UPDATED Amphipolis: The Bones ... Murder!

Υπουργείο Πολιτισμού και Αθλητισμού - Μελέτη Σκελετικών Καταλοίπων Ταφικού Μνημείου, Λόφου Καστά, Αμφίπολη:
"The bodies of those buried have been distinguished: In a woman (person 1), two middle aged men (people 2 and 3) and a newborn person (4 person)."
The woman in the cist grave, around which the others seem to have been buried, was over 60; Olympias was born circa 370 BC and died in 316, so the maths is wrong for her.

The two men were in their later 30s or earlier 40s, and the younger of the two shows signs of several sharp blows - possibly injuries, more likely murder by stabbing. The older, taller man has an old wrist fracture that has heeled. Interestingly "both men have degenerative osteoarthritis and spondylitis lesions in different parts of their skeletons." - this suggests they could have been related as these are genetic issues.

In addition as Edson noted in his article The Tomb of Olympias, inscriptions show she was buried at Pydna; so Amphipolis could not have been built pre the Battle of Pydna around her earlier tomb there ... you can download the article here.

There are also animal bones (those of the 550 which are not the human 157?) including horses, which further supports the idea of a Macedonian royal burial - way back when everyone was poo-pooing Amphipolis, I asked if there were horse bones or equipment by the entrance, as to me that was a key indicator. 

The skeletons are fragmentary, so we might be missing people, but this many figures is unusual; family mausolea were not the norm at the time.

Philip III Arrhidaeus was murdered and is the right age for one of the men. We know that he died in 317 BC, but was later honourably buried with his wife Eurydice II Adea, whose suicide had been forced and her mother Cynane: Diodorus 19. 52; Athenaeus 4. 41.

Whilst I can't find a source that mentions Adea having a baby, a newborn son could well have been the issue that forced Olympias' hand, and led him to murder them all. Cynane died in 323 and is too young to be the woman buried in the cist grave; her mother Audata vanishes from the records after Philip II, and is assumed to have died but need not have. (Obviously this is just a guess!)

The bottom line is not just any noble could have built this sort of tomb, and the Argead Dynasty had strong ties to Amphipolis for centuries - Alexander I famously defeated the Persians there.

Hephaestion died not stabbed at 32, so has to be excluded. 

Update - the reason I left to Philip III and Eurydice II is that near Amphipolis is where they were kept hostage and probably killed. 

Everything I have seen fits a tomb built the period of Alexander and soon after, but the cremated bodies could have been added later. Cassander honourably buried them, and he married Alexander's half-sister Thessaloniki after Pydna to cement his claim to the throne ... so yes the making a point of honourably burying is odd, but so were the politics of the day!

The uncremated 60+ woman could be the tomb of an "ancestor" such as Deianira from whose child with Heracles the Argeads claimed descent, or another early royal - don't forget the earlier Macedonians were Persian vassals, and practiced certain rituals that differed from other Greek states.

A cremated fifth body is in such a poor state the sex could not be determined, and if it was a woman, Eurydice is a candidate but if she is a separate death then she'd be Cynane.

CORRECTION as he rightly pointed out, I was using an old book and forgot the new source showing Olympias murdered them (Cassander killed Roxane and Alexander IV at the Amphipolis fortress):

UPDATE: also, I sometimes state the conclusion and forget to explain the thought process ... "Aegae" in the sources is possibly two later writers making a mistake / misinterpretation of a lost source that describes a "royal cemetery" or "mausoleum" and an assumption made it was the traditional one at Vergina etc. Ancient sources can be wrong which is why we tend to trust more contemporary inscriptions more ... Athenaeus was around AD 200 and gathered interesting titbits; and Diodorus was Augustan.


  1. We have many examples of ancient greek funerary stele having the names of the dead. Are there any theories as to why in these large Macedonian tombs there are no inscriptions with names?

  2. Honestly, no good ones ...

    Pre Alexander was unusual to add funders' names to temples, and it may be linked to the big tombs being as much a heroon with cult as a tomb?

  3. Many sources date the birth of Olympias "circa 375 BC"...Dating her "around 370" means that she gave birth to Alexander at the age of 14, and that Philip fell in love with her when she was around 12 or 13...not saying that this is impossible, but what evidence do we have that she was actually born around 370 instead of 375 BC?

  4. First off there is a difference between ancient sources and modern books. The assumption seems to be that she married around 18 in books, but at the time women married closer to the time they hit puberty - hence I worked back from the date of Alexander's birth to calculate.

    Also the "fell in love" part is mythologising after Alexander became Great! All of Philip II's marriages were for strategic so it was more likely to have been to cement a political alliance.

  5. well Plutarch says that Philip had a crush on her, but after some crazy serpent staff he lost it…and yes, of course, the marriage itself seems to have promoted Philip's strategies…

    the point here is that the exact year of Myrtale’s (Olympias’) birth is unknown…she could have been initiated in the Mysteries at the age of 17+ (and got married soon after), and she could have been initiated and married much younger…

    The Greek Ministry’s announcement described the buried woman’s age as “safely estimated above sixty years old”. It is implied here to “exclude Olympias from the list”…but should we? If that woman is found to have lived during the same era with Olympias then she’s again the most favorite, given her unknown age of death...

  6. One can argue the age of Olympias - but not that the tomb was built around her as she was buried at Pydna after its construction ...

  7. it is very likely that her final resting place was other than Pydna…Cassander himself may have approved such a 'redeeming' royal tomb, since he had engaged to the Agread dynasty…again this is all speculation, it is just odd that Olympias in one day turned from favorite to a perfect outsider for the tomb…

  8. The only person pushing for Olympias was an amateur scholar named Chugg who has never been to the site but was very vocal. He wrote books where he claimed to have found Alexander the Great's tomb ... I guess next year he'll find Cleopatra?

    Chugg's nonsense compared to the very good people who've been working for years at Amphipolis is like comparing an old donkey to the Ferrari F1 Team.

  9. well if professional scholars have the right to speculate, then why shouldn't ‘amateurs’? the nature of such excavations and the slow pace of announcements unavoidably led to endless theories on Amphipolis....Chugg had proposed Olympias since September, long before the mosaic and the female skeleton…and after these a number of archaeologists has claimed that “Olympias may be buried in the tomb”….if Chugg pushed and stretched his theory by all means, then that’s a big mistake, I haven’t read his articles to check.…amateurs are generally more willing to take a risky theory till the end, while pros are not…because they have a sound methodology and a clearer head...and also because they fear ‘professional embarassment’…but the amateur has nothing to loose, haha….

  10. The age of the female, at 56 or over 60 seems to be a negligible difference given the 2300 years of the skeleton and the exactness of the original sources.

    Speculation; Olympias' supporters built the tomb over an existing one, thus her body and the older cremated one. A final assault on the tomb was defended by two priests (or military supporters) who died for their efforts in the very act of defending her grave from being defiled.

    More fancifully, it's Olympias, Alexander, Hephaestion, Bucephalus, and a hitherto unknown infant claimant to the throne. These finds do seem, to me, to lend further credence that it is in even greater probability Olympias.

  11. If the dating of the tomb is marginally out, then a plausible option would be a whole bunch of Antipatrids.
    Most of 'em slipped off the mortal coil in the space of about three years between 297 and 294BC. Cassander died of Dropsy in 297BC aged somewhere between 50 and 55 (doesn't quite align with the ages of the dead men but isn't too far off). In the space of the next three year his three known sons rapidly followed... two of 'em certainly suffered violent deaths. Now, we can't be certain of their ages but based on Cassander's likely age it wouldn't be too unlikely for one or more of them to be in their early 30s... again, not too far off. The woman could possibly be Thessalonike, Cassander's wife and Alexander III's half-sister (again, age don't quite align with the estimates but it's not too far off). Still leaves the cremation unidentified...

    So how's this for a scenario... Cassander rolls over and turns up his toes, his son Phillip follows, civil war, Alexander V runs to Demetrius Poliorcetes who uses him for stabbing practice. Antipater II gets stabbed to death in Thrace and his lightly cooked remains get shipped back. Now with Demetrius set up to grab the Macedonian throne he's gotta be seen to give his two immediate predecessor a decent burial... why not shove them and their recently deceased mum in their dad's tomb to save time?

    Only obvious problem I can see is explaining why Cassander got buried at Amphipolis...

    Of cause, I'm an oceanographer with a very casual interest in classical history, so it's all just speculation...

  12. Cremated = Hephaestion
    Old lady = Sisygampis
    Todler = the girl from Toddlers and Tiaras....

  13. Do we know anything of Cassander’s mother? Law of probability says she’s likely to have died after Anitpater but before Cassander and thus becomes the first occupent of Cassander’s mega-tomb at potentially the right age.

    Awkward thought ; it’s been said that the tomb was open for a considerable time but at some point sealed. Could the final sealing have been associated with a centuries later ‘secondary' burial? Potentially revives the empty tomb/cenotoph of Alexander III theory. Presumably the nature/stratigraphy of the burial fill would provide some clues if it were the case….

  14. I agree sftommy, the Olympias hypothesis is still strong, less stronger than before but still around...the age-gap seems not to be significant, given the facts...that's why dating Olympias' birth at 370 BC (without a range) is less of a rational estimation and more of a bias against the Olympias (Chugg) hypothesis.

  15. Olympias... very much a long shot. There's epigraphic evidence which suggests she was buried at Pydna.

    Then the tomb. Well, if Cassander had second thoughts about leaving her remains unburied I'm still certain he wouldn't build such a monumental tomb for her... a small single chamber somewhere out of the way would be much more likely. Casander's sons were too busy trying to kill each other to build her a tomb. Then we hit Demetrius Poliorcetes... at that point it's 20+ years after Olympias was offed, the political capital in giving her an ostentatious send-off is long gone. After that there's a decade of anarchy, and while Pyrrhus may have had a motive to give Olympias a big tomb he didn't really have the time. Beyond that we're pretty thoroughly out of the time frame construction of the tomb is attributed to.

    Her age at time of death... well, there's enough uncertainty on both her birth date and the age at death of the bones that it's not impossible, but it is likely to be marginal.

    The other bodies. Assuming they are not a centuries later reuse of the tomb then it'd be unusual to see multiple unrelated people buried in the same tomb. And by the point Olympias met her end no husband or son left to join her, Alex III was the wrong age at death to account for any of the corpses... if grandson and nephew Neoptolemus II of Epirus got shipped over once he karked it he'd be possible but that's reaching the point of starting to clutch at straws...

    So, all in all, I'd say the case for Olympias looks very weak.

    1. Still the case of Olympias is very weak because of age stand alone. Any of her relatives from Epirus would have been interred in Epirus somewhere. The case of Antipater and Cassandros is still weak for me. Amphipolis was considered the greater margin city of Macedonia proper. Cassander built a city himself ... Thessalonica. Why would he prefer to be buried in Amphipolis and not Thessalonica.. if not Aige since he was of royal blood and king of the NMacedonian empire. The reason I have been suggesting Sisigampis and Hephaestion is because of the following reasons.
      Sisigampis and people from the rest of the Persian court would not be interred in Aege since they do not come of the birth of Hercules like the rest of the Macedonian royals. Still they royals on their own right and still pretty close connected to Alexanders lineage. Sisigampis supposedly died 7 days after Alexander but we can go up to some time added for poetic reasons to that. Roxana and newborn Alexander IV could have taken Sisigampis body with them to Macedonia. There is nowhere for them else to go. Their linage belongs to Macedonia now. So they intered the body to newly built MAusolea built for Alexanders best friend (hephaestion) in Amphipolis. Allready intered for 1 year and something more.
      Strange think we should think of is that we have different kond of burials within a single tomb. The old lady should certainly be related to the cremated body and the man with the broken wrist. If any of them was a celebrated hero dying in battle they wouldnt inter a woman with him, unless the tomb was allready emptied. Or the remains of the previous burial had allready been gone. Or if the tomb had been never used. Puting Sisigampis and Hephaestion in one tomb would only mean that the tomb was pruported but never used for Alexander III....

    2. Well, as I said, I'm an amateur in the field... Just thought the Antipatrids offered the right number of dead in quick succession, at about the right to, of the right status.

  16. I have say I love how engaged everyone is with this discussion!

    Can I just make a point - the 60+ woman is the older burial it seems.

    The others were mixed in with horse bones, and so they were probably moved into the tomb at a later date. And as horse bones tend not to be inside tombs, this suggests they may have been unburied and moved from elsewhere?

    The badly charred un-sexed bones are probably moved from elsewhere, but the higher damage suggests a pyre that burned hotter as more goods were thrown on it - ie someone of higher status? OR it could be killed in a fire not cremated, of course.

    And guys, don't forget the swan bones announced earlier in the autumn. I know everyone dismissed that as a swan swimming in as the tomb was flooded and filled ... but a swan could be important in identifying the tomb through myths; probably not Leda and Swan, possibly a myth to do with Aphrodite, or one to do with Achilles?

  17. I agree dear Dorothy, the swan bones should not be so easily dismissed...the swan may have been taken there for sacrifice...the multiplicity of its meaning includes beauty, harmony, wisdom and death...it was mainly associated with Apollo (by Plutarch and others) and with Aphrodite as one of its sacred animals....but within the Amphipolis context I think it should be associated with Orpheus the Thracian, the initiator of Greek Mysteries. Apollo is described as delighted by the swan's music and Orpheus, Apollo's son, was a divine musician. He was also said to transform into a swan after dying, and in Plato's allegorical myth of Er (Republic,10.620) Orpheus decides to reincarnate as a swan (since he was killed by women he did not want to be born of a woman, probably as an allegory of the spiritual path)...the swan seems also to have been regarded by Greeks and Romans as an indicator of a happy death....thus the swan bones, if not put there by chance, seem to me probably related to Orphic rites of death and renewal.

  18. it also fits well with the tomb mosaic, another indicator of cult activity and the notion of a "promised happy afterlife"...


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