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Tombs of the family of Alexander the Great finally giving up their secrets after 2,300 years


Anthropologists and material scientists working on the Vergina tombs in northern Greece may be just ‘forensic steps away’ from solving one of history’s great remaining riddles: which members of Alexander’s family were buried in the subterranean vaults.

Tombs of the family of Alexander the Great finally giving up their secrets after 2,300 years
The Facade of Tomb II at Vergina, possibly the resting place of Philip II of Macedon,
father of Alexander the Great [Credit: Alamy]
In November 1977 Professor Manolis Andronikos and his team unearthed the first of two unlooted tombs containing never-before-witnessed riches including exquisite weapons and armour. In ‘Tomb II’ lay the cremated skeletal remains of what appeared to be a king and queen, while ‘Tomb III’ held the bones of a ‘prince’. The subterranean cluster also revealed a shrine and two further looted tombs decorated in breath-taking wall paintings. The find was considered the ‘archaeological discovery of the century.’

The burial artefacts were dated to the mid-to-late fourth century BC (350s to 310 BC), corroborated by inscriptions, pottery, metalworking and the ‘Macedonian’ vaulted tomb design. Remarkably, this spanned the reigns of Philip II (359-336 BC) and Alexander III, the ‘Great’ (336-323 BC). The unique ‘Vergina Sun’ or ‘Star’ emblem of the Argead royal clan was embossed on the lids of the two gold chests holding cremated skeletal remains.

The second unlooted structure, named ‘Tomb III’, contained the cremated bones of an adolescent, likely a male. The son of Alexander the Great, by his Bactrian wife Rhoxane, was executed around 310 BC when in his teens by a throne usurper and historians linked him to the tomb. But a divisive controversy has clouded these identifications ever since.

Philip II: A National Treasure

The excavator believed Tomb II held the remains of Philip II, the twenty-fourth monarch of the Argead royal line and the first king to unite ancient Macedon; he trebled the land mass under its control into the first ‘European Empire’. His military reforms and statecraft brought Greece to its knees, enabling his son, Alexander the Great, to conquer the Persian Empire. Philip was a cultured cunning diplomat whose polygamous court hosted seven wives.


In October 336 BC Philip II was stabbed to death at his daughter’s wedding; it was a world-shaking event that heralded in the reign of Alexander. Equally driven by his heroic lineage, Alexander conquered the Persian Empire in eleven years but died mysteriously in Babylon where after his body was taken to Egypt where it lay in state until the late-Roman era.

How the Royal Tombs vanished

The political capital of Macedon was moved from Aegae to Pella a century before Philip and Alexander. After their deaths, in the 270s BC invading Gallic Celts ransacked the old Aegae cemetery. When the danger had passed, the still-unlooted royal tombs were buried under a great earthen mound to protect them from further looting by an unnamed monarch.

Tombs of the family of Alexander the Great finally giving up their secrets after 2,300 years
A model of the shrine and tombs under the Great Tumulus at Vergina
[Credit: David Grant]
When Rome defeated Macedon at the battle of Pydna in 168 BC, both Aegae and Pella were partially destroyed. A landslide covered much of what remained at Aegae in the first century AD and as Rome’s influence expanded, the importance of the cities diminished. When Rome’s empire was finally overrun, the name of the fallen-stone city survived in oral legend only.

What was likely an earthquake caused the collapse of the top of the earthen tumulus and shattered doors in the tombs below, but the sturdy stone structure remained hidden under the occupied landscape for the next to thousand years.

Rediscovering Aegae

Modern excavations started in occupied Greece in 1855 in what was still part of the Ottoman Empire. Nothing more than ransacked tombs and Byzantine-period ruins were found. However, the intriguing scale of the stone foundations suggested a substantial city once stood in the hills overlooking the Thermaic Gulf southwest of Thessalonica, the heartland of ancient Macedon.

Malarial marshlands hampered excavations and Greek refugees who had been resettled there from Turkish Anatolia after the Graeco-Turkish War, knew nothing of its history. They used the ancient fallen stones from the anonymous ruins to build their houses at the modern village of Vergina.

Tombs of the family of Alexander the Great finally giving up their secrets after 2,300 years
The gold chest of ‘larnax’ holding the male bones in the main chamber of Tomb II, with the royal ‘Vergina Sun’
or ‘Star’ symbol [Credit: Aristotle University of Thessaloniki-Vergina Excavation Archive]
In 1968 English historian Nicholas Hammond proposed the ‘heretical’ idea that the ruins at Vergina sat on the site of ancient Aegae, the burial ground of the nation’s kings. Few credited his theory; the belief prevailed that this was either the lost city of Valla, or a summer palace of unknown royalty.

