In Search of The Lost Testament of Alexander the Great: Excavating Homeric Heroes
The ancient city of Aegae in Greece, where the royal tombs are located, dates back to the 7th century BCE; it became Macedonia’s first capital after it was conglomerated from a collection of villages into a city in the 5th century BCE. Aegae was eventually supplanted by a new capital at Pella in the 4th century BCE but retained its status as the spiritual home and burial ground of the Macedonian kings.
Aegae Becomes Lost to History
Both settlements were partially destroyed by Rome in 168 BCE following the Battle of Pydna when Macedonia was finally defeated, and a landslide which buried the older capital in the 1st century, after which it was uninhabited.
The name ‘Aegae’ ceased to be used and its history was grazed over by goats and sheep and survived in oral legend only, while papyri and faded vellums told of a former city of kings. Only a nearby early Christian basilica built from the stones of the ancient ruins marked the forgotten location.
In the 1920s, on what had once been the southeast side of the Macedonian royal palace, Greek refugees from the Euxine Pontus region of Asia Minor founded the village of Vergina, and the still unidentified fallen stones were used as masonry in the new houses.
Supervised excavations at what turned out to be the founding city of the Argead (otherwise, Temenid) dynasty go back to the 1860s when a dig by French archaeologist, Léon Heuzey, sponsored by Napoleon III, revealed a Macedonian tomb next to the village of Palatitsia, ‘the small palaces’, a name that hinted tantalizingly at its former significance, though it was erroneously thought to be the site of the ancient city of Valla. In the 1930s, Konstantinos Romaios, a professor of archaeology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, revealed a further tomb, but as Albert Olmstead’s above despondent summation affirms, as late as 1948 archaeologists still had not pinpointed the location of Aegae.
Between 1958 and 1975 excavations in the area were extended by Georgios Bakalakis and Fotis Petsas, the antiquities curator (from 1955-1965). Professor Manolis Andronikos, a pupil of Romaios, eventually became convinced the so-called Great Tumulus, Megali Toumba, must house the tombs of the Macedonian kings.
But it was the British historian, Nicholas Hammond, who first voiced the idea (in fact in 1968) that the ancient ruins lying between Vergina and Palatitsia (rather than those at the town of Edessa) were in fact the lost city of Aegae, a contention that was not immediately accepted.
The City of Kings is Found
After initial disappointment in 1977 when shafts were sunk through the center of the mound (where remains of a stoa and/or cenotaph tumulus might have nevertheless been found) with some 60,000 cubic feet (1699 cubic meters) of earth removed, and while preparing an access ramp on the southeast perimeter for works planned the following season, Andronikos stumbled across gold, literally: two royal tombs were finally revealed.
Tombs I and II had originally been buried together under a single low tumulus with Tomb II at its center; Tomb III, close by, was discovered the following year. Andronikos was exposing what is now referred to as the ‘royal burial cluster of Philip II’, Alexander’s father.
The precious articles found within suggested to Andronikos that in the ‘monumental death chamber’ of Tomb II, ‘laid on an elaborate gold and ivory deathbed wearing his precious golden oak wreath’ – which features 313 oak leaves and 68 acorns – King Philip II had been ‘surrendered, like a new Heracles, to the funeral pyre’.
For the flesh-boned cremation (the evidence lies in the color, warping and minute forms of bone fractures) which took place soon after its occupant’s death (distinct from ‘dry-boned’ which takes place long after death when flesh has rotted away) revealed traces of gold droplets, a clue that the king was placed on the pyre wearing his crown. A more recent analysis suggests that in the holokautoma, the total incineration, his body was wrapped in an asbestos shroud to help separate the bones from the pyre debris.
Within the Great Tumulus of Aegae, Andronikos discovered some ‘forty-seven complete or nearly complete stelae’ [commemorative stone slabs] representing commoners’ graves dating back to the second half of the 4th century BCE. Since his death in 1992, the Eucleia and Cybele sanctuaries, the acropolis and vast necropolis with graves dating mostly to the Early Iron Age (1,000-700 BCE), and the northeast gate, have all been revealed, along with the royal palace, which is now considered to be the largest building in classical Greece.
Occupying 41,259 square feet (3833 sq. m.), it is three times the size of the Athenian Parthenon. Archaeologists have unearthed the fortress walls, more cemeteries with more sanctuaries and over 1,000 identified graves in total, besides the burial clusters of royal women and earlier Temenid kings (clusters ‘B’ and ‘C’), including the Heuzey and Bella clusters closer to Palatitsia. All in all, some 500 tumuli have been exposed covering over 900 hectares between Vergina and Palatitsia and they reveal the extent of the ancient city, which, with its suburbs, covered some 6,500 hectares.
