Thinking Out Loud About the Amphipolis Tomb ~ The Rogueclassicist Speculates

School starts tomorrow so I don’t know whether I’ll have time to flesh this out today, but I want to put this suggestion out there. It actually builds on assorted things proposed by plenty of folks but adds something original, I think. Here’s my speculation on the tomb based on recent things:

1. It is  not implausible that it was intended for Alexander and would have been started while he was still alive

2. Of course, Alexander ended up getting buried in Alexandria

3. So Amphipolis ends up with this big tomb and no one to put in it; but putting ANYONE other than the intended occupant in that tomb would be making a political statement

4. The latest news from the site suggests there were great efforts made to seal the tomb in an unprecedented way (I’ll be posting on this later today or tomorrow) … so:

5. Rogueclassicist goes out on a limb to suggest the Amphipolis tomb will turn out to be EMPTY (wall decorations might be there); not looted but intentionally not used.

6. The tomb/mound was transformed into a memorial monument of sorts (everyone knew it was there), with the lion put on top as a sort of generic marker of sorts. The ‘sphinxes’ were beheaded when everything was sealed up because they weren’t guarding anything. Perhaps a symbolic ‘deterrent’ for folks who might have been thinking about using the tomb for themselves.

… I’m hoping I’ll be proven wrong in the next few weeks and we’ll have a magnificent, occupied, Macedonian tomb but this is going to be my working hypothesis for the next few days.

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.


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:

Quick Amphipolis Update: Significant Fragments

Quickly reading (or more properly, google translating) some of the Greek press this a.m., it appears some significant finds were made yesterday as they cleared the door. The skinny: the sphinxes are made of marble from Thassos, archaeologists found the detached  wing of one of them, and perhaps even more important, a bit of the back of the Lion of Amphipolis were also found. Here’s the brief bit from News247 which mentions all this:

Η πλήρης αποκάλυψη των μαρμάρινων Σφιγγών που βρέθηκαν στον Τύμβο Καστά στην Αμφίπολη, η εύρεση τμήματος από τη ράχη του Λέοντος, καθώς και μικρού τμήματος της ανωδομής του μνημείου, είναι τα νέα δεδομένα από τις ανασκαφές που διεξάγει η ΚΗ΄ Εφορεία Προϊστορικών και Κλασικών Αρχαιοτήτων στην περιοχή, σύμφωνα με ανακοίνωση του υπουργείου Πολιτισμού και Αθλητισμού.

… and here’s the sphinxes … Ministry of Culture photo:

Ministry of Culture photo via

Ministry of Culture photo via

Photo via: Αμφίπολη: Εντυπωσιάζουν οι Σφίγγες στην είσοδο του αρχαίου τάφου (


UPDATE (a few hours later): an excerpt from eKathimerini’s coverage:


The two sphinxes, which apart from being headless also have broken wings, are believed to have been crafted “by the same hands” as those which made a 16-foot-tall marble lion which is thought to have sat atop the burial site, archaeologists working on the dig told Kathimerini.

The sphinxes, each weighing around 1.5 tons and with traces of red coloring on their feet, will not be removed from the entrance to the tomb as archaeologists clear away stones and earth to gain access.

The sphinxes are 1.45 meters high and would have been 2 meters high with their heads, the Culture Ministry said in a statement.

Pieces of the sphinxes’ wings were found on the site, as was a large section of the back of the lion sculpture, archaeologists said.

Experts working on the excavation were also examining a section of the tomb wall which bears traces of red and blue coloring, in two shades. A mosaic displaying black and white rhombus shapes has also been discovered on the site.

A mosaic displaying black and white rhombus shapes has also been discovered on the site.

Technical work began on Monday at the tomb to avert any structural damage as archaeologists attempt to enter the tomb and discover what lies inside.

