A tholos is a large Mycenaean tomb that is often described as a "beehive tomb" because of its shape.

The Basic Structure of the Tholos

The tholos consists of a circular, subterranean burial chamber. This portion of the tomb is often known as the thalamos, and is roofed by a conical corbelled vault. The passageway leading to this main area of the tomb is known as the dromos, which narrows at the stomion, which is the doorway to the main chamber. The thalamos itself is constructed of stone. Usually, these types of tholoi are built into slopes or hillsides. The burials were in floor, either directly on the floor itself, or in holes cut into the floor. This entire structure would be buried underground, and only the mouth of the dromos would be raised above the surface.

Types of Tholoi

There are many ways in which to group these tombs, however, it is usually done according to variances in the basic structure, which are outlined in rough form above.

Origins and Development of the Tholos

The tholos tombs and temples of Mycenae have origins in the Mesara tombs of the civilization of Minoa. In past years, any connection between the two types of tombs was often denied. The reasons for denying connections between the two (a position still held by some archaeologists) are as follows.

  • There is a large time gap between the date of the latest known Mesara tholoi and the earliest known Mycenaean tholoi.
  • There are many structural differences between the two types of tombs. The main one being that the typical Mesara tomb is bult above ground, while Mycenaean tombs are often below ground.
  • There are many functional differences between the two types of tombs. The Mesara tombs were used for members of all levels of society, and were very common. Sometimes they were actually mistaken for grave circles, but were often very damaged tholoi. However, Mycenaean tholoi were used for the uppermost classes of their society. In some cases, they were reserved for only the royal family.

One of the best example of a surviving Mycenaean tholos tomb is The Treasury of Atreus (1250 BCE). The facade of the structure at the end of the dromos held beautiful relief decorations before it was looted not long after the decline of the civilization. Fragments of the facade remain in museums in London and Athens.

Another particularly fine example of a tholos tomb is the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia. It is approximately a half mile away from the buildings at Delphi. Athena Pronaia acted as the gateway to that city. The site itself was occupied since the Neolithic Period. Originally, it was dedicated to the worship of an Earth Goddess, and later was occupied by the gods of Greek Mythology, Athena in particular. The tomb itself was built in the early 4th century B.C.E. It is adorned with leaf decorated Corinthian columns which are representative of the old worship of the Earth Goddess.

The term is also sometimes associated with any round Greek or Roman structure with a dome-shaped roof.



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