The Proto-Aeolic Capital

The so-called proto-Aeolic capital ranks among the great architectural styles of the ancient Mediterranean, but which is little known outside of architectural and archaeological circles due to its eclipse by the major column styles of ancient Greece. Basically composed of an opposing pair of spiralling stems springing from the sides of a central triangle, the proto-Aeolic capital predates the ancient Greek columns by at least three centuries, yet its variants would remain in vogue for a millennia or more.

Proto-Aeolic Capital schematic
Schematic of Proto-Aeolic Capital

The earliest known proto-Aeolic capitals recovered from Palestine are believed to date from the tenth century BCE, however, due to the uncertain context of their finds, could date as early as the twelfth century BCE, following the historical attack of the Sea-Peoples upon Egypt and the legendary Trojan War (ca. 1183 BCE). From Palestine, the style seems to have spread north into Suria (Syria) and Kupros (Cyprus), whence it began to mutate along plant and animal lines perhaps as early as the tenth century BCE. In the eighth century BCE, a variant known as the Aeolic style appeared along the Aiolis coast of northwest Anatolia, that extended from Troy beside the Dardanelles south to the river Ermos (Hermos, modern Gedis). The Aeolic capital likewise comprised an opposing pair of spiralling stems, but which sprang almost vertically from a base ring of drooping leaves instead of a central triangle.

In the sixth century BCE, the Ionic column, with the opposing volutes of its capital arranged as a twin-scroll atop a fluted shaft, became the dominate style of the Ionian Greek district of southwest Anatolia, that extended from the river Ermos south to the ancient city of Miletos. Bypassing the Greek mainland, which was dominated by the Doric style, another variant of the proto-Aeolic style appears in the sixth century BCE in Italy, Sicily, and along the Mediterranean coasts of France and Spain. This western variant had a woman's face instead of the central triangle, which suggests the head of Gorgon Medusa with coiled snakes for hair. This latter variant would survive in the West until Roman Imperial times, when emperor Augustus oversaw its wholesale replacement with the Corinthian column.

Now the terms proto-Aeolic and Aeolic are relatively new additions to the architectural vocabulary, that were coined little more than a century ago after the initial discovery of Aeolic capitals along the Aiolis coast of northwest Anatolia, followed by the discovery of proto-Aeolic capitals in Palestine and Kupros. It was largely due to the similarity of their spiral forms that the proto-Aeolic was named after the Aeolic, despite the emergence of the two styles a thousand kilometres and several centuries apart. However, the Aiolis coast was known by this name well before the fifth century BCE, when the Greek historian Erodotos (Herodotus) told of Aiolian Greeks having settled this region shortly after the Trojan War. But while it has long been suspected that the proto-Aeolic style belonged to the victors in the Trojan War, namely the Mukenaian Greeks, who went on to annex much of the northern and eastern Mediterranean coast - to date no evidence of the proto-Aeolic style has surfaced amongst the remains of Mukenaian Greece (ca.1600 - 1150 BCE). Hence, the proto-Aeolic capital was named after intermediate territory.

However, a monumental class of structure erected in their hundreds across southern Greece during the Mukenaian period may provide the missing link between the earliest proto-Aeolic capitals of Palestine and ancient Greece. Widely known as tholoi (singular tholos) and usually classed as tombs, these structures basically comprised a circular chamber, shaped internally as a pointed dome, that was buried beneath an earthen mound and accessed by a long uncovered passageway. At Mukenai (Mycenae), located about a hundred kilometres southwest of Athens, nine such tholoi were erected between 1550 and 1250 BCE, whereby this period is often labelled "the tholos era". One of the last and grandest of these structures, the so-called Treasury of Atreus still stands largely intact within arrow-shot of the citadel. But with Atreus deemed a son of Pelops, after whom the Peloponnesos ("Pelop's Island") was named, and the father of Agamemnon, who led the Axaian Greek army at Troy, this tholos is thought to have been built before the end of the fourteenth century BCE - thus pre-dating Atreus by almost a century.

Treasury of Atreus isometric
Treasury of Atreus, as viewed from the citadel of Mukenai.

