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Tholos Tombs of the Aegean

  • M. S. F. Hood

Among the most impressive monuments of the earlier part of the Bronze Age in Crete are the great circular communal tombs which began to be built, notably in the Mesara plain but also in other parts of the island, before 2000 B.C., and flourished in use throughout the first half of the 2nd millennium. Similarly, the most magnificent surviving architectural creations of the Late Bronze Age in the Aegean area are the stupendous beehive or tholos tombs of the chief Mainland centres like Mycenae. Tombs of this type, with corbelled stone vaults sunk in the ground and approached by long entrance passages (dromoi), seem to appear for the first time in the Aegean about 1600 B.C., and reach their finest and grandest expression on the Mainland of Greece in the two centuries between 1500 and 1300 B.C. A map of the Aegean area showing the distribution of these two types of tombs accompanies this article (FIG. I).

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1 Very few of the Mainland tholos tombs can be dated before the beginning of the Mycenaean II period, c. 1500 B.C. The date for the Treasury of Atreus, the greatest of these tombs standing near the end of the im portant series at Mycenae, is probably in the region of 1350-1330 B.C. as suggested by Wace, Mycenae: An Archaeological History and Guide (1949), 119 f. That of c. 1230 B.C. proposed by Mylonas, Ancient Mycenae (1957). 88 is almost certainly too late.

2 Ergon, 1954, 38 f.; 1956, 81 f.

3 Childe, Dawn of European Civilisation (1950), 272 f. Evans, ‘Two phases of Prehistoric Settlement in the Western Mediterranean’, Inst, of Arch. Bulletin, 1955-6, 1 f.

4 Sjoquist, Swedish Cyprus Expedition, I (1934), 570.

5 Tsountas, in AE, 1899, 79 f., figs. 1-10. Tsountas says these tombs differed essentially both in shape and construction from the cist graves which he knew from the other islands !

6 See the very full and careful description by Mylonas of the Early Bronze Age (Early Helladic) cemetery of A. Kosmas near Athens, where tombs with stone-built walls of comparable type merge into slab-lined cist graves. (Mylonas, Aghios Kosmas (1959), 64 f.).

7 Mylonas, Ancient Mycenae (1957), 100 f.

8 E.g. Evans, in his Preface to Xanthoudides, VTM (1924). More recently, e.g. Platon, AE, 1945-7, 70 f., esp. 71, note 1.

9 E.g. Persson, Royal Tombs at Dendra (1931), 144 f. Wace, Mycenae: An Archaeological History and Guide (1949), 119. Mylonas, Ancient Mycenae (1957), 99 f.

10 Matz, Forschungen auf Kreta (1942), 13 f.

11 Cf. Xanthoudides, VTM, 8.

12 BSA, 51 (1956), 74 f.

13 Ibid., 76 f. The sherds from the cutting in which the tomb was built can only give a date Post Quern. But the tomb may nevertheless be an early one, although the fragments of ‘Palace Style’ amphorae (ibid., pl. II (c)) suggest that it was being used in Late Minoan II times, c. 1450-1400 B.C.

14 Praktika, 1925-6, 140-1.

15 Hesperia, 23 (1954), 158-63.

16 Ibid., 161, pl. 38, 8 and a. Furumark, The Mycenaean Pottery (1941), 603, type 117, lists examples of this type of jug from the Mainland. For Knossos, see Evans, PM, I, 556, fig. 404 f. : ‘The most numerously represented of all the types found’ in the Temple Repositories of c. 1600 B.C. Cf. ibid., fig. 41 SB, from the same horizon in another part of the Palace.

17 E.g. Those excavated by Valmin at Malthi (Valmin, The Swedish Messenia Expedition (1938), 207). For others, cf. Valmin, ‘Tholos Tombs and Tumuli’, in Acta Inst. Romani Regni Sueciae, 11 (1932), 216 f.

18 This was the opinion, for instance, of Kourouniotis in Praktika, 1925-6, 140. Cf. Dõrpfeld, AM, 33 (1908), 298, apropos of the tholos tombs at Kakovatos.

19 VTM, 88 f.

20 As suggested by Seager, Trans. Penti. Univ., n, 131.

21 See Xanthoudides, VTM, 7. At Kalathiana, where part of the wall of the chamber is preserved to a height of 2 m. above the floor, the inward lean is as much as 0-24 m. or 1 in 8.

