The Opening of the Tombs

Vergina (Northern Greece)


“Be as calm as possible,” Manolis Andronikos told his assistants as he slowly widened a hole leading down into darkness. It was the afternoon of November 8, 1977, outside the northern Greek village of Vergina, and he was about to make the most spectacular discovery of modern Aegean archaeology.

Andronikos had been digging for twenty-five years in the Great Tumulus at Vergina, a mound of sand, earth, and gravel more than forty feet high, and had moved thousands of tons of it to find what was beneath. He was convinced he was on the site of Aegae, the ancient capital of the Macedonian nation and the burial place of its kings. Now, after nearly giving up on another fruitless season, he had uncovered the walls of two structures beneath an unexplored portion of the mound. One had turned out to be a looted chamber tomb, its floor strewn with human remains scattered by ancient robbers, its walls adorned with magnificent paintings. Next to that first tomb, below twenty-three feet of earth, Andronikos had uncovered the top of a second building and was preparing to climb down a ladder into the chamber below.

As he disappeared through the opening, he made a stunning announcement to his assistants. “Everything is intact!” he exclaimed as his flashlight caught the glint of silver and the dull green of oxidized bronze. Dozens of precious objects, any one of which would have repaid a year’s excavation, revealed themselves in the beam of Andronikos’ light. Armor and weaponry, the indispensable gear of the Macedonian warrior, stood propped against walls and in corners; finely wrought drinking vessels lay in heaps. At the center of the room Andronikos found a hollow marble chamber covered with a lid; when this was later opened, the excavators were astonished to discover an exquisite gold box containing the cremated bones of an adult male. A similar gold box, this one holding the remains of a woman in her twenties, was found in a small antechamber adjoining the main room.

On the floor of the tomb, amid the decayed remains of the wooden couch they had once adorned, Andronikos found five delicately carved ivory heads (nine more were eventually recovered). These miniature masterworks portrayed a gallery of heroic male types, two of them bearded and grave, the others smooth cheeked, limpid, and youthful (a few have been seen as women). The sense of character emanating from the portraits was startling. Given that pottery finds dated the tomb between 350 and 315 B.C., Andronikos quickly identified one bearded portrait as Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, assassinated in 336. Another head, that of a slender, beardless youth with his neck bent at an odd angle, seemed an image of Alexander himself. Andronikos took these portraits to his quarters and spent a sleepless night of fervid excitement gazing into what seemed to be the faces of the two greatest Macedonian kings and their comrades.

Across the facade of the tomb (now known as Tomb 2), Andronikos’ team found a remarkable painted frieze. When cleaned and stabilized, it revealed a hunting tableau, with ten powerful figures stabbing and spearing various kinds of game. Once again the faces seemed expressive and lifelike, perhaps individual portraits; Andronikos again thought he recognized Philip and Alexander, portrayed as a mature man of forty and a youth of twelve or thirteen. The other figures in the hunt scene, beardless youths slightly older than “Alexander,” he identified as royal pages, the sons of nobility who, as we know, grew up at Philip’s court and later became Alexander’s close friends.

Alexander’s Companions
The ivory portraits recovered from Tomb 2 by Manolis Andronikos (Illustration credit itr.1)

The finds of 1977 posed enough riddles to last any scholar a lifetime, including the question—still unresolved after more than three decades—of the identity of the tomb’s occupants. But Andronikos was not done exploring the Great Tumulus. Eighteen months later, digging elsewhere in the mound, he unearthed a third structure, Tomb 3, which he came to call the Prince’s Tomb. Its contents too had remained intact, protected by the immense thickness of earth above. They were less sumptuous than those of the neighboring tomb but still, by any measure, spectacular. This tomb held the remains of a single occupant, housed in a large silver drinking vessel rather than a gold chest; analysis indicated a boy in his early teens. Given evidence that dated the tomb to the late fourth century, this could only be the son and successor of Alexander the Great, killed by his political enemies in 309 or 308 B.C.

It had become clear by this point that the Great Tumulus was, in effect, a time capsule of the tumultuous period following Alexander’s death. Here was the boy-king whose lot it was to follow the most potent conqueror the world had known, thrust by his lineage into a maelstrom of dynastic turmoil. Here too were the portraits, in both paint and ivory, of the Companions of Alexander, the intimates who grew up with him, fought under him, and survived him to become his too-faithful followers, bloodying his empire again and again in their bids to control it. Here also, if one leading theory about the occupants of Tomb 2 is correct, were Alexander’s half brother and niece, two royals who had been killed trying to lay sole claim to Alexander’s throne. The bones of this couple seemed to bear witness to the troubled times in which they lived, for one expert judged they had undergone “dry” cremation, after the flesh upon them had already decayed. Had they been buried here, in this sumptuous tomb, only after first being left to rot elsewhere?

The facade of Tomb 2, with the frieze of the royal hunt across the top (Illustration credit itr.2)

Those whose bones and images emerged from the Great Tumulus were Alexander’s contemporaries, and their fame has largely been eclipsed by his. Yet their tales are among the most tempestuous and tragic in any of history’s tomes. They were the ensemble cast in a great drama of downfall: they saw the rending of an empire, the collapse of a political order, and the death of a dynasty that had endured almost four centuries. Their faces can be seen today at Vergina, once Aegae, in the museum that houses Andronikos’ finds. Their stories are told in the pages that follow.

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