BMCR 2023.01.42

Labouring with large stones: a study into the investment and impact of construction projects on Mycenaean communities in Late Bronze Age Greece

, Labouring with large stones: a study into the investment and impact of construction projects on Mycenaean communities in Late Bronze Age Greece. Leiden: Sidestone Press, 2021. Pp. 220. ISBN 9789464280098

This book represents Yannick Boswinkel’s Ph.D. dissertation (Leiden University) that emerged from the SETinSTONE project, which investigated human and environmental resources related to monumental architecture in Mycenaean Greece. Boswinkel’s study focuses on the labor investment required for building Cyclopean fortifications and the impact of such work on Late Bronze Age communities. Studies of Aegean architectural energetics have addressed mortuary construction (e.g., for a chamber tomb or tholos) more frequently than fortifications, so this book is a welcome addition. The monograph considers a straightforward question: did massive fortification projects on the mainland overextend local labor and material resources, hindering the Mycenaean economy and contributing to the palatial collapse? In other words, how costly were Mycenaean fortifications—in terms of labor—and how did local people respond to the demands of monumental construction? Boswinkel tackles this issue by calculating the labor investment, in person hours, necessary to build Cyclopean fortifications at two Peloponnesian sites: Mycenae in the Argolid and Teichos Dymaion in Achaea. Subsequently, he contextualizes these costs by considering each site’s local resources and estimated population. Moreover, an invaluable aspect of the study is its detailed coverage of construction stages—from quarrying to transport to final assembly.

The book consists of seven body chapters, an introduction, a conclusion, and six appendices. As expected with a dissertation, a thorough literature review forms the first three body chapters on aspects of Mycenaean society, including the political economy, the collapse, Cyclopean fortifications, population estimates, and a topographical overview of Mycenae and Teichos Dymaion. Boswinkel’s fortification discussion (ch. 3) stands out for his careful treatment of monumentality and the various work phases of quarrying, splitting rocks, transporting material—with consideration of friction, sleds, wheeled transport, and traction—and erecting a Cyclopean wall. The latter endeavor included laying a foundation, building a ramp, positioning blocks within exterior or interior faces, and filling an internal core. Finally, four body chapters (ch. 5–8) represent the monograph’s main contribution to the study of Mycenaean architecture: a method for assessing the energetics of Cyclopean walls; the volumetric data of fortification blocks; estimated construction costs at Mycenae and Teichos Dymaion; and the implications of such data through comparative analyses.

The first step in assessing labor investment is knowing the individual block sizes within a wall. The author’s fieldwork at Mycenae and Teichos Dyamion (e.g., photogrammetry and use of a total station to measure blocks) enabled him to create textured and measurable 3D models of wall sections. Boswinkel examined Mycenae’s Lion Gate, North Gate, a portion of the West Wall, and a Northeast extension section, while the work at Teichos Dymaion included the Middle Gate, South Wall, Northeast section, and North Gate. This quantitative research brought to light new details about Mycenaean fortifications. Cyclopean masonry consists of a broader range of block sizes than previously recognized. There are, for instance, four distinct stone sizes (based on surface areas) as part of Mycenae’s western fortification wall. The blocks are also smaller than the traditionally reported dimensions of such masonry. Boswinkel’s analysis thus illustrates the quantitative power of 3D modeling and measurement while providing a more nuanced view of Cyclopean construction. The work also showed that the interior sides of fortification walls typically employed smaller blocks than those in outer sections. This detail reflects a deliberate construction choice at both sites by masons who prioritized greater monumentality—and perhaps aesthetics—in visible, exterior-facing walls.

Volume is a critical measurement in labor studies since one can express work rates in cubic meters per person hours. However, volumetric data of individual blocks are less straightforward than calculations of surface area since block depths are normally unknown in standing walls. Boswinkel thus considered eight scenarios for reconstructing volume to account for this issue. While comprehensive in reviewing different possibilities, this approach generated copious amounts of data that may confuse readers. Moreover, in his calculation of labor costs, the author presents a range of published and hypothesized work rates for quarrying, transporting, and dressing stone in addition to ramp construction. The diverse work rates from each construction stage result in substantial gaps between the estimated minimum and maximum costs. Nevertheless, the general reader will find the discussion of each phase enlightening. The author addresses the practicalities and logistics of material acquisition and quarrying, transportation of large stones, loading and unloading blocks, modifying bedrock, dressing stone, building a ramp, and constructing a wall. Of these subphases, acquisition, dressing (when relevant), and assembly are the most labor intensive.

