Vergina/ Aegae and the Royal Tombs

I. Over-view of site of Vergina:


Map of Aegae: plan by G. Gatsios-A. Saayah

 Vergina: Wandering through the Archaeological Site, 2nd ed. Athens
1. The Palace
2. The Theater
3. Temple of Eucleia
4. Public Buildings
5. The Rhomaios Tomb
6. Hellenistic House
7. Temple of the Mother of the Gods
8. The Great Tumulus
9. The Cemetery of the Tumuli
10. Bella Tombs
11. The Acropolis
A. Aegae (modern Vergina, a village founded in 1923) was a walled town (fortifications seem to date from the fourth century BCE) on the edge of the Macedonian plain, at foot of Pierian mountains. The center of the ancient city was built on seven terraces on the slope to the south of cemetery. The Palace on the hill (to the south-east of the modern village) is now dated to mid fourth century BCE. Just below the palace is the theater. Nearby are the agora [market place] and in it the Temple of Eucleia. Not far off, to the east, is the temple of the Mother of the gods. Further down the hill are numerous tombs, including the Rhomaios tomb and the "Eurydice Tomb." (Both of these tombs are of the type called “Macedonian.” This term refers to vaulted chamber tombs, not to the mere fact that the tomb was built by or for Macedonians. So far twelve such tombs have been found at Aegae.) Also in this area are a group of rich female burials from the late archaic and classical periods. To the east of the modern village, is an Iron Age Cemetery (Cemetery of Tumuli), another set of Macedonian tombs (the tombs of the Bella Tumulus). Some private houses have now been excavated. Aegae's propserity peaked during the 4th century BCE. In the early third, a number of buildings were destroyed, possibly as a consequence of looting by Pyrrhus' Gaulic mercenaries in 276. The city suffered heavier destruction at the time of the Roman conquest in 168, but it continued to have inhabitants until the first century CE when some natural disaster ended human habitation of the ancient city.

B. Within the modern village was once the Great Tumulus. It was constructed in part from rubble of destroyed grave stelai [grave stones] . From the hundreds of fragments, about 67 grave markers have been restored with about 38 inscriptions. They date from the fifth to early third century B.C. In form the stelai are like others from the Greek world; some are painted, some carved in relief. Those commemorated on the stelai seem to have come from quite a variety of social strata. The Great Tumulus covered several earlier mounds, three and possibly four tombs (all likely royal), and a structure often called a heroon (this was an above ground structure). The Great Tumulus was 13 m. high and about 110 m. in diameter. A modern protective roof (a shelter in the shape of a tumulus) now covers all these remains and contains a museum (displays the finds from the royal tombs) and memorial to the excavator, Andronicos.

II Cemeteries:
The ancient capital was surrounded by extensive cemeteries used for nearly a thousand years. Many burials are early (10th-7th century BCE); these lie primarily to the east of the modern village. Burials from the high point of the power of the Macedonian kingdom (late 6th century BCE-4th century BCE) are present and very rich. Many are presumably royal since Aegae was the traditional burial place of Macedonian kings. A smaller number of tombs, more of them simple, come from the period from the 4th century until the middle of the 2nd century BCE when Roman conquest abolished Macedonian monarchy. Recently 500 new graves have been excavated.
Cemetery of the Tumuli: Covers an area about 1 square kilometer (between modern villages of Vergina and Palatitsia) and has more than 300 small mounds. These belong to the early Iron Age (1000-700). A smaller number date to the Hellenistic period (4th- 2nd century BCE). Obviously this area was inhabited throughout this period. Originally few graves were found from 600-400 BCE, but recent finds have changed that. The mounds are often grouped, probably along clan lines. They are the burials of a society with marked social divisions. Each tumulus contains multiple burials( 5-15) and both men and women. Male burials tend to have iron weapons, particularly swords and knives. Female burials have jewelry, typically bronze fibulae of various types. Some female burials contain objects that may relate to roles they played in religion or society in general (diadems, "axes"). Typically a row of stones defined the circle of the tumulus. Most burials are inhumation not cremation.

