The Treasury of Atreus – also known as the Tomb of Agamemnon – is the largest and most impressive of the nine tholos tombs at Mycenae. The location of the Atreus Tomb has intrigued archaeologists for many years but by studying the landscape, the courses of the ancient roads and the various lines of sight at Mycenae, archaeologist David Mason believes he has found out why such an unusual and distinctive site was chosen for the tomb.
The Mycenaean tholos (the ancient Greek word for a round building) tomb consists of an entrance passage leading to a circular burial chamber roofed over with a corbel vault shaped like an old-fashioned beehive. The nine tholos tombs at Mycenae are divided into two groups by a long hill called the Panagi 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. 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, designed for wheeled vehicles like chariots, and replaced unmetalled tracks, which followed natural routes through the landscape. 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. 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 (M1), south-east (M4) or south-west (M7).
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
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. 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? 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.
This is a condensed version – please see Current World Archaeolgoy Issue 28 for full article.