Several labor calculations stand out. Boswinkel estimates that draft animals dragged stone loads over 10,000 kg on a sled rather than via wagon. He calculates that transporting the Lion Gate components (threshold, lintel, posts, and relief) would require as many as 166 oxen, thereby emphasizing the spectacle of the monumental construction. The total person hours of constructing the Lion Gate’s threshold, lintel, and door jambs (including all of the work phases) is more than 4.5 times greater than the labor cost of the exterior conglomerate façade flanking the entryway. However, the conglomerate gateways proved less expensive than other Cyclopean-wall sections at the site due to differences in overall length. As a building style, the conglomerate facades with ashlar-like blocks were more expensive per cubic meter than the typical Cyclopean walls because masons needed to shape and roughly dress the conglomerate blocks into pseudo-ashlars.[1]

Readers will be intrigued by Boswinkel’s estimate for the duration of the building projects and the presumed workforce. There are many uncertainties, including the length of a workday (Boswinkel’s range, based on comparative scholarship, is 5 to 10 hours), the number of viable work days in a year (220 to 290), and the quantity of laborers (200 to 500). Boswinkel calculates that workers could have finished the Lion Gate and North Gate in weeks, while each Cyclopean wall section analyzed could have taken half a year to two and a half years to complete. A comparable time estimate—half a year up to three years—emerges for each of the four Cyclopean wall sections at Teichos Dymaion. The breadth of possibilities in these labor calculations might lead to doubts about the value of such work. For instance, the proposed days to construct Mycenae’s West Wall varies from 126 (based on a 10-hour work day with 500 people) to 629 (based on a 5-hour work day with 200 people). Boswinkel acknowledges this broad range and emphasizes that the strength of an energetics study is its comparative potential.

To contextualize the fortification investments, Boswinkel evaluated the building costs of Late Helladic III domestic structures at Mycenae and Kalamianos—relying on published data—and the labor needs of diverse building styles. Due to their scale, fortifications represent a massive investment, substantially more than any domestic structure. He notes, however, that the Cyclopean style, as judged by the cost per cubic meter, was equally as labor intensive as the stone materials in a typical house. The more significant labor investment for a fortification wall is due to a project’s overall scale instead of a particular masonry style.

Comparing labor costs with population estimates is also informative, despite questions about a workforce’s percentage of a given population. Boswinkel’s labor and population comparisons hint at different scenarios for Mycenae and Teichos Dymaion. While Mycenae’s estimated population seems capable of providing the necessary labor for its fortifications, the data for Teichos Dymaion suggest that local resources were insufficient. Population estimates for Teichos Dymaion are relatively low in comparison to the labor demands of its fortification walls. That site’s construction thus required participation by most of its local people or mobile laborers from elsewhere. Its Cyclopean walls likely reflect a regional or trans-regional project rather than a local one, taking two to three years to complete based on the low population estimates for the site and Achaea. On the other hand, Mycenae’s population could have handled its expanded fortification if there had been 200 workers. Boswinkel notes that 500 laborers would have stressed the population, perhaps hinting at a regional endeavor that relied on labor from beyond Mycenae’s immediate environs. The Argolid’s rural population remains unclear, but Mycenae may have used short-term regional workers for its more extensive projects.

The Mycenae calculations signal that Cyclopean fortifications did not overextend the local economy or population to the point of contributing to the state’s collapse. The evidence from Teichos Dymaion suggests that labor investment there may have overwhelmed a relatively small community. However, a regional project relying on short-term and shared labor from elsewhere may explain the construction of that site’s fortifications. The labor investment at both sites was substantial but not so much that the projects fatally undercut the palatial economy. Readers may wonder about the comparative labor costs between Mycenae’s walls and other citadels in the Argolid, especially Tiryns and Midea. That question relates to the broader SETinSTONE project and is beyond the scope of Boswinkel’s study. His focus on two case studies in distinct areas of the northern Peloponnese provides a fascinating architectural and labor comparison.

The author’s fieldwork, architectural autopsy, and digital models of Mycenae and Teichos Dymaion’s fortifications add to our understanding of Cyclopean masonry and wall construction, despite uncertainties about volumetric data for individual blocks. The author’s detailed discussion of Cyclopean construction phases illustrates well the labor needs and costs of monumental Mycenaean architecture. Investment studies of prehistoric architecture require hypothetical scenarios for specific labor calculations, and the author is meticulous in pondering a series of variables. As such, data occur in 40 tables summarizing many calculations—in addition to 33 pages of appendices that list analyses of block volumes and rates of quarrying, transportation, and wall assembly. The monograph, however, is much more than a list of data; it effectively demonstrates the value of researching architectural energetics. Moreover, these labor cost calculations will help anyone exploring the practical details of monumental construction. The volume includes color photographs, helpful maps, and images taken from photogrammetric models. In particular, the portrayal of Cyclopean wall sections, color-coded by block size (e.g., Figs. 5.8, 6.1), is revealing. These figures are compelling for showing overlooked masonry details and demonstrating the value of 3D data in current and future scholarship. The author deserves praise for publishing his dissertation immediately as a polished monograph, in which there were very few typographical errors.

The book will appeal to students and scholars interested in the logistics of different architectural stages, including the transport and placement of stone material; the energetics of building with large stones; and the potential impact of such labor on the Mycenaean economy. It is a critical contribution to the study of Mycenaean architecture, Cyclopean fortifications, and related building costs. In addition, despite its technical focus, the book contributes to a broader discussion about the palatial collapse of Mycenaean society. In sum, the book represents a valuable contribution to the study of Aegean Prehistory.



[1] For further discussion about ashlar and pseudo-ashlar masonry, readers should consult an up-to-date volume that appeared just before Boswinkel’s book: Devolder, M. and I. Kreimerman, eds. 2020. Ashlar: Exploring the Materiality of Cut-Stone Masonry in the Eastern Mediterranean Bronze Age. Aegis 17, Louvain-la-Neuve: Presses universitaires de Louvain.