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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
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Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
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Posted at Dec 10/2007 03:17PM:
kellie slater: The Great Tumulus was uncovered in 1977 by Manolis Andronicos and its discovery put Vergina on the map as an important archaeological site. People were aware that a cemetery and a tumulus existed in the area as early as the 1860’s. Léon Heuzey, the first archaeologist to excavate Vergina, had reported its existence but did not have the time to excavate it himself. K.A. Rhomaios, who furthered Heuzey’s work, was also aware of the unearthed tomb but like Heuzey decided to focus on the palace. However, Rhomaios encouraged Andronicos to explore the tumulus (Andronicos, “The Great Tumulus”: 29).

Andronicos followed the advice and in 1976 he began excavation of the Great Tumulus. In 1977 he uncovered three fourth century tombs. Tomb I, which is usually referred to as the Tomb of Persephone, is a large cist grave. Because of looters, all that is left are bones belonging to a male, a female and an infant. However, the Tomb of Persephone contains the best-preserved wall paintings from the time; one wall depicts the mythological scene of the Rape of Persephone, to which the tomb’s name is attributed.

Most impressive of the three tombs is Tomb II, which is usually identified as the tomb of Philip II of Macedon. It has a vaulted roof and is divided by large doors into a main room and an antechamber. The “façade gives the impression of a small Doric building,” and is decorated with an imposing, painted, hunting scene (Borza: 258). The tomb is thought to have been covered with soil while the paint was still wet and the painting is therefore not well preserved; however, outlines of most figures are still visible and detail of a few are evident. The painting portrays a royal hunt and is clearly very impressionistic as it shows more than one animal being hunted and the hunt is simultaneously at many different stages: stalking, confronting, and killing (Borza: 259). The painting shows clear similarities to the painting (now lost) that inspired the Alexander mosaic; it is possible that this hunting scene is one of the painter’s earlier works (Biers: 320).

Tomb II remained unlooted and contained an exceptional amount of grave goods. An impressive gold larynx, decorated with plant motifs and marked with the star of Macedon, was found in the main room in a marble sarcophagus and contained the cremated remains of middle-aged male, thought to be Philip II (Andronicos, Thesslonike Museum: 27). Grave goods include: a large quantity of silver and bronze vessels, decorated furniture (an ivory couch), a splendid gold oak wreath (which adorned the cremated bones), a silver gilded diadem, weapons, armor and wine drinking vessels among others things (Borza: 258). Ivory heads that once adorned wooden beds were also found; two of the most impressive include a bust of Alexander the Great and another of King Philip II: they are “the only genuine portraits of the two rulers” (Andronicos, Thesslonike Museum: 15). In the antechamber, which is usually designated for grave goods, a second, less impressive gold larynx was found with the remains of a young woman.

The third tomb is very similar to Tomb II: it has a main room and an antechamber and was found unlooted. Its main chamber had a silver vessel that contained the bones of a young male. The graves goods include: a variety of silver vessels and ivory reliefs.

It is apparent from the wealth of the grave goods that these tombs belong to a royal family but controversy still surrounds the identity of the deceased. As already mentioned, Tomb II is most commonly associated with Philip II and his widow Cleopatra but many scholars have challenged this view arguing that it may in fact belong to Arrhidaeus, the half-stupid, half-brother of Alexander the Great, and his wife Eurydice who were murdered and buried in 316 BC. Scholars who support the latter view point to the ceramic objects in the tomb, which date to the late fourth century (at least a generation after Philip’s death) (Borza: 261). Other evidence comes from the vaulted roof itself. Unless the Macedonians independently invented a vaulted roof, its inspiration came from Asia after Alexander’s conquests in the region. The hunting scene on the façade may also be attributed to belonging to the period after Alexander’s conquests. The background of the painting includes a tall pillar that suggests the hunting scene portrayed is taking place in a royal game park. Hunting in royal game parks is usually associated with the Persian culture and thus could only have been painted after Alexander’s return from Asia (Borza: 261-263).

Evidence that points to Tomb II belonging to Philip II and Cleopatra comes directly from the Tomb itself, which was built in two stages. The main room of Tomb II is less decorated and roughly finished whereas the antechamber is more decorated and overall superior. The rough decoration in the main room can be attributed to the timing of Philip’s assassination- Alexander was rushing off sort out rebellion on his borders and could not spend much time lavishly decorating the tomb. The use of the antechamber as a resting place (which is uncommon) for Cleopatra can be explained as a modification to the building plan when Alexander returned home from settling the rebellions to find out she had been murdered. The bones in the main room, after examination, revealed a mark above the right eye socket, which is consistent with historical evidence. There were also a pair of greaves found in Tomb II and historical evidence suggests that Philip II walked with a limp. The greaves are consistent with this information because one is shorter than the other (Borza: 261).

As of now, there is no conclusive evidence as to the identity of the deceased and it will continue to be a hotbed for discussion. However, no matter the identity, the tombs at Vergina give important insight to the ancient Macedonian culture.

The majority of the remains from the Great Tumulus can be viewed at the Thesslonike Museum were they are displayed in their own special wing. (This is not in English but it shows some of the import aspects of the Great Tumulus.)

Andronicos, Manolis. "The Great Tumulus." Vergina II. Ed. Lucy Braggiotti. Trans. Alexandra Doumas. Athens: Oly Andronicos, 1994. 29-36.

- - -. Thesslonike Museum. Ed. Iris Douskou. Trans. L. Turner. Athens: Ekdotike Athenon S.A., 1994.

Biers, William R. The Archaeology of Greece. New York. Cornell University Press, 1980.

Borza, Eugene N. "Material Culture in the Age of Philip and Alexander." In the Shadow of Olympus The Emergence of Macedon. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990. 251-276

Whitley, James. The Archeology of Ancient Greece. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2001.