Who is buried in Alexander’s Great Tomb? When you say it, this sounds like the old childhood joke we used to tell “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?”
One of biggest mysteries of modern archaeology might be solved in the coming days—and all eyes are on a huge circular structure that lies beneath an ancient Greek mound.
Fans of ancient history are laying bets on who was buried in the dark heart of a massive marble-walled tomb that is slowly coming to light in northern Greece
Dating to the tumultuous years surrounding the death of Alexander the Great, between about 325 and 300 B.C., the tomb is the largest ever found in northern Greece—a resting place monumental enough for royalty.
The burial borders the ancient Aegean port of Amphipolis (near modern-day Amfípoli), which once served as the base for the fleet that Alexander the Great took on his invasion of Asia.
After nearly two years of digging at the site (known as the Kasta tumulus after the name of the hill it lies beneath), archaeologists are now exploring its inner chambers.
Its entrances are guarded first by a pair of sphinxes, then by columns in the form of women—each stretching out an arm to ward off intruders. Beyond them lies one of the greatest mysteries of modern archaeology, one that might be solved in the next few days—or might trouble the sleep of scholars for decades, as the last great find in the territory of the ancient Macedonians, the nation once ruled by Alexander the Great, has done.
The structure that now holds much of Greece and Hellenists around the world in suspense stands at the site of ancient Amphipolis, about a hundred miles east of Thessalonica, on territory conquered by Alexander’s father Philip in the 4th century B.C. Amphipolis was a major Greek city and a stronghold of the vast Macedonian empire, but today the site is all but deserted. On grasslands where goatherds graze their flocks, under a hill called Kasta—now protected by a military cordon from throngs of onlookers—lies one of the most puzzling finds ever unearthed in the Aegean region.
Round in shape and vast in size, the building beneath the hill has been called a tomb for lack of a better label. Circular buildings, though rare in antiquity, were sometimes used for royal burials, but no other known tombs approach the scale of this one: 500 meters in circumference (half again larger than Stonehenge) and surrounded by a superbly built marble wall. Atop the center of the building’s roof once stood a crouching stone lion, long ago removed from the site but still intact—a sign that the tomb, if such it is, probably held a great soldier or ruler. The structure’s date, fixed by analysis of the lion and the stonework, seems to be the last quarter of the 4th century B.C., the decades just after Alexander’s death in 323.
Only Alexander himself, it would seem, could have merited such an enormous and expensive resting place, yet Alexander’s remains are known to have gone elsewhere—stolen by Ptolemy, the Macedonian ruler of Egypt, for interment in Alexandria and later visited by thousands. So unless an ancient legend is true, that Ptolemy swapped a dummy Alexander for the real one, the greatest corpse in the ancient world is already accounted for (at least until its unexplained disappearance many centuries later). So too, apparently, are the bodies of Alexander’s father and son, widely believed to be the occupants of two sumptuous tombs discovered, totally intact, in the late 1970s, near Vergina, on the site of what was once the Macedonian royal capital.