Beehive tomb

Beehive tomb

A beehive tomb, also known as the tholos tomb (plural tholoi), is a burial structure characterised by its false dome created by the superposition of successively smaller rings of mudbricks or, more often, stones. The resulting structure resembles a beehive and hence the traditional English name.

Tholoi were used for burial in several cultures in the Mediterranean and West Asia, but in some cases they were used for different purposes such as homes (Cyprus), ritual (Syria), and even fortification (Spain, Sardinia). The ultimate origin of this architectural technique could be in the Neolithic culture of Tell Halaf (Syria and Turkey).


In Greece, the tholoi are a monumental Late Bronze Age development of either the Mycenaean chamber tombs or tumulus burials dating to the Middle Bronze Age.

After about 1500 BCE, beehive tombs became more widespread. They were built as corbelled arches, with layers of stone placed closer together as the arch tapers toward the top of the tomb. The tombs usually contain more than one burial, in various places in the tomb either on the floor, in pits and cists or on stone-built or rock-cut benches, and with various grave goods. After a burial, the entrance to the tomb was filled in with soil, leaving a small mound with most of the tomb underground.

The tripartite structure of the tombs is not always evident in the earliest mainland examples (for example at Voidhokoilia), but by the time the architectural type had left Messenia, the separation into chamber, stomion and dromos was fixed. The chamber is always built in masonry, even in the earliest examples, as is the stomion or entrance-way, which provided an opportunity for conspicuous demonstration of wealth. The dromos was often just cut from the bedrock, even in some of the earlier examples at Mycenae itself. In later examples, all three parts were constructed of fine ashlar masonry.

The abundance of such tombs, often with more than one being associated with a settlement during one specific time period, may indicate that their use was not confined to the ruling monarchy only, although the sheer size and therefore the outlay required for the larger tombs (ranging from about 10 meters to about 15 meters in diameter and height) would argue in favour of royal commissions. The larger tombs contained amongst the richest finds to have come from the Late Bronze Age of Mainland Greece, despite the tombs having been pillaged both in antiquity and more recently.

There are also recorded Etruscan tombs at a necropolis at Banditaccia from the 6th and 7th Centuries BCE having an external appearance similar to a beehive. The interiors are decorated and furnished as Etruscan dwellings.

Levant and Cyprus

The oldest known tholoi (beehive buildings) are found in the Neolithic Halafian culture of Syria and Turkey, where they may have been used for ritual purposes. Later they are found in Cyprus (Khirokitia), where they were used as homes.

Southwest Europe and Sardinia

In the Chalcolithic period of the Iberian peninsula, beehive tombs appear among other innovative "megalithic" variants, since c. 3000 BCE. They are especially common in southern Spain and Portugal, while in Central Portugal and southeastern France other styles (artificial caves especially) are preferred instead. The civilization of Los Millares and its Bronze Age successor, El Argar, are particularly related to this burial style.

The Bronze Age fortifications known as motillas in La Mancha (Spain) also use the tholos building technique.

The imposing stone structures known as nuraghi as well as the similar structures of southern Corsica, dominated the Bronze Age landscape of Sardinia (Italy). Nuraghi are truncated conical towers of dry-laid stone, about 40 feet in diameter, sloping up to a circular roof some 50 feet above the ground. The vaulted ceiling is 20 to 35 feet above the floor. Although the remains of some 7,000 nuraghi have been found, up to 30,000 may have been built.


The earliest stone-built tombs which can be called "beehive" are in Oman, built of stacked flat stones which occur in nearby geological formations. They date to between 3,500 and 2,500 years BCE, to a period when the Arabian peninsula was subject to much more rainfall than now, and supported a flourishing civilisation in what is now desert, to the west of the mountain range along the Gulf of Oman. No burial remains have ever been retrieved from these "tombs", though there seems no other purpose for their building. They have only superficial similarities with the Aegean tombs (circular shape) as they are built entirely above ground level and do not share the same tripartite structure - the entrances are usually an undifferentiated part of the circular walling of the tomb.

Currently there are three areas where these tombs can be found: Al Hajar Region, Hat Region, and Hadbin area close to Barka. The Hajar tombs are very numerous and one or two have been restored, allowing you to crawl into the centre of a 5-6m tall stone structure.

See also

Notes and references

  • Sturgis, Russell (1906). A History of Architecture, Vol. I, pp. 123-25. New York: Baker & Taylor.

External links

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