The Amphipolis Caryatids

First off the official photos and information from the Ministry of Culture press release:

As you can see there is a crack in the architrave above. This area was reinforced yesterday, as the soil was slowly removed.

These figures were carved in high relief of Thassian marble and backed on piers measuring 20 by 60 cm (the full height is not yet certain as they have not been excavated to the ground).

As I argued in various papers since 1994, the Caryatids Vitruvius described were funerary, wore a polos and had alternate inner arms raised to support the superstructure (academia is so full of back-stabbing, please allow me to gloat a second) - he did not described as Caryatids the sorts of carved columns seen on the Erechtheion.

The face of the left Caryatid, on the Western side, survives; that of the Caryatid on the right does not.

The curls are slightly archaising.

The arms towards the centre, where the entrance was, are raised - the archaeologists interpret this as them having symbolically raised the arm to guarded the entrance. I think, based on Vitruvius and the many comparanda that they were supporting the roof in penance but ...

The raised arm was 'pieced' a technique also seen on the Sphinxes guarding the first entrance.

The marble retains traces of red and of blue paint. Pieces of the figures such as fingers and parts of the hand have already been found in the soil below. This indicates that the sculptures were damaged before the Romans back-filled the tomb.

In front of the caryatids, and from the waist down there is a limestone wall sealing the tomb (width 4.5m). This is the second sealing wall, and was created using the same technique as the one in front of the Sphinx gate.
As you  can see, the figures carry on down behind the wall, and are almost certainly full length.


Moving on to comparanda:

I posted a version of an article I wrote about them which was also a chapter of my PhD, here (can't blog footnotes, sorry): Article: Vitruvius, Caryatids and Telamones

 The key passages are:

It has become common practice to refer to all female figured supports as Caryatids, the most famous examples being those of the South Porch of the Erechtheion in Athens. This assumption stems from a passage of Vitruvius (De Architectura I. 1. 5), but if one examines the text of Vitruvius it soon becomes apparent that he had a specific type in mind.

Vitruvius gives the story of the Caryatids as a digression on the necessity of architects knowing some History. Unfortunately he himself seems to have made mistakes, and thus the passage is open to interpretation.

Plommer pointed out that Vitruvius’ inclusion of the use of mutules, which are to be found beneath triglyphs, indicates that the figures were placed within the context of the Doric rather than the Ionic order. One can also read into the passage that the figures were ‘burdened’ and physically supporting the superstructure, presumably with their arms, atoning for their sins and not being honoured. They replaced columns and so literally supported the superstructure, but must also have been seen to do so in terms of their pose, bringing in an element of trompe l’œuil.

Subsequently however three Doric tombs, and a number of other sculptures, have been identified, and these provide strong evidence in favour of the Caryatid Monument having had such figures, supporting the superstructure with their palms and poloi. The chronology of these tombs is uncertain, but they all belong to the Hellenistic period.

The first of these is a rock-cut tomb at Aghia Triadha, near Rhodes (above). A square ground-plan was formed by four klinai, at the heads of each of which stood statues of women, carved in the round, and crowned by the circular Doric entablature from which sprang a dome. The figures are highly fragmentary, but preliminary restoration would seem to indicate that they supported the superstructure with alternating raised palms and the poloi on their heads. Their dress, consisting of long peploi, also conforms to the implications of Vitruvius’ textual source. The presence of a dome leads one to assume a date in the later Hellenistic period, and publication of the archaeologists’ evidence for dating is eagerly awaited.

The second example is better preserved, a Thracian tomb near Svestari in modern Bulgaria (above). It dates from soon after 300 BC. The frontal figures, located in the main chamber, are in high relief, but otherwise they fit Vitruvius’ description. Cut into the limestone, they were fully painted, with much of the pigment remaining; details were picked out in ochre, dark brown, blue, red and lilac. The figures stand on ledges between Doric half-columns, and hold up a Doric entablature. The women wear long chitons, the high-girdled overfolds of which are heavily stylised and have been subject to local stylistic variations, turning into three acanthus leaves, below which the long skirts continue, moulding the legs; the shoes protrude from the bottom and are visible. There were ten of these figures in all, standing 1.20 m high: four on the north wall opposite the door, and three on the two side walls. The south wall, where the door was located, was undecorated.

