Thursday, March 3, 2011

Tomb II at Vergina - who was the woman?

So, back to Tomb II at Vergina. Since its discovery by Andronikos in 1977, Tomb II has fascinated archaeologists and historians because it offers us the rare hope of being the tomb of a famous ancient individual – and not just any figure from history, but the father of Alexander the Great: Philip II of Macedon.
Arguments have raged back and forth, as discussed in a previous post (Tomb II at Vergina.... the mystery rumbles on, Friday, September 10, 2010) but few people have taken the line that the key to the identity of the male may actually lie with the identification of the female whose bones were in the gold larnax in the outer chamber. Obviously, the woman needs to be connected in some way to the man whose remains lie in the inner chamber. Those who think that the male is Philip Arridaios, son of Philip II and half brother of Alexander, must presumably believe that the bones are of Eurydice, his wife.
The bones of the female have been examined by Xirotiris and Langenscheidt and also Musgrave. These authorities agree that they belonged to a woman aged between 20 and 30, and probably about 25 years old. What is very striking is that they two sets of bones survive in very different quantities. The male is a virtually complete skeleton including whole limb bones, whilst the total fragments from the female weigh only 1312g and are small fragments, such as can be found in many ancient Greek cremations. The reason for this difference can be explained by the fact that the male seems to have been burnt in an enclosed space, a hypothesis since given weight by Dr Angeliki Kottaridi’s excavation of the funeral pyre remains, including the construction of a small building in which to burn the body.
On the other hand, it seems the woman was cremated on an open pyre. The cremains show that she was burned ‘fleshed’, that is, with the flesh still on the bones at the point of cremation. Scholars who would like this female to be Eurydike, wife of Philip Arrhidaios have, therefore a problem here, as she and her husband were reinterred, and cremated dry. At 25ish, she is also considerably older than Eurydike was at her death (her age at death was estimated at between 18 and 19 and some months).
Scholars who believe that the male occupant of the tomb is Philip II have often presumed that the woman must be Cleopatra, Philip’s last wife who was murdered, or forced to commit suicide, on the order of Olympias, Philip’s wife and the mother of Alexander, early in 335. She would have been between 20 and 30 at her death. But would Alexander have treated with such honour the young wife who supplanted his mother and whose marriage to Philip caused Alexander to fall out with his father and leave court in self-imposed exile? And where is her child Europa, who died with her mother?
An alternative answer to the question of the woman’s identity was put forward by the late great Nicholas Hammond, and is now at last gaining some credibility. The only other wife of Philip who was of the right age was Meda, whom he married in probably 339. Meda was of the tribe named Getae, neighbours of the Scythians, and there is at least one object in the antechamber that is of Scythian origin – the beautifully worked gold quiver cover. 

There is a gold neck fitting also of a Scythian type, and a Greek archaeologist has also suggested that the small pair of mis-matched greaves (sometimes thought to be reflective of Philip’s leg injury, but actually smaller that the other sets in the tomb) might have belonged to an archer – since ancient archers  bent on one knee to fire their arrows and would need greater flexibility at the ankle, therefore one greave could be shorter.
The Scythians and their neighbours were famed for their archery skills and it is possible that these objects could have belonged to Meda. Further, and perhaps the most compelling and chilling, evidence for Meda is that the Getae are known to have practiced suttee – by which custom the wife voluntarily submits to be burned on an open pyre on the death of her husband. This would explain why the cremains of the man and the woman are so different.
And of course, if we accept that the female is Meda, then the male must be Philip II, her husband. What a life Meda must have led, sent far from her homeland and married to a man who was often away on campaign, while she was left in Pella, vying with the other wives of Philip for her position at court. At least in death she achieved the greatest prize of all the wives – buried with great honour and privilege near to her husband and king, one of the greatest figures in ancient history.