Cyclopean masonry

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 typically are unworked, but sometimes are worked roughly with a hammer, and often the gaps between boulders are filled in with smaller chunks 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 and the term has become used to describe typical stonework.

The term comes from the belief by classical Greeks that only the mythical Cyclopes had the strength to move the enormous boulders that made up the walls of Mycenae and Tiryns. Pliny's Natural History reported the tradition attributed to Aristotle, that the Cyclopes were the inventors of masonry towers, giving rise to the designation Cyclopean.[1]


Current definitions of Cyclopean masonry

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."[2]

Outdated definitions of the Cyclopean style

Harry Thurston Peck, writing in 1898, divided Cyclopean masonry into four categories or styles:[3]

  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 against 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 [4].
  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 now is referred to as ashlar and is not considered cyclopean. There is a more detailed description of the Cyclopean styles at the Perseus Project.[5]

Historical accounts

Difference between Cyclopean masonry, shown in the 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 the description by Pausanias; 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 photograph above 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.

The Nuraghe of Bronze Age Sardinia also are described as being constructed in cyclopean masonry, as are some of the constructions of the Talaiotic Culture abounding on Menorca and present to a lesser extent on Mallorca. Other constructions dating from Roman times considered to be cyclopean may be found, for instance, in Tarragona, in a large section of the Roman city walls. See an image of the Roman walls of Tarragona at the Enciclopèdia Catalana.

In Ireland, cyclopean type of masonry may be seen in the building of some Early Medieval Churches.


  1. ^ Pliny, Hist. Nat.vii.56 : turres, ut Aristoteles, Cyclopes [invenerunt].
  2. ^ Prehistoric Greece site
  3. ^ Harry Thurston Peck, Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, 1898.
  4. ^ Section of the Treasury of Atreus at Mycenae
  5. ^ Styles of Cyclopean architecture {,cyclopes] at the Perseus Project

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • cyclopean masonry —       wall constructed without mortar, using enormous blocks of stone. This technique was employed in fortifications where use of large stones reduced the number of joints and thus reduced the walls potential weakness. Such walls are found on… …   Universalium

  • cyclopean masonry — noun a primitive style of masonry characterized by use of massive stones of irregular shape and size • Hypernyms: ↑stonework …   Useful english dictionary

  • cyclopean — (also cyclopian) ► ADJECTIVE 1) of or resembling a Cyclops. 2) (of ancient masonry) made with massive irregular blocks …   English terms dictionary

  • masonry — /may seuhn ree/, n., pl. masonries. 1. the craft or occupation of a mason. 2. work constructed by a mason, esp. stonework: the crumbling masonry of ancient walls. 3. (cap.) Freemasonry. [1325 75; ME masonerie < MF maçonnerie. See MASON, ERY] * *… …   Universalium

  • Cyclopean — adjective a) Suggestive of a Cyclops. b) Of a style of ancient masonry where walls are fitted together of huge irregular stones; ancient and roughly composed …   Wiktionary

  • cyclopean — adjective /ˈsaɪkləʊpɪiən/ a) Suggestive of a Cyclops. b) Of a style of masonry where walls are fitted together of huge irregular stones …   Wiktionary

  • Cyclopean architecture — noun Ancient masonry where walls are fitted together of huge irregular stones; architecture that is ancient and roughly composed …   Wiktionary

  • cyclopean — [ˌsʌɪklə pi:ən, sʌɪ kləʊpɪən] (also cyclopian) adjective 1》 of or resembling a Cyclops, especially in size. 2》 denoting a type of ancient masonry made with massive irregular blocks …   English new terms dictionary

  • cyclopean — /saɪkləˈpiən/ (say suykluh peeuhn), /saɪˈklɒpiən/ (say suy klopeeuhn) adjective 1. gigantic; vast. 2. Architecture of, like or denoting an early style of masonry employing massive stones, more or less irregular in shape. {from Cyclops} …  

  • cyclopean — adj. (also Cyclopian) 1 (of ancient masonry) made with massive irregular blocks. 2 of or resembling a Cyclops …   Useful english dictionary

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