About a hundred miles east of Thessalonica, near the ruins of ancient Amphipolis, a hill called Kasta has held much of Greece, and philhellenes around the world, in thrall for months. Within this vast, circular mound, known locally as the “queen’s tomb,” a series of three vaulted rooms has gradually emerged, two with striking marble sculptures at their doorways and one with a vibrant mosaic, a depiction of the abduction of Persephone by the god Hades, on its floor. Finally, late last month, Greek headlines blared the news: A chamber had been found below the third room, and in it, a burial cyst and the scattered remains of a single skeleton. Kasta had at last had yielded its dead, but not the answers to its riddles.
Chief among these is how such a huge, lavish monument, apparently built in the 4th century B.C. but still in use far later, could have left no trace in the historical record. Grand buildings like this one—more than 500 yards in circumference, and surrounded by a superbly wrought marble wall—attracted the interest of travel writers and lore-collectors like Strabo and Pausanias. Yet no ancient author speaks of a mausoleum outside Amphipolis, nor of the majestic sculpted lion, a wonder well worth recording, that once stood atop it. No word survives that might identify its occupant, unless that local toponym, “the queen’s tomb,” preserves some shred of historical memory, passed on for more than two millennia.
One mystery at least was cleared up, in a press conference on November 29. The sculpted lion and dozens of marble slabs, today found at a site several miles from the Kasta hill, were apparently moved by British troops during the first World War in an effort to take them out of the country, according to the chief architect working at the site, Michalis Lefantzis. Austrian and Bulgarian forces attacked on the very day these objects were to be transported, Lefantzis claimed, driving the British off. Thus the lion, rebuilt in 1937 out of the fragments in which it lay, stands as isolated today as Shelley’s Ozymandias. Another heap of slabs, some bearing Greek inscriptions, ended up in nearby Lake Kerkinitis, despoiled some 80 years ago for use in building a dam.
The identity of the skeleton remains the big question, and answers may not be forthcoming anytime soon. Because the pelvis was found in fragmentary condition, specialists have not yet even determined whether it belonged to a man or a woman. Grave goods, normally the best way to narrow down the date range of a burial, were long ago removed by plunderers, leaving only a few bone and glass ornaments that adorned the now-decayed wooden coffin. Nothing found so far has contravened chief archaeologist Katerina Peristeri’s dating of the tomb to the last quarter of the 4th century B.C., the period just after the death of Alexander the Great. But confirmation of that time frame has also been hard to come by.
Mere mention of Alexander’s name quickens the pulse of modern Greeks, not to mention the inhabitants of neighboring FYROM—the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia—who also claim Alexander as an ancestor and national hero. From the start of the Kasta excavation, many have dared to hope that the tomb would prove to be Alexander’s, despite historical evidence that largely excludes that possibility. No object in all of Alexander’s vast empire was tended as carefully as his corpse, and when it landed in Egypt—hijacked by Ptolemy, the senior general who had assumed sovereignty there—the entire Greek world knew about it. Ptolemy’s heirs displayed the mummy there for centuries; Julius Caesar is said to have accidentally broken off its nose. Even so, Peristeri last week refused to rob her countrymen of the dream that Alexander’s long-sought body might lie in native soil, telling reporters who grilled her on this point that “anything is possible.”
But even if the great conqueror lies elsewhere, the Kasta bones might well be those of his wife. Rhoxane, the chieftain’s daughter Alexander married in what is today Uzbekistan, was killed at Amphipolis in 307 B.C., along with her son, Alexander’s heir; both were deemed a political inconvenience by those who sought to control Alexander’s empire, after his sudden death in Babylon in 323. Though one ancient source claims Rhoxane’s body was buried at Aegae, the Macedonian ceremonial capital (today the Greek village of Vergina), no trace of her remains have been found there, despite the 1979 recovery of what is presumed to be her son’s tomb. So Rhoxane could be the “queen” that local nomenclature has linked to the site.
But the proud stone lion that once stood atop the tomb, as Peristeri has often maintained, suggests a male occupant and a warrior. If the consensus dating is correct, then candidates are not hard to come by, for Alexander’s generals—men who earned the collective title Successors by their dismemberment and domination of Alexander’s empire—went on fighting and dying for decades after their commander’s death. Speculation has focused on Nearchus, a Greek sea-captain who led Alexander’s fleet on a perilous voyage from the Indus to the Euphrates in 325 B.C., and who later joined Alexander’s extended family by marrying his former mistress, the mother of an illegitimate son. No account survives of Nearchus’s death or burial, but his family’s connections to Amphipolis have put him at the head of a long list of Successor suspects.
The bones are now undergoing rigorous osteological and DNA analysis, but it’s unclear how much can be learned from these tests. Mitochondrial DNA, the only type that can typically be recovered from skeletons this old, can be used only to prove matrilineal descent, and no one knows where to find the mothers or siblings of any of the leading candidates. Rhoxane’s identity could perhaps be proven by a genetic link to her son’s remains at Aegae, but those bones were cremated before interment and may not yield useful genetic material.
As lab scientists set to work, epigraphists and art historians will be scrutinizing other shreds of evidence: painted figures recovered from the second above-ground room, and inscribed Greek words, not necessarily original to the monument, found on the marble blocks that made up the perimeter wall. To judge by the pattern of other, contemporaneous burials, it’s unlikely either will convey a message as straightforward as “Here lies X.” So the remarkable tomb beneath the hill at Kasta, having defied expectations and denied answers for so long, is likely to keep the Greek nation and the world of classical scholarship in suspense a while longer.