Cemetery of Tumuli
After the 7th century, burials were more scattered, mainly to the west. There are a number of rich burials from the late 6th and fifth centuries, particularly those separated from the rest of the cemetery by a stream. Here there is a cluster of 9 tombs: 4 large pit tombs (c. 540-470), 3 very large cist graves (2 from the 5th century, 1 from the 4th), and two Macedonian type tombs (the Rhomaios tomb and the "Eurydice" Tomb). All but one of the cluster was looted and all but one appear to have been female burials. Some believe that these burials are of royal women.

Weapons taken from funeral pyre, c. 550-525 BCE
Gold "roundels" with wild animals, female burial c. 540-530 BCE

Triple double ax, from female burial
Vergina: Wandering through the Archaeological Site, 2nd ed. Athens
Close to the center of the cluster of female archaic burials was the unlooted tomb of the "Lady of Aegae" or "Lady with a Scepter." It was a very large pit burial--4 meters wide, 5 meters long and 5 meters deep--that contained a wooden tomb (cistus). West of the pit, on a trivet outside the cistus, was a bronze cauldron and bronze jug and cup--all probably used in funerary rites. Inside the cistus was the dead woman, richly dressed in gold and surrounded by valuable grave goods: a bronze hydria, 13 bowls (12 bronze, 1 gilded with silver and inscribed), a glass unguentarium, a model iron cart decorated with gold bands, iron spits, a hollow silver "wand," a silver and gold tubular object, about 6 terra cotta busts (protomes) of a goddess. Even the soles of her shoes were covered with silver. On the right of the dead woman were fragments of a wooden scepter, decorated with gold and amber. Kottaridi interprets this as a sign that the woman held priestly office.

"Lady of Aegae" c. 500 BCE: she worse a chiton and a heavier peplos and then an epiblema (a kind of over garment). At least one of these items was dyed purple. At her shoulders, fibulae fastened either the peplos or the chiton
Pandermalis, Alexander the Great: Treasures from an Epic Era of Hellenism, 2004
Gold earrings from tomb of "Lady of Aegae" or "Lady with Scepter"

Protomes from Archaic female burial "The lady with the scepter" c. 500 BCE

Clay head of xoanon from another burial of woman c. 480 BCE.

Bronze vessel, 525-500 BCE

Later burials, including simple cist graves and Macedonian type tombs are also present.

III. Palace
This structure is currently dated to the second half of fourth century BCE. It was destroyed by fire in mid second century BCE (presumably at the time of Roman conquest). The palace is like a typical Greek peristyle (colonnade lined courtyard) house, but on a grand scale. The main building measures 104.5 m. by 88.m. On the north side (the least well preserved) was probably a kind of stoa (porch or verandah), providing a view of the plain, on a terrace looking out over a 6 m. high retaining wall,. The main entrance is on the east side, through a triple propylaea (gateway) into a central peristyle composed of Doric columns. On the left side, in the third part of the propylaea is a tholos (circular) room, entered from the peristyle. In it was found an inscription to Heracles the Ancestor (Herakles Patroos). The inscription seems to date to reign of Perseus, the last Macedonian king. The tholos may have been a throne room, sanctuary, banquet room or all three. A fine pebble mosaic floor is preserved in one of rooms on the south side. Much of the space on the ground floor seems to have been devoted to rooms for banqueting (such a room is called an andron). At least the east end of the palace had a second floor, perhaps for private royal quarters. On the south side of the palace, looking down at the Haliakmon plain, was a long verandah. A second building, built in the Hellenistic period, lies to the west. It is smaller, but also organized around a courtyard, although it has a number of small supplementary rooms.