The dome to the Treasury of Atreus has an internal base diameter of 14.6m and a height of 13.4m, whose internal area is larger than the average house. Constructed in corbel fashion from large trapezium-shaped blocks of a golden-red conglomerate, the dome was buried beneath an earthern mound constructed in layers of multi-coloured soil. Access to the subterranean dome was along a level uncovered passageway, 35m long by 6.4m wide, that terminates at an endwall almost ten metres high and over five metres thick. The endwall and sidewalls of the passageway were also constructed of the golden-red conglomerate but as regular blocks of ashlar masonry. The endwall was pierced by a tapering doorway, 2.7m wide at the base by 5.4m high, that was capped by a lintel comprising two enormous slabs of pale yellow limestone laid side by side. While both slabs have a thickness just over a metre, the innermost slab measures nine metres long by five metres wide, and is estimated to weigh 120 tons. Upon these lintel slabs was constructed a large triangular void, almost three metres wide by three metres high, that extends all the way through to the domed interior, a distance at this height of almost eight metres. To give a better indication as to the size of the two endwall openings, a truck laden with a standard shipping container could be driven through the doorway, while a small van could pass through the triangular opening.

Treasury of Atreus plan and sections
Plan and Sections of Treasury of Atreus, Mukenai (ca.1300 BCE).
Note the configuration of the two doorways.

In keeping with its traditional title, the interior of the Treasury of Atreus was lavishly adorned with precious metal plate fashioned in repousse, and with ornate panels and half-columns carved in relief from various coloured stone. The endwall facade was also adorned with ornate panels and half-columns carved from various coloured stone, while its portal carried double doors, long since vanished, that were probably constructed of timber overlaid with precious metal plate. However, instead of timber doors, the portal may have been secured by gates, and the triangular void covered by a grille, both cast in bronze as an open lattice arrangement. But while only a tiny fraction of the ornamental panels and columns to the seventy square-metre endwall facade has survived to this day, the design of the endwall and its surviving ornamentation bears striking resemblance to that of the proto-Aeolic capital. Common to both arrangements is a central isosceles triangle, but where the triangular void in the tholos endwall is about six times larger than the central triangle of the capitals.

Treasury of Atreus - Panel Type 1
Treasury of Atreus - Panel Type 1

In the capitals, the central triangle was framed on two sides by one, two or three concentric bands separated by narrow grooves, where the bands were painted various colours, but usually incorporating red. In comparison, several fragments of an elongated panel of pale red stone recovered from the Treasury of Atreus were carved in relief as three rows of running spirals, where each row is flanked by a narrow strip moulding. (Panel Type 1)

With one of the panel fragments having its end sawn at an angle closely corresponding to that at the base of the triangular void, this fragment may have been installed either horizontally at the lower right hand corner of the triangular void, or inclined parallel to the sides of the triangular void at the lower left hand corner. The latter placement suggests both sides of the triangular void were framed by narrow panels of red stone, an arrangement corresponding directly with the coloured bands framing the central triangle of the capitals.

Measuring slightly more than 400mm wide, this panel type was probably fixed to the facade by mushroom-shaped bronze spikes hammered into the horizontal joints of ashlar masonry that frames the triangular void, where a series of ancient spike holes can still be seen in the facade offset from the sides of the triangular void by a distance closely matching the width of these panels. The absence of a running spiral pattern in the triangular bands of the capitals can be explained by the much smaller size of the capitals and the relative coarseness of the limestone.

The framing of the triangular void with these panels also compares with the horizontal zigzag ("M" for Mukes = Mushroom) pattern repeatedly carved along the semi-circular columns that once flanked the portal to the tholos. Within this horizontal zigzag pattern, plain broad bands alternate with ornate bands carved as running spirals, where the angles of the zigzags closely matches that of the triangular void. With the repeating zigzag pattern highly suggestive of a "vibrating" or "quaking" (muketias) earth, it could also be associated with the "roar" (mukema) of an earthquake or volcano. But with the ancient Greek words muketias and mukema both playing upon the ancient Greek word for mushroom, mukes, after which the city of Mukenai was said to have been named, so the tholoi can have originally been called mukenai, as mentioned in the Introduction.

Treasury of Atreus - facade as is
Treasury of Atreus - Current Facade
Treasury of Atreus - facade reconstructed
Treasury of Atreus - Reconstructed Facade
Treasury of Atreus - column
Treasury of Atreus - Column

In the proto-Aeolic capitals, the opposing pair of spiralling arms extend outwards from the sides of the central triangle, where the spirals tuck underneath their respective arms in usually less than two revolutions. While no such panels with opposing spiralling arms have been found at Mukenai, the trapezium-shaped spaces on either side of the triangular void can have each been covered by a large panel adorned with a large spiral arm. Supported by the columns and protruding lintel, and checked by an overhanging cornice, these panels also appear to have been held in place by rows of mushroom-shaped bronze spikes set at quarter-height intervals of the panels. Holes made by these spikes can still be seen in the horizontal joints of masonry adjacent to the triangular void. The overall size of these panels would compare closely to that of the singularly large triangular panel in the famous Lion Gate at Mukenai, still in place today, whose external face was carved in relief as a central column flanked by two rampant lions.

