Searching for the truth in the dark: Vergina
Trip Start Jun 14, 2008
26Trip End Jul 01, 2008
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The other point of interest in Vergina, which was Aigai, the former capital of Makedonia in Alexander's time, was the old Palace in which his ancestors had lived and ruled, and the theatre in which Philip was assassinated during wedding celebrations. Just our luck, the site with both these ruins is closed until December for excavation work. Melissa had warned me that this often happens in Greece and that any of the sites or museums we yearned to visit might be closed. All we could get were shots from afar and through the fence
There are a couple of other Makedonian tombs of wealthy people that have been dug, so we got pics of them.
The city of Aigai has mostly not been excavated. You start to get a feel for land that has ancient stuff buried under it - it looks unnaturally lumpy, with bits that are too square. The Gods only know what amazing stuff is still down there. Greek archaeology is very much hindered wherever there are olive trees, because a tree has to grow for 30 years before it starts producing, and then it can produce for centuries, the orchard providing the entire livelihood for a family for generations. Thus compensating the farmer is very, very expensive and not often done. There must be temples -- it was an important city at one point and every city had more than one -- but they haven't been found.
The presentation of the royal tombs is astonishingly good, the best presentation of an ancient site and its artifacts that I've seen so far in Greece. The tombs and the museum, as I wrote, are in one earth-birmed building designed very much like a tumulus-style tomb, complete with long dromoi into it, so you are underground yourself as you view it all, as if you'd gone back in time and could walk through the earth
Everything is catalogued and placed and explained in detail. The archaeologists went through all the stuff that was found on the pyre over Tomb II, the one claimed to be Philip's, and have it all nicely sorted, arranged and labeled. Remains of a golden wreath... lumps of melted lead (what were they?)... the tack for the four horses that were sacrificed and burned with the man... pins, jewelry, nails from the funeral couch on which he was laid, the charcoal that is all that remains of the wood.
Because Tomb II and the tomb of Alexander's son Alexander IV were not disturbed between the time that the burials were done and the time that they were excavated, everything is well-preserved. The silver banquet-vessels and the war-gear and the golden boxes and wreaths are all in one piece. Even two small pieces of cloth are preserved, as are many delicately-carved pieces of ivory from the ornate wooden funeral couches, though the wood from which they were made has long since rotted away
But there's one very big flaw in the whole thing. Though those graves of relatively average folks are invariably identified -- So-and-so, son of So-and-so, in nice clear Greek writing carved right across the top -- the royals didn't feel the need to so identify their final resting places. Neither the tombs, nor anything in them, has any inscription whatsoever. Thus identifications have been made based on forensic anthropological examinations of the bones -- determining the person's gender, age at death and injuries is possible even with cremated bones -- and, to some degree, on the desires of those who found them. The man in Tomb II was killed in his mid-forties, which matched with Philip's death at age 46.
Thus, while Manolis Andronikos, the archaeologist who led the excavation of the site in 1977 (I was sixteen, and I remember reading about it in the news), claimed from the start that it was Philip in Tomb II, academic opinion now is increasingly turning against that interpretation
All presentation materials in the tomb/museum complex, however, steadfastly adhere to the idea that it's Philip, and make no mention of any other opinion. It's become political, and when that becomes the case, of course, science is always hindered. If you think about what you are looking at, the questions compound. There's a funeral couch, for instance, that has a hunting scene of which all that's left is ivory heads and limbs. Two of the heads have been interpreted as Alexander (for whatever reason -- there are several young, beardless men in the scene) and Philip (though there are two that could be him, in both Melissa's and my opinion). But the Philips are off to the either side in the scene, not central. If it was his funeral couch, why isn't he in the middle?
The same question applies to the Tomb II front fresco. The central figure has been identified as Alexander, and the figure identified as Philip is again, off to one side. Why, if it's his tomb? I was fairly certain before that Alexander would never have been so self-important as to have himself painted in the place of honour in a fresco on his father's tomb; after everything I've seen now in Greece about burial customs, I'm absolutely certain of it. So why are the figures arranged as they are?
Here's a pic, not mine, obviously, of the famous iron and gold-trimmed cuirass that was found in the tomb -- a surprising item as it precisely matches the style of the then-common flexible Greek linen cuirass (made of many layers of cloth, glued together), except made of iron, and with hinges. To me, and not only me, since I've seen this written about by others who've seen it, it seems designed for a person of slight build, quite slender in the chest and waist. On display, it's set up on a stand as if the warrior were wearing it, along with a pair of greaves which are also quite small, and an iron helmet -- obviously found together and considered parts of the same set of armour. But if you measure with your eyes, you see they've cheated -- made his thighs, which were unamoured, longer than they could proportionately be so as to make the hypothesized warrior taller. It's obviously a set of royal-quality armour for a quite diminutive person. And Philip was never said to be small, even by Demosthenes.
As I said, I'm not the only one who's noticed this. I've read it theorized, in fact, that the armour belonged to a young woman -- perhaps Ada Eurydike, whose mother Kynnane was known to have been trained in the arts of war by her own mother, Ada. But I don't think so, because the cuirass is absolutely flat in the chest, so that a woman wouldn't have been able to wear it without being uncomfortably squished, as it were.
My theory is that the armour belonged to a teenage boy (not Alexander IV, since neither it nor any armour was found in his tomb). There's only one member of the family from around that time who is known historically to have fought as a teenager: Alexander. I think it's a suit that he fought in, perhaps against the Maidi when he was regent at age sixteen, but grew out of before he went to Persia, and therefore left behind at Pella. And if the burial was indeed that of Arrhidaios, it was arranged by Kassander, who was an enemy of the family (he was so afraid of Alexander that, the story goes, a mere statue of him could put him in a sweat) -- one who might have thought Alexander's teen armour was sufficient honour for Arrhidaios (who , by the way, is not historically recorded as having ever fought.)
It's a theory, anyway. In my mind there's also something to the Ada Eurydike hypothesis, as long as she was really flat-chested.
But, because of the habit of Makedonian royalty of not identifying their tombs, the questions remain... far more than the beautiful exhibition is willing to admit.