As Greek archaeologists inch closer to opening the largest ancient tomb ever found in northern Greece, history buffs around the world are trying to guess who’s buried there – and if it could be Alexander the Great himself.
The dig at Amphipolis has fascinated fellow archaeologists, historians, scientists and people said to be laying bets on the identity of the deceased, and led Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who visited the site, to say it will likely yield a “major find.”
With Greece still mired in a long and crushing economic crisis, its political parties at each other’s throats, the discovery has turned attention away from misery to wonder about the find that dates to the era of Alexander, from 325 to 300 B.C.
The National Geographic said the team led by Katerina Peristeri already has found clues that it could contain royalty, from the rich mosaic floor to stone Sphinxes and now the revelation that also acting as symbolic guards of the interior were two Caryatids, large marble columns sculpted in the shape of women with outstretched arms—that may have been intended to bar intruders from entering the tomb’s main room.
“I don’t know of anything quite like them,” Philip Freeman, a Professor of Classics at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa told the magazine.
The finely crafted floor, Ian Worthington, a classical scholar at the University of Missouri in Columbia and the author of two books on Alexander the Great, told the magazine “is a clear sign of wealth. The palace of Pella (where Alexander the Great was born) yielded a number of mosaics, and they were all very costly.”
A big question now is: Who was interred in the inner chamber?
National Geographic said that Peristeri and her colleagues have yet to break the seal over the entrance, so archaeologists can only make educated guesses.
Most agree, however, that the tumulus is unlikely to hold the remains of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king who defeated the Persian army, invaded Asia and Egypt, and created one of the ancient world’s largest empires.
Historical texts agree that Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323 B.C., possibly of an infectious disease such as malaria or typhoid fever.
Mourners then reportedly preserved the king’s body in honey and placed it on a funerary cart destined, according to some accounts, for his home in Macedonia, now northern Greece.
But along the way, says Worthington, one of Alexander’s favorite generals, Ptolemy, “kidnapped the corpse and buried it somewhere in Egypt. So I will bet you ten dollars that Alexander the Great is not in the tomb of Amphipolis.”
Instead, the smart money among archaeologists is on a member of the king’s immediate family—perhaps his mother, Olympias; his wife, Roxana; or his young son, also named Alexander.
After Alexander’s death, his Generals divided up his empire. One of them, Cassander, executed all three of the king’s next of kin in order to secure his own reign over Macedonia.
But it is very possible that Alexander’s wealthy followers constructed an opulent funerary mound at Amphipolis for at least one of their own.
“It is an enormous tomb, and one assumes that it was built for some prestigious and wealthy person,” says archaeologist Hector Williams at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
Besides wanting to know what’s inside, people fascinated by the ongoing work also want to know – as does the team – if it was looted. We’ll know soon.
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