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December 11, 2007

Cyclopean masonry

Cyclopean masonry is a type of stonework found in Mycenaean architecture, built with huge limestone boulders, roughly fitted together with minimal clearance between adjacent stones and no use of mortar. The boulders are typically unworked, but are sometimes roughly worked with a hammer, and the gaps between boulders are often filled in with smaller hunks of limestone.

The most famous examples of Cyclopean masonry are found in the walls of Mycenae and Tiryns, and the style is characteristic of Mycenaean fortifications. Similar styles of stonework are found in other cultures.

The term comes from the classical Greeks' belief that only the mythical Cyclopes had the strength to move the enormous boulders that made up the walls of Mycenae and Tiryns.

Current definitions of Cyclopean masonry

A typical stretch of Cyclopean walling (near Grave Circle A at Mycenae).
A typical stretch of Cyclopean walling (near Grave Circle A at Mycenae).

"The walls are usually founded in extremely shallow beddings carved out of the bedrock. 'Cyclopean', the term normally applied to the masonry style characteristic of Mycenaean fortification systems, describes walls built of huge, unworked limestone boulders which are roughly fitted together. Between these boulders, smaller hunks of limestone fill the interstices. The exterior faces of the large boulders may be roughly hammer-dressed, but the boulders themselves are never carefully cut blocks. Very large boulders are typical of the Mycenaean walls at Mycenae, Tiryns, Argos, Krisa (in Phocis), and the Athenian Acropolis. Somewhat smaller boulders occur in the walls of Midea, whereas large limestone slabs are characteristic of the walls at Gla. Cut stone masonry is used only in and around gateways, conglomerate at Mycenae and Tiryns and perhaps both conglomerate and limestone at Argos." [1].

Outdated definitions of the Cyclopean style

Harry Thurston Peck, writing in 1898, divided Cyclopean masonry into four categories or styles:[2]

  1. The first style, which is the oldest, consists of unwrought stones of various sizes in which the gaps are, or were, filled with small stones.
  2. The second is characterized by polygonal stones, which fit into each other with precision.
  3. The third style includes structures in Phocis, Boeotia and Argolis. It is characterized by work made in courses, and by stones of unequal size, but of the same height. This category includes the walls of Mycenae, the Lion Gate and the Treasury of Atreus [3].
  4. The fourth style is characterized by horizontal courses of masonry, not always of the same height, but of stones which are all rectangular. This style is common in Attica.

While Peck's first and possibly second and third styles conforms to what archaeologists today would classify as cyclopean, the fourth is now referred to as ashlar and is not considered cyclopean. There is a more detailed description of the Cyclopean styles at the Perseus Project [4].

Historical accounts

Difference between Cyclopean masonry, shown in blue rectangle, and ashlar masonry, outside the rectangle
Difference between Cyclopean masonry, shown in blue rectangle, and ashlar masonry, outside the rectangle

Pausanias described the Cyclopean walls of Mycenae and Tiryns:

There still remain, however, parts of the city wall [of Mycenae], including the gate, upon which stand lions. These, too, are said to be the work of the Cyclopes, who made for Proetus the wall at Tiryns. (2.16.5)
Going on from here and turning to the right, you come to the ruins of Tiryns. ... The wall, which is the only part of the ruins still remaining, is a work of the Cyclopes made of unwrought stones, each stone being so big that a pair of mules could not move the smallest from its place to the slightest degree. Long ago small stones were so inserted that each of them binds the large blocks firmly together. (2.25.8)

Modern archaeologists use "Cyclopean" in a more restricted sense than Pausanias' description; while Pausanias attributes all of the fortifications of Tiryns and Mycenae, including the Lion Gate, to the Cyclopes, only parts of these walls are built in Cyclopean masonry. The photo at left shows the difference between Cyclopean masonry (shown in the blue rectangle), and the ashlar masonry of the Lion Gate.

Locations of Cyclopean structures

Apart from the Tirynthian and Mycenaean walls, other Cyclopean structures include some tholos tombs in Greece and the fortifications of a number of Mycenaean sites, most famously at Gla.


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