Monday, March 25, 2013

More tombs discovered at Vergina

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The number of Macedonian built tombs discovered at the necropolis of Vergina (ancient Aegae) continues to rise, and details of three impressive tombs were revealed by Dr. Angeliki Kottaridi (Director of the 17th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities) this month. It is hoped that these tombs and other recently discovered funerary monuments might lead to a better understanding of the evolution of Macedonian tombs. These particular tombs are part of a cluster discovered near the Town Hall of Vergina, in an area of the necropolis with burials from the 6th and 5th centuries BC.
Cist tomb
One is a large, stone-built cist grave that survives almost completely up to its original height. It is decorated with blue and red painted bands and with the characteristic stone platform that marks the position of the funerary couch and the urn on its southern side. Another tomb, located to the south has been mostly destroyed.
North of these two tombs was found a very impressive monument. The tomb, surviving up to around the middle of its original height (estimated to reach 4.5 metres), consists of a chamber measuring 7 metres by 5 metres with the stone ceiling supported by two Ionic columns on high square bases. Two engaged half-columns in each wall, and ‘quarter’ columns in each corner provided architectural decoration but no actual supporting function.

Hypostyle tomb

A fallen capital gave some clue to the decoration of the tomb. It was covered with white plaster, and its scrolls highlighted with blue and the centre in red. In style it mimics a type known from mid 5th century BC monuments. The opening, framed by two semi-columns, is located in the middle of the north (long) side and would have been reached via a monumental stairway. This opening was directly opposite the platform for the funerary bed and urn. The plan is unprecedented in Macedonian Tombs discovered to date. It is thought to date to the 5th century, and would therefore be one of the earlier stone built tombs in Macedonia.
Human and animal remains
It is also remarkable that a large quantity of human and animal remains were found in this tomb. Archaeologists have counted fifteen horses, several dogs, a dozen adults, several infants and toddlers. The position and condition of the remains suggests that they were thrown into the already looted grave after death a considerable time after its original use. In amongst these remains were sherds of pottery, tiles, pieces of a marble funerary stele and a lead curse. These were all within the same archaeological context and this, on the basis of the pottery and a bronze coin, is probably connected to the destruction of Aegae after King Perseus’ defeat by the Romans at the battle of Pydna in 168 BC and the fall of the Macedonian Kingdom.
All of the tombs had been looted in antiquity, and this destruction can probably be linked to King Pyrrhus’ Gaulish mercenaries overrunning the royal necropolis of Aegae in 276 BC as reported by Diodorus.
However, traces from the funerary pyres were found during the excavation, and some spectacular finds were made including a relief in gold, perhaps from a shield, depicting two warriors fighting a duel that was found in the cist grave. A golden acorn from a wreath was also found in the cist grave, further suggesting that the deceased was a man.
Gold shield decoration?
The hypostyle tomb produced pieces of a cuirass in the form of scales, and a number of golden discs carved with the characteristic Macedonian ‘sun-burst’ also survived the looting.
Between the hypostyle tomb and the cist grave, the archaeologists also found a 15 metre long floor surface paved with pebbles, and fragments of white and coloured wall plaster. This clearly indicates that the walls of this building were removed for secondary use. The function of the building may be discerned from the discovery of fragments of alabaster unguentariums and a bronze tinned plate, suggestive of cult or ritual activity, while a coin of Perdikkas II (454-413 BC), gives a terminus post quem for the destruction or dismantling of the building. Fragments of a large sculpted floral motif with spiral shoots, buds and acanthus leaves, probably an antefix were probably from a funerary monument, while the stratigraphy indicates that there have been three or four more tombs within this particular cluster.
The necropolis at Aegae covers a wide area and includes many different types of burials and tombs, including of course the 'royal' tombs of Philip II and Alexander IV.

