Unearthing the Family of Alexander the Great
What happened on November 8, 1977?
Dear Classical Wisdom Member,
We’re continuing our week of the dead… by unearthing them!
Indeed, one of the most exciting archeological events in the last 50 years happened on November 8th, 1977, exactly 45 years from next Tuesday… but what happened when the first shafts of light in 2,300 years penetrated the rare Macedonian-styled tomb at Vergina in northern Greece?
Find out below…
But before we ‘dig deep’ into ancient Macedonia’s history (including a fascinating webinar with the author David Grant on the controversy of resurrecting the dead for our members below), an important announcement:
On Thursday, November 10th at 5pm EST, Classical Wisdom Members are invited to join our first ever Roundtable Discussion on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
Members who already have our Essential Classics Hardback Anthology can turn to 265 for the original text (only 8 pages) to read before our conversation… or request the PDF from yours truly.
Joining us to lead the discussion will be Benjamin B. Olshin, former Professor of Philosophy, the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, and Design at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and author of many books.
While I’m sure most of you know of the Allegory of the cave, re-reading the original text may surprise you… and understanding what it meant then (and now) is certainly worth an important conversation, especially considering its impact over the millennia.
If you aren’t already a member, you can subscribe today to take part. Choose which subscription package suits you best, and help support the Classics.
In fact, you can now enjoy our Holiday Special and become a Society member AND receive our beautiful hardback first edition anthology, collecting the greatest ancient Greek and Latin texts in one spot. You can also make this a gift!
We’ll be referencing this book in future Roundtable discussions… so check it out:
I hope you can all join us, as I know it will be a very interesting conversation!
Now… onto unearthing the Family of Alexander the Great, below.
Founder and Director
Unearthing the Family of Alexander the Great:
By David Grant, Guest Author, Classical Wisdom
On November 8, 1977, ‘Archangel’s Day’ in Greece, an excavation team led by Professor Manolis Andronikos was roped down into the eerie gloom of a rare Macedonian-styled tomb at Vergina in northern Greece. Dignitaries, police, priests and politicians watched on as the first shafts of light in 2,300 years penetrated its interior.
What finally emerged from beneath a great tumulus of soil was the ‘archaeological find of the century’, rivalling Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings and Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations at ‘Troy.’ After a century of barren digs in the hills backdropping the Thermaic Gulf southwest of Thessalonica, the ‘lost’ nation of ancient Macedon was finally being unearthed.
Inside the main chamber of the barrel-vaulted structure known as ‘Tomb II’ lay gold and silver artefacts, and exquisitely worked weapons and armour accompanied by invaluable grave goods which suggested the presence of royalty. Within a stone sarcophagus sat a never-before-seen gold chest containing carefully cremated bones wrapped in remnants of purple fabric. In a further gold ossuary in the antechamber and similarly wrapped in a textile, were the cremated bones of a female, surely the dead king’s wife, arranged with a beautiful diadem of gold.
A second unlooted vaulted structure, ‘Tomb III’ was unearthed the following year containing the bones of an adolescent, probably a boy, buried with the wealth of a ‘prince’.
The artefacts within were broadly dated to the mid-to-late fourth century BC (350s to 310 BC) and stylistically corroborated by pottery, metal artefacts and the evolving tomb design itself. Intriguingly, these years spanned the reigns of Philip II and his son Alexander the Great. The unique ‘Vergina Sun’ or ‘Star’ design of the royal clan of Macedon was embossed on the lids of the two gold chests holding the cremated bones.
In October 336 BC, statues of the twelve Olympian Gods were paraded through Aegae, the ancient capital of Macedon. Following them was a thirteenth, a statue of King Philip II who was deifying himself in front of the Greek world. Moments later Philip was stabbed to death; it was a world-shaking event that heralded in the reign of his son, Alexander the Great. Equally driven by his heroic lineage, Alexander conquered the Persian Empire in eleven years but died mysteriously in Babylon. Either side of his reign, his father and family were buried at Aegae with lavish ceremonies, but the location of the city was lost.
Andronikos proposed Tomb II could be nothing but the resting pace of King Philip II of Macedon who was assassinated at Aegae, the burial ground of its kings, while some commentators believed the adolescent in Tomb III was Alexander’s murdered teenage son. Along with an earlier looted cist tomb and the adjacent ruins of a shrine, the grouping soon became known as the ‘cluster of Philip II’. In November 1977, the exalted excavator had hastily convened a press conference and informed the Prime Minister of Greece, oblivious to the political backlash his identity claim would encounter in the decades that followed.
Why the Tombs Vanished from History
The political capital of Macedon was moved from Aegae to Pella a century before Philip’s reign. Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BC, his thirty-third year, and his embalmed corpse was taken to Egypt where it remained well into the Roman Principate before vanishing. The failure to bury him in the traditional cemetery at Aegae invoked an ancient prophesy that the nation was destined to fall. The infighting of Alexander’s generals, who proclaimed themselves kings across the newly-conquered Graeco-Persian world, saw the empire fragment into Successor Kingdoms and there followed generations of internecine war when Macedon was itself divided.
The prophesy was fulfilled.
In the 270s BC, two generations later, invading Gallic Celts ransacked the old cemetery at Aegae. When the danger had passed, the still-unlooted royal tombs were buried under a great earthen to protect them from further looting by an unnamed monarch.
A century on, when Rome defeated Macedon at the battle of Pydna in 168 BC, both Aegae and Pella were partially destroyed. A landslide covered much of what remained at Aegae in the first century AD, and as Rome’s influence expanded East, the importance of the cities diminished. When Rome’s empire was finally overrun, the name of the fallen-stone city survived in oral legend only. What was likely an earthquake caused the collapse of the top of the earthen tumulus and shattered doors in the tombs below, but the sturdy stone structure remained hidden under the occupied landscape for the next two thousand years.
Rediscovering the Ancient Kingdom
Modern excavations started in occupied Greece in 1855 in what was still part of the Ottoman Empire, but nothing more than ransacked tombs were found. However, the intriguing scale of the stone foundations suggested a substantial city once stood in the hills overlooking the Thermaic Gulf southwest of Thessalonica, the heartland of ancient Macedon.
Malarial marshlands hampered excavations and Greek refugees who had been resettled there from Turkish Anatolia after the Graeco-Turkish War knew nothing of its history. They used the ancient fallen stones from the anonymous ruins to build houses at the modern village of Vergina, named after a queen of legend.
In 1968 English historian Nicholas Hammond proposed the ‘heretical’ idea that the ruins at Vergina actually sat on the site of ancient Aegae. Few credited his theory; the belief prevailed that this was either the lost city of Valla, or a summer palace of unknown royalty.
In 1976 Professor Andronikos and team finally excavated the ancient necropolis where graves had been overturned and tombstones smashed in antiquity. This correlated strongly with the ancient texts claiming Celts had plundered the cemetery at Aegae; the burial ground of the nation’s kings had finally beound.
But an ortunate symmetry’ obscured the background to the double burial in Tomb II, says London-based historian David Grant who collaborated with the scientists studying the skeletal remains. This led to a ‘battle of the bones’ among historians, causing a rift which divided the academic community ‘obsessed’ on proving their identities….
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Classical Wisdom to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.