The method for carving the large spiralling arms on the missing panels would have been the same as that used for the running spirals on the Type 1 panel, as well as those on the column shafts, which the Mukenaians had proven themselves adept at carving from very early on. It is further proposed that the panels with the large spiralling arms were carved from a white or pale yellow stone, perhaps the same material as numerous other large slabs of limestone or gypsum recovered from the site. Should the remains of panels with large spiralling arms be found in or around Mukenai, or near any of the hundred or so other tholoi constructed throughout Greece in the Mukenaian period, this would virtually guarantee that the design of the proto-Aeolic capital originated with the Mukenaians. Indeed, with the head of the Mukenaian king Evrustheos (Eurystheus) said to have been buried in a pass on approach to Athens, there may also lie some parts missing from the Treasury of Atreus facade.

There is, however, further reason to suspect the proto-Aeolic capital was of Aegean, if not Mukenaian, origin. Towards the end of the seventeenth century BCE, the volcano underlying the Aegean island of Thera ("Wild", modern Santorini) erupted catastrophically, bringing an end to the so-called Minoan civilisation on Krete and marking the beginning of the Mukenaian civilisation in Greece. Located a hundred kilometres north of Knossos ("Knowledge") on Krete, but some three hundred kilometres southeast of Mukenai, Thera may have been observed gradually rising out of the Aegean Sea as a cone of fiery redness before it finally blew itself asunder. Hence, the red-framed triangular void in the Treasury of Atreus may have represented the fiery volcanic cone of sea-girt Thera, while the opposing pair of spiralling arms may have signified billowing clouds of sulphuric steam or other gases issuing from its main vent, or from one or other of its fumaroles. As a further play upon the Greek mushroom word mukes, volcanic eruptions tend to produce massive mushroom clouds, not unlike those of nuclear explosions.

Also dating from the Theran eruption, two large diameter but relatively low hollow structures resembling truncated cones were constructed about one hundred metres apart at Mukenai. Currently referred to as Grave Circles A and B, these structures were built from an assorted mix of small red and white field stones against a core of dark red soil. Later their hollows were gradually filled with shaft graves and their rims crowned with stelei. The larger of the two structures, Grave Circle A, still survives largely intact just inside the circuit wall of the citadel. It has an outer diameter approaching 30m and a height slightly more than 5m, but may have stood much taller in ancient times. At the very centre of Grave Circle A, underneath the shaft graves, a small cave was discovered in the bedrock, together with traces of fire and ash. While the fiery remains have come to be associated with a man-made altar, the cave itself may have been a small fumarole to the volcanic belt that cuts across southern Greece in an arc from Thera to Aitna (Mt Etna) in Sicily. A steaming white mushroom cloud or geyser rising from this cave may provide an origin to the name "Io", legendary priestess of Era in Argos. Hence the Grave Circles may have originally been built in imitation of a volcano, but whose dormant hollow was later filled in with the shaft graves of later Mukenaian royalty. These Grave Circles, if they were not once free-standing tholoi with a vented roof of timber, were soon followed by the first stone tholoi, that were also constructed from an assorted mix of small red and white field stones set against a solid core of dark red (volcanic) soil. However, the oldest surviving tholoi were built to a much smaller size than the Grave Circles. While the earliest triangular voids constructed over the lintels of the Mukenaian tholoi are thought to date from the first half of the fifteenth century BCE, thus postdating the catastrophic Theran eruption by more than a century, Aegean designs incorporating triangles, spirals and flame motifs have a history of use tracing back into the Neolithic period.

Treasury of Atreus - Panel Type 2
Treasury of Atreus - Panel Type 2.

A second type of panel (Panel Type 2) recovered from the Treasury of Atreus was hewn from the same pale red stone as the Type 1 panel, but was carved in relief as an opposing pair of half-rosettes mirrored about a small triglyph containing three running spirals. The mirrored arrangement suggests a gilled mushroom sliced vertically in half, however juxtaposed the arrangement in the panel shown above. This rosette pattern, which repeats along the length of the panel, has a long history of use as a border in Mukenaian and Minoan art. However, as no complete end to this type of panel has survived, it is assumed its ends were sawn square rather than obliquely.

