Lesson 19: Narrative

Mycenaean Tholos Tombs and Early Mycenaean Settlements

  1. Definition of the Mycenaean Form of Tholos Tomb
  2. Wace’s Groupings of the Tholos Tombs at Mycenae
  3. Comparison of Mycenaean Tholoi of the Late Bronze Age and Earlier Cretan Tholoi of the Mesara Type

 Definition of the Mycenaean Form of Tholos Tomb

The {Mycenaean tholos tomb} consists of a circular, subterranean burial chamber, sometimes referred to as the {thalamos}, roofed by a corbelled vault and approached by a {dromos} [= entrance passage] that narrows abruptly at the {stomion} [= doorway] actually opening into the tomb chamber. The chamber or thalamos is built of stone rather than simply being hewn out of bedrock. Tholoi of this kind are usually, though not invariably, set into slopes or hillsides. Burials were either laid out on the floor of the tomb chamber or were placed in pits, cists, or shafts cut into this floor.


Wace’s Groupings of the Tholos Tombs at Mycenae

The nine tholoi at Mycenae constitute by far the largest collection of monumental tholos tombs of Mycenaean type to have been found at a single site. This series of tombs spans the period from LH IIA to early LH IIIB (i.e. ca. 1525 to 1300/1275, or a period of some eight to ten generations). The names of the tombs derive from their locations (Epano Phournos, Kato Phournos, Panagia), from finds made in them (Lion Tomb, Tomb of the Genii), from architectural features (Cyclopean Tomb, Perfect Tholos), or from members of the mythical ruling house of Mycenae (Aegisthus, Atreus, Clytemnestra); these names are traditional and have no particular significance with respect to the protohistory of the Aegean Late Bronze Age (i.e. they could just as well be numbered serially from 1 to 9). The tholoi are spread apart at quite some distance from one another, but three cluster near the entrance to the acropolis of Mycenae and face either north (Lion Tomb) or south (Tombs of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra). The largest tholos (the Treasury of Atreus, so named following the identification of the tomb provided in the 2nd century A.D. guide to the monuments of Greece written by Pausanias) flanks the main approach road to the citadel at Mycenae from the plain below and faces east. The remaining five tholoi are all located on the opposite side of the Kalkani ridge from the Treasury of Atreus and face west. The British archaeologist Alan Wace assigned these nine tombs to three distinct groups on the basis of their use of particular raw materials and of cut as opposed to undressed stone, as well as on the employment of certain decorative and engineering refinements.

Group I: Cyclopean Tomb, Epano Phournos Tholos, Tomb of Aegisthus

These tombs have diameters of 8.0, 11.0, and over 13 meters respectively. They are characterized by the following distinctive constructional features:

(a) Construction is executed throughout in rubble masonry composed of hard limestone fieldstones (i.e. no cut stone is employed).

(b) There is no blocking wall at the exterior end of the dromos.

(c) No particular care is taken in the construction of the stomion (doorway) except for the use of larger stones in the jambs.

(d) Short lintel blocks roof the stomion. The innermost lintel block is not carved to match the twin curve in the vault of the tomb chamber.

(e) There is no relieving triangle above the lintel blocks of the stomion.

(f) No walls line the dromos except in the Tomb of Aegisthus, in which such lining walls are restricted to those portions of the dromos above the level of the ground surface from which the tomb was originally cut.

The Tomb of Aegisthus, by virtue of the two phases detected in the construction of its stomion and the partial lining of its dromos with stone walls, is truly transitional between Groups I and II. The original stomion constructed of rubble bonds with the rubble walls lining the dromos. A facing of cut conglomerate (the two lowest courses) and poros (soft limestone; the seven courses above) blocks was added later in front of the original stomion. This secondary facade is purely decorative, since it bears none of the weight of either the stomion’s roofing or of the tomb chamber’s vault.

Group II: Kato Phournos, Panagia Tholos, Lion Tomb

These tombs have diameters of 10, 8, and 14 meters respectively. They are characterized by the following distinctive constructional features:

(a) The dromoi are lined with mixtures of hard limestone rubble and poros {ashlar} [that is, blocks having exterior faces cut as rectangles] masonry.