22 ADelt, 12 (1929), 102 f.

23 Ibid., 13 (1930-31), 137 f.

24 For discussions on roofing systems, e.g. Marinates, ADelt, 13 (1930-31), 168 f. Rodenwaldt in Gnomon, 5 (1929), 179, note 2. The idea, often repeated, that it would have been ‘impossible’ to span the chambers of the largest of these early Cretan tombs with free-standing vaults was based upon the assumption (e.g. Xanthoudides, VTM, 91) that such vaults must be built in stone. But in any case it is dangerous to be dogmatic about what the engineers of early times could or could not do.

25 For instance, the Late Neolithic houses under the central court of the Palace at Knossos (Pendlebury, AC, 39 f. ; Evans, PM, II, S f.), and the house assigned to the Middle Neolithic phase at Katsamba north of Knossos recently excavated by Alexiou (Praktika, 1953, 305 f ; 1954, 369 f.).

26 Bulle, Orchomenos, 1 (1907), 19 f.

27 Müller, Tiryns, III (1930), 80 f.

28 Marinatos, BCH, LXX (1946), 337 f.

29 Dikaios, Khirokitia (1953), passim.

30 Iraq, II (1935), 25 f., esp. 33. The mud-brick vaults of these buildings at Arpachiyah appear to have been quite low. It is very possible that the vaults of the early Cretan tombs were in general lower in relation to the size of the chamber than the beehive vaults of the late Bronze Age tholos tombs.

31 The ‘tholoi’ cited by Evans from Libya (PM, 11, 36 f.) were really round flat-topped cairns piled above graves, and ‘probably late in date, although certainly pre-Islamic’ (Bates, The Eastern Libyans (1914), 246 f., esp. 248).

32 Xanthoudides, VTM, 76 f.

33 Persson, The Royal Tombs at Dendra (1931).

34 But it is said to have produced small fragments of silver vases and of a large pyxis of Egyptian faience {Hesperia, 23 (1954), 159).

35 Blegen, AJA, 62 (1958), 178.

36 ADelt, 13 (1930-1), 137 f.

37 AC, 243. But later he suggested that even this tholos might be Iron Age (BSA, XXXVIII (1937-8, published 1940), III, 138, note 3).

38 BSA, VI (1899-1900), 81.

39 AJA, V (1901), 270, 439.

40 For Knossos see BSA, VI (1899-1900), 81. The tombs at Erganos and Kamares were arbitrarily assigned by Pendlebury to the Protogeometric period (AC, 306, 314-5). But the pottery from those at Erganos was certainly Late Minoan (Desborough, 251, 325); that from the Kamares tombs is now unknown (ibid., 259,325).

41 BSA, 51 (1956), 74 f.

42 Except for rare examples of elliptical vaulted tombs, at Thorikos (ADelt, 1890, 159 f.; Praktika, 1893, 12 f.; AE, 1895, 221 f.) and Palaiochori (ADelt, 9 (1924-5), Par. 18; BSA, 51 (1956), 168). The shape at Thorikos at any rate appears to be conditioned by the narrow ridge along which the tomb is built.

43 Evans, PM, I, 87, II, 56, describes a large unworked lump of this material from a deposit of the Middle Minoan 11 phase in the Palace at Knossos (c. 1730 B.C.). This is illustrated by Mosso, The Dawn of Mediterranean Civilisation (1910), 363, fig. 198. A fragment of a fine vase of liparite came from a deposit of Middle Minoan III A (C. 1650 B.C.) (PM, 1, 412). The superb vase in the form of a shell from A. Triadha near Phaistos is assigned by Evans to the transitional period Middle Minoan III B—Late Minoan I A, C. 1600 B.C. (PM, 11, 823).

44 E.g. The Middle Helladic burial mound at Agios Ioannes near Papoulia in the Pylos area excavated by Marinatos (Praktika, 1954, 311 f.).

Mr Sinclair Hood, Director of the British School of Archaeology at Athens, here discusses, at the invitation of the Editor, the origin of the Late Bronze Age Tholos Tombs of the Aegean Area. A fuller publication of this material, with a detailed distribution map and catalogue of sites, will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Annual of the British School at Athens.

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