Philip II's Palace at Vergina: new discoveries

When I first visited the ancient palace at Aegae (modern Vergina) many years ago all guide books and literature referred to it as the ‘Hellenistic palace’.  During that, and many subsequent visits, as I wandered through the rooms and admired the view from the terrace, I wished that it were the palace of Philip. I imagined the king, his golden son and heir, and the rest of the court as they sacrificed and feasted. I imagined the cups and ewers I had seen in the museum being held aloft to toast the gods and the god-like exploits of the Argeads, and sighed to think that they had not actually been there, in this, one of the most evocative of sites.
It is not very often that a wish comes true, but on this occasion one has. The recent excavations, started in 2007 by the 17th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, have revealed that this was indeed the palace of Philip II. Imagine that: Philip, Alexander, Olympias, Antipater, Parmenion met and slept, dined and argued, plotted and planned here. And one fateful morning the royal party set off from this very palace, down the hill to the theatre below to celebrate the wedding of Philip’s daughter Cleopatra to King Alexander of Epirus, to the death of Philip at an assassin’s hand and 21 year old Alexander became king.
Aerial view showing palace and theatre
 The excavations have continued apace, and the latest discoveries were announced by Dr Angeliki Kottaridi in November 2012 at the Congress Hall of the Aristotle’s School, Naoussa.
The monumental nature of the palace complex is significant: it covers a total area of ​​12,500 square metres (three times as big as the Parthenon) and is adorned with 500 square metres of floor mosaics.  This is even more impressive when one learns that the entire complex was designed and built as a whole, its construction being completed sometime between 350 and 336 BC.
Mosaic floor
But it is not only the floor plan that is impressive. One of the features of the palace is its use of vast two storey porticos, and a number of architectural innovations that break with the traditions and canons of classical Greek architecture. Philip is making a statement, leaving a legacy.
The monumental portico, adorned with paintings, offered dozens of suppliants and petitioners a place to rest and prepare for their audience or business. The open area could accommodate at least 3,500 people seated. Inside there were spaces for feasts, symposia, archives and a throne room.
The number of the architectural fragments already conserved and studied mean that it will be possible to restore parts of both the propylon’s upper floor with the pseudo-windows in stone and the fa├žade porticos around the atrium of the central building in the new museum of Aegae. 
Imagined reconstruction of palace
 Research has also shed light on the function of the Aegae palace.  This was a ceremonial palace, celebrating the seat of the dynasty and near to the ancestral necropolis. It was not simply a royal residence but a public space embodying the royal authority.
Dr Kottaridi’s own research shows that the building’s design follows the mathematical and philosophical prototype based on the golden section. This embodies both the golden Pythagorean triangle and Plato’s idea on the construction of the “Soul of the World” as formulated in Timaeus. Philip saw his royal power as a union between the transcendental and the secular – as befits someone descended from Zeus via Heracles.
The palace was the seat of political, religious, legislative, judicial and intellectual power, a building both private and public: the archetype of the Hellenistic palace.  
Excavations showing 'andron' or men's dining room
On my last two visits the site has been inaccessible due to the ongoing works, so I have yet to wander around the palace knowing that I truly am walking in the footsteps of Philip and Alexander, but I am looking forward to the day when I can do so, and to perhaps imagining that famous scene from Plutarch’s Life of Alexander:
“At the wedding of Cleopatra, whom Philip fell in love with and married, she being much too young for him, her uncle Attalus in his drink desired the Macedonians would implore the gods to give them a lawful successor to the kingdom by his niece. This so irritated Alexander, that throwing one of the cups at his head, ‘You villain,’ said he, ‘what, am I then a bastard?’ Then Philip, taking Attalus's part, rose up and would have run his son through; but by good fortune for them both, either his over-hasty rage, or the wine he had drunk, made his foot slip, so that he fell down on the floor. At which Alexander reproachfully insulted over him: ‘See there,’ said he, ‘the man who makes preparations to pass out of Europe into Asia, overturned in passing from one seat to another.’ After this debauch, he and his mother Olympias withdrew from Philip's company, and when he had placed her in Epirus, he himself retired into Illyria.”

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Restoration of the Hellenistic theatre of Naoussa

Unsurprisingly a lot of exciting discoveries were announced at this month’s Annual Conference for Archaeological Work in Macedonia and Thrace that took place in Thessaloniki. I’ll deal with the excavations at Vergina in other posts, but first news concerning the Hellenistic theatre of Naoussa which was discovered in 1992 near Kopanos and is now undergoing restoration.
Ongoing restoration of the theatre
The theatre, which dates to the 2nd century BC, is relatively large for a ‘provincial’ location, which gives rise to questions about the population in the area at that time. It is located on the slope of a low hill overlooking the plain, and is oriented to the east, using the natural slope of the hill so that the magnificent view provides the backdrop, a common device in theatres of this period.
Theatre before restoration
The auditorium is carved into the natural soft limestone and the bulk of the stone from the first seven rows survives. A further 12 rows can be made out, but the cavea may have been much larger in ancient times. The proscenium and the wall of the skene are preserved and the orchestra has a diameter of 22 metres.

In 2007 the first phase of a maintenance and rebuilding project commenced. The work included the restoration of the skene (including with new stone) and part of the cavea was also restored, using the ancient stones where possible.

In 2011, the second phase included further maintenance and restoration using the ancient stones which continues today.  The plan is for a total restoration of the monument to be used for cultural activity.


Naoussa, of course, is most famous for the archaeological site known as the ‘Nymphaeum’, often identified as the ‘School of Aristotle’ where the philosopher taught the young Alexander and his companions. There are also a number of Macdonian built tombs in the area and the remains of some ‘villas’ or Hellenistic farmsteads. 
Nymphaeum or School of Aristotle