(b) Two of the three tombs preserve traces of a blocking wall at the exterior end of the dromos.

(c) The stomion is built of cut conglomerate blocks, although these blocks are hammer-dressed and not cut with a saw.

(d) A relieving triangle is regular above the lintel blocks of the stomion.

(e) The exterior facades of the stomia in two of these three tombs are faced by poros ashlar masonry which covers the conglomerate masonry of the rest of the stomion (cf. the secondary facade of the Tomb of Aegisthus in Group I).

(f) The basal course within the tomb chamber consists of hammer-dressed conglomerate blocks.

(g) The innermost lintel block of the stomion is cut to match the curves, both horizontal and vertical, of the vaulting in the tomb chamber. The lintel blocks are much longer than were those of the tholoi in Group I.

(h) The Lion Tomb had a wooden door at the exterior end of the stomion to control access into the tomb chamber, rather than the rubble blocking wall in this position typical of the other tombs in both this group and Group I. The evidence for this door consists of cuttings in the {soffit} [underside) of the outermost lintel block to hold the pivots on which the two leaves of this door were hung.

Group III: Treasury of Atreus, Tomb of Clytemnestra, Tomb of the Genii (or Perfect Tholos)

These tombs have diameters of 14.5, 13.4, and 8.4 meters respectively. They are characterized by the following distinctive constructional features:

(a) In two of the three tombs, the dromoi are lined with ashlar conglomerate masonry, hammer-dressed rather than sawn. In the Tomb of the Genii, the lining walls are of rubble limestone, a feature explained, like the smaller size of this tomb, as an economy measure on the part of its builders.

(b) The stomia, inclusive of their exterior facades, are built of ashlar conglomerate masonry, many of the blocks being sawn rather than hammer-dressed.

(c) The tomb chambers are constructed throughout of ashlar conglomerate masonry. The blocks are hammer-dressed in the Treasury of Atreus but mostly sawn in the Tomb of Clytemnestra.

(d) The exterior facades of the stomia in the Treasury of Atreus and the Tomb of Clytemnestra are extensively decorated with relief sculpture in a variety of colored stones (red and greenish-gray marbles from the quarries near Kyprianon in Laconia for the Treasury of Atreus’ facade; gypsum probably from Crete, bluish limestone, and greenish-gray marble from Laconia for the Tomb of Clytemnestra’s facade). This relief decoration consists of half-columns and a variety of horizontal friezes, the constituent slabs of which are dowelled to the conglomerate blocks of the stomion facade proper. In both tombs, the hole of the relieving triangle would have been masked by relief sculpture.

(e) The Treasury of Atreus has a rectangular side chamber opening off the main tomb chamber, a feature paralleled only in Tholos A at Archanes (early 14th century B.C.) and in the Treasury of Minyas at Boeotian Orchomenos (probably 13th century B.C.). The principal burials in the Treasury of Atreus were probably placed in this side chamber. Two fragments of relief sculpture in gypsum which feature bulls, both now in the British Museum, are thought by most authorities to have formed part of the original sculpted decoration of the walls of the side chamber, although some scholars have placed them on the exterior facade of the stomion. The side chamber of the Treasury of Minyas also featured relief sculpture in the form of an elaborate composition of interlocking spirals which decorates the two enormous schist slabs forming the ceiling of this room. Nail holes in parallel horizontal rows on the interior of the vault of the Treasury of Atreus’ main tomb chamber probably held gilded bronze rosettes. Once again, the Treasury of Minyas at Orchomenos is similarly equipped.

