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Vergina, a village in Imathia, is 12 km from Veroia, 75 km from Thessaloniki, and 515 km from Athens. It has enjoyed worldwide renown in the past few decades, owing to the discovery there of the ancient city of Aigai, the ancient capital of the Macedonian kings, and its cemetery. Of particular note are the tombs of the royal dynasty, most notably King Philip II and a young prince who is identified as Alexander IV, and a cist grave. The royal tombs were discovered in 1977-8 by the archaeologist Manolis Andronikos.
Until their discovery, the tombs were covered by a tumulus 13 m high and 110 m across. It must have been constructed at the beginning of the third century bc by Antigonos Gonatas, to protect the royal tombs from further pillaging after marauding Galati had looted and destroyed the cemetery.
An underground building was constructed in 1993 to enclose and protect the royal tombs, maintaining the stable temperature and humidity necessary to preserve the wall paintings. From the outside, the building looks like an earthen mound; inside, the treasures found in the royal tombs have been on display since November 1997. Apart from the sepulchral monuments themselves, there is an open area of 1,000 sq.m., where the finds from the tombs are displayed in showcases. Lighting is very subdued to draw visitors’ undivided attention to the exhibits. The tombs, however, which are at a lower level, are illuminated normally, to give visitors a complete picture.
The first thing visitors see is a number of grave stelai that were found in the fill of the tumulus, and three display cases containing artefacts used by ordinary people of Philip’s time, to point up the difference between their life and that of the Macedonian kings.
The first tomb is a large Macedonian tomb, almost contemporary with the others, which was found desecrated and completely destroyed. It is important because it illustrates the development of Macedonian sepulchral architecture since the time of Philip’s tomb (the latter had piers with half columns, while this one had independent columns which simply stood close to the front wall).
Next is the Heroön, a building which was intended for the cult of the dead kings. The foundations and the cist grave survive. This is a particularly important grave because it contained a wall painting of the rape of Persephone by Pluto. It was found desecrated.
The most important tomb of all is Philip II’s, which measures 9.50 x 5.50 m and has a deep antechamber and a large, square burial chamber. The facade has the form of a Doric temple, with a marble door, and is adorned with triglyphs and metopes. Above the Doric frieze, however, there is an Ionic frieze with a painting of a hunting scene. Three horsemen and seven men on foot pursue a lion, deer, and boar. Only one of the men is mature and bearded, and he is identified as Philip. Another of the men is Alexander. This hunting scene and the Rape of Persephone are the only surviving examples of ancient Greek painting, and are probably the work of Philoxenes and Nikomachos.
In the burial chamber was found a marble sarcophagus, inside which was a gold larnax containing the ashes of the dead king and his crown. His weapons were also here, together with symposium and bathing accoutrements and the remains of the wooden mortuary couch adorned with gold, glass, and ivory. The larnax, the crown, the weapons (most notable among which is the shield), the mortuary couch, the rest of the personal effects, and grave goods are displayed in showcases in the open space in front of Philip’s tomb.
In the antechamber of Philip’s tomb another gold larnax was discovered with a royal diadem inside a marble sarcophagus, together with a wooden mortuary couch with similar decoration to Philip’s. The larnax must have contained the ashes of Kleopatra, Philip’s youngest wife, who was assassinated immediately after her husband.
Last is the tomb of the prince, which is ascribed to Alexander IV, the son of Alexander the Great. It closely resembles Philip’s, though it is smaller and instead of half columns has two omphalia, or discs, with painted heads. The tomb had a painted frieze, nothing of which survives, however, owing to the technique used to paint it (fresco). The cinerary urn was a silver hydria, with a gold oak wreath placed around the neck. There were also weapons in the tomb, together with quantities of grave goods and vases and a wooden mortuary couch adorned with gold and ivory. The decoration of the couch is notable for a representation of Dionysos with a flute-player and a satyr. All the contents of the tomb are displayed in showcases in the open space in front of the tomb.
The exhibition concludes with an extensive account of the life and work of Manolis Andronikos, who excavated the royal tombs.