Amphipolis: More Questions, More Answers ...

Hopefully this will answer the last of the current batch of questions, but the Ministry of Culture issued a new press release: here.

First the Elgin Marbles / Parthenon sculptures

This came up in the comments to my last Amphipolis Q&A. Back in 2003 I was critical of some Greek archaeologists. They're still not all perfect, but I have been far more critical of the British Museum (see here and here for example). In January 2013 I gave a talk at the Wallace Collection about the history of the Parthenon sculptures where I explained why I am in favour of a long-term loan to Greece, and how I thought this could be arranged. Just as Amphipolis is legally Greek but belongs to the world's heritage and is universal, so are the Parthenon sculptures. I'll go into greater detail in another post in the future, but the person who convinced me was Michaelis Lefantzis - the architect at the Acropolis, as well as the discoverer of the Amphipolis tomb (someone should give the guy a medal!). As the situation changed, my views evolved - the Parthenon sculptures may be carved in stone, but intelligent people's views should not always be.

you should talk about the caryatids in more detail and how they help on dating

To which I tweeted back "architectural sculpture tends to be lower quality than portraits and gods, so stylistic dating is risky & the architecture dates" - very little architectural sculpture was by leading sculptors, although the Parthenon and the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus are notable exceptions. The Amphipolis sculptures are of very good quality, and I will discuss them more, but I am always wary of dating architectural sculpture purely stylistically. It should be dated in conjunction with the architecture for which it was created. Architectural sculpture is usually linked to cult buildings, whether temples or theatres, and religious structures such as tombs, so it is often slightly archaising or old-fashioned to emphasise the antiquity of the cult or the dynasty.

As I said yesterday, there are traces of paint on the Caryatids. Also I am wary of overly proscriptive rules when it comes to dating. An American scholar years ago wrote a book about Greek sandals and dating; by her arguments these sorts of raised sandals would be Hellenistic, but they are also known from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus which pre-dates Amphipolis!

This is the new diagram of the tomb the Ministry have released, and the Ministry spokeswoman has also confirmed the likelyhood of a fourth room. And denied that gold coins of Alexander were found!

a) What are the different dating methods one may use for sites like Amphipolis, or for the tombs like the ones at Aegae, and how accurate or uncertain they are?

Small finds such as broken pieces of pottery found in the foundations are the most usual method of dating, as obvious the building on top of them has to post-date them. Also coins are sometimes found in layers, and ideally one has literary sources and inscriptions too! Honestly dating in archaeology can be as much an art as a science, so this is why people publish conflicting articles.  

b) Do we have examples of large scale archaeological monuments which we only found out about after these have been excavated, as there was no historical reference (direct or indirect) to them?

I'm still caffeinating, so can't think of a Greek one off the top of my head, but we lost far more ancient sources than are preserved, so yes! And the best example is a whole ancient Chinese kingdom, about which we know nothing but amazing archaeological finds have been made in recent times.

c) There are many theories out there about the occupant of the Amphipolis tomb, some talk about Alexander despite the numerous references for his burial at Alexandria. Do we have examples in archaeology were historical references proved to be misleading?

Yes! The ancients were just as fallible as us! Vitruvius clearly made a mistake in his 'lesson' about Caryatids, and Pausanias often just repeated the mistakes Roman tour guides told him. BUT I tend to be suspicious of scholars who claim the ancient source was wrong but they are right ... and I tend to by default give the ancient source the benefit of the doubt until proven wrong. 

d) There was a nice article few weeks ago about "tales of tomb looting" (here in greek: http://www.thetoc.gr/politismos/article/istories-tumbwruxias-me-aformi-tin-amfipoli). In that article, Angeliki Kottaridi describes how the tomb of Phillip escaped looting, saying that after the plundering of many other royal tombs by the Gauls, Antigonus Gonatas reinforced the great tumulus. Is that based on a historical reference or is it an assumption (because I can't find a reference). What I found is that Pyrrhus became extremely unpopular among Macedonias for letting the Gauls do what they did (plus for leaving them unpunished, afterwards). Was that maybe a motivation for sealing at least the important Macedonian tombs, like the one of Amphipolis, and could this explain the assumed later date of the filling (compared to the date of its construction)? 

Yes, there are sources of Pyrrhus sacking Vergina, and archaeological evidence for the tumulus built there after the sack. Pyrrhus was a rival of the ruler of Macedonia, and since history tends to be written by the victor ...

I will reiterate what I've been saying all along about looting. Yes there has been looting at Amphipolis over the century, and yes I am aware that a Greek 'expert' has been claiming he knew the Lion Tomb had been recently looted. If he had evidence, he should have gone to the Ministry so they could do something. In fact, the site has been very well guarded for two years. The 'expert' has an agenda in promoting looting - which is a bad problem, but not at this tomb - in order to raise funds so that he can fly around the world talking about it at conferences. I prefer to do something more practical to combat looting, such as getting items sent back.