(f) Within the stomia there is evidence of separate thresholds, wooden doorframes, and wooden doors. These doors were placed in the middle of the length of the stomion rather than just inside the exterior facade as in the earlier Lion Tomb. Such a relocation of the doors was probably designed to protect them from exposure to weathering. Authorities who believe that the entire dromos of these enormous tombs was filled in following a burial, only to be dug out again when a subsequent interment was required, interpret the door frame’s relocation as a way of shielding the door from direct contact with the earthen backfill in the dromos: a rubble blocking wall constructed across the exterior end of the stomion would keep the fill in the dromos from penetrating the stomion and coming into contact with the doors. The elaborate decoration of the facades of the Group III tholoi, however, as well as the employment of cut stone carefully pointed with plaster since the second phase of the Tomb of Aegisthus’ facade at the end of Group I, surely show that the facades of these magnificant tombs were intended to be showpieces. It is therefore unlikely that the dromoi of these tombs were ever purposefully filled in while royalty held sway at Mycenae.

(g) Relieving triangles above the lintel blocks of the stomion, blocking walls at the exterior end of the dromos, and the cutting of the innermost lintel block of the stomion to match the twin curves of the tomb chamber’s vault are all features of this group which are also characteristic of Group II. The size of some of the lintel blocks in the tombs of Group III is gigantic: the innermost lintel block in the Treasury of Atreus, for example, is estimated to weigh some 120 tons.

The above groupings of the tholoi at Mycenae are based purely on architectural criteria and cannot be substantiated by the contents of the tombs. In fact, all of the tholoi at Mycenae were found robbed and only random scraps of their original contents, hardly reliable for dating purposes, were found during their excavation. The architectural development discernible in these tombs is assumed to be linear. That is, a tomb with more advanced architectural features is automatically assumed to have been built later than one characterized by more primitive features. The dromos of the Treasury of Atreus was cut through a large ceramic deposit of the LH IIIA1 period, the so-called Atreus Bothros, and one sherd assignable to the LH IIIB period was found sealed under a threshold block in the same tomb. Group III is thus usually dated to the LH IIIB period (ca. 1340-1200 B.C.).

Wace’s groupings apply only to Mycenae and do not reflect the development of tholos tomb architecture over all of Mainland Greece. Only one other tomb comparable to those of Wace’s Group III is known in Greece (the Treasury of Minyas at Orchomenos), and very few are comparable to those of his Group I. The earliest tholoi at Mycenae probably date to LH IIA, the period when the final burials in the Shaft Grave circles were being made. The latest tholoi are probably of LH IIIB date and compare closely in terms of some of their architectural features (especially the use of the saw and decoration with relief sculpture) with the Lion Gate at the same site. There is no evidence for post-palatial (i.e. LH IIIC or later) tholoi at Mycenae.


Comparison of Mycenaean Tholoi of the Late Bronze Age and Earlier Cretan Tholoi of the Mesara Type

For a long time, any connection between the Mycenaean form of tholos and the earlier Minoan tholoi of Mesara type was denied and the ancestry of the Mycenaean form was thus unclear. Although recent discoveries have tended to bridge the gap between the two types, thus making it quite likely that the Mycenaean form was at least partially indebted to, if perhaps not descended exclusively from, the earlier Minoan form, several prominent authorities (e.g. Dickinson, Cavanagh and Laxton) still deny any significant connection between the two. The traditional problems with deriving one from the other have centered around the following four observations:

(a) There is a considerable gap in time between the latest Mesara tholoi and the earliest Mycenaean tholoi.

(b) There are significant structural differences between the two types.

(c) There are significant functional differences between the two types.

(d) The rarity of tholoi in Crete during the Late Bronze Age indicates that the Mycenaeans could not have adopted the form from a Minoan prototype at this time, while the gap in time referred to in (a) above precludes their adoption of a Minoan type at some earlier period.

The Gap in Time

Tholoi of Mesara type used to be considered exclusively as Early Minoan tombs, but it has been convincingly demonstrated not only that some were built as late as the MM II period (e.g. the Kamilari tholos near Phaistos) but also that some were used as late as the very end of the Middle Minoan period (Gypsades tholos at Knossos) and even well into the Late Minoan period (LM IIIA at Kamilari and Archanes Tholos B). At the same time, the Mycenaean tholos used to be considered an exclusively Late Bronze Age tomb type, although it is now recognized that tholoi of this type were built before the end of the Middle Helladic period (e.g. the Koryphasion tholos near Pylos in Messenia). There is, therefore, not much of a gap in time between the two forms of tholos, indeed arguably no gap at all.

