Archaeologists say they have unraveled the identities of human remains in an ancient Greek royal tomb that are “among the most historically important” skeletons in Europe.
According to a study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, the skeletons they investigated belong to the father, the half-brother and the son of Alexander the Great—ruler of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon between 336 B.C. until his death in 323 B.C.
During his reign, the legendary leader waged extensive military campaigns, creating one of the largest empires ever seen—spanning from Greece to northwestern India. Undefeated in battle, he is widely considered to be among the most successful military commanders in history.
In the latest study, the researchers studied skeletal remains found in the so-called “Great Tumulus” in the vast necropolis of Aegae—located at Vergina in northern Greece. The “Great Tumulus” is one of four clusters of royal Macedonian tombs at Aegae that date to different periods of ancient history and are covered by tumuli—mounds of earth and stone raised over graves.
The Great Tumulus contains three significant tombs (called Royal Tombs I, II and III) that are thought to date to around the late 4th century B.C. But there has been a long-running debate among scholars over the identities of the occupants of each of these 4th century B.C. tombs at Aegae—the first capital of ancient Macedon.
“This is a unique case in Greek archaeology of tombs that may be associated with important historical figures,” the authors of the latest study wrote in the paper.
The debate “could not be solved by archaeology alone and could only be solved by physical anthropology,” Antonis Bartsiokas, lead author of the study with the Department of History and Ethnology at the Democritus University of Thrace in Greece, told Newsweek. “As a paleoanthropologist, I thought I could solve this intriguing puzzle.”
The royal tombs under the Great Tumulus were excavated in the 1970s and archaeologists subsequently proposed that the tombs contained the burials of Macedonian royals—namely, Alexander the Great’s father (Philip II), son (Alexander IV) and half-brother (Arrhidaeus Philip III). The findings from these excavations helped Vergina to become a renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Specifically, researchers identified the occupant of Royal Tomb II as that of Philip II, who died in 336 B.C. Meanwhile, Tomb I was associated with Arrhidaeus and Tomb III with Alexander IV.
Most scholars agree that Tomb III belongs to Alexander IV—the teenage son of Alexander the Great. But strenuous debate over the other two tombs continues unabated.
In order to shed new light on the burials, a team of researchers from Greece, Spain and the U.S. studied the skeletal remains, as well as reviewing the available archaeological and historical data.
These investigations revealed that the male remains in Tomb I actually belong to Philip II. The tomb also contains the remains of a woman and a very young baby, which the researchers concluded were his wife Cleopatra and their newborn child.
This fits with historical accounts of the death of Philip, who was assassinated shortly after his wife, Cleopatra, gave birth. Cleopatra and the baby were also killed shortly after.
“First, it was known from the historical sources that Philip II was injured in the eye. The traditional position claimed that there was an eye injury in the male skeleton of Tomb II meaning the occupant was Philip II. However, we have shown that this notion was based on a description of a non-existent injury in the eye area,” Bartsiokas said.
“Second, there was a fused leg in the male skeleton of Tomb I consistent with the notorious lameness of Philip II. Third, the presence of a newborn in Tomb I confirms the identification Tomb I as that belonging to Philip II because the newborn was the only assassinated newborn known from any royal Macedonian couple.”
“Fourth, the biological age of the female at 18 years old is consistent with that of the last wife of Philip II, Cleopatra—it is known from the ancient sources that she was a young girl when she was assassinated along with her newborn child.”
Furthermore, no evidence of trauma was found in the male skeleton of Tomb II, which also contains the remains of a female. Evidence of cremation in the male and female skeletons is consistent with the historic evidence for Arrhidaeus.
As consequence, the researchers concluded that Tomb II belongs to King Arrhidaeus and his wife Adea Eurydice. Finally, the researchers found no evidence to refute the widely accepted view that Tomb III belongs to Alexander IV.
“These conclusions refute the traditional speculation that Tomb II belongs to Philip II,” the authors wrote.
Given their conclusion that Tomb II belongs to Arrhidaeus, not Philip II, the researchers suggest that some of the objects found inside of it, such as the armor, were once the property of Alexander the Great.
“The identities of the occupants would have an enormous impact on the interpretation of their contents. For example, due to ancient depictions and descriptions, some scholars have suggested that some of the objects in Tomb II, such as the armor, belonged to Alexander the Great, which is possible only if this is the Tomb of Arrhidaeus, not Philip II,” the authors wrote.