The tomb of Philip II at Vergina

Caption: Hades abducting Persephone, fresco in the small royal tomb at Vergina (with acknowledgement to Le Musée absolu, Phaidon, 10-2012)

This fresco is from the small temple to Philip II at Vergina and is very similar to the one found recently at Amphipolis.

Vergina, about 50 miles west of Thessaloniki, is a small, unremarkable, modern village. As Aigai however it was a leading city of the Macedonian kingdom, the location of royal palaces and royal burials. Little about the place prepares you for the stunning treasures contained within its Great Tumulus.

The tumulus had been known since the early nineteenth century and there had been various small archaeological excavations. But it was not until 1977 that the Greek archaeologist, Manolis Andronnikos, began excavating here, convinced that the tumulus was the site of the Macedonian royal tombs.

Mound at Vergina

The museum is built into the Great Tumulus and doesn’t detract from the quite beauty and peace of the setting.

Mound entrance at Vergina

Inside the museum has a dimly lit, temperature controlled environment and is built around the tombs. Like many Greek museums I have visited, It is very well laid out and labelled in Greek and excellent English. The displays start with a series of grave stele of ordinary people which were used as infill for the mound. I say ordinary people but I suspect that those who could afford to have such stele erected in their memory must have been of a certain social status.

The heart of the museum is the tomb of Philip II and the artefacts found in and around it. The tomb is not open to the public but by descending a wooden staircase you can get down to see the entrance to it in the rock face. The front of the tomb is sealed with a white stone outer door with a column on either side.

Entrance to Philip II's tomb at Vergina 2

The style of the entrance to the tomb strikes me as vaguely Egyptian, though I find it hard to identify why. It is actually quite small-scale though and not a tomb designed to impress by its size. The most striking aspect of the entrance is the wall painting that runs across the width of the facade.

Entrance to Philip II's tomb at Vergina 3

The painting depicts a hunting scene with an older and a younger man on horseback, possibly Philip II with his son Alexander the Great (on the right in my picture below).

Hunting painting with Philip & Alexander

It is in poor condition now, but the amazing thing is that it still exists as very few paintings have survived from Ancient Greece.

Phillip II was assassinated in 336 BCE as he entered the theatre at Aigai during the celebrations of his daughter Cleopatra’s marriage. The funeral arrangements were made by his son, Alexander the Great and were very impressive. Philip’s body was cremated on a huge funeral pyre wearing a gold oak leaf crown with acorns. Precious oils and fruit were thrown onto the pyre, and horses and many other types of animals were sacrificed and their bodies also thrown into the flames. One huge display shows examples of all of the different types of things found amongst the ashes of the pyre. His bones were then washed in red wine, wrapped in a purple cloth, covered with the oak leaf crown and then placed in a gold casket called a larnax.

The casket was laid on a wooden couch decorated with gold and ivory figures and scenes  and placed in the inner part of the tomb. The wood of the couch for the most part rotted away long ago, leaving the decorative figures. Philip was buried with his weapons, a range of swords and spears, a huge shield, his suit of armour, and a large quantity of silver and gold jugs, dishes and plate. The quality of the workmanship in the silver and gold metal working is just stunning and they look as if they have just been made, not been lying in the ground for over 2,500 years. Most breathtaking of all is the work of the goldsmiths who made the royal crown: the work is so delicate and intricate.

In the outer chamber of Philip’s tomb, was found a larnax containing the remains of a woman, possibly his wife, who sacrificed herself on his pyre. The larnax also had in it a remarkable gold crown of what looks like myrtles. In addition there is a further tomb that has been identified as that of the Prince (Alexander IV), son of Alexander the Great, who was assassinated after his father’s death in 323 BCE.

The entrance to the tomb is similar to that of Philip’s but smaller and with no painting over the facade. The Prince’s remains were placed in a large silver jug and a large, gold, oak leaf crown placed over its neck.

The display ends with more grave stele found in the infill.