In 1976 Professor Andronikos and team finally excavated the ancient necropolis where graves had been overturned and tombstones smashed in antiquity. This correlated strongly with the ancient texts claiming Celts had plundered the cemetery at Aegae some fifty years after Alexander’s death; the burial ground of the nation’s kings had finally been found.

Confusion over Identities

The ages of the deceased in Tomb II were determined from wear and tear on bones: the main chamber contained a middle-aged male and the antechamber a far younger female. This narrowed down the list of kings and queens either side of Alexander’s reign.

But an ‘unfortunate symmetry’ obscured the background to the double burial in Tomb II’, says London-based historian David Grant who collaborated with the scientists studying the skeletal remains. This led to a ‘battle of the bones’ among historians, causing a rift which divided the academic community ‘obsessed’ on proving their identities.

Tombs of the family of Alexander the Great finally giving up their secrets after 2,300 years
Wall painting depicting the Abduction of Persephone in Tomb I
[Credit: WikiCommons]
The Tomb II occupants could either be Alexander’s father Philip II and his final teenage wife Cleopatra, or Philip’s half-witted son Arrhidaeus who was executed twenty years later when of similar age and with an equally young bride. Questions of ritual or forced suicide raised their head, because kings and queens rarely died together.


Philip II was a national hero who befitted such a tomb and he had seven wives we know of. But Grant’s research points out the elephant in the room: none of the ancient sources mentions any women being buried with Philip at Aegae. ‘What superficially appears to be a two-phase construction of Tomb II, plus the different cremation conditions the female bones underwent, suggest she was buried later than the male in the still-empty or incomplete second chamber.’

On the other hand, Arrhidaeus and his young bride Adea-Eurydice were executed together by Alexander’s mother Olympias when she regained political control of the state capital. She also murdered Philip’s last wife, Cleopatra, along with her new-born child. This ‘double assassination’ of Arrhidaeus and Adea-Eurydice explains the ‘double burial’ given to them after Olympias was herself executed.

Tombs of the family of Alexander the Great finally giving up their secrets after 2,300 years
The gold quiver and greaves of the female in Tomb II stacked against the chamber-dividing door
[Credit: Ekdotike Athinon S.A. Publishers]
When Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323 BC, his royal regalia including his cloak, sceptre and ceremonial weapons were passed to newly crowned ‘King Philip III Arrhidaeus’ and escorted with him and Adea-Eurydice back to Macedon. So, the artefacts in Tomb II could be the very weapons of Alexander, other commentators believed, explaining the grandeur with the half-wit.

Arguments revolved around wounds evident or invisible on the male bones, wall paintings, entrance frescos and even salt cellars found on the floor; but it was debatable whether the twenty years between these kings could be discerned by interrogating the tombs this way.

The question remained: who was buried in the adjacent simpler looted Tomb I? Because initial reports concluded the scattered remains were those of a male, woman and baby, these must be to Philp II, Cleopatra and her newly born daughter. The logic of this argument gained momentum in the academic community.

The mystery Scythian 'Amazon'

In the Tomb II woman’s antechamber lay a weapon of great mystery: a gold-plated Scythian bow-and-arrow quiver like those carried by Scythian horseback archers. Grave digs in Russia and Ukraine have proven the existence of female warriors. Professor Andronikos mused that the Tomb II woman therefore had ‘Amazonian leanings.’

Tombs of the family of Alexander the Great finally giving up their secrets after 2,300 years
A female Scythian archer with hip-slung bow-and-arrow quiver; from an Attica plate
dated 520-500 BC [David Grant, 2019]
Others were more sceptical. ‘Weapons were for men what jewels were for women,’ reads a plaque in the subterranean Vergina Museum. So many commentators believed that the antechamber weapons belonged to the man next door, as their upright position against the dividing door might indicate.

Alexander’s father campaigned against Scythians at the River Danube, but Philip lost all the booty on his return when he was almost killed in a Thracian attack and limped ever after. The Tomb II woman was therefore a Scythian bride or captured concubine, postulated some commentators.

Grant is unconvinced: ‘the Scythians were not renowned as metalsmiths; the exquisite jewellery we find in their graves is of local Greek workmanship, likely from the Bosporus Kingdom. But there was also a thriving metalworking industry in Macedon, where weapons and armour were fashioned for Philip II. The possible domestic manufacture of what could have included ornate goods for Scythian warlords means the ‘Amazon’ of Vergina could have been born rather closer to home.’