Measuring slightly less than 300mm wide, this type of panel may have been installed along the base of the triangular void, where it may have inspired the poet Omeros (Homer) to coin that peculiar epithet for the Aegean Sea, oinops ("wine-dark" or "wine-like"). [Iliad.2.614] As volcanoes tend to release large volumes of iron and sulphur from their vents, where these two elements combine in the presence of water, whether plain or salted, the water and underlying strata usually turns a bright red not unlike that of wine. Coincidently, the red colouring of the two panel types is attributed to a high concentration of haematite, a natural form of iron oxide, that was probably deposited by eruptions tens of thousands, if not millions, of years beforehand. However, while these panels may appear pink in colour, no doubt from their dryness and exposure to sunlight, a wetting of the stone would undoubtedly restore its vibrant redness.

Alternatively, or additionally, the second type of panel may have served as the crowning element to the facade, where it can have been fixed to the face of the overhanging cornice. With every new day in the Odussei of Omeros beginning with the rosy fingers of dawn, the individual petals of the rosettes could be construed as sun-rays radiating across the heavens, especially where the sun rises behind distant clouds or mountains. [Odussei 2.001] However, the redness of the panels also suggests sunlight refracted through a billowing cloud, especially one of volcanic origin, or light radiating from red hot magma reflected by a cloudy or smoky atmosphere. [compare Aisxulos Agamemnon 281-316] Yet the sculptural arrangement also compares to the expanding scarlet pileus of the gilled Amanita muscaria mushroom. The fixing of this second panel type to the overhanging cornice above the triangular void also compares to the thin abacus capping proto-Aeolic capitals. Once again, the lack of sculptural adornment applied to the abacus of proto-Aeolic capitals can be attributed to the much smaller size of the capitals and the relative coarseness of the limestone.

But while the catastrophic eruption of Thera at the dawn of Mukenaian history may account for the stylistic depiction of an erupting volcano in the facade of the Treasury of Atreus, this pre-historic event hardly explains the discovery of proto-Aeolic capitals in distant Palestine or on Kupros many centuries after the last tholos was completed. Unless, of course, Thera or another volcano thereabouts erupted, forcing the Mukenaians to flee the Argolid. It so happens that about sixty kilometres east of Mukenai, and about the same distance south of Athens, lies another volcanic complex in the Methana peninsula, which is also known to have erupted several times during the first and second millennia BCE.

Largely composed of red trachyte, the Methana peninsula extends into the Saronic Gulf like a huge blood-blister upon the thumb of the Peloponnese. But insofar as the Saronic gulf was named after the ancient Greek word for reptile, savron (as in "dinosaur"), the Methana peninsula was also known as Xelona ("Turtle"), whose reptilian form has slid onto the north shore of the Argolid. Comprising more than thirty volcanic outlets, the Jurassic shell of Xelona is armed with numerous conical peaks, the highest rising 750m above sea level. Hence, the spiral and triangular pattern adorning the Treasury of Atreus may have referenced a single conical peak of Xelona erupting in the Mukenaian backyard. With the fire issuing from Xelona said to have finally given way to salty hot springs late in the third century BCE, the proposed white panels carved in relief with large spiralling arms could have represented billowing clouds of white steam issuing from one or other peak of the largely sea-girt Xelona. [Pavsanias.2.34.1]

Xelona turtle
Xelona ("Turtle") with its "head" ashore the Argolid (right), east view from Epidavros. At right, on the horizon, lies the small volcanic double-island of Kalavria (modern Poros).

The red stone of the panels is thought to have been quarried around Kuprianon, which is located on the southern tip of the central southern promontory or "middle-finger" of the Peloponnese, otherwise known as cape Tainaron. (See map below) This view may have the support of Greek myth, where the Greek deity Poseidon is said to have swapped sacred Delphi for wind-swept Tainaron, and to have swapped the tiny Aegean island of Delos, later birthplace of Apollo, for the double volcanic island of Kalavria (modern Poros), which flanks Xelona on the east. [Strabon 8.6.14] Peculiar to this tale is the fact that Xelona lies almost central to the triangle marked by Delos, Delphi and Tainaron. From the seventh or eighth centuries BCE, Doric temples were raised to Poseidon at Sovnion, Athens, Korinthos, Kalavria, and other locations around the Saronic Gulf, all of which possessed an uninterrupted view of Xelona across open water. The ancient Greeks often referred to Poseidon as Enosigaios and Enosixthon ("Earth-Shaker"). (See Parthenon Tsunami).

