Scholars reexamine the Great Tumulus of ancient Aegae
Who is buried in Alexander the Great’s family tomb? Although it has been known for some time that the tombs of the Great Tumulus included several members of Alexander’s immediate family, it has been debated exactly who was buried in each tomb. Publishing a systematic review in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, a team of researchers has concluded that the first tomb was that of Alexander’s father, the second housed Alexander’s half-brother, and the third, his son.
First excavated in 1977, the Great Tumulus is one of many royal graves at Aegae (modern Vergina) in northern Greece, the first capital of the Kingdom of Macedonia. The Great Tumulus—the family burial place of Alexander the Great (r. 336–323 BCE)—includes three monumental tombs (Tombs II–IV), one cist tomb (Tomb I), and an heroon shrine likely dedicated to the person buried in Tomb I. All four tombs belonged to one-time kings of Macedonia. Despite widescale looting of the necropolis in antiquity, Tombs II and III were found untouched, with a trove of impressive finds and archaeological evidence.
While the occupants of Tombs III and IV have long been known, those of Tombs I and II have been hotly debated, whether Alexander’s father, Philip II (r. 359–336), or his half-brother, Philip Arrhidaeus (r. 323–317). Tomb III belonged to Alexander IV (r. 322–309), the son and heir of Alexander the Great. Tomb IV belonged to Cassander (r. 305–297), one of Alexander the Great’s generals who became king after assassinating Alexander IV.
Although the excavators of the Great Tumulus originally suggested that Tomb I belonged to Philip Arrhidaeus and Tomb II belonged to Philip II, the new publication contests this long-standing theory. Utilizing osteological evidence and historical sources, the team offers a different theory. Of special note were the remains of three individuals found in Tomb I: a middle-aged man, a woman in her late teens, and an infant. Meanwhile, Tomb II held the bodies of a man in his mid-30s and a woman in her late 20s, both buried in ornate gold caskets inside marble sarcophagi.
According to the team, there are several reasons to conclude that Philip II must have been buried in Tomb I, along with his wife Cleopatra and their infant baby, all of whom were assassinated by Alexander the Great’s mother in 336 BCE to allow Alexander to come to the throne. First, the evidence from the male bones found in Tomb I fits remarkably well with historical accounts of Philip II. They are the right age and show signs of having sustained a severe leg wound several years before death, which is consistent with historical accounts of Philip II taking a lance through the knee while in battle, giving him a severe limp for the rest of his life. The woman’s bones likewise fit the age of Philip’s young wife, who is known to have given birth just days before her assassination. The heroon’s close proximity to Tomb I also makes sense, as Philip was known as a great warrior. This would also explain the tomb’s small size, as, at the time, Alexander the Great would have been using most of his wealth to fund his war in Asia.
Meanwhile, the two bodies in Tomb II fit much better with what is known of Philip Arrhidaeus and his wife, Adea Eurydice, who were killed by Alexander the Great’s mother in 317 BCE. This allowed Alexander IV to take the throne. The male body in Tomb II shows no signs of severe trauma, fitting with the fact that Arrhidaeus had a mental disability and never took part in battle. Despite this, he was buried with a great deal of armor, which is thought to have originally belonged to Alexander the Great. The woman in Tomb II was also buried with armor and weapons, and her bones bore marks of heavy horse riding, which fits with the historical description of Adea Eurydice as an avid horse rider and warrior.
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