Diagram, Vergina Palace: Plan by I. Travlos-D. Pandermalis

Reconstruction of palace: main entrance to left (east) and verandah to right (north): Drawing G. Kiayas-D. Pandermalis

Aerial view of Vergina palace, with theater to right

Vergina, palace, aerial view: main entrance to east, at top of image, theater downhill to left

Vergina palace: mosaic floor for Andron, room E

Vergina palace, drawing of mosaic

Vergina palace mosaic, detail of mosaic

IV. Structures Under the Great Tumulus

The Great Tumulus as it looked in 1976 before excavation began

Great Tumulus during excavations about 1980

painted stele, one of many found in fill of Great Tumulus

Grave stele from fill of Great Tumulus: Pangasta erected it for her sister

model of first three tombs and heroon under Great Tumulus
A."Heroon" Remains of a stone foundation (9.6 by 8 m.) were found near Tomb I, as well as some marble fragments. If this was a heroon [a temple or structure dedicated to a hero cult], such structures were uncommon but not unique in association with Macedonian tombs. While tombs I-III were covered by the red earth mound which predated the Great Tumulus, the "heroon" was not.

Vergina, "heroon" on edge of Great Tumulus

B.Tomb I is a rectangular cist [box] tomb (3.5 x 2.05 m., 3 m. high) with no built entrance. Burial and excavation were through the roof which once was sealed with planks and limestone slabs. It is of masonry (porous limestone) construction. Tomb I was looted in antiquity: robbers tried to enter through the west side and were stopped by some kind of wooden shelf, so they then entered through the roof. The openings created by the robbers were sealed with piles of stone before the Great Tumulus was constructed. It is usually assumed to be earlier than Tombs II and III.
The robbers took most of the contents and left gashes in their search for hidden treasure, but a few traces survive: once a wooden beam ran around the walls on which funerary goods would have hung; fragments of clay pots, a shell shaped marble vessel (possibly for cosmetics) and the shards of the bones (not cremated but buried) of an adult male, young woman, and neonate were found.
Despite the absence of grave goods, remarkable frescoes survive on the well plastered walls, the first large scale Greek paintings to be discovered. On the north wall the rape of Persephone by Hades in a chariot guided by Hermes appears; Persephone's friend Cynnane is left behind. Demeter is shown seated on the east wall. Three figures, perhaps the three Fates, appear on the south wall. The lower part of the walls is painted in red, surmounted by a blue band with painted griffins, and then come the figure paintings. The interior of this tomb is not currently
visible to the public.

Vergina, Tomb I: reconstruction of north wall fresco

Northeast corner: rape of Persephone on north wall, "Demeter" on east wall

Vergina, Tomb I, fresco: Hades and Persephone; Cynnane to the right

C. Tomb II (often called the Tomb of Philip)
1. Exterior: vaulted tomb: roof roughly covered with plaster. The chamber and antechamber were apparently constructed at different times. The roof shows a line indicating that the main chamber was finished first, then the antechamber.

Above the vault of the main chamber were found bricks with fragments of bone, of a pectoral or gorget, 2 iron swords, 1 spear, bridle parts for four horses, bits of golden acorns (from the wreath found in the larnax), and ivory and gold from a couch, all showing signs of fire--these were apparently part of the funerary pyre. Apparently, one panoply (complete set of armor) was placed on the body and largely consumed in the pyre. Kottaridi and some others now believe that this funeral pyre and some others at Vergina was not simply a stack of wood but a "monumental wooden building," house like in shape and perhaps in significance. Placing the remnants of the funerary pyre near a tomb is fairly common.

Vergina II, funeral pyre remains

sword from pyre

The facade: pillars, marble doors, and a great painted frieze (5.6 m. long) of a hunt involving ten human figures, three of them mounted, and various dogs and prey. The frieze is much damaged, apparently because the painting was buried while still damp and gravel adhered. The doors were still sealed, so the excavators entered through the keystone in the vault of the main chamber. This is one of the largest of Macedonian tombs, mainly because of the unusual size of the antechamber.