Some experts believe the site has been raided in the past but archaeologists cannot yet confirm this. […]

… I wonder if the mosaic is a pebble mosaic or proper tesserae …

In Case You’re Wondering About Amphipolis

Although I intend to write later something about an aspect of the Amphipolis tomb which I find interesting (the sphinxes), I thought folks might be interested to hear ‘the latest’. The find really isn’t getting as much press in English as it is in Greek (perhaps understandably) but while scanning the latest editions of online Greek newspapers, I came across an English source called GRReporter which seems to be writing excellent summaries of what the Greek press is saying (certainly better than Google Translate), without wasting time speculating heavily on who might be in the tomb. So here’s a taste of GR Reporter from yesterday:

Over the past few days the region around the excavations of the tomb in Amphipolis has become the subject of increased interest on the part of tourists who had chosen North Greece for their summer holiday. They arrived at the fenced and heavily guarded site by bus and car, trying to see the entrance with the two sphinxes that the archaeological team has discovered.

Although the work was interrupted during the three days from 15-18 August the tourist inflow to the region of the gulf of the River Strouma was continuous, as reported by local sources.

Hundreds of tourists visited the museum in Amphipolis to see the ancient artefacts exhibited there. Some of them came equipped with special telescopic lenses to capture the details of the covered tomb entrance.

The excavations were resumed on Monday morning and the composition of the team was expanded with the addition of several archaeologists in order for the mystery hidden by the tomb to be revealed as soon as possible. Archaeologist Michalis Lefantzis, a close collaborator of head of the excavations Catherine Peristeri, is at the site as well.

“Whatever happens, you will learn about it very soon,” he told the Greek news agency AMNA, adding that the information on the course of the archaeological excavations will only be provided by the Ministry of Culture.

The tomb of unique size and its so far secret occupant have provoked huge media interest. Television stations both from West European and from Greece’s neighbouring countries have sent crews to the site as well. According to mayor of the local municipality Athanasios Zournatzis “the region was visited by a TV crew from Bulgaria and many tourist groups arriving by bus.”

It is already clear that both the sphinxes and marble slabs at the entrance of the tomb will be removed to facilitate the access of archaeologists to its interior.

According to them, behind the wall of the entrance, the floor is tessellated with diamond-shaped pieces and it probably goes behind the door and its poles. The geophysical survey that was conducted last year showed that the interior of the tomb is divided into three rooms. When the soil in this part is removed, which may take place along with the excavations, archaeologists will dismantle part of the wall that was built after the deceased person was laid in the grave in order to protect the building. The dismantling will take place stone by stone, and each piece will be described, numbered and documented. If there is no second building behind the first wall archaeologists may find themselves in front of the grave that will be opened as described.

They do not exclude the possibility of demolition in some of the three inside rooms. In this case, the soil will be carefully collected and transported because it could contain valuable finds.

If this worst-case scenario is not confirmed and the three rooms are empty, archaeologists will take pictures of them and will establish whether the tomb has remained intact over the centuries or if it has been already opened. If the latter proves to be true then the probability of it being deprived of important elements is great. In this case, archaeologists will have to base their assumptions on any things that they may find. However, if the grave was not the target of attacks in the past, the identification of the deceased person(s) will be easier, based on the skeleton, sex, age, height, and the burial gifts around him or her, or them.

Despite the increased speculation that the body of Alexander the Great could have been laid in the tomb, the head of the excavations continues to believe that a senior general of his army was buried there. So far, however, there is insufficient data to exactly determine his identity.

… and this morning they have a nice profile of archaeologist Katherine Peristeri (whose name Google Translate really mangles):

Over the past 10 days Greece has again found itself at the epicentre of global interest. This time the reason is not the economic crisis but a kind of an archaeological thriller. It is expected that its end will reveal the secret of the tomb in Amphipolis where the excavations are being intensively conducted and are already in the final phase. They are led by head of the 28th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities Catherine Peristeri.