However, during the Mukenaian period, various red-coloured stone was also quarried at numerous sites along the north coast of the Argolid, especially between Epidavros and Kaloni, where a prized red marble is still being extracted today from around Fanari. Outcrops of red stone can also be seen upon Agios Elias, the conical mountain that rises immediately behind the citadel of Mukenai, as viewed from the Treasury of Atreus. If the red stone used for the two types of panels in the Treasury of Atreus came from the north shore of the Argolid, or from the Methana Peninsula itself, then the red-framed triangular void of the tholos and the proto-aeolic capitals can almost certainly be deemed to represent the Xelona volcano.

Map Xelona and Thera volcanoes
Location of the Xelona and Thera volcanoes, and the spread of proto-Aeolic, Aeolic and Ionic styles (1300 - 500 BCE).

Within a generation or two of the Trojan War, the Mukenaian civilisation centred in the Argolid came to a sudden and apparently violent end. While the demise of the Mukenaian civilisation is widely attributed to the legendary Dorian invasion of the Peloponnese (ca.1120 BCE), the destroying agent may instead have been an erupting Xelona. But insofar as the earlier destruction caused by Thera was not forgotten by the Mukenaians, the threat posed by a much closer Xelona, whether of another catastrophic eruption or just an intolerable atmosphere, may have forced the greater majority of those living around the Saronic Gulf to abandon their native homeland in favour of a more certain life in the eastern Mediterranean. The historical attack on Egypt by the so-called "Sea-Peoples" during the reign of Rameses III (ca.1194-1163 BCE), as depicted on the walls of his funerary complex at Medinet Habu near Thebes, may tell of a Mukenaian vanguard raiding the Nile delta by ship, while their main citizen body was advancing on foot with a train of ox carts. (See Hyksos/Sea-Peoples) Although Rameses III claims to have utterly destroyed the invaders, the vagrant Mukenaians appear to have dispersed to settle at numerous locations around the east Mediterranean coast, a view supported by many ancient Greek and Biblical accounts, and by numerous archaeological finds in this region.

For whereas the Danaans in the Iliad of Omeros were the dominant tribe of southeast Greece, the Biblical tribe of Dan is said to have lived in their ships before relocating to a small valley below Mt Ermon (modern Jebel Druse), an area marked by exceedingly ancient lava flows. [Enoch 13.7] However, as the Danaans (named after the Uksos rebel Danaos from Avaris) were previously known as Pelasgians, a greater portion of this tribe appears to have reverted and settled in Palestine. But with the tribe of Dan given responsibility for all sacred buildings and associated artworks in the newly formed Israelite nation, we may wonder just where they acquired their nautical, architectural and metallurgical skills. [Exodus 31.1-12] Furthermore, the names of such ancient cities as Jerusalem ( Ierosulema = "sacred (pig-oak) forest"), Jericho (Ieroxo = "sacred chariot/fortress"), "Tyre" (turos = "cheese"), and many others in this region, all appear to be of Mukenaian Greek origin. In the fifth century BCE, Erodotos says the Kilikians (Cilicians) occupying the southeast corner of Anatolia were previously known as Upaxaians (Hyper-Axaians), which suggests that the Mukenaian Axaians ("Stags") settled in this region. [Hdt 7.91] Meanwhile, Arkadians from the eastern Peloponnesean highlands established themselves in southwest Kupros, where they founded the renowned sanctuary of Aphrodite at Paphos. (see The Corinthian Column)

But insofar as the proto-Aeolic capital does represent an erupting volcano, no volcano of similar shape occurs anywhere in the Levant that is also known to have erupted around this time.

Thus it would seem that the proto-Aeolic capital was brought to the Levant by the Mukenaians (chiefly the Danaans/Pelasgians, Axaians and Arkadians) upon abandoning southeast Greece around the time of the Trojan War. The mass evacuation of the Argolid and surrounding areas under threat of an erupting Xelona would explain the Dark Age (ca.1150-850 BCE) that is widely deemed to have befallen southern Greece in the wake of the Mukenaian civilisation, notwithstanding any chronological disparity. The thick layer of red soil covering much of Attika and the Argolid, including the Treasury of Atreus, may have been deposited by this eruption of Xelona. (see Nemea road cuttings)

Mt Ermon
A snow-capped pileus-shaped Mt Ermon, as seen from the west.

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