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The Treasury of Atreus

Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) Voiceover: Just down the hill from Mycenae the great Citadel of the Mycenaeans. The Bronze Age Greek mainland people that traded as far away as Italy and north Africa. There is, in a hill, an enormous tomb which is sometimes known as the Treasury of Atreus. Voiceover: Or the tomb of Agamemnon. Voiceover: The type of tomb that we're looking at is called a tholos or a beehive tomb. And this is one of two types of tombs at Mycenae. These are the larger of the two types. The other are shaft graves within a larger circle. But the tholos are truly monumental and this is the largest of them all. Voiceover: And these date to a slightly later period of Mycenaean history and they are clearly expressions of power the ruling elite were buried in tholos tombs. Voiceover: We're going to walk in, walking along a passageway that's built into the side of the hill with huge blocks of stone that have been cut quite finely and fit together very closely. Some of the stones are just of such a large scale that it's hard to imagine people being able to move them. Voiceover: Right now it looks very spare but this had carvings ... Voiceover: It may have had relief sculpture. And there was also finer kinds of more decorative stone. Okay, I can't wait. Let's go in. We're now entering the dromos which is the entrance pathway. (stones crunching underfoot) Voiceover: The walls on either side rise above us giving an unmistakable impression of a grand monumental space. Voiceover: It's ceremonial and it feels as if we are entering the earth. There's a slight grade upward. Voiceover: The entranceway, it tapers inward as it moves up. Look at that deep and heavy lintel stone that moves back through that doorway. Voiceover: It's made out of two pieces and we estimate that it weighs over 100 tons. Voiceover: So the kind of vaulting that we see above the lintel is called corbeling. Where the stones are cut and placed so that each one, as it moves up, moves slightly inward, creating this triangular space above the lintel known as the relieving triangle. The Lion Gate in Mycenae, that space is filled with a relief sculpture. Voiceover: We don't think this was, but again, there were complex stones that would have faced this rougher masonry and we know that at least some of it was imported from Egypt. Voiceover: Right. There were columns on either side that were decorated. Some of these are located now in the Archaeological Museum in Athens. Voiceover: And there were very complex patterns. There were zig-zags, there were spirals ... Voiceover: Chevrons. Voiceover: It was a really ornate space. An enormous amount of treasure was expended to make this. Voiceover: And we know that the Mycenaean people buried considerable treasure with their dead. These tombs, though, have been robbed. Voiceover: We're now at the threshold and we can feel the coolness of the interior space. It's empty, it's dark, and it's massive. Voiceover: And it's long. This entryway is 10 or 15 feet deep. Voiceover: As we enter into the domical space itself, we are in a round chamber, which beside the entranceway and the actual burial chamber to the right, is completely circular. Some architectural historians have hypothesized that there may have been carved bulls around the bottom, but it rises to an enormous height above us. Voiceover: So this is a real engineering achievement to create a domical-vaulted space this high and this wide. This is not Post and Lintel archetecture but the creating of round, arched spaces. Voiceover: In fact, this will be the largest domical space until the Pantheon in Rome. Voiceover: More than 1,000 years later. Voiceover: And it it is using that corbeling technique. So each of these stones pushes inward at ever-so-slightly and is cut at an angle so that you have this smooth transition up to the apex with a cap stone. The width and height of the space are almost equal. and so there really is a sense of perfection here. A sense of the ideal. Voiceover: It's obvious that this circular space, this enormous vault has symbolic meaning for the powerful person who is buried here. (piano music)