'Final Solution' Forensics

By 2009, the ‘battle of the bones’ reached a stalemate when academics arguing the tomb identities ran out of debating ammunition. The American Journal of Archaeology even called for a moratorium on ‘Vergina papers’ until new evidence came to light.

Forward momentum recommenced in 2010 when an anthropological team led by Professor Theo Antikas and funded by a modest grant from the Aristotle University of Thessalonica, commenced a six-month task of cataloguing the Tomb II bones; their ground-breaking study would last five years.

Tombs of the family of Alexander the Great finally giving up their secrets after 2,300 years
The leg bones allegedly evidencing the ‘terrible’ knee wound Philip II may have suffered,
showing the fused position of the shinbone and thighbone with the puncture hole
[Credit: PNAS]
The Antikas team found new incontrovertible age evidence on previously unanalysed bones, as well as undocumented trauma, which further narrowed down the list of candidates. The woman’s pubic symphysis aged her at 32 +/- 2 years at death, ruling out Philip’s teenage wife Cleopatra and discounting Arrhidaeus and his wife completely.

Dispelling the case of ‘archaeological gender bias’ was an overlooked shinbone wound providing proof that the armour and weapons belonged to the women, because the unevenly sized gilded-bronze greaves were fashioned to fit her shortened deformed leg. She was, indeed, being honoured as a warrior at death.


The Antikas team comprised both anthropologists and material scientists. Their additional microscopic finds, including textile stains, composite material fragments and melted metals on the cremated skeletons, hinted at ancient burial rituals, a death mask and the profound belief in the afterlife.

The rare white mineral huntite and Tyrian Purple in the composite material were bound with egg white in layers and created the vivid image of an unknown mystic Orphic funeral rite involving a face mask. Melted gold on the upper vertebrae begged the question of whether the male was initially wearing a crown as flames licked the funeral pyre, as the incomplete crown found inside the tomb showed signs of intense heat.

There may even be fragments of a fireproofing asbestos shroud worn by the cremated king, just as the Roman naturalist Pliny claimed was the practice of ancient Greek kings to help separate the bones from the rest of the pyre debris.

'Unearthing the Family of Alexander the Great, the Remarkable Discovery of the Royal Tombs of Macedon' by David Grant

A final ‘identity-shattering’ discovery was made by the Antikas team. ‘Forgotten’ and unanalysed skeletal remains from Tomb I were found in storage below the Vergina laboratory; they were probably consigned to thirty-five-years of obscurity in the aftermath of the ‘great’ Thessalonica earthquake of 20 June 1978 when the preservation of unlooted Tombs II and III was the focus of attention. These additional bones from Tomb I contained the remains of at least seven individuals, not just two adults and a baby.

The team’s finds were published in an academic journal 2015. Although hampered by underfunding and a lack of support from those fearing unwanted results, they continued to push for ‘next-generation’ forensics: DNA testing, radiocarbon dating, and stable isotope analysis on the Tomb II and Tomb III bones.

Permission was denied in 2016, Grant reveals. Instead, the scientists were allowed to test the scattered bones found in looted ‘Tomb I’, but with no formal funding provided. Although these bones lay exposed in soil for over 2,000 years, dating and DNA results were successfully extracted, disproving yet more of the identity theories. Moreover, controversial leg bones, which supposedly evidenced the terrible a knee wound Philip may have suffered in Thrace, appeared to be ‘intruders’ from a completely different tomb. The results have yet to be published and Grant says they will amaze everyone.

What has become clear is that the great earthen tumulus at ancient Aegae was bitten into by looters on more than one occasion, and when exposed, Tomb I became a dumping ground for the dead.

Now Grant’s new book is revealing all, the pressure will certainly be on the Greek Ministry of Culture to take a new progressive stance on permitting the outstanding forensics on the ‘royal’ bones from the unlooted tombs. With the possible identities greatly narrowed down by the Antikas-team study, new DNA, radio carbon dating and stable isotope analysis of the ‘king’, ‘queen’ and ‘prince’ may solve the puzzle once and for all.

Unearthing the Family of Alexander the Great, the Remarkable Discovery of the Royal Tombs of Macedon launches on 30th October 2019 and is available from Amazon and other major online book retailers.

Author: David Grant | Source: TANN [October 23, 2019]

TANN

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