Structural Differences

These may be treated under a number of headings:


Mesara tholoi are built above ground in level areas. Mycenaean tholoi are normally sunk into hillsides, and even when built in relatively flat areas (e.g. at Marathon) are underground.

Earth Covering

Mesara tholoi were never covered by earthen mounds. Although dug largely underground in the first place, Mycenaean tholoi, if their uppermost portions projected above ground level, were covered by an earthen mound, often held in place by a large, circular retaining wall.

Roofing of the Tomb Chamber

Although it has now been established that tombs with a diameter of less than ca. 7 meters were fully vaulted in stone (evidence of Archanes Tomb Gamma), the larger Mesara tholoi almost certainly did not have complete stone vaults. In contrast, all Mycenaean tholoi, even those with diameters of as much as 14 meters, were fully roofed with a corbelled vault in stone.


Mesara tholoi have small doorways almost always located on the east or southeast side of the tomb. The doorway almost never stands at the end of a passageway or dromos. However, later Middle Minoan tholoi tend to have larger doorways, while the original entrance to Tholos B at Archanes, of MM IA date according to the excavator, lies at the end of a roofed passageway approaching the tomb at ground level from the southeast. Mycenaean tholoi have doorways of monumental proportions which stand at the ends of long dromoi. Since the orientation of the dromos and doorway are determined by the local topography, Mycenaean tholoi are not entered from any particular point of the compass.

The principal structural differences between Mesara and Mycenaean tholoi (siting, earth cover, regularity of complete vaulting in stone, presence of dromos, lack of consistent orientation to entrance) all stem from the fact that Mesara tholoi are designed as above-ground structures while Mycenaean tholoi are subterranean. In the case of the only other substantial structural difference between the two, the size of the doorway, it is possible to argue that a trend from smaller to larger doorways can be detected within the corpus of Mesara tholoi which finds its logical culmination in the huge portals of Mycenaean tholoi (although the expanded size of doorways in later Mesara tholoi is presumably due to the need to accommodate larnakes and pithoi as individual burial containers within such tombs, while the Mycenaean emphasis on doorways of monumental proportions is probably part and parcel of the monumentality of the entire tomb and perhaps a reflection of the restriction of this tomb type to members of the ruling class throughout most of Mainland Greece). The basic difference between above-ground and subterranean siting is presumably the result of differing attitudes among the Minoans and Mycenaeans toward the dead and where they belong. Such an ideological difference should not be cited as a reason for denying the derivation of the Mycenaean tholos from the Mesara type as an architectural form.

Two features of Mycenaean tholoi merit particular emphasis insofar as the ancestry of the form is concerned. First, the form is circular in plan, just as is the MH tumulus. The close connection between these two varieties of elite burial structures is made clear from the construction of an early Mycenaean tholos at Voïdhokoilia in Messenia within, and perfectly centered on, an earlier MH tumulus. The evidence from Thorikos (see below) provides additional support for viewing the underground vaulted tholos as a direct descendant of large-scale cists or flat-roofed chambers constructed within above ground tumuli. Secondly, a good number of early Mycenaean tholoi are placed on or close to the tops of hills (e.g. Velatouri at Thorikos; Voïdhokoilia; Pylos), much as later palace buildings were. Such choices of siting for a tomb type that was intended to be subterranean required the construction of artificial mounds to cover the vaults of the tombs in question. Thus the siting of the Voïdokoilia tholos within the earlier MH tumulus was effectively necessitated by the fact that the surrounding terrain on the hilltop where the tomb was placed consists of exposed bedrock, in this case very hard limestone: either the tholos went into the tumulus, or else the tholos would have to come down off the top of the hill.

