Vergina: Discovering a king’s tomb

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Taking a bulldozer to open an ancient monument is not usually recommended. But, in 1977, that is exactly what Manolis Andronikos did. After considerable debate, he had come to the conclusion that the Great Mound at Vergina was actually the site of Aegae, the religious capital of Macedonia where Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, was murdered in 336 BC. Could this possibly be the burial place of one of the kings of Macedonia?

For 20 years, Andronikos had been tentatively probing the mound, but in vain. It was so huge that previous attempts to explore its secrets had proved fruitless. However, the previous year, he had found some 4th-century grave- stones in the mound, which looked interesting. It was time to be bold and make a proper attack.

He soon made a promising discovery: a series of large cut stones that must have formed the base of some ritual monument – a heroon, or shrine to heroes, perhaps. Adjacent to it, he found something even more spectacular, a large cist grave with huge rectangular blocks forming the roof. The grave had been looted in Antiquity, but fabulous wall paintings still survived, one of which, depicting the rape of Persephone, is now recognised as a masterpiece of Greek art.

Adjacent to this, however, an even more spectacular structure began to appear: a wall with a cornice. Was this the top of the entrance to a ‘Macedonian’ tomb? In Macedonia, in northern Greece, there is a typical form of very rich burial chamber – known as a Macedonian tomb – where a long passage leads down to a room with a barrel-vaulted roof. Many were built by warriors returning from Alexander the Great’s campaigns, laden with loot from the riches of the East. Andronikos began to wonder if this was the entrance to some great Macedonian tomb and the centrepiece of the huge mound that had been piled over it.

Excavations continued through the autumn, and soon they had uncovered the whole of a very elaborate entrance, with a protective wall in front of it. There was no sign of any robber’s entrance, so their hopes rose that the tomb would be found intact and unplundered. But how should they enter the tomb?

This article is an extract from the full article published in Current World Archaeology Issue 50. Click here to subscribe

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