considerable skill in gold and silver and niello.

For the most part the style of the Shaft Graves finds were totally new to archaeology.

Mask from shaft grave V at Mycenae
Height 101/2 inches
(National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

The unique and famous gold masks from Grave Circle A at Mycenae are probably the most well-known gold objects from this civilization. The best preserved and most individualistic of the group found by Schliemann was for a time mistakenly considered the mask of Agamemnon. It is a good example of the goldwork found in royal Mycenaean graves. It probably belonged to a ruler and was almost certainly a death mask. Despite stylizations such as the scroll-shaped ears, its more distinctive features - the thin lips and curved mustache - are clearly those of a particular person.

Daggers from shaft graves IV and V at Mycenae
Bronze, with gold, silver, and niello inlay
Lengths from 6 to 9 inches
(National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

The scene on one of the dagger blades shows male hunters carrying large shields, semi-cylindrical or figure-of-eight shaped. The scene on another dagger, with leopards and wild fowl among papyrus beds, has an Egyptian flavour

Signet ring from shaft grave IV at Mycenae
Diameter 11/5 inches
(National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

A scene of two male figures, one with a bow and arrow, riding in a chariot pulled by two horses hunting a stag.

Rhyton in the form of a bull's head from shaft grave IV at Mycenae
Silver with gilt horns and trimmings in gold
(National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

A silver rhyton in the form of a bull's head, with horns of gold and a gold rosette on the forehead possibly imported from Minoan Crete (see an example of a Minoan bull's head rhyton)

© Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe