Amphipolis: Oh Ye of Little Faith


First off a little clarification - "hold your horses" is an English expression, an idiom which means "hold on" or "wait" ... I realised the in the English language we find puns as funny as the ancient Greeks did (for example a lion shown on the tomb of a man named Leo), but when people are reading across languages they can be confusing.

Maybe one day the Ministry of Culture will make our dreams come true and release an image of a horse which said "Alexander's horse" ;-) ... but please just take the expression at face value.

Speaking of horses, they had great meaning to the ancients, being both tractor and Ferrari, an indispensable tool and a means of showing off wealth. Many Macedonian and Thracian tombs had items belonging to the deceased buried outside the entrance, so that first thing I asked the excavators this time last year when they were digging the entrance was "did you find a chariot?" and the answer was no. That's one of the many reasons I assumed the tomb would not be filled with gold and grave goods, another being that we were well aware that it had been destroyed at some point and so was likely to have been emptied. Even if tomb robbers had stolen the gold and so forth, had it been used for burial they almost certainly would have left behind bits of bone, broken off fragments of objects and ash. The swan found inside could have swum in from the river, or it could have been killed for symbolic reasons - let's not forget it featured in numerous myths, for example Leda and the Swan.

Another English colloquial expression I was tempted to use yesterday was "it ain't over until the fat lady sings" - which means that we should not presume to know the outcome of an event still in progress ... but I didn't in case people misunderstood and thought I was accusing someone of being fat :-(  

Logic and years of experience tell me that there is a whole lot more to find at Amphipolis. 

I have done a couple of interviews in Greece this week, and one of the reasons I dislike doing press is because it gives the impression that I am the centre of a story, when the truth is that often there is a whole team working on a project, all of whom deserve credit.

One of the main reasons I did the press and am writing the book is to explain to people why the archaeologists working at Amphipolis are some of the very best in the world (I use the term 'archaeologist' in a generic way to include everyone from Dr Peristeri to the Architect Lefantzis to the technicians and guards and even the people of Amphipolis who have contributed). I was getting fed up of the way jealous archaeologists were trashing their site because of jealousy.

Today's press release is here.

I'm used to looking at the material from sites before a press release has been written, so for Amphipolis I look at the photos first.

So first off I see much rougher limestone blocks than the beautifully cut marble used elsewhere on the tomb ... and evidence that the tomb could go down further or that these could be the foundations; but if they are foundations, where is the finished floor that covered them? The earth underneath the blocks has many very clear layers of stratigraphy, with several that appear in the photograph to be distinctly different.

Then I see a door. The side of the door facing the viewer is rough, so this is the side which would have been by the doorframe and hidden. 


Then I note the the design of the door is very different from the other photographs of the door with large 'nails' (or small shields): is this a different door or the reverse of the same door showing the interior view? The door looks thinner, but this could be an optical illusion due to the design and angle.

This photo tells me less about the excavation, more about what the archaeologists are thinking. Probably along the lines of "oh shit and we thought we'd get to go home this week-end" ... and "the Greeks wanted more, and this could well be more. Is it the start of something ...? when will the tomb end?" ... should we dress up as ghosts tonight and scare our colleagues for Halloween? (Okay, I admit the last bit I made up)

Then I look at the statement. 

"revealed the foundations of the side walls. The mounting wallsits on artificial embankment of well compacted gravel withclay, thickness about 0.40 m" which confirms that the yellowish band is clay.

"The embankment was standing on the bedrock of the Kasta hill,which appears as a surface of fragmented schist" My Greek is poor, so the normal translation of σχιστόλιθος is slate ... but schist is another, and it seems more likely that ...?  Bedrock to me suggests that most of the mound was indeed artificial; it is possible the tomb goes down into the bedrock elsewhere, as tombs often did, but not there?

They go on to confirm that they found an artificial trench showing that there was at least an attempt to dig down into the rock. Silty sand like the rest of the tomb. They have already excavated 1.40 m down, and that they say they have not reached the threshold suggests that it might go down further?

The second marble door was found in this pit, further emphasising the idea that it was 'open' when the tomb was back-filled with soil.

The rest is just more details of technical work and shoring up.

Just to quickly add to what we were discussing last night in comments and on Twitter. Someone suggested that since I had made a point that the 1930s excavators had found enough to think the Lion Monument had stood near where they excavated it ... instead of my suggestion that it was re-erected not long after the tomb was built ... could there instead have been two monuments with Lions? 

I don't believe I'm always right, sometimes I'm wrong. And I am a great believer in discussing ideas as they can sometimes go nowhere and sometimes lead to a solution.

This map shows Kasta in red, where the Lion was erected in the '30s in green and the yellow thunderbolt of Zeus to show very roughly where the material was found in the 1930s.


The destruction of the tomb and the movement of the blocks is almost a bigger puzzle than who built it. Yes, two monuments sounds mad, and I can't think of a precedent, but then so little at Amphipolis has precedent and that's what indicates it was an important tomb ...

Antibes in France was originally Antipolis - anti-city, not in the negative sense, but as a pendent to and pre- echo of a larger city, possible Nikeia (Nice) or more likely Cannes.

The idea of a smaller monument to complement the larger one has no equivalent that I can think of. But given that Alexander was worshiped alongside his friend Hephaestion in many of his cults in Egypt, and that one of the things Alexander did before he died was order a tomb for Hephaestion ... it could almost serve as a 'gateway' to the larger heroon, the way gates to sanctuaries served?

No, I do not think that there are two tombs, but I also think it is worth exploring ideas and it is not impossible. It is only by discussing our ideas that we can clarify our thoughts.

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