The Shaft Graves of Mycenae

Grave Circle A (right) and the main entrance of the citadel (left). Mycenae. / Photo by Andreas Trepte, Wikimedia Commons

By Dr. Jeremy B. Rutter
Professor Emeritus of Classical Studies
Sherman Fairchild Professor Emeritus in the Humanities
Dartmouth College


True shaft graves of the type found in Grave Circles A and B at Mycenae are relatively rare on the Greek Mainland. The best known examples other than the Mycenae tombs are the two from Lerna which were found completely robbed but which can be confidently dated to the same period, late Middle Helladic (MH) to Late Helladic (LH) I, as the Mycenae grave circles on the basis of massive quantities of fragmentary pottery of this date which filled both tombs. A shaft grave found at Ayios Stephanos (Laconia) in 1977 also dates to the late MH period but was poorly furnished, containing nothing more than the extended corpse of the deceased. Other shaft graves of the same period are known from Argos, but those from Knossos on Crete, Kambi on Zakynthos, and several sites in Attica (Alyki, Athens, Perati, perhaps Varkiza) are all considerably later. Grave Circle A at Mycenae is usually dated ca. 1600-1500 B.C., Grave Circle B ca. 1650-1550 B.C., but Dickinson has suggested a shorter span of usage for both circles, ca. 1600-1500 B.C.

Form of Tomb

Shaft Grave

A shaft grave in Mycenae / Wikimedia Commons

A shaft grave (a communal grave at the foot of a shaft dug from the surface (Biers, 337)) is really nothing more than an enlarged cist grave (a shallow rectangular grave cut into the earth or rock, sometimes stone-lined or slab-built (Pedley, 353)) entered through the roof from a shaft several feet deep which was itself dug from the contemporary ground surface. Shaft graves may be roofed by timbers, reeds or twigs, and waterproofing clay or simply by large flat slabs. After a burial was made, the shaft above the tomb’s roof was filled with earth and the location of the tomb was often marked by a rectangular outline of fieldstones (Ayios Stephanos, Mycenae) within which a grave stele might be implanted (Mycenae).

Grave Circle

Grave Circle A with the shaft, Mycenae

The two circles at Mycenae may have supported low earthen tumuli, although some specialists argue that the ground inside the circle was basically flat. In any case, the idea of a “grave circle” itself is probably derived from the circular funerary tumuli of the MH period at such sites as Vrana (Marathon), Aphidna, Voïdhokoilia, Elateia, and Argos.

Form of Burial

The open shaft grave of the Griffin Warrior at Pylos / Wikimedia Commons

The individuals buried in the Shaft Graves at Mycenae were on the whole larger and more robust, whether male or female, than the contemporary or earlier MH occupants of graves of other kinds. It is debatable whether this difference on its own is indicative of a new racial stock or simply of a richer and hence better fed stratum of MH society.

Burial in a shaft grave normally takes the form of an extended inhumation (the practice of burying in the ground; interment of a body (Oxford Dict.)), usually lying on its back. Multiple burial is common, in contrast to the normal practice of single burial in MH cist and pit graves. Earlier burials in a shaft grave are often pushed aside or stacked up in a corner when a new burial is made. Bodies were often covered with burial shrouds to which cut-outs of gold foil were affixed by means of thread sewn through string-holes in the gold sheet. Gold masks are attested in the cases of six adult male burials and one child burial of uncertain sex. Adult females were not provided with such masks.

There is evidence for funeral meals celebrated at the time of burial in the form of broken vases and animal bones which are commonly found in the earth fill of the tomb shaft.

Grave Goods from the Grave Circles at Mycenae

Grave Steles

Shaft grave stele, Mycenae / National Archaeological Museum, Athens

These are not universal nor does every individual even in a tomb over which two or more steles were placed appear to have been provided with his/her own. The steles from Mycenae constitute the first large-scale relief sculpture of the Mainland Greek Bronze Age. Plain (i.e. unsculpted) parallels have been found above a few contemporary graves at nearby Argos, but the practice of marking burials with what are in effect decorated tombstones is peculiar to Mycenae and, with the exception of a single 12th century B.C. example, restricted to the Shaft Grave era. Chariot scenes (whether these are to be interpreted as illustrations of warfare, of hunting, or of races at funeral games) are quite common on these Shaft Grave steles, but most of the decoration is abstract (spirals, wavy lines, etc.).


