Prosilio 2: Mycenaean Chamber Tombs

Chamber tombs, concurrent with tholos tombs, first appear in Messina in the Late Helladic I period; however, their origins are not entirely known largely because they were rare around the Aegean at the time in which they were first adopted.

The basic chamber tomb consists of three parts: the dromos (entry corridor), the stomion (chamber entrance), and the chamber itself. The dromos takes the shape of a small, downward angled shaft cut into a hillside or into the side of a tumulus. Typically, if hard rock was encountered during the construction process, a shaft grave would be made of what had already been completed. Additionally, though rare, numerous chambers have been found connecting to one dromos. The stomion, the entrance to the tomb, is usually rectilinear and blocked by loose stones. The chamber itself can be round – suggesting a possible attempt to appear like a tholos tomb – or rectilinear, and can sometimes feature small shaft graves and cists or pits dug into the side. Chamber tombs can be rock-cut, when dug into a hill, or constructed of stones when built in a tumulus. Though the use of the tumulus is the main form of monumental burial in bronze age Greece and, though more common in Messina, the Argolid plains, and Attica, is used too sporadically to be seen as a cultural element.

A Mycenaean chamber tomb with parts highlighted (courtesy

Most chamber tombs contain more than one burial, with the average number of interned being six to eight. Cases of twenty to thirty burials are rare and usually signify that the tomb was used over an extended period of time by different groups. When multiple people are interned in the same tomb, it is not uncommon for the bones of the formerly interned to be cast into the dromos or to be gathered into a pit. Each burial in a chamber tomb was completed by filling the stomion with loose stone and completely filling in the dromos. It is not clear if this played any significant role in burial customs. Additionally, plaster was often used to coat the walls and floor of the stomion and dromos once it was opened. One final note is that the rarity of single burial chamber tombs makes discerning the association of grave goods with specific burials difficult.

There are many theories regarding the wealth and social status signified by the use of the chamber tomb, tholos, pit, and cist grave. Though chamber tombs are much more elaborate than cists and pit graves, their appearance in the hundreds at sites such as Mycenae, Thebes, Tanagra, and Lalysos and in the dozens at lesser settlements hurts the notion that they were largely constructed by the middle to upper middle class. Additionally, the wealth of many chamber tombs has often been rivaled by those of cist and pit graves, as will be seen later with the Griffin Warrior tomb. Socially, chamber tombs, with multiple generations of people being interned in them, display an increasing awareness of the family. Additionally, their frequent congregation in clusters – though rarely discernible cemeteries –, as opposed to lone tumuli, seem to display an increasing focus on community or, at least, on designated burial spaces and the formation of city limits. Though chamber tombs in tumuli are rare in comparison to regular chamber tombs, they do exist frequently enough that they seem to have represented a wealthier class: their grave-goods tend to be more plentiful and the basic cost of building a tumulus would restrict them to only the wealthy.

Grave-goods are frequently sparse: decorated pottery is the most common grave-good and could have been used in a manner similar to lekythoi in later Greek culture. They are usually deposited in the single digits. Spindle whorls of clay and serpentine, probably clothing weights, along with beads make the most numerous grave-goods. Less common, but still reported, is the depositing of bronze implements, such as razors and tweezers, semiprecious stones, and faience objects. Even rarer are objects typically associated with the upper or ruling class: weapons, armor, mirrors, and other objects made of metal, faience, and glass. Again, despite the upper-class sense of chamber tombs, highly valuable grave-goods are infrequently deposited; though they are more likely to be found in Argolid sites, Athens, and Thebes. One explanation for this might come in Mycenaean burial practices and tombs use. As is noted by Mylonas, the goods an individual was buried with were often repossessed by the family after the body of the dead had completely biodegraded – and thusly the spirit no longer posed a threat if the grave or remnants were moved from their resting place. Therefore, a possible explanation for the general lack in wealthy grave goods could simply be that the most valuable objects were taken back by the family and have hence disappeared. A future study on the correlation between the wealth of grave goods in single use tholoi/chamber tombs (which could also signify an external reason for its discontinuation in addition to a heroic status) and tholoi/chamber tombs that collapsed in antiquity (making it impossible for the grave-goods to be collected) could yield interesting results.