The proportions of the women vary slightly but all are in roughly the same pose. The corner figures have only their inner arms raised, the central figures both. As on the Naples relief and in the Rhodian tomb, they bear the architrave on their hands and poloi. Of particular interest are the faces, with expressions that appear to represent pain and grief, which are quite unusual in Greek sculpture. Their features are all differentiated and highly individual, with a variety of ages, and they appear to be portraits rather than idealised figures. One might note especially the northernmost figure of the west wall, whose head is turned down in a look of great despair. The tomb was built under the influence of Macedonian art.

Although no examples of Caryatids have been found amongst the rather limited architectural sculpture of these, they do make an interesting appearance on the throne in the so-called Tomb of Eurydice at Vergina, suggesting a possible chain of influence. Here there were figures around three sides of the seat, supporting the armrests and the painted panel that formed the back; male figures with raised right arms alternate with female ones whose left arms are raised, both using one of their palms to effect the support. A number of the figures are now missing.

Tomb N 228, Cyrene, is a rock-cut facade tomb, 6.93 m wide, built some time during the later Hellenistic period, probably ca. 150-50 BC (above). At the corners of the facade there are Ionic quarter-columns engaged to pilasters; the whole is however crowned by an undecorated Doric frieze, making this a structure of mixed order. In the centre, between the doors, there are two Caryatids that supported the frieze with their poloi and both raised palms. The figures are carved in relief, and not fully depicted, turning into engaged half-columns with Doric fluting below the knees. The figures are highly Classicising; they seem to wear chitons and the way that these are represented, particularly the apoptygmata, is very much late Classical in style. The figures are quite worn, and the tomb has not yet been fully excavated, but the figures, other than in their dress, appear to conform to Vitruvius’ prescription.

A further type of Caryatid, with archaising and Severe style details, is known through copies surviving at Athens, Tralles and Cherchel; it appears to be an eclectic work of ca. 100 BC, rather than a Classical original, that was copied as late as the Antonine period. The type is known as the Tralles-Cherchel Caryatid, after its most famous known replicas. As with Vitruvian Caryatids the figures could have provided support on their poloi and the palm of one raised arm; those from Tralles may have been architectural, but the others were free-standing copies.

The oldest, and first discovered, figure was found at the Theatre at Tralles, and is now in the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul, no. 1189, ht. 1.86 incl. 0.03 plinth (above). A head from the figure’s pair in the Ecole Evangélique in Smyrna was destroyed in a fire and is now only preserved in a photograph; part of the right shoulder was preserved and showed that this was raised. Stylistically they date from the first half of the first century BC. Carved in a small-grained white marble, the back was summarily worked suggesting that the figure was placed against a wall; the left arm of the extant statue was pieced below the shoulder, and is lost. Also missing are the bottom of the plinth, a few fingers of the right hand, besides which there are numerous chips. It was highly painted, traces of red remaining on the face and blue on the polos. The figure wore a finely pleated short-sleeved chiton and a cloak folded in two and wrapped around her body and over the left shoulder. Although the figures were found in or by the theatre, there is insufficient evidence conclusively to state that they formed an integral part of its decoration; by this late date such Caryatids may no longer have been reserved purely for funerary structures, as they appear to have been earlier in the Hellenistic period, but the use of those that both pre- and postdated them would suggest that might still have been the case.

A version of the figure type was found in the palace of Juba II at Cherchel, the ancient Caesarea of Mauritania, and dates to the 20s BC (photos above). A variant rather than an exact copy, it was a cruder work, provincial and over-exaggerated. The head and upper neck are broken off, the arms missing below the shoulders. The left arm was raised. Two heads and the fragmentary pieces of their bodies, from Hadrianic or Antonine copies, were found on the Athenian Acropolis. The number of examples of the type, their wide geographical spread and the variations in their dates, would suggest that they are replicas of well known originals. Their style suggests that this was an eclectic work of the later Hellenistic period rather than the eponymous Caryatid Monument.

The majority of these examples of Caryatids would appear to come from funerary contexts, so whatever the original pejorative intention of the figures when the Caryatid Monument was set up, the form soon took on overtones of mourning. As well as large-scale examples used as sculptural decoration on buildings, there are a number of small-scale depictions of the pose.