The Death of Philip II
Having survived numerous battles, skirmishes, city sieges and hostile alliances against him, Philip’s death was sudden and unexpected. Intending to show the Greek world his impressive enhanced religious capital at Aegae with its revolutionary palace design that would have been visible from afar as visitors crossed the plains below, and when entering its older amphitheater at which the tragedies of the resident Euripides must have once been heard, Philip was stabbed at the wedding of his daughter, Cleopatra, in 336 BCE.
It was nothing short of a ‘spectacular, world-shaking event’. Unearthing in 1977 what is thought by many to be his tomb was no less dramatic and it has since been dubbed the ‘discovery of the century’.
Philip’s funeral had been overseen by a grief-stricken, or perhaps a quietly elated, king-in-the-waiting, Alexander the Great. His bones appear to have been washed in emulation of the rites described in Homer’s Iliad in which Achilles’ remains were similarly prepared before being steeped in wine and oil.
After cremation, the bones were carefully collected and placed in the twenty-four-carat gold chest or larnax weighing 11 kilograms (24.25 lbs.), in a similar manner to the burial rites of Hector and Patroclus, and they were possibly covered in a soft purple cloth. However, the discovery of traces of the rare mineral huntite and Tyrian purple (porphyra) hint that Philip may in fact have been cremated in an elaborate funeral mask.
The remains of bones and trappings of four horses have been found in what appears to have been a purifactory fire above the cornice. Along with two swords and a sarissa (pike), they were left to decay in a (now collapsed) mud brick structure above the tomb. Some scholars believe the remains include the mounts of Philip’s assassins and/or his famous chariot horses.
Once again, this would have followed the funerary rites Homer described for Patroclus. The Macedonian burial tradition, clearly following a heroic template, may have influenced Plato when he was writing his Laws which outlined the ideal burial in an idealized state.
Grave Goods of a Warrior King
What are believed by some scholars to be Philip’s remarkable funerary possessions provide a testament to a warrior king: a sword in a scabbard and a short sword, six spears and pikes of different lengths, two pairs of greaves, a throat-protecting gorget besides the aforementioned ceremonial shield (‘completely unsuitable to ward off the blows of battle’, according to Andronikos), body armor and the impressive once-plumed iron helmet.
The weaponry is representative of a soldier who fought in both the Macedonian cavalry and infantry regiments. In front of the sarcophagus in the main chamber were found the remains of a wooden couch decorated with five (of fourteen finally recovered) chryselephantine miniature relief figures thought (by some) to represent the family of Philip II.
Winthrop Lindsay Adams insightfully stated back in 1980 that the contents of the antechamber of Tomb II are ‘crucial to identification of the king in the main chamber’. And the contents are fascinating; they include a Scythian gold gorytos, the distinct two-part quiver that traditionally held arrows (seventy-four were found) often poison-tipped and unleashed by a compact powerful Scythian compound bow.
This is suggestive of a warrior woman whose identity we probe further in the epilogue. The gorytos, along with the exquisite items retrieved from the main chamber of Tomb II, are now on display in the Archaeological Museum at Vergina; the gold wreaths and the diadem have been described as the most beautiful pieces of jewelry of the ancient world.
Osteoarcheological studies on the bones of the two individuals from Tomb II, one of the longest and tallest of the chamber tombs at Aegae, have led to conflicting conclusions, as the press release made clear. But as Antikas’ 2014 report points out, the ‘…remains had been studied insufficiently and/or misinterpreted, causing debates among archaeologists and anthropologists for over three decades.’
Fortunately, the last thirty years have witnessed significant advances in bioarcheology. Working on behalf of the Aristotle University Vergina Excavation, Prof. Antikas explains that from 2009 to 2014 osteological and physiochemical analyses backed by CT and XRF scans (X-ray-computed tomography, scanning electron microscopy and X-ray fluorescence) have provided new theories regarding age, gender, paleopathology and morphological changes to the bones which are now catalogued by 4,500 photos.
Although the new investigations employed the latest tools in the science of physical anthropology that the earlier examinations of teams had not benefitted from in the 1980s, the technology has not yet put an end to the debate. In 2008, and prior to the highly scientific post-mortem by Antikas’ team in 2014, the Greek historian, Dr. Miltiades Hatzopoulos, summarized the background to the previous research: ‘The issue has been obscured by precipitate announcements, the quest for publicity, political agendas and petty rivalries…’ The summation sounds remarkably like the motives of the agenda-driven historians who gave us Alexander’s story.
Yet the Great Tumulus at Aegae, built from layers of clay, soil and rock, and thrown up by unknown hands laboring under a still-unnamed king, seems to have protected some of its finest secrets from historians and looters, both from the marauding Gauls and the invading Romans, who carted everything they could back to Italy following Macedonia’s defeat.
No doubt there is much more still to be discovered; the recent excavations at the Kasta Hill polyandreion (communal tomb) at Amphipolis some 100 miles (160 km) from Vergina and the newly unearthed tombs at Pella and Katerini, remind us we have only unearthed a fragment of classical Macedonia, and, we suggest, no more than fragments of the story of Alexander himself.