Vergina II, model

Vergina, Tomb II, facade

Vergina II, reconstruction of facade and fresco

fresco, tomb II

reconstruction of fresco, tomb II

2. Main chamber (4.46 m. square)
Walls: no other Macedonian tomb is so poorly plastered. The plaster is only one layer deep in some parts and has no color. Limestone doors to the antechamber are roughly finished.
Burial: Against the west wall is a marble sarcophagus with lid, inside which is not the usual vase but a solid gold larnax [chest or box] 24.21 lb.,, 41X34X20.5 cm, decorated with engraved designs (including a 16 point star or sunburst) and colored glass paste. Inside were many fragments of cremated bones colored with purple and a golden wreath of oak leaves and acorns. The bones are estimated to be those of a man in his forties. An unusual number of bones are preserved. The oak wreath shows traces of fire (presumably it was removed from the head of the corpse as the pyre began to take hold) and is the heaviest known. It now has 313 leaves and 68 acorns.

Main chamber, Tomb II: marble sarcophagus which contained larnax: west side of chamber

Vergina Tomb II, main chamber, male larnax

Vergina II, main chamber, gold larnax from side

Vergina II, main chamber, lid of gold larnax

Vergina II, main chamber, contents of gold larnax: bones, wreath, fabric

Vergina II, main chamber, oak wreath
Couch (Kline): remains of a splendid couch were found in front of the sarcophagus. Often such funerary couches are made of stone, but this one was of wood, ivory and gold (which was covered by glass). Remains suggest a low relief of mythological figures, some Dionysiac, and also, in very high relief, over twenty heads, many of which seem portrait like. They seem to have shown scenes of hunt. On and next to the couch were the weapons of the dead man.

detail from couch of hunting scene

detail from couch: Muse

Vergina II, miniature heads from couch in main chamber: head (enlarged) on left often identified as Philip, heads on lower row often identified as Olympias (on left) and Alexander (on right)

Bones from the larnax from the antechamber, as once displayed in the Archaeological museum in Thessaloniki

Prag reconstruction of male head, based on Musgrave's reading of bone evidence and descriptions of Philip

Left of the sarcophagus are a number of items: two tripods (the bronze one an heirloom prize from fifth century Argive games); a bronze lantern decorated with Pan and found with a clay lamp inside; bronze utensils for heating and storing water; a bronze and iron torch; a bronze shield cover for the ceremonial ivory, gold and wood shield decorated with Achilles and an Amazon, Athena, etc. (two other shields were also found); an iron helmet, probably once brightly polished, with place for crests and hinged cheek pieces, leather lined and tied with leather thongs; a "diadem" of gilded silver with an adjustable Heracles knot. Also present: a sponge, three sets of bronze greaves; a sword in a now deteriorated scabbard. The sword was decorated in gold and ivory; a second sword; badly damaged; a scepter (??);a cuirass of four hinged sections, plus hinged shoulders. It could open flat. It had gilded flaps. Iron parts were covered with leather and cloth and it was lined with leather. It was decorated with gold and ivory. Lion heads with rings provided way to tie it on. A gold sheet with Athena was on the exposed side. There was a second cuirass (of linen, though gold decorated) in the main chamber and a second sword. There was also a gorget (protective armor for throat and neck) made of iron and leather lined. There were also at least 13 spears of assorted sizes., including two sarissas Parts of bridles and halters were found. Apparently two complete panoplies were placed in the main chamber.

Vergina Tomb II, main chamber, left of sarcophagus

bronze tripod, inscribed as prize won at Argive games c. 430-20 BCE

Vergina II, main chamber, lantern

Close-up of Pan head on lantern

Vergina II, main chamber, diadem

Vergina II, main chamber, cuirass

Alexander mosaic from Pompeii, clasp of Alexander's breast plate

Vergina II, main chamber, shield cover

Vergina II, main chamber, helmet

Vergina II, main chamber, bronze greaves
Right of the sarcophagus were other items, silver vessels of high quality, largely for banquet: 20 silver, 6 clay, 1 bronze. Many were in pairs, except for the large ones. There was: a strainer inscribed with "Machatas" in the possessive (the name of Philinna's brother); oinochoe (wine jugs) with the head of Silenus; an alabastron, [globular vase without handles, often used for perfume], lidded, with head of Heracles, perhaps for rare wine; patera [dishes] of unknown use. All except pottery show signs of wear

