Quick Answers About Amphipolis ...

Thank you all for your many interesting questions about Amphipolis, and for the information people have been kind enough to email me. I am thrilled people around the world, not just in Greece, are so excited and enthusiastic about the Lion Tomb at Amphipolis, and I'll start with some of the images people have created - please do add credits in the comments, as I don't have them for all the images, partly as I am sticking to the official press releases.

For some questions I have to paraphrase my fictional colleague Lara Croft, and answer "I cold tell you, but then I'd have to kill you ..."

Just as the Luna Temple built off Santorini by Alexander the Great is fictional ... so, I'm afraid, are all claims Alexander was buried at Amphipolis.

Based on what I know, I think it could well have been started by him and finished by the Antigonids; they could well have left it empty, assuming that they would 'soon' bring his body back from Alexandria ... but they never did. Then it would have been either re-used for a subsequent ruler's burial or possibly kept as a cenotaph / heroon to his cult, possibly jointly with Hephaestion, as they were sometimes honoured jointly as dioscouroi. 

Are there more chambers? These diagrams are very useful for showing that the three chambers so far identified don't go very far into the mound, suggesting that there were. It is very unlikely that there was a chamber at the centre of the mound, since that was the support weight for the lion, but since the architect made some structural mistakes, anything is possible.

If there are only three chambers, since these are close to the edge of the mound, the weight they carry is lighter and so they should not have the structural issues we are seeing. I suspect that there are more chambers, in worse condition, and that there is a sort of domino effect, with the badly damaged inner chambers pushing outwards onto the third and second ones ...

People have asked about earthquakes. This damage could have been caused by an earthquake, but the removal of the superstructure was deliberate - we know that as the parts of the lion and the base were found some distance away, by the river, and the reason they were not originally associated with the mound was because of this.

A good example of archaeologists identifying earthquake damage was in the original excavations of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus - one side of the building went splat in an earthquake, and by identifying where on the ground the sculptures were found, Geoffrey Waywell was able to project backwards and identify where on the building they would originally have been.

These are based on the official reconstruction by the archaeologists presented at the Thessaloniki conference - see photo below (the snap was taken at an angle, so the lion was not leaning to the right!).

Again this not Ministry of Culture diagram shows how little under the mound the chambers found go.

The very steep steps down are highly unusual, and I am surprised they have not attracted more comment as there are few parallels.

The gap between the spinx gate and the steps was rather narrow, and then we have to remember that there was a later wall added.

The floor actually looks like this, and has a pattern that echoes the masonry lining the walls:

Again, this is the official reconstruction by the archaeologists:

Yes the tomb is huge, as several people have pointed out. The measurements people keep using for the Mausoleum of Hadrian are of it as it survives as the Castel Sant'Angelo; the original complex was slightly bigger, and closer in size to the Mausoleum of Augustus ... but still tiny compared to Amphipolis!

Although there are almost a dozen earlier more-or-less round buildings, the perfect circle is associated with Dinocrates by the archaeologists working there.

I can't discuss any geo-phys surveys, but I am not expecting gold and treasure. We hopefully will find some things left behind, but the fact that finds have not been announced from the back-fill suggests that they were probably removed when the tomb became structurally unsafe.

Below is a plan of the mound over Tomb II at Vergina. There are a variety of interpretations of who was buried there, but in my opinion Philip II is the best candidate. You can see the plan of a small shrine or naiskos to the right, which may have been a cult shrine.

Vergina was sacked by the troops of Pyrrhus in one of the many wars fought by the successors of Alexander, and the mound seems to post-date this sack since it encompasses several tombs, unlike Amphipolis where the mound is part of the original structure. Various finds in the mound at Vergina come from the funerary pyre, suggesting that there had been a smaller mound before.

This is the Lion as it was reconstructed, using blocks found by the river. The archaeologists have now identified more blocks, to fill in the reconstructed gaps.

The destruction of the Lion and superstructure was not in an earthquake, nor does it seem to be Christian iconoclasm as previously thought. The archaeologists shifted the date downwards into the Roman period, based on small finds such as dated coins found in this destruction layer.

Why someone with a great deal of power would put so much effort into destroying and concealing the tomb is very puzzling. It seems to have been an officially sanctioned project, since although mobs could destroy buildings it is very unlikely that a mob moved the blocks such a great distance.

The destruction could be key to identifying who was buried at Amphipolis. If it was someone like Hephaestion, then it may have been because an emperor did not approve of him? Or it could be linked to a megalomaniac such as Caracalla - perhaps he wanted the only tomb linked to his beloved Alexander to be in Alexandria? There are as many possible answers to that one as there are theories!

Yes, the way the margins are drafted on the masonry in the entrance is quite unusual, but not without parallels - and the whole point of exceptional and important buildings is that they often have unusual architectural features ... that's what makes them special. For example the carved column drums at Ephesus (and I hope no one is planning to re-date that to the Roman period).

There are rosettes carved at Amphipolis, but these are not, to the best of my knowledge, a specifically royal symbol, and they can be found on the funerary stele of ordinary ancient Greeks.

As I've pointed out before, one could see structural issues starting with the Caryatids - the cracks in the lintel above, the face which sheered off and was found in the back-fill.

As I've said before, the archaeologists working at Amphipolis are very good. I've also pointed out that any semi-competent archaeologist could make the observations I'm making. I am competent, but unfortunately not all archaeologists are.

One has re-dated the tomb to Augustus' day on the basis that Caryatids are an Augustan symbol ... as you can all see in this photo of the Caryatids he used in the Forum of Augustus, Augustus liked copies of the Erechtheion Caryatids which were of a completely different type from those found at Amphipolis ...

And even if Amphipolis had had Caryatids that copied the columns carved as Korai from the Erechtheion - which it does not - this would not be grounds for re-dating it to the Roman period. The Heroon of Pericles of Limyra, a local dynast dated to the 4th century BC, also had strange slightly archaising copies of the Erechtheion Korai ... For more on Limyra, see here.

The Ionic door frame on the exterior of the third chamber is unusual, but then so is so much of the Amphipolis tomb. It slightly echoes Egyptian Mastaba Doors, although I am wary of seeing too much into that, or seeing it as the influence of Alexander's conquest of Egypt let alone any other links.

The interior lintel of the third chamber is badly cracked, and shows how precarious the structure of the tomb is. This makes it very dangerous for archaeologists, and is why they are waiting for engineers to shore it up.

The Ionic pilaster capitals from the front entrance are interesting. As on many other buildings, they were painted. I am wary of making too many claims, but the exterior (left) seems more weathered than the interior face (below), suggesting that this part of the tomb was exposed to the elements, and that wind and rain faded some of the paintwork.

The red paint on the walls of the third chamber is interesting. I will simply for now point out that Tyrian Purple, the colour associated with royalty, is also sometimes called Tyrian Red as the colour produced by the Murex is quite a reddish-purple ...

I have to go walk the dog and run errands, but I'll try to do another post later today answering the many other good questions people have asked. Meanwhile I highly recommend looking at the inter-active floor plan of the excavations at The Amphipolis Tomb web site here.


  1. One more question: 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?

  2. Note: The photo of the Lion above is not of the reconstructed original but rather of the plaster model built by Andreas Panagiotakis in the 1930's as a guide to rebuilding it.


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