Over the past months, the on-line world has been set ablaze with Greek fire.
By that, I mean that the talk in ancient history and archaeology circles has been dominated by one of the most exciting discoveries in recent memory – The Amphipolis Tomb.
You may have heard about this ‘Alexander the Great era’ tomb in media around the world. The Rumours and theories about what it contains are as thick and the sarrissae of a Macedonian phalanx.
Before we get into the finds, we should look at where Amphipolis is.
Amphipolis is located 100 kms east of the northern Greek city of Thassaloniki, along the river Strymon. This is the region of Thrace.
The settlement was founded by the Athenians circa 437 B.C. near some gold and silver mines in the hills. It was conquered by Philip of Macedon in the year 357 B.C. and then, during the reign of Alexander the Great, was a major naval base.
The first major excavations at Amphipolis were undertaken in 1964, but it is the current excavation of the tomb, begun in 2012, that has grabbed the attention of the world by getting into the mound and revealing some of its treasures.
The Amphipolis tomb dates to the late 4th century B.C., the Hellenistic era, and is about 2,300 years old.
This is the largest burial monument ever discovered in Greece, and archaeologists have only just scratched the surface.
What have they found? Let’s make our way into the tomb in the order of discoveries.
The Lion of Amphipolis
Lion of Amphipolis (Wikimedia Commons)
The first discovery was actually not within the tomb, but nearby, and was discovered in 1912.
The Lion of Amphipolis is a 4th century B.C. sculpture that was first found by Greek soldiers around Amphipolis during the Second Balkan War, with more pieces of the lion being found by British troops during World War I.
For some time, archaeologists believed this was a tomb sculpture or monument to Alexander the Great’s admiral, Laomedon of Mytilene.
It is now believed that the Lion was actually located on top of the Amphipolis tomb which would have looked impressive and been seen from miles around, including from the sea.
The lion is over 4 meters tall, but with the base it sits on, it reaches over 8 meters in height.
The question is, what lay beneath the muscular body of this titanic lion?
Amphipolis wall close-up
One of the most amazing things about the tomb is the sheer size of it. This monument was meant to impress!
The tomb itself has a circular wall that is 500 meters all the way around, and 3 meters high. It’s made of marble and limestone which is in remarkably excellent condition.
The archaeologists have excavated the earth around the entire monument, and from the pictures in the trench it is possible to get a sense of the size of this place.
Amphipolis intact wall section
Next, the entrance to the tomb was discovered where a wide staircase leads down to the next exciting discovery.
Meeting the Sphinxes at the entrance to the tomb
Above the entrance to the tomb stand two Sphinxes facing each other. To me this is a truly haunting image. Imagine entering this subterranean world beneath the gaze of these two guardians? It would be something to send a chill down one’s spine as you entered the realm of the dead.
The Sphinxes are both 2 meters tall, and seem to have been very detailed in their rendering. You can see the heavily-muscled bodies of these ancient creatures, whose heads and wings are sadly broken off.
Amphipolis – Sphinx Head found on floor
They stand above a frescoed entrance that is 1.67 meters wide, and without a door.
Amphipolis – first chamber wall detail
Once you pass beneath the guardians, you find yourself in the first chamber which has a unique floor, barrel-vaulted roof, and smooth marble panelling on the walls either side.
But as archaeologists moved forward, ever-so-carefully, they found even more wonders…
Amphipolis – The Caryatids
A caryatid is a sculpture of a female body that is used as an architectural support, a more ornate version of a regular column. The most famous are probably the caryatids from the Erechtheion on the Acropolis in Athens, sometimes called the ‘porch of the maidens’.
As excavators removed the dirt from the rest of the first chamber they were met by two tall, beautiful, skillfully-carved Caryatids flanking the entrance to the second chamber.
When I say they are beautiful, I mean it. These maids are lovely, solemn, and awe-inspiring, from their carved platform sandals, to their flowing robes, the wonderfully ornate braids of their long hair, and the serene beauty of their faces.
It must have been amazing to uncover these!
And they are not small, either. The Caryatids at Amphipolis are 2.27 meters (7.5 feet) tall, but if you include the bases on which they stand, they tower over visitors at about 3.66 meters (12 feet).
As we move into the second chamber, we come to even more ornamentation, and this time, it is something that hints at who the tomb might belong to.
As the dirt from the second chamber was painstakingly removed, and the floor reached, archaeologists were confronted with a thing of beauty.
As it turned out, the entire floor of the second chamber is covered by a mosaic that is 3 meters wide and 4.5 meters long.
As you can see from the picture, it is a work of magnificent craftsmanship. The colours, even thousands of years later, are still brilliant.
The scene depicts the abduction of Persephone by Hades (Pluto), the Lord of the Underworld. He carries the reluctant girl away in his chariot for her annual sojourn in his realm beneath the earth. Leading the way is the god Hermes, whose traditional role was to lead souls to the Underworld. You can see the caduceus in Hermes’ left hand. The entire scene is surrounded by a Greek Key (meander) and wave motif.
Now, the exciting thing about this mosaic is related to one of the theories we will discuss shortly. A hint however, is in the rendering of the faces of the three people represented.
Another discovery in chamber two can be found on the walls.
As you can see, there are faint hints of frescoes portraying a man, a woman, and what appears to be a bull. Perhaps a sacrifice scene?
Amphipolis – second chamber – architrave frescoes
Let’s hope the restoration teams can give us a clearer glimpse someday soon.
And now, let us have a brief look at the most recent discovery in the Amphipolis tomb.
The Human Remains
Who is buried in the Amphipolis tomb? Who was it built for?
These are the questions that dominate, and when archaeologists moved into the third chamber they came one step closer to possible answers.