Functional Differences

The Mesara tholoi were evidently used as tombs by the entire population of a Minoan settlement. In contrast, Mycenaean tholoi for the most part appear to have been reserved for the uppermost strata of Mycenaean society. The use of tholoi on the Mainland only by “royal families” is certainly true at the major sites in Attica, Boeotia, and the Argolid, and probably also in Laconia and Thessaly. In Messenia, on the other hand, the tholos form of tomb is so common that it may have been used by other classes of society than just the ruling families. A tomb near Pylos, sometimes identified as a grave circle but almost certainly a badly destroyed tholos, contained numerous pithos burials in addition to extended inhumations in pits cut into the tomb floor. The presence of pithos burials and of the remains of no less than twenty-seven adult skeletons within the tomb suggest that the burial practices within this tomb were not all that different from those prevailing in Middle Minoan Crete where MM tholoi regularly contain pithoi and larnakes in which the bodies of the dead were placed and where the individual bodies interred within a given tomb routinely number in the dozens, if not the hundreds.

The Rarity of Late Bronze Age Tholoi on Crete

Since the gap in time between the latest Mesara tholoi and the earliest Mycenaean tholoi has been shown to be in effect non-existent, the fact that there are relatively few Late Bronze Age tholoi on Crete is of little more than academic interest in a discussion of the origins of the Mycenaean tholos form. Clearly the Mycenaeans derived their form of tholos from Middle Minoan and earlier tholoi and not from Late Minoan examples of this form. Most LM tholoi are, as it happens, actually of the Mycenaean variety and are examples of the extensive series of Mycenaean cultural forms which first appear on Crete in the LM II period and which have been considered to mark the beginning of a Mycenaean occupation of Knossos. At the same time, although LM tholoi are themselves derived from Mycenaean precursors, certain variations of the Mycenaean tholos form are peculiar to Crete and hence appear to be purely Minoan versions of their Mainland Greek prototype. These variants include vaulted tombs with a square or rectangular rather than circular tomb chamber (e.g. Royal Tomb and Isopata Tomb 1 at Knossos; most of these tombs are keel-vaulted rather than corbel-vaulted). A normal tholos with a side chamber, Archanes Tholos A, is possibly modelled after the MM IA Tholos B at the same site, a tomb which continued in use through the LM II-IIIA era of the Knossian Warrior Graves. The plan of Tholos A itself appears to have been copied later on the Mainland at Mycenae and Orchomenos by the so-called Treasuries of Atreus and Minyas. The developmental history of Aegean tholoi thus becomes extremely complicated in the Late Bronze Age.

The Function and Distribution of Mycenaean Tholoi

The Mycenaean tholos first appears in Messenia (Koryphasion, Pylos, etc.). The conversion of the basic tholos form from the Mesara type of Minoan Crete to the Mycenaean type therefore probably took place in Messenia. The purported Linear A inscription on the facade of the largest of the Peristeria tholoi of LH IIA date even suggests that the process of importing this Minoan form and converting it into a Mainland variant may have been the result of a Minoan architect’s working for a Messenian prince. From Messenia, the Mycenaean tholos diffused to the Argolid, Laconia, and coastal Attica during the LH IIA period. The earliest tholoi in Aetolia (Ayios Ilias) and Thessaly (Kapakli) are of LH IIB date, contemporary with which are the earliest Cretan tholoi of Mycenaean type dating from LM II. By the LH III period, the type has diffused into inland areas of Greece remote from the original Messenian source (e.g. inland Attica and Thessaly, even northwest Greece at Parga). However, the tholos tomb was never popular in Boeotia.

The Mycenaean tholos is usually restricted in its use to members of the uppermost class in society, the kings, princes, and major “barons” and their immediate families. Only in rare cases on the Greek Mainland (notably in Messenia) do tholos tombs serve for burials of a broader cross-section of a local population. Most often, the less-than-royal members of Mycenaean society were buried in chamber tombs. This fact allows two significant conclusions: first, that there was a distinct gulf, or class distinction, in most Mycenaean societies between rulers and the remainder of the population, in marked contrast with the egalitarianism in death characteristic of Early Minoan societies; and second, that sites at which tholoi are found on the Greek Mainland, particularly those at which this tomb type appears in some numbers, are to be understood as the seats of political power in the Mycenaean period. The restriction of tholoi to comparatively few sites in the later Mycenaean period (i.e. LH IIIB) is presumably to be interpreted as evidence that Mycenaean kingdoms of this age were larger than the smaller “dukedoms” and “baronies” of the early Mycenaean period. In other words, with the progress of time, political power within Mycenaean Greece was increasingly concentrated in fewer hands.