Swords from Mycnaean shaft graves / National Archaeological Museum, Athens

There are numerous swords of two basic varieties: Type A (more common; rounded shoulders, short thin tang, very long; derived from Minoan prototypes such as the Protopalatial “ceremonial” swords from Mallia) and Type B (relatively rare; squared shoulders, broader tang, shorter and broader blade; derived from Minoan and Levantine prototypes in the form of daggers but first developed into a true sword on the Mainland, probably at Mycenae). Some swords are decorated on the blades with incised ornament, as often representational as abstract, while the hilts are often covered with richly decorated gold sheet and the pommels consist of handsomely carved lumps of ivory, alabaster (a fine, translucent variety of carbonate or sulphate of lime, especially the pure white variety used for vases (Oxford Dict.)), or marble.

Daggers and knives are also common. Some of the daggers are inlaid with figured scenes rendered by means of “painting” in a variety of differently colored pure metals and their alloys. These scenes include both hunting episodes (suiting Mainland tastes) and scenes of nature (familiar from Minoan art and possibly derived ultimately from Egypt in some cases). Spearheads too are frequent, and numerous arrowheads make clear that the bow was also a standard piece of Mycenaean armament, as one might have suspected in any case from some of the representational scenes depicted on other artifacts found in the Shaft Graves.

Metal Vessels


[LEFT]: Silver Siege Rhyton from Shaft Grave Circle A / Archaeological Museum of Athens
[RIGHT]: Boar tusk helmet / Archaeological Museum of Athens

Of gold, silver, and bronze, most of these pieces are of Minoan shapes (e.g. Vapheio cups, ewers, rhyta), but Mainland tastes are also reflected in the numerous two-handled goblets and kantharoi which are particularly common among the gold vessels. Some unusual shapes in silver include a rhyton (a ritual pouring vessel, sometimes in the shape of an animal head; a drinking horn (Pedley, 356)) in the form of a bull’s head comparable to Minoan examples in steatite (a variety of talc, commonly of a gray or grayish-green color, with a soapy feel (Oxford Dict.)), the “Silver Siege Rhyton” (decorated in relief with the scene of an attack on a fortified town) and the “Battle Krater” (decorated in relief with a scene of crowded combat between warriors outfitted with boars’-tusk helmets) – a krater is a large, open, deep bowl, usually of pottery, with handles on the side; used for mixing wine and water (Warren, 143), and the “Stag Rhyton” (possibly an import from central Anatolia where zoomorphic rhyta of this type are quite common in Hittite art). Of the twenty-eight vessels of solid gold, most are rather clumsily made and exhibit technical features which are atypical of Minoan craftsmanship in precious metalwork. These are therefore almost without exception to be considered the products of local craftsmen. The vast majority of the forty-two silver vessels, on the other hand, are far more carefully made and exhibit technical features well paralleled in silver plate found in Protopalatial and Neopalatial Crete. The bulk of these silver vases are therefore identified either as imports from Crete or as products of Minoan craftsmen made on demand for Mainland patrons at Mycenae.

Stone Vases

Ostrich egg rhyton from grave V (Grave Circle A) / Archaeological Museum of Athens

The examples from the Shaft Graves are of standard Minoan types. Ostrich-egg rhyta are probably also Minoan products, although the raw material clearly comes from Egypt or Syria.

Seals and Signet Rings

The famous Minoan Ring of Minos, a gold seal ring, 1,500-1,400 BCE / Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete

The technology to make these, and even the idea of the seal as an artifactual form, are Minoan, there having been no seals in use on the Mainland at any point during the earlier MH period. The scenes of warfare and the chase on several of these seals and rings are again Mycenaean in spirit.


Amber jewellery from a grave at Mycenae, Greece. ca 1500-1600 BC. / National Archaeological Museum, Athens

The raw material for numerous large necklaces of amber beads is imported from the Baltic to the far north and was brought to Mycenae by means of a lengthy and no doubt complex exchange network which apparently did not involve Crete at all.


Warrior Vase from Mycenae, Greece. c. 1300–1100 BCE / National Archaeological Museum, Athens

The ceramic assemblage from the Shaft Graves is a mixture of Mainland (mostly Gray and Yellow Minyan, fine and relatively coarse Matt-painted), Minoan (some LM IA imports) and Minoanizing (some imitations of MM III light-on-dark-painted vessels whose center of production is as yet unknown), and Cycladic (Matt-painted vessels including several decorated with polychrome patterns) types. Interestingly, the major non-Helladic ceramic component is Cycladic rather than Minoan.


