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Monday, March 28, 2016

The Treasury of Atreus

How were the elite buried at Mycenae in the Late Bronze Age?  Some were buried in chambers cut into the side of a hill.  Hence the term “rock tomb” or “chamber tomb.”   The tomb was reached by a long passageway called a dromos.   But a more elaborate burial seems to have been reserved for the rulers and their families: the tholos.  The tholos was also located in the side of a hill.  However, it was not a rectangular chamber but a circular structure with a top in the form of a dome.  Its shape has been likened to a that of a beehive (hence it is sometimes called a "beehive tomb").  There were nine tholos tombs at Mycenae, the earliest dating to ca. 1500 and the latest to ca. 1250 BC.  The most famous is the so-called Treasury of Atreus.  At over 47 feet in diameter and 44 feet in height, the interior is huge.  The fellow in the photo gives a sense of its dimensions.

This is the 114-foot long dromos or entrance passage to the Treasury of Atreus.  The upward-sloping path is flanked by rising walls leading up to a grand doorway.  Receding fascias are cut into the jambs and lintel.

The lintel is in fact two blocks.  The inner lintel block has been calculated to weigh some 120 tons!  Above the lintel is a relieving triangle: a false (corbeled) arch to keep weight off the lintel.  There may have been something (sculpture?) in that triangle (cf. the Lion Gate, also at Mycenae), but if so it has not been preserved.

Zigzag and spiral patterns in the
relief carving on the columns

To either side of the doorway stood engaged columns of green marble, decorated with zigzag and spiral relief carving.  Above these were smaller columns of red marble.  Fragments of these columns may be seen in the British Museum.

Just how was that huge dome made?  Not through vaulting in the sense of a ceiling constructed in the arch principle (with voussoirs and keystone).  No, the principle here is that of the corbel (as in the relieving triangle).  In corbeling each course projects a little farther inward than the one below it, until the sides meet (and a capstone covers the remaining hole).  The blocks are cut on an angle to produce a smooth interior surface.

The Khan Academy video offers a great overview of the tomb.

Ryan Summers

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