Cultural Influence and Tholos Tombs in Bronze Age Greece

Our discussion of interpretation through analogy this week in class reminded me of a somewhat contentious issue in the archaeology of late Bronze Age Greece, the issue surrounding the influence of Minoan burial practices on those of Mycenae.  By the late Bronze Age, Mycenae had unquestioningly gained power over, and thus influence from, the society that had developed on Crete.  Minoan architectural and artistic forms and styles begin to pop up all over Mycenaean Greece.  One of these borrowed forms, some scholars argue, is that of the behive-shaped tholos tombs (plural “tholoi”).


The Remains of a Minoan Tholos

The Remains of a Minoan Tholos

According to Ashmore and Sharer, an archaeologist interested in utilizing a specific analogy in her interpretation of archaeological remains has three burdens placed upon her:  She must show that there is cultural continuity, comparability in environment, and similarity of cultural form (Ashmore 183).  Those who believe the Mycenaean tholoi to be direct products of Minoan ones I think can readily provide support for at least the first and second of these, but evidence for the third is more nebulous.  Cultural continuity can be accounted for by reference to the facts that the last Minoan tholoi and the first Mycenaean ones occur very closely chronologically (Rutter); with the added knowledge of the Mycenaean conquest of Crete, the notion that Mycenaean tholoi are direct descendants of Minoan ones is strengthened.  Being as conservative as possible, we can say that the Mycenaeans were at least aware of Minoan tholoi while they were building their own.  Even less problematically, the environment of Mycenaean Greece and Minoan Crete are certainly comparable; they are both mountainous regions located in the Aegean Sea.


The remains of a Mycenaean tholos

The remains of a Mycenaean tholos

Most dubious, however, is the argument that Mycenae displays a cultural form similar to Minoa.  One of the clearest examples of difference between the two is Mycenae’s orientation towards war which is much stronger than Crete’s; indeed Minoan art is virtually void of any depictions of war which is heavily contrasted with the many battle scenes one can find in Mycenaean frescoes (Dickinson 167).  This one example alone shows the cultures to be very different and makes the notion that something as culturally important and sensitive as burial practices could be so easily adopted a bit shaky.  Furthermore, attitudes towards the dead in Crete were demonstrably different than those in Mycenae: Tombs in Crete were built for the dead of entire communities rather than families as in Mycenae; additionally, Minoan tholoi were generally built above ground whereas their counterparts on the mainland were either built underground or covered in a layer of dirt, a practice of perhaps symbolic importance (Rutter).  All of these considerations lend credence to the idea that, while perhaps Minoan tholoi influenced the design of those in Mycenae, it may be too strong to say they were entirely taken from Crete.


Further Reading

Rutter. Aegean Prehistoric Archaeology.  “Mycenaean Tholos Tombs and Early Mycenaean Settlements”.

Oliver Dickinson. The Aegean Bronze Age. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.  1994.

Ashmore, Wendy. Sharer, Robert. Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology.  McGraw-Hill, Inc. New York, New York. 2014



1 thought on “Cultural Influence and Tholos Tombs in Bronze Age Greece

  1. There may be yet another difference to distinguish Mycenaean tholoi from their contemporary counterparts. Recent research suggests that several Mycenaean tholos were built with reference to topography, while tholoi in southern Spain were dictated by astronomy; the latter mostly faced east, towards the sunrise. Amanda-Alice Maravelia of the Université de Limoges in central France writes in a 2002 article that, despite facing different directions, Mycenaean tholoi were almost always “laid out to face downhill.” Her article reveals the need for further study of Spanish tholos tombs, as well as raising some interesting questions about why facing a tomb toward the sunrise was important in a cultural – and likely religious – context in the Iberian peninsula.
    If you’re interested in Maravelia’s research, the complete text can be found here:

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