Dickinson observes, “The heterogeneity [of Shaft Grave material] extends to the decoration, and suggests that the craftsmen were manufacturing individual objets d’art rather than an established corpus of types, and had considerable reason to experiment. This would most easily fit a situation in which industries were being newly established on the Mainland, without strong previous traditions.” He continues, “…what is clearly lacking is any large or characteristic group of objects whose parallels must be sought elsewhere than the Aegean, and this tells very strongly against any theory that the Shaft Grave people were foreign.”

The Problem

The Mycenaean period begins with a great “bang”. The contents of the Shaft Graves are the richest finds ever made in the Aegean area. The contrast with the general poverty of the MH period is immensely striking. How is such sudden, dramatic, and peculiarly localized change to be explained?

Some Theories

I. [Evans]: The Shaft Grave monarchs were Cretan conquerors of the Argolid.

Contra: Although many of the artifacts in the Shaft Graves may have been made by Minoan artisans, there is nothing in the mode of burial or the skeletal material from these tombs to warrant concluding that their occupants were Minoans. There are in fact Minoan colonists being buried abroad at this very time on the island of Kythera, in chamber tombs at the site of Kastri. The finds in their graves and the types of tomb in which they are buried are quintessentially Minoan. Why would Minoans buried at Mycenae have behaved so differently?

II. The distinctive features of the latest graves in Circle B and of the graves in Circle A [such as grave steles, masks, evidence for use of the chariot, unusual art styles [e.g. the hexagonal box decorated with gold plaques characterized by what has been called a “barbaric/nomadic” style of relief work)] could represent a group, perhaps from central or northern Europe, who took over an already flourishing center and adopted many local customs, thereby becoming quickly “Aegeanized” because of their own lack of a sufficiently “advanced” cultural tradition.

Contra: Chariots did not exist in northern or central Europe at this time. A chariot-using group could only have come from the Near East, and such a group would have had to abandon completely a much more sophisticated cultural tradition to embrace the prevailing, rather backward one of the MH Greek Mainland. In any case, why would invaders, whether northern or eastern, choose the Argolid and Mycenae to settle in, as opposed to Thessaly or Boeotia (richer agriculturally) or Argos (more strategically placed within the Argolid itself)?

III. [Dickinson]: First of all, the Shaft Graves are evidence for a general shift in burial customs to a situation where the dead were buried with most, if not all, of their movable wealth in life. Note especially the wide functional range of the grave goods found in the tombs of Circles A and B in sharp contrast with the limited functional variability of typical MH funerary assemblages.

Mycenae’s rulers at this time must have taken over control of the entire Argive Plain, presumably by using the superior types of armament which occur for the first time, and in quantity, in the Shaft Graves. Mycenae may also have dominated the Corinthia and the eastern Argolid, since no traces of major sites of this period have been found in those areas. The agricultural surplus of this area would have served to feed the craftsmen who produced the treasures of the Shaft Graves, presumably Cretans for the most part but also possibly some Cycladic islanders and a few Mainland apprentices destined to become the master craftsmen on the Mainland in the following generation.

However, agricultural surplus does not, and cannot, explain the presence at Mycenae of vast amounts of precious raw materials (gold, silver, amber, ivory, rare stones, bronze, etc.), since the Argolid itself has no gold or copper mines, much less sources of ivory, amber, and so forth. Two scenarios have been proposed to explain this wealth of raw materials:

(1) The Shaft Grave princes looted Neopalatial Crete.

(2) The Shaft Grave princes were well-rewarded mercenaries working for the Egyptian princes of Thebes who were to become the Pharoahs of the 18th Dynasty after ca. 1570 B.C. when they drove the Hyksos invaders out of Egypt and inaugurated the New Kingdom.

Both scenarios suggest a sudden acquisition of wealth, much too sudden an acquisition to account for the gradually growing wealth visible in the Shaft Graves at Mycenae which span a full century of time. In addition, the Shaft Grave princes were probably not well enough organized as a fighting force to have played much of a role in the war against the Hyksos in Egypt. Besides, how could they have helped the Egyptian Pharoahs when the Hyksos controlled the Nile Delta located between Greece and Egyptian Thebes? As far as raids on Crete are concerned, we have no evidence for major destruction levels on Crete at this time, and again the Mycenaeans are unlikely to have been well enough organized, quite apart from lacking the basic naval capabilities, to take on the Minoans.

