Friday, March 1, 2024

Were Thracian tholos tombs distant inheritors of Mycenaean funerary traditions?

Today I noticed the Thracian tomb of Kazanlak is set for inclusion in the National Atlas of Immovable Culture of Bulgaria. (See )
The Kazanlak tomb has a beautifully frescoed dome that includes this wonderfully detailed painting of a chariot race.

Detail of a chariot race painted in the dome of the Kazanlak Tomb
image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Psy Guy 

The tomb is part of a large royal Thracian necropolis in the Valley of the Thracian Rulers near their ancient capital of Seuthopolis in a region where more than a thousand tombs of royalty and members of the Thracian aristocracy can be found.
The vaulted-brickwork "beehive" (tholos) monument dates back to the fourth century BCE and has been on the UNESCO protected World Heritage Site list since 1979. The paintings in this small tomb are Bulgaria's best-preserved artistic masterpieces from the Hellenistic period. Although the tomb is not open to the public to preserve the delicate paintings, a full-size exact replica stands nearby for public access.
I asked Gemini if Thracian tholos-style tombs were similar to Greek tholos style tombs and Gemini replied:
There are both similarities and differences in the construction methods of Thracian and Greek tholos tombs. Here's a breakdown:
Overall Shape: Both Thracian and Greek tholos tombs share the distinctive beehive or circular form, creating a large underground chamber.
Corbel Vaulting: The construction technique likely involved corbel vaulting, where each layer of stone slabs leans inwards slightly, gradually creating the domed ceiling.
Dromos (Passage): An entrance passage, known as a dromos, typically leads down to the main chamber in both traditions.
Building Materials: Greek tholos tombs often used well-cut and dressed stone blocks, while Thracian tombs might incorporate a wider variety of materials, including local fieldstones alongside cut stones.
False Vaulting: Some Thracian tombs might have employed a "false vault" technique, where large slabs were laid horizontally across the top, distributing the weight rather than using the corbel technique throughout.
Decorative Elements: Greek tholos tombs are sometimes known for their grand entryways and imposing lintels, features less common in Thracian examples.
Additional Points:
Dating: Greek tholos tombs were primarily built during the Mycenaean period (1600-1100 BCE), while Thracian tholos tombs flourished from the 4th to 3rd centuries BCE. This time difference could explain some construction technique variations.
Regional Variations: Both Greek and Thracian regions might have had their own sub-styles within the tholos tomb tradition.
In essence, the Thracians adopted the basic concept of the tholos tomb from the Greek world, but adapted it using their own materials and potentially incorporating some different construction techniques."
I also asked Gemini if beehive-style tholos tombs were used by any other culture around the Mediterranean after the 5th century BCE
and Gemini replied:
"While the peak usage of beehive-style tholos tombs waned after the 5th century BCE, there are some examples of their continued use or influence in specific Mediterranean cultures:
"Etruria (Italy): Though Etruscan civilization was declining by the 5th century BCE, some earlier Etruscan tumulus tombs (burial mounds) incorporated tholos elements, with corbelled chambers beneath the mounds.
"Sardinia (Italy): The Nuragic civilization of Sardinia, active well into the 1st millennium BCE, constructed unique beehive-shaped structures called nuraghe. While not exclusively tombs, some nuraghe might have served funerary purposes.
"Iberia (Spain & Portugal): The tholos tradition continued to a lesser extent in some parts of the Iberian peninsula. The "tholos of Romeral" in Andalusia, Spain, is an example dating to the 3rd century BCE.
"It's important to note that these are not widespread practices and represent more of a continuation or echo of the tholos tradition in specific regions, rather than a dominant form of tomb construction. Considering the expanse of time between the Mycenaeans and the Thracians, however, it makes a person wonder why an architectural tradition from so long ago would have been resurrected unless a Thracian king visited Greece and, seeing an ancient tholos-style tomb, was inspired by it.

As for the obvious Greek influence in the tomb frescos, Gemini points out it is thought Thracian artists may have trained in Greece but ultimately painted Thracian tombs themselves:

"While there's evidence of Greek influence in Thracian tomb art, it's unlikely the Thracians exclusively employed Greek artists. Here's why:
Local Artistic Tradition: Thrace had its own artistic tradition, evident in surviving metalwork and pottery. It's more probable that Thracian artists, familiar with Greek styles through trade or cultural exchange, created the tomb frescoes.
Limited Evidence: We lack clear records of foreign artists working in Thrace specifically for tomb decoration.
However, there are some possibilities:
Guest Artists: There might have been instances where highly skilled Greek artists were invited to work on a Thracian tomb, but this would likely have been for a particularly wealthy or powerful patron.
Thracian Training: Thracian artists could have traveled and trained in Greece, bringing those skills back to their homeland.
Overall, the available evidence suggests Thracian artists were the primary creators of the frescoes, incorporating Greek artistic influences into their own repertoire.

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