British soldiers at Amphipolis Tomb

Did British soldiers plunder Amphipolis Tomb in 1916?

A photograph has emerged depicting soldiers from a regiment of the British Army, proudly holding skulls found around the Amphipolis Tomb in Greece, raising questions about whether they may have plundered the tomb nearly a century ago.

The King's Shropshire Light Infantry (KSLI), a regiment of the British Army formed in 1881, was posted to Thessalonika in Greece in 1915 at the request of the Greek Prime Minister and spent nearly three years fighting the Bulgarians in Macedonia. For the most part, they were based on the Struma front between Lake Doiran and Amphipolis, where they constructed trenches and dugouts and fought numerous skirmishes. However, it seems the battalion did more than just fighting, as photographs have emerged showing evidence of the soldiers entering the famous tomb at Amphipolis, as well as proudly showing off human remains found at the site.

It is already known that the spectacular Lion of Amphipolis, a 5.3 metre-high marble statue that once stood on top of the giant tomb of Amphipolis, was found by British soldiers who were building fortifications at the bridge of Amphipolis in 1916.  The British tried to smuggle the marble parts to England, but their efforts were thwarted when Bulgarians who had just seized Paggaion attacked them. Archaeologist Fotis Petsas, whose work on the history of the Lion of Amphipolis was published in 1976 in "Proodos" newspaper that circulated in Serres, wrote:

"During the Balkan War in 1913, Greek soldiers found the foundations of the pedestal of the monument while digging trenches. The foundations were examined by George Ikonomos and Anastasios Orlandos who subsequently became professors of archaeology. Later, in 1916, during World War I, British soldiers discovered the first parts of the marble lion. Their attempt to transport the pieces onboard a ship were thwarted by an enemy bombing."

The marble statue of the Lion of Amphipolis

The marble statue of the Lion of Amphipolis. Image source: Wikipedia

When archaeologists entered the second chamber of the Amphipolis tomb last month, they found that the marble wall sealing off the third chamber had already been smashed open in one corner, leading researchers to believe that the tomb may have been looted in antiquity. However, the plundering may not have occurred in the ancient past, but by the British soldiers in WWI.

Smashed corner of the second chamber

When archaeologists entered the second chamber, they discovered that the wall sealing off the third chamber had been smashed in one corner. Credit: Greek Ministry of Culture

A little digging around on the website of the British Museum has revealed a little more to the story.  The biography page for Dr Eric Gardner (1877 – 1951), a British medic and amateur archaeologist, who was posted to Greece during WWI, reveals that he took treasures found at Amphipolis and ‘donated’ them to the British Museum. The British Museum writes: “He was based around Amphipolis on the Struma front, where an Archaic-Hellenistic Greek cemetery was uncovered. Donated contents of an Amphipolis grave to the Museum in 1918.”  So was this ‘Amphipolis grave’ the great tomb that is currently being excavated by archaeologists?

British Museum Amphipolis Items

Top Left: Gold mouth piece with repoussé decoration. Top Right: Bronze spiral finger-ring. Bottom: Silver plaque with dotted repoussé decoration. All excavated from Amphipolis grave, 6 th century BC. Given to British Museum by Dr Eric Gardner in 1918. Photo Credit: Trustees of the British Museum

Within the grave, Dr Gardner found a hoard of treasures including gold, silver, and bronze jewellery, finely crafted pottery, a metal hair pin, an iron knife, and a spearhead. It is not known how much he kept for himself, but nine of these items now sit inside the British Museum in London. It is curious to say the least, that in the midst of the media frenzy regarding the current excavation of the enormous tomb at Amphipolis, the British Museum has remained deafly silent on the issue. Perhaps they are afraid of another ‘Elgin Marbles’ scenario in which the world petitions them to return stolen goods to their origin.

Featured image: Officers of the 2 nd King's Shropshire Light Infantry with skulls excavated during the construction of trenches and dugouts at the ancient Greek site of Amphipolis, 1916. Image source:  Ministry of Information First World War Official Collection


The King's Shropshire Light Infantry, 1914 – 1918 – Shropshire Regimental Museum

King's Shropshire Light Infantry – Wikipedia

Salonika – The Long Lost Trail: The British Army of 1914 – 1918

Dr Eric Gardner – The British Museum

The Bulgarian army prevented the Lion of Amphipolis from being taken to England – GR  Reporter

By April Holloway


Is the answer to your article's headline 'No'?

The finds Gardner donated to the British Museum are 6th century BC - the finds are helpfully labelled as such on the British Museum website. The tomb currently being excavated has been dated as late 4th century BC. Amphipolis has many tombs outside its ancient walls, and even a couple inside.

Worth also noting that the lead archaeologist on the site is fairly convinced that this tomb within the mound has not been looted.

aprilholloway's picture

Erroneous dating is very common in archaeology. The items in the British Museum could be younger, the Amphipolis tomb could be older, and this would not be unusual at all. What's more, the tomb may be 4th century BC and may contain items dating from 6th century BC or older as it is not uncommon for valuable items to be passed down from generation to generation within a family.  In summary, the dates do not prove or disprove anything. 

The final chamber may not be looted, as it is protected by multiple sealed walls, but someone broke through the 2nd chamber.

There are 400+ known tombs and graves around ancient Amphipolis which cover several hundred years of history. Some have been looted prior to their excavation in the past 60 years, others haven't. I'd suggest one doesn't usually hand down things like a gold mouthguard for a corpse but anything is possible I suppose.

Beyond the general location, there is absolutely nothing linking the 6th century BC artifacts in the British Museum to the late 4th century BC Macedonian tomb found in the Castas tumulus. The archaeologists on site reject the notion of looting, there's not been a hint of WW1-era trenches having been dug to uncover the entrance, the backfilling seems to date to antiquity, there are no shafts going into the tumulus etc etc.

It's not just the dating, it's the misconception that there is only one tomb at Amphipolis so every find without clear provenance must be from that one tomb. It's more likely what the British museum have is a collection of items from several tombs/graves uncovered in 1916.

aprilholloway's picture

You have some fair points and there is no definitive proof at this stage, hence posing a question in the article rather than making a statement. Nevertheless, it is well document that the British tried to smuggle the Lion of Amphipolis, which once sat on top of the tomb, back to England, so they are already implicated to some extent. How far they are implicated is the question.

The lion was in many broken pieces so far away from the tumulus that it was re-erected on the other side of the river some 3km away. The link to the tumulus post-dates these British soldiers being in the area by many decades. Much of what now forms the lion monument wasn't even discovered until the Strymon was dredged from 1929 onwards.

To quote from your piece, "It is curious to say the least, that in the midst of the media frenzy regarding the current excavation of the enormous tomb at Amphipolis, the British Museum has remained deafly silent on the issue."

Hopefully having some accurate and factual information in the comment section should explain why it is not curious in the slightest that the British Museum has not commented on the tumulus, nor on something which has no evidence to support it ever happening. The Amphipolis tumulus has so much mystery already that we shouldn't need to invent more.


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