Amphipolis Tomb Possibly Looted in Antiquity? I am Officially Confused!

In my precaffeinated minutes this a.m. I was jarred awake by a typically hyperbolating Daily Mail headline proclaiming: Game over for Greece’s mystery grave: Tomb raiders plundered site in antiquity – dashing hopes of finding artefacts dating back to Alexander the Great’s reign. Inter alia, a number of times the mantra was repeated, but here’s one excerpt:

[...] Experts had partially investigated the antechamber of the tomb at the Kasta Tumulus site near ancient Amphipolis in Macedonia, Greece, and uncovered a marble wall concealing one or more inner chambers.

They said that a hole in the decorated wall and signs of forced entry indicate it was plundered, but excavations will continue for weeks to make sure. [...]

Now before I deal with the (actually reasonably good evidence) for the claim, I want to sort of ‘run through’ the course of the excavation (with photos from the Ministry of Culture, in the order they’ve appeared at their site), which led me to ask some questions about this tomb that I hope someone can answer. First, here’s an early image that made the rounds of various press agencies, which shows the first revelation of the “sphinxes”. I want folks to notice that the outer wall is ‘continuous’. We can also clearly see the archway with the “sphinxes” and a wall that was built in front of them.

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The blocks in front were removed …

Ministry of Culture photo

Ministry of Culture photo

… and we were presented with a photo of the “sphinxes” … notice there is much dirt behind them. Some of us were idly speculating that there was  a hole of some sort behind the “sphinx” on the right, but in hindsight it struck me that there really wasn’t enough room for someone to get behind the “sphinx” to dig like that.

Ministry of Culture photo

Ministry of Culture photo

Next, they began clearing the ‘entrance’ to the tomb and we heard, inter alia, of a mosaic pavement, but alas, we never did see a photo of same. This would suggest that they had cleared right to the ‘floor’ of the entrance, but I’m not sure that is the case. The photos from the entrance clearing did reveal some nice (painted) details, however. Ecce the initial views (we posted these already):

Ministry of Culture

Ministry of Culture

Ministry of Culture

Ministry of Culture

And now:

Ministry of Culture

Ministry of Culture

Ministry of Culture

Ministry of Culture

Then they were inside the vestibule:

Ministry of Culture

Ministry of Culture

Ministry of Culture

Ministry of Culture

This photo gives an idea of the soil filling the vestible (i.e. in the space behind the “sphinxes”. There clearly was a lot to be removed:

Ministry of Culture

Ministry of Culture

There’s a photo of the dirt having been cleared from behind the “sphinxes”:

Ministry of culture

Ministry of culture

Looking through that you can possible see a trace of the photo that’s causing “disappointment”:

Ministry of Culture

Ministry of Culture

If you look in the upper left, you’ll see the small (40cm x 60cm, according to various reports) hole which possibly provided access to the inside. You can also see the level of the dirt inside and — I’m assuming, from the white shading there –the level the dirt was at. The hole (if it is a hole going all the way through) is large enough for a small person to get through. But how did they get in to dig that hole? The vestibule has a barrel-vaulted stone roof, it appears, so something horizontal from the front? It really doesn’t make sense to me. If it was plundered in antiquity, I doubt they went ‘through the front door’.

Then again, and this is why I have questions, why is this vestibule filled to the top with dirt?  Is this a typical Macedonian practice (I honestly don’t know).  Or was this done later in antiquity, perhaps around the time of the ‘beheading of the sphinxes’? Even then, however, why was it all blocked off with those massive blocks? Done at the time of burial or later in antiquity? If at the time of burial, wouldn’t they have used better dressed stones? And when/why did they fill the space between the blocks and the “sphinxes” with dirt? Was all this meant to be ‘hidden’ or was it once open for passers by to see?

Folks wondering about the ‘latest’ can turn to this a.m.’s Greek version of Kathimerini, where it is revealed that the next few days will be spent protecting the paint and shoring up walls and the like:

… and here are the Ministry Press Releases whence came the above photos (they have other titles, but the MoC’s website has things set up somewhat unconventionally and it’s an incredibly slow site to access):

Some of our previous coverage:

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4 thoughts on “Amphipolis Tomb Possibly Looted in Antiquity? I am Officially Confused!

  1. I ask to myself exactly the same questions. And it would seem that the archaeologists who search the site them also settle. Why to have walled up a grave which had already been looted? And when?
    It is possible that the authors of theis major devastation, namely the Roman which methodically unsettled the grave and went as far as throwing the lion in a river distant from 3 kilometres (!) were seized not with remorse, but worried by someting else: Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus, having literally bled Macedonia dry and dragged Perseus behind its chariot in a gesture of ultimate humiliation, had no interest to leave intact a place which, because of its political importance – there I agree with Doroth King for a grave originally intended for Alexandre – could become a symbol of resistance for the Macedonians.

    The heads of shinxes – or griffons – were probably extracted during the destruction of the grave and returned in Rome. The funeral plunder of the funeral chambers has certainly been done to an another date by more recent looters – French officers asked to destroy a Bulgarian village situated in the same place in 1914 ? – who drilled a pit not far from the original place of the lion or in the damage part of the circular plan – which we distinguish very well in air photos.

    Finally, it is necessary to agree that the strange and contradictory statements of Katerina Peristeri complicate even more things.

    What do You think?

  2. The filling in of the vestibule might have been intended to prevent plundering. I don’t know of exact parallels but it’s reminiscent of the burial of the Aegae tombs beneath the great mound.

  3. I hazard a guess that the tomb was intended as a semi-public place and a shrine and not just a tomb, so the entrance beyond the sphinxes but probably not farther was intended to be open. Then, probably for political reasons, the site’s outer parts were dismantled and it was hidden in it’s entirety at some later point. But there seem to be some amount of respect involved, this was apparently no defilement.

    I have little doubt it was intended as a royal tomb – those that followers Alexander the Great on throne in Macedon would never have allowed any of his commanders to build such a grand tomb, as has been proposed. It would have been seen as a challenge to the royal authority.

    In March there were claims of finding of new Argead royal tombs in Vergina – including Perdiccas II – and possibly the tomb of Cassander. These tombs are far more modest, as is typical of the royal tombs, and as this Amphipolis tomb was build no later than the rule of Cassander, it beggars belief that he would have allowed it to be build while building a much more smaller tomb for himself.

    Beyond the very small possibility that this was not intended to be actual tomb but a shrine or cenotaph or that this was actually originally commissioned by Alexander for his father Philip II, I believe that this was intended to be the tomb for Alexander the Great, somebody else was or were buried there and later, either during dynastic change or Roman takeover, it became politically inconvenient and was deliberately hidden.

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