Friday, September 29, 2017

Rare Tomb Shows Bronze Age Mycenaean-era Nobleman had a Fondness for Jewelry

Ancient Origins

After 3,350 years, a Mycenaean-era nobleman’s tomb has been re-entered and his favored possessions have been seen by modern eyes. Archaeologists consider his burial an odd one, with grave goods and the style of the tomb standing out against others from his time.

 The tomb was discovered during excavations near Orchomenos, Boeotia, Greece. It was unearthed during the first year of a five-year joint program between the Ephorate of Antiquities of Boeotia/Ministry of Culture and Sports and the British School at Athens/University of Cambridge. According to Euronews, the tomb is “the ninth largest of its kind to be discovered out of around 4,000 excavated in Greece over the last 150 years.”

Recording the bones in the burial chamber’s interior. (Greek Culture Ministry)

 The tomb has a 20 meter (65.5 ft.) long rock-cut dromos (passageway) with rock cut benches covered in clay mortar. This hall leads to the 42 sq. meter (452 sq. ft.) burial chamber. It is believed the height to the pitched roof originally measured 3.5 meters ( 11.5 ft.) However, it has been proposed that the roof had already begun to fall apart in antiquity; which slightly moved the burial but also served as some protection for its contents from looters.

View of the Mycenaean-era tomb’s façade and the dry-stone masonry that sealed the entrance. (Ministry of Culture and Sports)

Upon entering the burial chamber, archaeologists found the remains of a man aged around 40-50 years old. Various grave goods were placed alongside his body: ten pottery vessels sheathed in tin, a pair of bronze snaffle-bits (a bit mouthpiece with a ring on either side used on a horse), and bow fittings and arrowheads. The most intriguing of the finds however is the collection of jewelry made of different materials, combs, a seal stone, and a signet ring. Unfortunately, images of the jewelry found in the tomb have yet to be released. Nonetheless, this provides a unique element to the burial, as jewelry was commonly believed to only have been placed in female burials in that period.

Bronze bits found in the Mycenaean-era tomb. (Giannis Galanakis)

The style of burial is also considered rare for Mycenaean chamber tombs. It’s far more common for archaeologists to find chamber tombs from this period which were used for multiple burials and contain grave goods, oftentimes looted or broken, from different generations.

A final factor which sets this burial apart is the lack of decorated Mycenaean pottery in the tomb. Only two small stirrup jars were found, yet this pottery style was popular at that time. With so many different elements to consider, researchers expect this discovery to greatly improve their understanding of the variety of funeral practices used in this region during the Mycenaean period.

One of the two decorated stirrup jars found in the Mycenaean-era tomb. (Giannis Galanakis)

The Mycenaean era was the last phase of the Bronze Age in Ancient Greece and is remembered for its palatial city-states, artwork, and writing. This period collapsed at the end of the Bronze Age, possibly due to the mysterious ‘people of the sea’ (or Sea People), Dorian invasion, or natural disasters and climate change – or some combination of these. Ancient Origins has previously reported about the impact the Mycenaean era had on ancient Greek literature and tomb building:

 “Homer writes that the Mycenaean era was dedicated to Agamemnon, the king who led the Greeks in the Trojan War. The Mycenaean’s were keen traders, establishing contacts with countries across the Mediterranean and Europe. They were also excellent engineers and are also known for their characteristic ‘beehive’ tombs which were circular in shape with a high roof, consisting of a single stone passage leading to a chamber in which the possessions of the tomb’s occupant were also laid to rest.”

Gold death-mask known as the “Mask of Agamemnon.” (Xuan Che/CC BY 2.0) Homer writes that the Mycenaean era was dedicated to Agamemnon.

The tomb’s excavators believe that the recently unearthed site can be linked to the palatial center of Mycenaean Orchomenos – “the most important Mycenaean center of northern Boeotia during the 14th and 13th centuries BC.” They also call the site “one of the best documented burial groups of the Palatial period in mainland Greece.”

 In 2015, Ancient Origins reported on another impressive Mycenaean-era discovery in Orchomenos. A pre-classical era Greek palace was found on Aghios Vassilios hill. Some researchers believe that this is the long-lost palace of Sparta.

The palace, which had 10 rooms, was probably built around the 17th to 16th centuries BC. Inscriptions written in Linear B script have also been found around that excavation site. They relate to religious practices and names and places. Archaeologists also discovered objects used for religious ceremonies, clay figurines, a cup adorned with a bull’s head, swords, and fragments of murals. Evidence suggests the palace was probably destroyed by fire at some point in the late 14th or early 13th century.

Mycenean Palace foundations at Orchomenus. (CC BY SA 4.0)

Top Image: Detail of the Mycenaean-era tomb’s façade and the dry-stone masonry that sealed the entrance. Source: Ministry of Culture and Sports

By Alicia McDermott

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