Greek Tomb's Female Forms Hint Olympias May Lie Within

The female statues guarding a tomb in Greece may suggest that Alexander the Great's mother lies there.

The gentle female sculptures found in the massive burial complex at the Kasta Hill site at Amphipolis, Greece, might depict priestess who took part in orgies and ecstatic rites while scaring men away with snake-filled baskets, according to a new interpretation of the finely carved statues.

If true, some scholars argue the tomb would belong to the mother of Alexander the Great.

The sculptures represent Orphic revelers and priestesses of Dionysus, says Andrew Chugg, author of "The Quest for the Tomb of Alexander the Great."

Photos: Female Sculptures Revealed in Greek Tomb

Technically known as caryatids -- pillars formed from sculptures of female figures common in Greek and Roman architecture -- the statues were unearthed in a mysterious massive burial mound in Greece's northeastern Macedonia region after archaeologists had already entered a chamber guarded by two colossal headless and wingless sphinxes.

According to team leader Katerina Peristeri, the structure dates to between 325 B.C. -- two years before Alexander the Great's death -- and 300 B.C.

Flanking a marble doorway, the curly haired female statues stand more than seven feet tall on a marble pedestal wearing thick soled shoes, their alternated arms outstretched as if to symbolically bar intruders from entering the chamber.

"These female sculptures may specifically be Klodones, priestesses of Dionysus with whom Olympias, Alexander the Great's mother, consorted," Chugg told Discovery News. "This is because the baskets they wear on their heads are sacred to Dionysus."

Chugg considers Olympias as the person most likely buried in the magnificent tomb.

"In his 'Life of Alexander,' the Greek historian Plutarch wrote how Olympias used to participate in Dionysiac rites and orgies with these Klodones," Chugg said.

Specifically, the Greek historian and biographer recounted that the mystical baskets were used to hold Olympias' pet snakes, which would rear their heads out of the baskets, terrifying the male participants in the Dionysiac rites and orgies.

"I have discovered there are Roman copies of a 4th-Century B.C. statue of Dionysus in both the Hermitage and Metropolitan museums with an accompanying figure of a priestess, who is dressed very similarly to the Amphipolis caryatids, including the 'platform shoes,'" Chugg said.

Sphinxes Emerge From Huge Ancient Greek Tomb

On the assumption that the Amphipolis tomb is that of Olympias, "the explanation for the caryatids would be they represent those Klodones that shared in Dionysiac orgies with the queen whose tomb they guard," Chugg said.

At 1,600 feet wide, the Kasta Hill mound is regarded as the largest burial site ever discovered in Greece. Hopes in the country are now high for an extraordinary find that might boost the country's economy after six years of recession and austerity.

"We are watching in awe and with deep emotion the excavation in Amphipolis," Greek Culture Minister Konstantinos Tasoulas told the BBC.

"The most beautiful secrets are hidden right underneath our feet," he said.

As the excavation began, basically revealing a long vaulted corridor, hopes grew the mysterious mound could be this century's tomb of Tutankhamun.

It emerged the structure, which originally was crowned by an impressive 16-foot-tall marble lion statue, was embellished in its underground space with colossal sculptures.

Two headless and wingless seated sphinxes, standing nearly 5 feet high and weighting about 1.5 tons each, guard the entrance, while two magnificent caryatids flank a second marble doorway.

So, who were these colossal sentinel statues protecting? Who is buried in the Amphipolis tomb?

Wild speculations -- that the body of Alexander the Great lies in the mound -- continue in Greek media and in modern-day Amfipoli and Mesolakkia, the two villages closest to the mysterious mound.

It's a claim, or hope, that archaeologists and historians strongly dismiss.

History has it that after Alexander died in Babylon, now in central Iraq, in 323 B.C., 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.

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

In the heated guessing game on who is buried under the colossal mound, the most viable candidates are the members of the king's immediate family, including his wife, Roxana, his young son, also named Alexander, and of course Olympias.

Other theories include Androsthenes, Laomedon and Nearchus, Alexander's admirals, Hephaestion and Antigonus Monophthalmus, generals of Alexander's army, and even Cassander, who killed Alexander's wife Roxana and his son Alexander IV to succeed the Macedonian king.

According to Chugg, the fact that the colossal statues in the mound's underground space represent female guardians, would rule out a male occupant.

"Olympias remain the leading candidate," he said.

Olga Palagia, chair of the department of archaeology at Athens University, disagrees with Chugg's interpretation and with the tomb dating altogether.

Female Sculptures Guard Mysterious Tomb in Greece

"The style of the Caryatids is archaistic, inspired by the formal language of the sixth century B.C. This style was invented in Athens in the fifth century B.C. but was initially used for reliefs or smaller statues," Palagia told Discovery News.

According to Palagia, archaistic caryatids on a colossal scale first appear in the first century B.C. in Eleusis, a shrine 15 miles north-west of Athens.

"The colossal archaistic caryatids, the colossal sphinxes, the lavish use of marble, the long vaulted corridor indicate that the Amphipolis tomb cannot date before the first century B.C," Palagia said.

"It is therefore not a Macedonian tomb, because such tombs disappear in the mid-second century B.C. when Macedonia was conquered by the Romans," she concluded.

She noted Amphipolis was the headquarters of the Roman army of Octavian, later known as Augustus, and Mark Antony during the Roman civil war against Brutus and Cassius, Julius Caesar's assassins.

The final battle took place at Philippi, 32 miles from Amphipolis, in 42 B.C. Octavian and Mark Antony were victorious.

"This battle changed the course of history because it enabled Octavian to go on to create the Roman Empire," Palagia said.

"Considering the momentous importance of the battle of Philippi and the vast amounts of both gold and manpower at the disposal of Octavian and Mark Antony, it may well be argued that the tomb of Amphipolis housed the cremated remains of the Roman generals,"

At last, another hypothesis is shaping up among scholars: the Amphipolis mound may not be a tomb at all.

"We keep using the word 'tomb' for Amphipolis but one interesting feature is the lack of a door. It may have been removed when the structure was sealed, but the lack of a door so far suggests the lack of a burial," classical archaeologist Dorothy King wrote in her blog.

According to King, the round shape of the structure, the lack of a door and the sources which all say Alexander was buried in Egypt, all suggest the Amphipolis mound was more likely a tribute to the cult of Alexander the Great.

"This is just an idea I discuss ... things could change with new finds," King told Discovery News.

A close-up of one of the female figures guarding the mysterious tomb in Greece. On her head is a (snake-filled?) basket.

The two Caryatids are fully revealed.

The statues wear high-soled red-and-yellow shoes.

Their toes are finely carved, as the rest of their bodies.

This drawing shows the tomb reconstruction according to the ongoing excavation.

Two finely carved female figures called Caryatids have been unearthed inside the mysterious tomb-in Amphipolis, which dates from the time of Alexander the Great.

BLOG: Female Sculptures Guard Mysterious Tomb in Greece

Wearing a sleeved tunic and earrings, the Caryatids feature long, thick hair covering their shoulders.

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While the face of one sculpture survives nearly intact, the other is missing.

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The right arm of one Caryatid and the left arm of the other are both outstretched, as if to symbolically prevent anyone from attempting to enter the grave.

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A perfectly preserved rectangular marble block, measuring 14 feet long and 3 feet wide, was unearthed at the bottom of the barrel vault.

BLOG: Sphinxes Emerge From Huge Ancient Greek Tomb

On the underside of the large marble block are traces of blue, red and yellow, representing panels with rosettes in the center. Other rosettes were previously found embossed on a marble beam.

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