Very similar small figures can be found on a number of late Hellenistic funerary stelae, now in Istanbul, and on either side of the doorway on a late fourth century or early Hellenistic rock-cut tomb at Limyra (photos above).

Caryatids were used by the Romans, almost exclusively in a funerary context, and they decorated a number of Roman Sarcophagi. Caryatids were carved on the corners of a rock-cut sarcophagus at Cyrene which, though sometimes dated to the Hellenistic period, is more likely to be Roman.


I could go on,  but ... Amphipolis is the earliest known example of the type of structure Vitruvius described. The Cyrene tomb clearly imitates the figures on a smaller scale, the Svestari figures are a Thracian re-interpretation of a Macedonian tomb ... and the Tralles-Cherchel figures are an archaising version of a figure type which evolved also into a Classicising version known through figures in Mantua, Venice etc.

So Amphipolis has figures known elsewhere in Macedonian art of the period on the throne of Eurydice at Vergina.

And before anyone criticises the archaeologists in the comments, yes they are aware of all these examples, and yes they've had a copy of my PhD dissertation for ages. For those that want to read it, it's in the ASCSA and IofA libraries amongst others, or is available on Kindle without illustrations:


  1. Many thanks for this nice update. One question is the following : the upper arms of the caryatids in Amphipolis extend at a small angle with the level of the shoulders (almost parallel to them). So wouldn't that have required for the missing, lower parts to the arm to be be disproportionately long, if we assume that the hands were extending to support the architrave? The level of the latter appears to be much higher than the caryatids, and this distance, in other examples you show appears, at least to my eyes, proportionally smaller.

  2. The upper arms at Amphipolis are not quite parallel to the ground ... nor are the poloi as high as they seem in the photos - that's partly the angle of the photos!

    Other Caryatids including the ones I illustrated did not need very long forearms ... but also please remember they were designed as architectural sculpture from the ground below, and ancient sculptors often compensated for the lower viewing angle. Quite often for example pedimental sculpture is displayed at eye levels in museums, but if you lie down on the floor and look up at it ... it looks much better as it was designed to be seen from below.

  3. There are better photos of the 'complete' Vergina throne Caryatids here http://phdiva.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/pssst-seen-these-macedonian-sphinxes.html

  4. Thank You for these pertinent precisions. So, what makes You think That the Romans back-filled the tomb? Maybe these words of Cassius Dio about Emperor Severus? : " After conducting the siege for twenty days, he then went to Palestine, where he sacrificed to the spirit of Pompey. Thence he sailed to Upper Egypt, passing up the Nile, and viewed the whole country with some few exceptions; for instance, he was unable to pass the frontier of Ethiopia because of a pestilence. He inquired into everything, including things that were very carefully hidden; for he was the kind of person to leave nothing, either human or divine, uninvestigated. Accordingly, he took away from practically all the sanctuaries all the books that he could find containing any secret lore, and he locked up the tomb of Alexander; this was in order that no one in future should either view Alexander's body or read what was written in the above-mentioned books. So much, then, for what Severus was doing. "

  5. Is there any explanation why 2nd caryatis head is so accurately cut off? Is it human work?

  6. The rosettes looks to be jeweled at the center?

  7. It is pretty apparent that the upper of the Caryatids are almost parallel to the ground. Maybe there is an elevation angle, but it's definitely small. The photos are pretty clear about it. As such, there is no way the Caryatids' hands are touching the architrave unless the lower arms are longer than usual (muuuch longer). It's very easy to prove with a simple experiment at home with our own arms! On the other hand, in some of Dorothy's photos the Caryatids arms are also almost parallel to the ground. However, we have to notice that in these occasions the Caryatids heads are touching the architrave directly. In the cases that there is an extension (or whatever the term is...) above their heads and hence their upper arms are elevated with a big angle so that they can reach the architrave without requiring abnormally long lower arms.
    So the archeologists assumption seems to be correct...

