Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Recent work in Macedonia

On a recent trip to Northern Greece it was apparent how much archaeological work is going on in Macedonia. In addition to the thrilling new finds at Vergina – where archaeologists think they may have found the tomb of Alexander the Great’s illegitimate son Heracles – many of the major sites have seen new activity, with the most noticeable changes at Pella and Philippi.

Pella is of course famous as the birthplace of Alexander the Great, but in the past several visitors found their visit a disappointment due to the main road intersecting the site which caused a distinct lack of atmosphere as lorries roared past. Today a new bypass has changed all that and continuing excavations have revealed new and exciting sectors of the city.

In its heyday, Pella ranked with Alexandria and Pergamum as a huge and thriving Hellenistic city. However, the city suffered due to the silting up of the Thermaic Gulf, the siting of a new capital at Thessalonika (named after Alexander’s sister) and a major earthquake. Today only a small proportion of the city has been brought to light, but the stunning pebble mosaics and vast Agora (262×238m) give you an idea of its former splendour.

With the asphalt road gone, the atmosphere of a bustling and prosperous city pervades the site, and the new excavations have revealed more of the residential area with its Hippodamian grid system, an industrial area with several kilns for terracotta production and some very well preserved Hellenistic baths. No-one has yet written a good account of Hellenistic baths and how they worked, but that they are different from the Roman type is clear. The baths feature semi-circles or circular rooms of what appear to be hip-baths, though clearly more investigation might point to a different use. Visitors to Thessalonika might have observed a small suite in the South-East corner of the Agora, but the scale of those in Pella are what sets them apart. One is reminded of the bath tub at the Mycenaean palace in Pylos in which, according to the Odyssey, Telemachos is said to have been bathed by King Nestor’s daughter. We know that the Macedonians preserved many Mycenaean customs….. was bathing somehow part of this?

The same archaeological magic has been worked at Philippi. This city, founded by Philip II, Alexander’s father, is now a site famous for those who want to follow in the footsteps of St. Paul as he was thrown into jail there. Visitors are often shown a small cave and told (without any evidence, I have to say) that this is where he was incarcerated. But once again any atmosphere was ruined by a main road cutting the site in two and causing a real hazard to visitors attempting to cross from one part to another. Unlike at Pella, where the modern road has been completely removed and excavated, at Philippi the tarmac has yet to be taken away, but the major improvement is that one now enters the site at the theatre built by Philip, so we can proceed through the site with some idea of the correct chronology. The theatre is very well-preserved, and is also being sensitively restored. It is a very atmospheric place, with the acropolis towering behind and the impressive basilicas in all their glory below, and beyond one can see the famous plain where Cassius and Brutus met their fates at the hands of Octavian and Marc Antony at the battle of Philippi: a place indeed steeped in history. Another innovation is the introduction of computers across the site to enhance orientation. I was initially dubious about these, wondering how they would stand up to the heat, but they are encased in boxes and all seemed to be working perfectly (and with useful information) on my visit.

All across Greek Macedonia it seems that a lot of work is being carried out on the sites: more Macedonian tombs are open to the public, the palace at Vergina is being re-excavated (with some really interesting news that isn’t yet in the public domain – watch this space…..) and the museum at Dion has been updated to include recent finds and a lot of wonderful inscriptions featuring Macedonian kings. For first time visitors, Macedonia is a wonderful place, very different to other parts of Greece in geography, sites and material culture, but nowadays there is plenty for the returning visitor too!