Speculation has been running wild in recent weeks over who might be buried in the massive tomb complex currently being excavated at Amphipolis, located in the region of Macedonia in northern Greece. Now, in a breakthrough discovery, archeologists excavating the site have exposed two 7-foot-tall marble statues inside the tomb, guarding the entrance to its main chamber. According to some scholars, the presence of these sculpted female figures, known as caryatids, strongly suggests that the tomb may belong to Olympias, the mother of the great warrior-king Alexander the Great.
The Kasta Hill archeological site at Amphipolis, located some 370 miles north of Athens and 65 miles east of the city of Thessaloniki, is believed to be the largest burial site ever discovered in Greece. Dating to between 325-300 B.C., near the end of the reign of Alexander the Great, the burial mound and tomb complex was partially destroyed during the Roman occupation of Greece, but then appears to have survived without looting for more than 2,000 years.
A team of archeologists led by Katerina Peristeri began work at the site in 2012. Last month, they announced that they had unearthed a 1,600-foot-long marble wall encircling the tomb complex, a size that dwarfs the burial site of Philip II, Alexander’s father, in Vergina. Along with a long vaulted corridor leading to the tomb, the archeologists discovered two headless, wingless sphinxes guarding its entrance. They believe the tomb was originally crowned by a 16-foot-tall marble statue known as the Lion of Amphipolis, which was discovered a few miles away in the bed of the Strymonas River in 1912.
Speculation has been running wild as to the occupant of the tomb, including claims that it might actually be Alexander the Great himself. Archeologists and historians have joined forces in dismissing this possibility, however, as the historical record indicates that Alexander died in Babylon (modern-day Iraq) in 323 B.C. and was most likely buried in Egypt after Ptolemy, one of his former generals, stole the corpse while it was en route to Macedonia. (Alexander’s sarcophagus was later moved from Memphis to Alexandria, the capital of his kingdom, but by the fourth century A.D., its exact location was unknown.)
The discovery of the two caryatids, which virtually mirror one another on either side of a marble doorway, is now fueling claims that the tomb belongs to a prominent female figure from Alexander’s time: specifically, Olympias, Philip II’s wife and the mother of the celebrated warrior-king. Caryatids, a common feature of Greek and Roman architecture, are pillars formed from sculptures of female figures. The ones flanking the entrance in the Amphipolis tomb stand more than seven feet tall, and are clothed in sleeved tunics and thick-soled shoes. Each caryatid has one arm outstretched, as if to block entrance to the tomb’s main chamber.
According to Andrew Chugg, author of “The Quest for the Tomb of Alexander the Great,” the figures may not depict ordinary women, but Klodones, priestesses of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. As Chugg writes in the Greek Reporter, the ancient Greek historian Plutarch recorded in his “Life of Alexander” that Olympias used to participate in Dionysiac rites and orgies with these Klodones. The baskets on their heads, Chugg recounts, held Olympias’ pet snakes, which would often rear their heads out to scare the men participating in the rites. To further support his argument, Chugg points out that the archeologists excavating at Kasta Hill found a marble block painted with rosettes that resemble those on the coffin of Philip II at Vergina.
Apart from Olympias, the most likely candidate to have been buried in the massive tomb at Amphipolis appears to be Roxana, Alexander the Great’s wife. The Macedonian general Cassander murdered Roxana in 311 B.C., along with her son Alexander IV, his father’s rightful heir to the throne. Other possible candidates include Alexander’s admirals Androsthenes, Laomedon and Nearchus; his generals Hephaestion and Antigonus Monophthalmus; and even Cassander himself. Chugg disagrees with these latter possibilities, arguing that the presence of the caryatids as guardians of the tomb means the occupant could not be male.
The discovery of the caryatids, though suggestive, has done little to end the debate surrounding the true purpose of the Amphipolis site. Olga Palagia, chair of the archaeology department at Athens University, tells Discovery News that caryatids of the style and scale found guarding the tomb were not used until the first century B.C. As such, she believes the burial mound at Amphipolis is “not a Macedonian tomb, because such tombs disappear in the mid-second century B.C. when Macedonia was conquered by the Romans.” In fact, Amphipolis is not far from the site where, in 42 B.C., the forces of Octavian, later known as Augustus, and Mark Antony defeated those of Brutus and Cassius, Julius Caesar’s assassins. The tomb, Palagia argues, could very well hold cremated remains of Roman generals killed in that battle.
Other observers suggest that it could not be a tomb at all, but a cenotaph, a tomblike monument built to commemorate Alexander, even though his body’s final resting place is elsewhere. Meanwhile, the team of archeologists continues their excavations at Amphipolis, hoping that further discoveries will shed more light on the questions that have captivated the world’s attention.