She has been the head of the service since 2009 but her connection with the tomb goes back a long way to the time when she was a research associate of famous archaeologist Dimitris Lazaridis, who began the excavations in the region in 1965. From her work with him, she keeps many memories that are associated with some of the greatest discoveries. For example, after the discovery of the tomb of Philip of Macedonia in Vergina by Manolis Andronikos, Lazaridis bitterly stated, “I could not find Roxana.”

In 2009 Catherine Peristeri became the head of the group that began to work intensively to uncover the tomb in Amphipolis. The people who know her define her as an archaeologist with rich knowledge and experience, with a strong motivation to achieve her goal and reveal the identity of the deceased person who was laid in the tomb.

Until 2012, the excavations were limited to the first level, without giving interesting results. In 2012, however, Peristeri began to explore the lower layers to establish the size of the tomb.

The excavations in the first two areas within the perimeter of the Kasta hill did not yield the desired result. However, while exploring the third zone, the archaeologist uncovered a significant finding, namely the impressive yard of the tomb. At the beginning of the excavations, the mound was 23 metres high and archaeologists had to “go down” another 12 metres to reach their find, as stated by Peristeri.

In this phase of the excavations, which is of the key ones, she found a stone ring. This finding led to the discovery of a 3 metres high wall that was exceptionally impressive as a structure and of the 60 metres long built yard of the tomb, which was fully preserved. The remaining part with a perimeter of 500 metres was destroyed in antiquity.

At this stage of her work, Peristeri sought assistance from architect Michalis Lefantzis who has experience from his work on the projects for the restoration of the Acropolis in Athens and happened to be in the region at that time. From that moment Lefantzis became a permanent member of the team led by Peristeri. They both tried to reconstruct the funerary complex and after a long study, they concluded that the Lion of Amphipolis was directly connected to the eponymous tomb.

Moreover, the digital scanning that was carried out last year showed that the yard of the tomb formed a perfect circle, and that the lion, which today is located at a distance of five kilometres from it, was placed on top.

It is said that the meeting between Catharine Peristeri and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras that took place 10 days ago was just one of the many conversations held between them over the past two years. Their acquaintance dates back to the time when Samaras was Minister of Culture from 2007 to 2009 According to sources, he had assisted her ​​many times to solve various problems encountered during the excavation works in order for them to continue unhindered.

One of Catherine Peristeri’s most characteristic features is that she is very concise in her statements. The reason for this is her desire to prevent her words from being misinterpreted. Her decision is justified by the fact that she and her team members are often forced to refute various rumours about the identity of the deceased in the tomb, the most common of them being that Alexander the Great himself was laid there.

In order to interrupt the flow of false rumours, the Greek Ministry has announced that it will issue continuous information bulletins on the progress of the excavations. The same message refutes the reports that the two sphinxes that are at the entrance of the tomb are to be removed in order to facilitate the access of archaeologists to its interior.

We look forward to the ‘continuous information bulletins’ … perhaps they’ll update their website (which seems stuck in April 2014 or thereabouts; still haven’t seen anything on this at their site … unless they have a different one?).

TL;DR:  they’ve resumed excavations, found a mosaic floor near the entrance, are removing the big stones in front of it, but leaving the sphinxes.

[why are TL;DR things at the end of things; shouldn’t they be at the start?]


… more to come later; if you missed our initial coverage:

Augustus Bimillennium Filmfest

To mark the bimillennium of Augustus’ death, here’s a little filmfest to help you remember why he’s so darned important (as if you needed it):

We’ll start with Adrian Murdoch’s Emperors of Rome podcast on Augustus to get a quick overview:

The fine folks at AIRC have just put up a nice little video which showcases a lot of the buildings (still around) which are associated with Augustus in the city of Rome:

A couple of podcasty type things about the Ara Pacis … the first from the Khan Academy:

… and the Ancient Art Podcast:

The Open University has a nice thing on Augustus’ house and the mythology tied to it:

For some reason, I’ve always loved this little excerpt when Octavian takes on the purple (from the Rome series):

… and Augustus’ death scene from I, Claudius (with commentary from the actors):