Vergina, Tomb II, main chamber, right of sarcophagus

Vergina II, main chamber, inscribed ("Machata")wine strainer

Vergina Tomb II, main chamber, silver kylix

Interior of the kylix

Vergina Tomb II, main chamber silver oinochoe

Vergina Tomb II, main chamber detail of silver oinochoe

Two silver alabatra with lids, one with Herakles heads at handle base, one (the smaller) with the head of Pan;
These vessels may have been used for an aromatic drink or for something sweet smelling like myrrh, an item sometimes offered to guests at symposia
Vokotopoulou, Guide to the Archaeological Museum of Thessalonike, 1996

larger Silver alabastron from Main Chamber Tomb II, Vergina
Heracles heads at base of each handle

situla (pail)

Reconstruction: bronze vessels for bath and weapons were in left corner, spears were against wall, torch was propped against sarcophagus; immediately in front of sarcophagus was the couch, on which were swords and on the couch, on some kind of wooden frame, the cuirass and helmet; also greaves and diadem. In front of the couch was a table with silver, bronze and clay vessels needed for banquet: situla (bucket), a crater [mixing bowl for wine], a large cup, 2 amphorae [large storage jars with narrow neck], oinochoeoi [vessels for taking wine from mixing bowl and pouring into cups] kantharoi [drinking cups with large handles], kalukes [cup in shape of calyx of flower], kylikes [wine cups], the strainer, ladle, bronze oinochoe, patera, salt cellars.

3. Antechamber: 3.36 x 4.4 m. Here the plaster is finished and decorated: painted white on lower part and red in upper part, rosettes in ceiling. There are nails in walls from which fabric and other material hung. The many fallen plaster lumps suggest that the tomb was buried before the plaster was dry. On floor was a very thick (6-7 layers) deposit of decomposed material.
On left wall: there was a slightly larger sarcophagus and slightly smaller and less decorated gold larnax. On top of sarcophagus was a golden "Illyrian" pin and a thick layer of feather and other decomposed material. Next to sarcophagus (probably fallen from nail on wall) was a golden wreath of myrtle (80 leaves, 112 flowers now). Inside the larnax were the cremated fragments of the bones of a woman in her mid twenties, wrapped between two trapezoidal pieces of golden and purple fabric. Also inside the larnax was a golden "diadem" of great delicacy, made in three parts. Bees suck pollen from flowers and there is a miniature bird in center. There was probably another couch and boxes in front of this sarcophagus. This couch may have been more elaborately decorated than the other couch and may have had scenes of battle. There were no banqueting vessels or other table ware. About a hundred golden disks with the star or sunburst were scattered on the floor, perhaps having fallen off material hanging on wall as it decayed. Remains of a third shield were found on the floor and a third cuirass; apparently yet another panoply was placed in the antechamber..

Vergina, Tomb II, antechamber: sarcophagus, in front, remains of couch with gold and ivory decoration

Detail of battle scene from gold and ivory couch once placed in front of sarcophagus
Stamatopoulou and Yeroulanous, Excavating Classical Culture

"Illyrian" pin with chain

The woman's golden larnax inside the marble sarcophagus

Vergina, Tomb II, antechamber, female larnax: 32x37.7x20cm: the star/sunburst has 12 points

Vergina, Tomb II, antechamber, fabric in which female bones were wrapped: the two pieces that have been restored may have come from the ends of a peplos.

Vergina II, antechamber, female diadem

Vergina Tomb II, antechamber, myrtle wreath

some of the gold disks with star or sun pattern: the backs of some show traces of purple cloth, suggesting that they were sewn on to either a purple garment or a wall or ceiling hanging

On threshold between two chambers were a number of items: propped against door were a golden gorytus [arrow and bow holder] made for the Scythian trade and identical to one found in Russia; underneath it were 74 arrows, bound together in gold and a bow decorated with five gold rings. Next to this were gilded greaves of unequal shaped (it has recently been suggested that these greaves were older than other items); ten alabastra and two clay amphorae

Door from antechamber to main chamber