I think the back-filling at Amphipolis was more likely to be later, and due to structural issues with the tomb about to collapse than to prevent looting. 

e) Here are photos that came up recently after the Amphipolis excavation became front page news: http://prntscr.com/4o7nq0
These are supposed to be soldiers from WW1 period at the north of Greece, near Amphipolis, having some... fun with archaeological sites and skulls. In one of the photos we see an Amphipolis type on tomb entrace, which is walled up, like at Amphipolis (no idea which site is actually that). But walling up seems to have some common elements as the one we saw in front of the sphinxes at Amphipolis. Was that a common practice for Macedonian monuments?

That photo was taken in 1916 and is at the Imperial War Museum. Incidentally, a British officer working to free Greece from the Nazis during WW2 spent a lot of time in Macedonia and used his spare time to identify ancient sites, for example Vergina - he's better known as the archaeologist Nicholas Hammond. Not all British are bad!

Yes, most Macedonian tombs were sealed and buried, but the back-filling is very unusual. 

Do You think that this very tomb is much bigger than the three discovered chambers and that there could be another door in the last- wall, regarding to the size of the tumulus which is huge?

Hopefully I explained this one in yesterday's posts, but yes it probably had more chambers.

Aren't there scientific methods that could be used to absolutely date the find? I understand that carbon dating needs organic material to be applied, but there are other methods as well (according to wilipedia), such as "optically stimulated luminescence" (OSL) whicha can be used to date sediments (or the sand inside the tomb), if I understand correctly. Could something like this work and why hasn't this been done already? 

Carbon dating is very good, but one needs organic material for it to work ... not stone! There's one that works on terracotta, and which I assume is being used on the pottery - although it is distinctive enough and easy for experts to date the sherds, I would guess that the Ministry is making sure everything is double-checked. There are some issues with Carbon Dating at some periods, and it is not perfect, but if they find wood, it will probably be used.

a) there is a house in Amphipolis dated in the 2nd century BC, the painted walls of which remind a lot the structure of blocks forming the circular wall of the tomb. A photo is here:

Thank you! I'd been looking for photos from Olynthus just because it was destroyed by Phillip in 348 BC, so the finds are dated to well before the tomb. Domestic architecture often imitated monumental architecture in stucco or paint. The best examples come from Delos.

b) Strabo mentions nothing about the tomb in his passage for Amphipolis. Is that enough to assume that the tomb was in a bad condition or possibly unrecognisable by the time he visited ( sometime between 27 BC - AD 14)? 

Possibly, but also his sections on Macedonia are highly fragmentary and not fully preserved.

c) the block sequence in the fortification wall of Amphipolis, which I assume is much older than the hellenistic house above, also reminds (a bit) the circular wall of the tomb. Photo here: http://www.losttrails.com/media/Greece/Amphipolis/amphipolis_MG_3240b.jpg

The idea of alternating courses of thick and thin blocks is not unusual, and was a popular decorative feature.

Should the danger of collapse not be avoided at any cost?


How can technology help to assess the situation?

I can't discuss the work not released by the ministry.

What would be plan B?

B!?!?!? I think we might already be on Plan D or E ...

Why not try to enter digging down from the top?
Because going through the entrance is normal, except for Father Christmas and burglars? And we want to preserve the ceilings!


I think that covers the vast majority of the questions?

To add to my comments about paint fading when exposed to the elements, this is the reconstruction of the facade of the Great Tomb at Lefkadia. It was a Macedonian tomb whose facade was buried soon after the funeral but ...

Whilst the architectural elements were bright, as were the guardians painted between the columns ... the metopes copy those of the much earlier Parthenon, and so are shown 'faded' as they would have been by this time.


  1. Thank You for these scrumptious answers....You're a generous woman.

  2. hi dorothy,wha tabout the unusal style of chiton the caryatids are wearing,surely this tells us something,this kind of chiton is common in the 4th cen bc and is painted on many pots.

  3. I'll discuss the Caryatids and their drapery once I've finished washing my own ... the folds arranged that way are known as Omega folds.

  4. Dorothy,

    a huge THANK YOU for your time and effort. The Amphipolis tomb has ignited a passion for Archaeology in many Greeks, and your amazing posts are a great source for level-headed and objective information. The excavators are surely doing all the hard work, but your contribution in satisfying our thirst for some deeper insights cannot be overlooked!

  5. Hello Dorothy,

    this could be just pure idle speculation, but... Is there any chance that some of the structural damage of the third chamber might be recent, caused by earlier excavations of the tumulus?

    Unofficial statements attributed to Prof. Peristeri indicate that soil from the late Prof. Lazaridis' excavations were deposited on top of the area where the current excavation is taking place.


    And the ministry has said in its statement of 14/9 that the southern part of the chamber is under 2-3 metres of dirt, but the northern beneath 12-13 metres (isnt' this too big of a difference to be attributed to the natural sloping of the tumulus?).

    Could this added weight have caused the problems of the third chamber?

    Thank you


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