Beyond what were a pair of marble doors (fallen) on tracks in the floor, they have found a chamber with a burial in the floor with human bones. However, to complicate things, there were more bones and cremated remains in the soil on top of the burial.
Amphipolis – broken marble door – chamber 3
Due to earthquakes, and early grave robbers, the remains, and perhaps any grave goods that were present have been scattered or looted.
Putting the pieces of this particular puzzle together is a painstaking process that will take a lot of time and patience.
For the moment, it seems that in chamber 3 of the Amphipolis tomb, there are the remains of five individuals: a woman over 60 years of age (buried in the sarcophagus beneath the floor), two men between the ages of 35 and 45, a newborn child, and a cremated adult.
In total, mixed up in over 8 feet of soil, archaeologists have recovered 550 pieces of human bone. The question of who the bones belong to is something we will have to wait a long time to answer.
Amphipolis burial sarcophagus
There have been a lot of wild theories about who this tomb was intended for. Obviously, it was not for just one person.
Many trigger-happy theorists and philhellenes have immediately jumped to the conclusion that the Amphipolis tomb could only belong to Alexander the Great.
One reason for this guess (or hope?) is the immense size of the monument; remember, this is the biggest burial in Greece. What better monument for one of the greatest generals and conquerors the world has ever known?
Another reason is that the Amphipolis tomb is thought to have been designed by Alexander’s personal architect, the man who helped build Alexandria, and who used Egyptian measurements for Amphipolis: Dinocrates of Rhodes.
Dinocrates helped Alexander plan Alexandria, the ideal city, and designed the reconstruction of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. For some people, this is further proof that Amphipolis was meant for Alexander himself. Who else but his favourite architect would design his tomb?
Amphipolis tomb artist impression (illustrated by Gerasimos Gerolymatos – Creative Commons)
The problem with this theory is that Alexander the Great was buried in Alexandria, in Egypt, the city that he had designed. It is pretty well-documented that his body was taken there to be entombed, under the care of Ptolemy who ruled in Egypt after Alexander’s death.
Now, if there were plans to move the body, or steal it, who can say? (That’s the author in me throwing a log on the fire!) Which of the Companions would not want to be the custodian of the immortal conqueror’s remains?
As for Dinocrates, he would have needed to find work after the death of his patron. If he was Alexander’s favoured architect, he would have been in high demand, no? Perhaps he was engaged by someone in Macedonia to build Amphipolis and brought with him his knowledge from Egypt.
However much people wish it, at this point, it seems doubtful that Amphipolis holds the remains of Alexander the Great.
The next theory may be more plausible, and this is where the mosaic comes in.
If you look at the mosaic, the faces of Hermes, Hades, and Persephone do look a little familiar.
Some people believe that in looking at this mosaic, we are in fact looking at likenesses of a young Alexander (Hermes), Philip of Macedon (Hades), and Alexander’s mother, Olympias (Persephone). Is this a royal family portrait?
We know that Philip was buried in the royal tombs at Vergina, and recently his remains were positively identified.
When the mosaic was discovered, some scholars began exploring the possibility then that Amphipolis may have been the tomb of either Olympias, or Roxana, Alexander’s Bactrian wife and mother of his son.
Could the Persephone in the mosaic be either Olympias or Roxana?
It is a tantalizing theory, to be sure. And when this theory came about, they had not yet discovered the remains in chamber 3, those of the woman in her sixties, and an infant child.
Still, it’s hard to say. Roxana and her son did return to Greece under the ‘protection’ of Cassander, one of Alexander’s generals, and certainly, Olympias would have had an interest in being close to and protecting her grandson and daughter-in-law.
Unfortunately, Cassander was not the kindest person and, according to the sources, he had Olympias executed in 316 B.C., and later ordered the murder of Roxana and her son in 310 B.C.
Amphipolis 3D Reconstruction (Wikimedia Commons)
Now, the remains of the woman in chamber 3 are too old to be those of Roxana, and those of the infant are perhaps too young to be Alexander’s son. However, it remains plausible that the woman who was buried in the sarcophagus beneath the floor could be Olympias herself.
It will take some time before we know, but the mosaic and the age of the female skeleton (about 60 years), which was about Olympias’ age at her death, are the best leads thus far.
But there are arguments against even that – Would the Macedonians build such a monument to a woman? Would Cassander so honour a woman whom he had had murdered, with such a monument?
Confusing the theories further is one that the two male skeletons may in fact be Cassander’s sons. Analysis will need to be done to see if they are related, but if they are, why would they be buried with Olympias? Were the bones all separate and then dumped all together by the ancient looters?
For me, one telling thing is also the size of the three excavated chambers compared to the rest of the monument. When you look at the area these initial excavations have covered, it is but a small portion of the entire tomb.
With some initial geophysical survey results showing other possibly man-made areas within the hill, one has to wonder if the main occupant of the Amphipolis tomb has even been found yet. Perhaps Cassander himself is buried in some grand chamber filled with art and riches from the East, an afterlife monument to match the ego and ambition which he was apparently in possession of? Perhaps he did bury Olympias, a descendant of Achilles, out of duty to Alexander? Who knows…
Unfortunately, there are far more questions and dead ends than there are answers.
Isn’t that exciting?
Only the archaeology can tell us what we need with any certainty, but that takes time and patience if it is to be done properly.
Amphipolis – pictorial synopsis
Those proponents of sensationalist theories on the Web might not like this waiting game, but for me, as an historian and archaeologist, it is well worth the wait. When the answers finally do come, the author in me will be ready and waiting.
What do you think about the Amphipolis tomb? Tell us your own theories and ideas in the comments below!
Thank you for reading.