The imposing mosaic unearthed in the burial mound complex at Amphipolis in northern Greece might contain the best-ever portrait of Alexander the Great as a young man, according to a new interpretation of the stunning artwork, which depicts the abduction of Persephone.

It might also confirm previous speculation that the tomb belongs to Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great.

The mosaic portrays the soul-escorting Hermes, Hades (or Pluto, in Latin) and Persephone. In reality, the mosaic most likely has human counterparts represented in the guise of the three mythological characters, said Andrew Chugg, author of "The Quest for the Tomb of Alexander the Great."

“I am thinking very much that Persephone should be an image of the occupant of the tomb being driven into the Underworld,” Chugg told Discovery News.

Follow the story of the tomb's discovery and excavation.

“That means an important queen of Macedon that died between 325-300 B.C. possibly at Amphipolis. So we are exactly where we always were: Olympias or Roxane,” Chugg said.

Chugg has considered Olympias (and Roxane, Alexander's Persian wife. in second place) as the person most likely buried in the magnificent tomb ever since archaeologists discovered colossal sphinxes and female statues known as Caryatids in the underground space.

According to the researcher, the female sculptures may specifically be Klodones, priestesses of Dionysus with whom Olympias consorted. The Greek historian Plutarch recorded they wore baskets on their heads filled with Olympias' pet snakes. The snakes would rear their heads out of the baskets, terrifying the male participants in Dionysiac rites and orgies.

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Chugg’s speculation was indirectly confirmed by Lena Mendoni, general secretary of the Greek Ministry of Culture. In a press conference, Mendoni said that the scene in the mosaic, recounting the the abduction of Persephone, is indeed “linked with the cults of the underworld, the Orphic cult-descent into Hades and the Dionysian rites.”

“The leader of the Macedons was always the archpriest of these cults,” Mendoni said.

Family Resemblance

Chugg, who is not involved in the excavation, noted that Persephone has reddish hair in the mosaic scene.

“Roxane came from Afghanistan in central Asia. There are, and I think always were, very few redheads there. Conversely Olympias was a Molossian, where redheads were reputedly common,” Chugg said.

Therefore, Olympias remains the strongest candidate in the tomb’s occupant guessing game, Chugg said.

“We do have for sure some indications that Alexander was reddish blond, so it would be expected that one of his parents at least had similar hair,” he said.

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More Connections

If Persephone should be seen as Olympias, shouldn’t Hades and Hermes have human counterparts?

Indeed, Hades looks quite similar to a range of contemporary portraits of Philip II. Crowned as a king, he averts the right side of his face: Philip’s right eye was disfigured by an arrow wound from the siege of Methone in 354 B.C., so the right side of his face could not be shown without spoiling the Hades-Philip duality.

“It is a magnificent irony to show him as carrying Olympias into the Underworld, since there were rumors she had been involved in organizing his assassination,” Chugg said.

As for Hermes, he was portrayed with particular movement, care and drama. Staring at us, he almost steals the show, Chugg noted. “If he is to have a human counterpart, he should be somebody close to Olympias who preceded her into the afterlife for he precedes her into the Underworld,” Chugg said.

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He noted that in the mosaic scene, Philip is depicted at about his age at death, which was forty-seven. He died in 336BC, twenty years before the death of Olympias in 316BC.

“All the human portraits in the mosaic therefore need to be consistent with the year 336BC in order for them to work as a group portrait of the members of the royal family,” Chugg said.

Therefore, Olympias would have been in her mid thirties in 336 B.C. Rendering her more youthful could be seen as a compliment to the deceased.

“Hermes looks like a young, clean shaven man of about 20 and there is something curiously familiar about him to me,” Chugg said.

The riddle has a simple solution, says the researcher.

“The male member of the royal family who was twenty when Philip died and who pre-deceased Olympias was their only son, Alexander the Great,” Chugg said.

He noted there is a family resemblance between Hermes and Persephone. “It is not difficult to believe that they are mother and son,” Chugg said.

This is the full mosaic depicting the abduction of Persephone.Greek Ministry of Culture

At the press conference, Mendoni confirmed that the scene of the abduction of Persephone strengthens the theory that the occupant of the massive tomb is a member of the Macedonian royal family.

“We have a found the scene of the abduction of Persephone in the mural of the so-called tomb of Persephone at the royal cemetery at Vergina, Greece. We have a second display of Pluto and Persephone, in a sacred marriage scene at the backrest of the marble throne found at the tomb of Eurydice, mother of Philip, in Aeges,” Mendoni said.

A recent study led by Theodore Antikas, head of the Art-Anthropological research team of the Vergina excavation, has confirmed that the so called Tomb I -- the one featuring the stunning wall painting of the Rape of Persephone -- contains he remains of at least seven individuals: an adult male, a female, a child, four babies aged 8-10 months and one fetus of 6.5 months. It was previously believed the tomb contained the remains of a male, a female and an infant.

Greek God Hermes Featured in Ancient Mosaic

Moreover, the same study has confirmed the so called Tomb II at Vergina most likely contains the cremated remains of Philip II, along with the bones of a woman warrior. On Philip II’s remains, Yannis Maniatis, Head of the Archaeometry Lab at the ''Demokritos'' National Scientific Research Center in Athens, found traces of a surprisingly composite multi-layered structure involving white-purple-white-beige-purple layers.

The rare white mineral huntite was the main constituent of the white layers, while the purple layers of the composite material were cloths dyed with Tyrian purple. The beige layer was a mixture of huntite, clay, beeswax and pine resin.

According to Maniatis, the whole structure resembles the cartonnage technique used in Egypt to make masks for the mummies.

“I suggest the fragments represent a mask that Philip II wore in ceremonies when he was alive. They could be religious ceremonies as he was also the highest priest. After his death and cremation they put this personal and religious item together with his golden wreath on top of his bones,” Maniatis told Discovery News.

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According to Mendoni, Philip II wore that mask during Orphic rites. “Therefore, the mosaic scene in Amphipolis has a symbolic importance, which may indicate a link between the tomb’s occupant and the Macedonian royal family. The political symbolism is very strong,” Mendoni said.

On his side, Chugg admits that his interpretation of the possible symbolic meanings in the mosaic scene are, at this stage, conjecture.

”But if it is obvious to me, it should have been obvious to someone viewing this mosaic when it was first made. We may have the best ever portrait of Alexander as a young man -- the way he was always remembered in Macedon, for he left at 21, never to return,” Chugg said.

The overlord of an empire stretching from Greece and Egypt eastward across Asia to India, Alexander died in Babylon, now in central Iraq, in June of 323 B.C. -- just before his 33rd birthday.

His body, en route to Macedon, was hijacked by Ptolemy and taken to Egypt. The sarcophagus of the warrior king was then moved from Memphis to Alexandria, the capital of his kingdom, and there it remained until Late Antiquity.

By the fourth century A.D., the tomb’s location was no longer known.

As for the occupant of the mysterious tomb, Chugg noted there are not many extremely important members of the Macedonian royal family that were available to be buried in Amphipolis in that period.

Olympias and Roxane remain the strongest candidates. However, the person most explicitly associated with Orphic rites and Dyonisiac cults was undoubtedly Olympias.

“Perhaps is still premature to identify Olympias as the occupant of the tomb at Amphipolis, but it is very clear the evidence continues to move forcefully and consistently in that direction,” Chugg concluded.