The ancient Greeks regarded their northern cousins, the Macedonians, as little better than semi-civilized barbarians, but the early Macedonian kings produced a line of rulers that were to lead their people to mastery of the known world. Archelaus built a strong army, but he also exposed his uncouth subjects to the leavening influence of Greek culture. In the fourth century BC the young king, Philip II, unleashed his Macedonian phalanx, his superior cavalry and his warriors’ king-size spears upon the disorganized and squabbling Greek city states. Through force of arms he brought Greece a unity and strength it had never known, but he also saw the education of his son, Alexander, undertaken by the Greek-trained Macedonian scholar, Aristotle. And Alexander, succeeding his assassinated father when only 20, had conquered the whole eastern Mediterranean within 13 years. He became Alexander the Great and in so doing he spread the influence of Greek culture until it became synonymous with civilization.
Modern antiquarians never lose their fascination with that civilization, and their excited attention is currently focused on excavations proceeding in a forested hillock near Vergina, a village in northeastern Greece. Here the sealed tomb of Philip of Macedón is believed to have been uncovered 11 months ago; and the discovery in August of a second royal tomb nearby is causing the Vergina tumulus (a manmade mound) to be hailed as one of the most remarkable archeological finds of all time. The man chiefly responsible, bearded 59-year-old Professor Manolis Andronikos of the University of Salonika, is once again hard at work at the site after enjoying a triumph as exhilarating as any Philip or Alexander may have experienced— the applause and even whistled amazement of 1,000 of the world’s leading archeologists gathered at an international conference in London last month. Andronikos’ great concern now is to make the scientific documentation of his findings as solid as rock. For he knows that he has also stirred up what could be one of the great archeological controversies of all time.
Having done his first digs in the area as a student helper back in 1937, and directed repeated strategic assaults on this same mound since 1952, the archeologist’s excited anticipation can be appreciated when he found himself entering the first intact tomb on Nov. 8, 1977: “We crept in from the roof like grave looters of the past. Yet once inside, gazing with held breath at what was before us, we had the feeling of taking a step through time and space, of flinging ourselves back into another world 23 centuries older than our own. The sound of silence, even the smell, was from that time. It was a sinister, indescribable feeling.”
When Andronikos and his team worked their way from the roof down the 15-foot-deep tomb vault, they came across a marble sarcophagus surrounded by gold and silver vases. Within the sarcophagus was a gold box weighing 24.2 pounds and containing what are believed to be the cremated remains of King Philip. Alongside the sarcophagus were a gold laurel wreath, a handsome sword in a wood and ivory sheath, and a set of body armor and shield elaborately decorated with golden bands and rings and the emblem of Macedonian kings. In a smaller room was another marble sarcophagus containing a smaller gold box enclosing the ash and bone relics of what Andronikos supposes to be Philip’s last wife, Cleopatra. These had been covered with a now-disintegrating cloth of royal purple, embroidered with gold.
The barrel-vaulted tomb measures 30 feet by 18, is held up by pillars and arches and decorated with frescoe. Other precious items found in it were an adjustable royal headband made of gold and silver as kings of the time wore, gold and silver vases, royal clothing and five one-inch carved ivory heads believed to be those of Philip, his wife, his parents and his son, Alexander the
Great. Andronikos says that this evidence, plus the fact that all the finds within the tomb date from between 350 to 320 BC, “prove to me beyond doubt that we have found King Philip’s tomb.” Philip, born in 382 BC, was assassinated in 336 BC while attending the wedding of his daughter, prior to embarking on a new military campaign against the Persians. Thus it was that Alexander succeeded not only to his father’s throne but also to his Asian battle plans.
The painstakingly careful excavation work has been done by a devoted team of a dozen professionals on whom their leader has imposed tight security. “Working on the site has become a passion, an obsession,” says 30-year-old archeologist Styliani Drougou, Andronikos’ chief assistant. “It has affected every detail of our professional and even private lives. We are ordered to maintain strict secrecy concerning our profession, yet we sometimes burst with excitement to let it all out. When we discovered King Philip’s tomb, we had to sit on the secret for a month. It was sheer agony.”
The second tomb, discovered in August, was described as that of “a less important figure, but better preserved and with gold and silver items of dazzling workmanship.” The tomb is smaller than the first one, is dated between 375 and 350 BC and believed to be that of a Macedonian general before Philip’s time. The greatest value of the two tombs is that they are the only Macedonian ones yet discovered not to have been looted by invading barbarian forces following the fall of the Macedonian Empire.
One respected archeologist attending the London conference called the wall paintings of Greek myths in the first tomb “superb—the most important find for years in the history of Greek art.” He said the gold and silver diadem “convinces me that these are royal tombs.” However, Martin Robertson of Oxford University also cautioned, “There is some slight doubt about the date of the tombs. It’s not all that easy to be sure.”
In fact, a lively “rejectionist school” already exists with regard to the discoveries at Vergina. Professors Dimitrios Kanatsoulis and Fotis Petsas, both Greek veterans of less successful excavations on the same site, argue that finding the tombs is not enough evidence that Vergina was ancient Aegae, capital of Macedonia. They say the capital is more likely to be some 40 miles from there, near the present city of Edessa, and that’s where the early kings would surely have been buried. “French archeologists began excavating over a century ago, and I was personally involved in renewed efforts dating from 1937. And yet there is not a single piece of evidence that this was the Macedonian capital,” says Petsas, adding: “Over this period 30 Macedonian nobility tombs have been discovered in the broader area, every single one of them looted, yet much more impressive than the alleged Philip tomb. Is it possible that the Galatian mercenaries of Phrygia, who looted the Macedonian tombs some 60 years after Philip’s death, took everything except the most prized treasure of all? Even the children living there would have known the whereabouts of such a tomb.” He and Kanatsoulis believe the two discovered tombs most probably belong to the Antigonid Dynasty of Macedonia which ruled between 277 and 168 BC, after the death of Alexander the Great. Andronikos argues back: “It is exactly because it was a case of Philip’s and other royal tombs having to be particularly protected that such a hill of earth was built over them so the invaders could not discover or get at them.”
Professor Colin Edmondson, archeologist at the American College of Athens, rejects the five ivory heads as resembling Philip and his family or having any particular significance. He believes the tomb belonged to a warrior who was given the ivory heads as an honor. “It would be similar to having an autographed photograph of the British royal family today,” he says.
Andronikos is confident, however, that the painstaking task of piecing together all the evidence offered by the myriad artifacts found within the tombs at Vergina will finally confirm his claims. Meanwhile he has a notunhelpful supporter in Greek Culture Minister George Plyttas, who has visited the site and who presumably can provide the funds needed to complete the detective work. “We, of course, welcome all opinions on the issue,” says Plyttas. “But from the opinions of the majority of experts we are now convinced that what we have are the tombs of King Philip and other royal notables. It is truly one of the most historically significant findings of our time.”
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