  8. Thanks again for your answer,

    my motivation for the question was to understand why the archaeologists were confident enough to suggest that the caryatids "guard" the entrance, while they are aware of the archaeological context from your research or that of others. So the apparent low angle of the arm was one idea. I still think that there is not much deception from the view angle of the photos - the first two photos you show are from a good position. But your point about how the caryatids are viewed from below is also a good one - its always good to have an expert clarify these things :-)

    I also assume that the way and direction in which the broken parts of the arms and fingers that were found are pointed, may also clarify if they were extended towards the architrave and if they were holding it or not. Could this be the information the archaeologists used to make their statement?

    In any case, if the caryatids were really guarding the tomb, that would result in a finding which appears to be completely out of context. So, I am still wondering why they made such a strong statement.

    By the way, you may also check once in a while this Facebook profile, which is from a journalist present at the excavations (I think she was somehow appointed there by the ministry of culture): https://www.facebook.com/annapanagiotarea?fref=ts

    She always posts some extra photos (despite the announcements that everything goes through the ministry of culture press releases...). Anyway, there is a nice, high-res photo of one caryatid there :-)

  9. Dear Dr. King,

    thank you for the series of very informative posts on Amphipolis. Two quick questions:

    1. What are the indications we have that it was the Romans who back-filled the tomb?
    2. In your opinion, would the slightly archaising curls of the statues be contradicting the current dating of the tomb?

    Thank you

  10. Just a quick answer or two:

    There is no contradiction between what I wrote and the idea of Caryatids as 'guarding' the tomb - I think you guys are assuming 'guarding' implies they had weapons in their raised arms? The sphinxes could guard without weapons and so could Caryatids. In fact there are many Hellenistic examples of Caryatids in a slightly different pose 'guarding' tombs in Turkey, Hellenistic Italy and Sicily and ... as they move north into Etruscan and Roman Republican territory there are male figures guarding both tombs and city gates.

    The Roman back-fill: I'm not sure. I'm assuming it goes with the Roman removal of the superstructure which is well dated by coins etc. There will be plenty of small stray finds in the soil which the archaeologists will publish to date the back-fill.

    Not, I have no issue with the archaising elements and the date, since it was also seen on Hecatomnid monuments of the generation before, and we know Phillip II used some of the same sculptors. Also there are examples of little archaising figures within otherwise Classical scenes to denote an 'old' or venerated statue - eg Bassae, friezes of the Iliupersis - so if anything that would only back up the theory that it imitated an older monument. The Hecatomnids possibly used archaising style curls to emphasise the antiquity of their dynasty, and if so, why wouldn't the Macedonians? (With the Hecatomnids though, it's also a Persian element and we must not forget they were Persian vassal rulers).

  11. Thank You. But, why having back-filled and walled-up an already looted grave, Dorothy?

  12. OK, thanks - I was not implying that "guarding" means holding weapons, I was more implying "not supporting the architrave with their hands" or "hands extended straight to give the impression that they block the entrance". In any case, I am less confused now after your clarifications.

  13. You wrote in your text "I think, based on Vitruvius and the many comparanda that they were supporting the roof in penance but ..."
    So you assumed that they are holding the roof.....
    There is indeed a clear contradiction between your assumption and the assumption of extended hands...

  14. Supporting the beam above with hands, either palms flat or finger tips. Is that better?

    The fingertip / palm thing they did not differentiate between so much. It's a little like people worrying about the sphinxes being a bit different and not symmetrical - symmetry was more a Roman interest than say a Classical Greek one.

  15. No one argued if it is fingertip or palm support. It just seems it cannot be that the Caryatids' arms are supporting the ceiling altogether.
    For this to happen, the upper arm should be much more elevated because the distance is too long (even for fingertip support). That is also suggested by previous findings.

  16. These are clearly archaizing--they are certainly very late Hellenistic or Roman. The deep grooves in the chiton, the prominent nipples, the stacked Archaic-y folds in the himation, the pulling of the chiton to the side....

    Stick a Roman fork in 'em...they're done!

  17. Gosh I always love it when people are so willing to argue stupid things they have to do so anonymously - Olga Palagia is the only person who thinks they are Roman, and even she admits she's hardly credible as has not seen them ... I am aware she's published about Caryatids before, but she didn't see some of the evidence she used as it was in a private collection so she hadn't seen it (or even asked to see it ...). Great source you're basing yourself on!


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