The nature of the Cretan craftsmen employed at Mycenae (who must have been palace-trained artisans) and the large quantities of raw materials used at Mycenae whose ultimate source must have been the Near East rather than Crete (e.g. gold and ivory, as well as the know-how of chariotry) are evidence for a “special relationship” between the Shaft Grave princes and one or more of the Minoan palaces. Only the Minoans had the ships and the foreign contacts to acquire the raw materials in question, since there is little evidence for any significant seafaring abilities on the part of the Greek Mainlanders at this time (pace Iakovides, AJA 83(1979) 101-102; see Davis, AJA 85(1981) 69-70). What, then, is the nature of this “special relationship”? The possibilities include:

(A) Tribute from Knossos to Mycenae. This is hardly believable at this stage of Mainland development and obvious Minoan pre-eminence.

(B) Payment from Knossos to Mycenae for a service or a local northeast Peloponnesian raw material. But what? The lack of possible candidates for such a service or material disqualify this hypothesis.

(C) Payment for a raw material over whose route of access into the southern Aegean the Shaft Grave princes at Mycenae exercised strict control. The raw material in question may have been tin, a necessary ingredient for the production of bronze. In the Protopalatial period, the Minoans probably obtained tin from the Near East, but during the 17th and 16th centuries B.C. the Near East was in turmoil due to the rise of the Hittites, military expansion on the part of both the Hurrians and the Kassites, and the long-term conflict between the Egyptians and the Hyksos, and thus the old trade network in this material may well have broken down. The Minoans, forced to look elsewhere for their tin, may have explored sources such as the Carpathian Mountains north of the Danube in Rumania and Hungary, the eastern Alps, Etruria, and possibly even Brittany or Cornwall. The evidence of early Mycenaean pottery on the Aeolian Islands just north of Sicily and the presence of Baltic amber in both Messenia and the Argolid in early Mycenaean contexts may be indicative of exchange networks with continental Europe involving some other, more important material such as tin.

IV. [Davis]: Stylistic and distributional analysis of vessels of precious metal (silver and gold) in the 16th and 15th centuries B.C. throughout the southern Aegean reveals that the Mainlanders had ready access during the period of the Shaft Graves to large quantities of gold. Twenty-eight gold vessels from the Shaft Graves are part of a total of over 15 kgs. of this material employed to make a variety of different artifacts for these tombs. By contrast, only one entirely gold vessel is known from Crete before ca. 1400 B.C., a small and light cup (wt.: 68 gms.) from a “Warrior Grave” of the late 15th century B.C. which was probably the tomb of a Mycenaean rather than a Minoan in any case. The Minoans used gold skilfully in bimetallic silver-and-gold vases or in thin sheets applied over stone vases carved in relief, but did so very sparingly and economically. The Mycenaeans of the Shaft Grave period, on the other hand, produced relatively crude objects out of gold and made no obvious effort to “stretch” the available quantities of this material so as to make optimal use of it. Silver, on the other hand, was in quite common use on Crete and all but a half-dozen or so of the forty-two silver vessels from the Shaft Graves at Mycenae were either imported as finished objects from Crete or made on demand at Mycenae by Minoan craftsmen to suit Mainland tastes.

This evidence suggests that the commodity over which the Mycenaeans exercised control was not tin but rather gold. The Mainlanders in the areas of Mycenae and Pylos somehow managed to gain control for a brief time of an extremely lucrative exchange with the inhabitants of Transylvania who had only recently begun to mine gold in significant quantities. In exchange for technological expertise in bronzecasting and the distribution of superior Aegean weaponry in the form of swords, these small groups of Mycenaeans received massive amounts of gold bullion which they used to produce flashy artifacts for their tombs, to secure handsome imports from Crete and elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, and presumably also to establish and maintain a newly acquired political and military status at home in the Argolid and Messenia.

Comment: Davis’ theory has the virtues of explaining why certain early Aegean sword types are found in Rumania and why a few small groups of Greek Mainlanders seem to have had access to far larger supplies of gold in the later 16th century B.C. than did all of Minoan palatial civilization at its apogee. By positing that the Mycenaean control over gold was relatively short-lived but enormously valuable almost immediately, Davis explains the relative suddenness of the Mainland Greeks’ acquisition of wealth, while the fact that it was Greeks from Mycenae and Pylos who happened to be lucky enough to be “in the right place at the right time” accounts for the peculiar distribution of early Mycenaean wealth through what must be presumed to be some sort of “historical accident”. This wealth is manifested, it should be stressed, not only by the presence of gold in quantity but also by that of amber in equally impressive amounts, and in the case of the amber there is no doubt but that its ultimate source is northern Europe. Did the amber and the gold somehow reach the Peloponnese together? On the negative side, Davis’ explanation of Shaft Grave wealth is unusually specific in its reconstruction of events, although not so specific and coincidence-laden as to be altogether untestable through future programs of excavation and physico-chemical analyses.