There is a wide variety of tomb types in early Mycenaean Greece, particularly in Messenia and Attica (Dickinson 1977: 59-65; 1983). Such variety is probably to be explained as the result of differing adaptations by the Mainland Greeks at different p(l)aces of Minoan forms, both tholoi and chamber tombs, as well as by the persistence of Middle Helladic forms in some areas. Attica is especially peculiar with the elliptical tholos and odd built chamber tombs at Thorikos, the somewhat similar built chamber tombs of Eleusis, and the chamber-tombs-within-tumuli of Vrana near Marathon. The tholos is never adopted to any significant extent in neighboring Boeotia, although the chamber tomb is an extremely popular form there.

It is interesting to note that the Mycenaean tholos occurs only once in the Cyclades (a recently discovered example on the island of Tinos) and never in the Dodecanese, despite the fact that these islands seemingly become “Mycenaean” in all other respects in the LH III period. How should this fact be interpreted? Possibilities include:

(a) The Cycladic social system was not ordered in such a way that such a tomb type could flourish in the islands. Perhaps the islands were controlled by mercantile oligarchies rather than by individual warlords?

(b) By the LH III period when the islands were either first “Mycenaeanized” culturally (the Cyclades) or first settled by Mainland Greek colonists (the Dodecanese), there were no rulers within the islands of sufficient stature to be able to afford the construction of a tholos tomb.

(c) The Cyclades and Dodecanese were settled or dominated from an area of the Greek Mainland where the tholos was never popular, such as Boeotia or Arcadia.

Aside from the single example of a tholos on Tinos, there is also one tholos known from the western Anatolian coast, a small example of uncertain, but probably LH IIIB or IIIC, date near Kolophon.

Of the nine tholoi at Mycenae, Dickinson dates the construction of no less than six to the LH IIA period (ca. 1500-1450 B.C.). These tombs are therefore unlikely all to be the tombs of rulers, since six monarchs within the space of half a century seems too many. Dickinson argues that the two largest (Tomb of Aegisthus, Lion Tomb), which are also the two closest to the citadel and the earlier grave circles, are probably royal, while the others are more likely to be those of collateral branches of the royal family. “The considerable development in technique visible at Mycenae could well spring from the construction of so many tombs in such a relatively short space of time, perhaps two generations.”

The sequence of royal tombs at the top of the Velatouri hill published by J. Servais, above the metal-rich settlement at Thorikos, illustrates the development of royal funerary architecture in the earlier Late Bronze Age on the Greek Mainland in a fascinating way. The earliest (LH I) of these very large tombs is a large subterranean cist roofed by massive schist slabs and overlain by a simple megaron at ground level; both cist and megaron were enclosed within, and covered by, an enormous circular mound retained on the outside by a low parapet wall roughly comparable in size and height to that still partially preserved around Grave Circle B at Mycenae. The design of this monument (Thorikos Tomb V) is strongly reminiscent of the positioning of the EH II House of the Tiles under an EH III tumulus at Lerna; an even closer formal and chronological parallel exists in Tumulus II at nearby Vrana (Marathon). What is particularly striking about the Thorikos tomb is the conjunction of funerary (subterranean cist) and settlement (above ground megaron) forms enclosed within, and buried by, a low tumulus. The arrangement suggests that an individual’s complete personality, both as a living being and as a post-mortem spirit, is being provided with a permanent monument. The second royal tomb just to the north is the famous elliptical tholos (Thorikos Tomb IV, of LH IIA date) , furnished with a short, unlined dromos and a relieving triangle above its now cracked lintel. The third tomb (probably later LH IIA), located some distance to the south and sited on the eastern flank of the hill rather than on the crest of the saddle linking Velatouri’s twin peaks as are the other two, is a normal round tholos, provided with a longer and now lined dromos and once again with a relieving triangle that has failed to keep the underlying lintel from cracking.


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