17 February 2009

Vergina... Royal Tombs (Field Trip 06 February 2009)

The Royal Tombs of Vergina – Burial grounds of Macedonian King Philip II, Alexander IV of Macedon, Persephone, and Antigonus II Gonatas.

Discovery of the Tombs –
Excavations started in 1937, by the University of Thessaloniki. They were abandoned on the outbreak of war with Italy in 1940. Excavation resumed after the war and during the 1950s and 1960s the rest of the royal capital was uncovered. The Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos became convinced that a hill called the "Great Tumulus" (in Greek, Μεγάλη Τούμπα) concealed the tombs of the Macedonian kings. In 1977, Andronikos started a six-week dig at the Great Tumulus and found four buried chambers, which he identified as the burial sites of the kings of Macedon, which included the tomb of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, Alexander IV of Macedon, son of Alexander the Great and Roxana.

Vergina Museum before extraction began.

Vergina Musuem - what it looks like today

The Entrance to the Royal Tombs Museum

Vergina Museum – The museum we visited
The Vergina Museum opened in 1993 and was built in a way that would protect the tombs, but still exhibit the artifacts and show the tumulus as it was before the excavations. There are four tombs and one small temple, the heroon built as the temple of the tomb of Philip II of Macedon.

A Macedonian Tomb –
The tombs were usually constructed of limestone and the walls were coated with stucco, which was used as paint for decoration in some cases. Consists of a large burial chamber, antechamber that connects the main burial chamber through a door. The main characteristic of a Macedonian tomb was the barrel-vaulted roof. The entrance is framed by doorposts and lintel. Some of the tombs have architectural decoration, but the smaller tombs are simple. A circular mound nearly always covers the tombs and a built ‘dromos,” a passageway, leads to some of them.

Burial Customs and Grave Goods –
A burial was a matter of personal preference and financial means. Special funeraryurns contained the ashes of the dead. Objects used by the deceased in life were placed in the tomb: weapons and banqueting vessels for the men and jewelry for the women. Figurines and implements of worship were the offerings of the dead person’s family for the afterlife.

During a cremation, the remains of the offerings were placed on the tomb after burial. There are only few instances, including Vergina, where traces of the ceremonies were repeated at regular intervals in honor of the dead have survived and been found.

King Philip II – Alexander the Great’s father – Tomb II
The tomb of Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great was discovered in 1977 and was separated in two rooms. This double-chambered ‘Macedonian tomb’ of extensive dimensions, with barrel-vaulted roof, is from the third quarter of 4th century BC. It is constructed of limestone and plastered with fine white stucco.

The antechamber is crowned by a painted frieze depicting a hunting scene, with a broad, deep-red band runs round the interior walls.

The grave goods found in the antechamber and burial chamber included gold, silver, bronze and iron diadems, wreaths, ossuary chests, quiver-and-bow-case, and vessels. There was also a shield decorated in ivory. The main room included a marble sarcophagus, and in it was the larnax made of 24-carat gold. Inside the golden larnax the bones of the dead were found and a golden wreath of 313 oak leaves and 68 acorns.

The crown found in King Philip II Tomb

The crown found in the Antechamber of King Philip II Tomb

In the antechamber, there was another sarcophagus with another smaller golden larnax containing the bones of a woman wrapped in a golden-purple cloth with a golden diadem decorated with flowers and enamel.

An examination of the skull, showed an injury to the right eye, confirming the identification of Philip II. One of Philip’s young wives, believed to be Cleopatra, was buried in the antechamber.

On the lid of the larnax of Philip II, there is a symbol of a sun or star and this Vergina Sun has been adopted as a symbol of Greek Macedonia.

Gold 'gorytos' (quiver-and-bow-case) with representation of the capture of a city, from the Tomb of Philip II.

King Philip II's Greaves (Shin Guards)

Royal Tomb of King Philip II

The Tomb of the Prince – Alexander IV, son of Alexander the Great and Roxana – Tomb III
This tomb is of a later date than the Tomb of Philip II and it doesn’t have as much decorations on it as King Philip’s did. The antechamber is decorated with a frieze of chariots, while the burial chamber contains a wealth of gold and silver items, mainly banqueting vessels, as well as several ivory objects.

The identification of the cremated bones showed them to belong to a boy aged 13 to 14 years old whose premature death was caused by Cassander.

In 1978, another burial site was also discovered near the tomb of Philip, which belongs to Alexander IV of Macedon son of Alexander the Great. It was slightly smaller than the previous and was not sacked too. It was also arranged in two parts, but only the main room contained a cremated body this time. On a stone pedestal was found a silver hydria which contained the bones and on it a golden oak wreath. There were also utensils and weaponry. A narrow frieze with a chariot race decorated the walls of the tomb.

Royal Tomb of Alexander IV

The Tomb of Persephone – Tomb I
This tomb was built of limestone and was near the edge of the Great Tumulus next to the ‘heroon’. It was named Tomb of Persephone because of its painted ornamentation. The painting is a depiction of the abduction of Persephone by Hades. It is seated on the “mirthless rock.”

The artist believed to have drawn the abduction is Nikomachos, of the mid – 4th century BC. The dating of the tomb is supported by the shards of pottery found in the interior of the tomb.

Depiction of the abduction of the Persephone by Hades



The Tomb with Tetrastyle Prostyle Façade Tomb IV
This tomb is the only Macedonian Tomb to have a freestanding frontal colonnade, and may be an earlier architectural version of the ‘Macedonian tomb’. The greater part of its stonework has been stolen; the only remains are some parts of the stylobate (base of a row of columns) and columns, and a few slabs of its walls.

The ‘heroon’ at Aigai
The ‘heroon’ at Aigai is the foundation and part of the marble superstructure of a small, possibly temple-plan building dedicated to the worship of members of the royal family.

The ‘heroon’ was built shortly after Philip’s tomb and may have contained the cult statue of Philip. The ‘heroon’ was destroyed in 274/3 BC, with it and the Tomb of Persephone were plundered by the Gaulish mercenaries of Pyrrhos.

Model of the 'heroon' and Royal Tombs of Vergina


  1. what evidence has been used to make these predictions?

  2. Did Philip's wife Cleopatra die with him too?

  3. I'm an italian student of archeology and I would like to know if you can give me some books that speaks in detail abuot the royal macedonian tombs goods, a godds catalog.
    thank you

  4. Philip's wife Kleopatra was killed later by his estranged wife Olympia (Alexander the Great's mother).

    Scholars are still undecided on whether Tomb II is Philip II's tomb or not. Although archaeological evidence points more towards Tomb I (tomb of Persephone) as being his.

    There are many articles and books debating the finds. Eugene N. Borza & Olga Palagia have both written extensively on the topics, as well as Manolis Andronikos.