Amphipolis (Grèce): Inscription Spurs Debate Over Mysterious Tomb

Rossella Lorenzi

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Greek tomb inscription 160302The sketch of the inscribed block presented by the Greek archaeologists (top); Chugg's reconstruction from the 1970s photo shows how the Π of ΠΑΡΕΛΑΒΟΝ was cut off the block when it was shortened. ANDREW CHUGG (RED CHARACTERS IN THE INSCRIPTION); AMERICAN SCHOOL OF CLASSICAL STUDIES AT ATHENS (BOTTOM PHOTO)

An incomplete inscription might reopen the debate about the identity of the owner of a tomb from the Alexander the Great era, according to new research into blocks from the circular retaining wall of the mysterious mound. The tomb was unsealed in northern Greece 18 months ago.

Dated to between 325 B.C. -- two years before Alexander the Great’s death -- and 300 B.C., the tomb is located in Amphipolis, east of Thessaloniki, and is billed as the largest of its kind in the Greek world, measuring more than 1,600 feet in circumference.

According to study author Andrew Chugg, a missing Π, or pi, clearly discards the archaeologists’s theory linking the burial to Hephaestion, Alexander the Great’s beloved friend and general.

Chugg argues that the blocks, originally cut for monuments to Hephaistion on Alexander’s order, were simply re-used to build the massive tomb a few years after the Macedonian king’s death.

Last October, head archaeologist Katerina Peristeri announced at a conference in Thessaloniki that three inscriptions pointed to the individual originally commemorated by the mysterious monument

Chances are that this is a funerary heroon (hero worship shrine) dedicated to Hephaestion,” Peristeri said.

The announcement came at the end of an extraordinary exploration that for months wound through huge decapitated sphinxes, walls guarded by colossal female statues, and floors decorated with stunning mosaics.

At the end of the digging, bone fragments were found. They belonged to at least five individuals who were identified as being a woman, two men, a newborn baby and a cremated adult whose gender could not be verified.

Featuring the monogram of Hephaestion, the three inscriptions were decoded to read: ΠΑΡΕΛΑΒΟΝ ΗΦΑΙΣΤΙΩΝ ΑΝΤ. According to Peristeri and her team, they meant “I, Antigonus received construction material for the erection of a monument in honor of Hephaestion.”

During her presentation, Peristeri showed sketches and photos of two inscriptions which read ΑΡΕΛΑΒΟΝ. The word would have stood for ΠΑΡΕΛΑΒΟΝ, meaning “received by” or “received for.”

They left a blank space in their drawing. Everyone thought it meant the Π was simply not there on the stone of the block,” said Chugg, who also authored "The Quest for the Tomb of Alexander the Great."

But a photo taken in the 1970s of one of the ΑΡΕΛΑΒΟΝ blocks might reveal a different scenario. The photo was taken when a number of loose blocks from the mound’s retaining wall were catalogued by the American School of Classical Studies in Athens.

Such blocks were rediscovered in the River Strymon just south of Amphipolis a hundred years ago and seem to have been re-used by the Romans to build a causeway or dam across the river.

The inscription in the 1970s photo, which Peristeri believed was a contract for the construction of the massive burial, was one of the loose blocks found in the River Strymon.

The photo doesn’t match the sketches of the inscriptions made by Peristeri and shows that the part of the block where the Π should have been is actually missing,” Chugg said.

Persteri’s drawings place the edges of the blocks much further from the letters than they are on the actual blocks,” he added.

Chugg believes the Π is missing from the word ΠΑΡΕΛΑΒΟΝ because the blocks were shortened after they had been inscribed in order to fit them into the walls of the tomb.

This means the Amphipolis tomb is not the monument for which they were originally quarried and dressed, because they would then have been quarried at the correct size,” he added.

The claim comes just days before the annual conference on archaeological works in Macedonia and Thrace which is expected to reveal further details on the mysterious burial.

Chugg agrees with Peristeri that the stone blocks may have been cut for monuments to Hephaestion on Alexander’s orders.

He suggests, however, that the Macedonian king’s projects were abandoned when he died in 323 B.C. The blocks would have been stockpiled at the quarry on the island of Thassos, awaiting re-use in more politically stable times for a project by Alexander’s heirs.

Therefore the Amphipolis tomb must be that later project in which the stones were re-used. It is the tomb of somebody who died a few years after Alexander the Great and not the tomb or monument of Hephaistion, who pre-deceased him by seven months,” Chugg said.

He believes the most likely candidate is Alexander’s mother, Olympias.

The skeleton of a woman aged about 60, the correct age for Olympias, was found in a cist grave inside the tomb. It is likely that it will yield DNA, since it had not been cremated,” Chugg said.