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.
Royal Macedonian Burial Mound in Vergina. ( Benjamin / CC BY NC ND 2.0 )
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.
A model of the tomb of Philip II. ( CC by SA 3.0 )
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.