History

Speculation Rages About Dead in Greek Mystery Tomb

At least five corpses lay buried in the Alexander the Great-era tomb in Greece, deepening the mystery around the massive burial. Continue reading →

The surprise announcement on Monday that at least five corpses lay buried in the Alexander the Great era tomb in Amphipolis, in northern Greece, has deepened the mystery around the massive and lavishly decorated burial.

As expected, speculation is running wild about who the five people buried there are.

So far, forensic investigation has determined that 157 out of 550 bones found in Greece's largest ancient tomb belong to a woman who was older than 60 years, two men aged 35 and 45, a newborn baby and a cremated adult whose gender could not be verified.

Greek Tomb Held at Least Five Corpses

According to Andrew Chugg, author of "The Quest for the Tomb of Alexander the Great," the remains of the woman in her 60s should be considered the principal burial among those interred.

"It is stated that the skull and mandible and the majority of the larger bones are hers, that her skeleton is the most complete and that her bones were found mainly in the bottom of the cist burial," Chugg told Discovery News.

Chugg, the first scholar who suggested Olympias, Alexander the Great's mother, as the tomb occupant, believes the Persephone mosaic, the caryatids (female statues that serve as architectural support) and the female sphinxes found in the tomb all indicate the original burial was dedicated to a woman.

"A lady in her 60s is consistent with Olympias," Chugg said. "We do not know the year of her birth, but she died in 316 B.C., and she married Philip in about 357 B.C. She would have been 20 when she gave birth to Alexander in 356 BC, if she died at 60."

"There are no other historically prominent female members of the royal family who died in the time frame of the last quarter of the fourth century B.C. as far as we know," he added.

Skeleton Emerges From Mysterious Greek Tomb

The Olympias hypothesis runs high also on Greek media, although several admit it's a rather puzzling one.

"If indeed the woman in the grave is Olympias and the tomb was erected in her honor, then Macedonians not only violated their customs, but they also did something that seems absurd and unthinkable: They built one of the largest and most elaborate tombs of the known world for a woman, honoring her as a demigoddess or hero," wrote the Greek Reporter, a news agency.

Other historians and archaeologists reject the Olympias guess altogether.

"Inscriptions are very clear and several indicate Olympias was buried at Pydna - so if she is in the tomb she would have to be the badly damaged bones with no sex determined," classical archaeologist Dorothy King told Discovery News.

Remains of Alexander the Great's Father Confirmed Found

While it is almost impossible to make guesses about the newborn baby and the cremated adult whose sex could not be determined, speculations abound on the two men.

The fact that both suffered from degenerative osteoarthritis, or degenerative joint disease, and spondylitis, which causes inflammation in the spine or vertebrae, has prompted many to suggest they could have been related.

The older man had injuries that had healed, while the younger one was murdered, probably with a knife, as the cut marks in his left chest show.

Philip III Arrhidaeus, Alexander's half-brother, who assumed the throne after Alexander's death with his wife Eurydice II, is a likely candidate, according to King.

Best-Ever Portrait of Alexander the Great Found?

"Philip III Arrhidaeus was murdered and is the right age for one of the men," she writes in her blog.

King believes there is a copying mistake in the sources stating that Philip and Eurydice are buried at Vergina.

"Most likely Philip III and Eurydice II were buried at Amphipolis," she said.

Indeed, Amphipolis is where Philip and Eurydice were imprisoned. Philip III was then stabbed on the orders of Olympias, while Eurydice was forced to commit suicide.

The age and condition of the individuals buried in the massive tomb has played a key role in the Amphipolis heated guessing game. It ruled out candidates such as Roxane, Alexander the Great's wife, Cleopatra, the daughter of Olympias, and Hephaestion, Alexander's close friend who died - not stabbed - at 32.

Best-Ever Portrait of Alexander the Great Found?

"The bottom line is not just any noble could have built this sort of tomb," King said.

She noted the Argead Dynasty, the ruling dynasty of Macedonia from about 700 to 310 BC, had strong ties to Amphipolis for centuries – Alexander I famously defeated the Persians there.

Other scenarios are also possible. According to Chugg, the cist tomb and its burials could be a re-use of an already robbed tomb in the Roman period, subsequently again raided and disturbed by robbers. In this view, the few fragments found of an adult cremation could in fact be the original occupant.

"However, this explanation makes it difficult to account for the elaborate sealing of a robbed out tomb in the Roman period," Chugg said.

Greek Tomb's Female Forms Hint Olympias May Lie Within

According to Theodore Antikas, head of the Vergina Excavation Anthropological Research Team, who was not involved in the Amphipolis project, all speculations are premature.

"No one can offer a guess on the identity of the individuals and/or any genetic relationship of the two males. Only DNA can do that," he told Discovery Nes Further analysis, including radio carbon and genetic testing, will be carried out in the next months.

The Culture Ministry specified that investigation on the mysterious bones is part of a broader research program, which includes the analysis of about 300 skeletons, coming from the area of Amphipolis and covering the period from 1000 BC to 200 BC.

Stabbed to death: A bone with cut marks belonging to the 35-year-old male.