On Monday, six days before the general election, the Greek Ministry of Culture published a preliminary report by the osteo-archaeological team studying the skeletal remains found in the mound of Amphipolis in northern Greece. The bones were found in November, since when there had been a lot of speculation about who they might have belonged to. Alexander the Great’s name came up a lot, as did his mother’s, Olympias.
According to the report, the remains of at least five people have been found: one woman, two men, one infant, and another person who, unlike the others, had been cremated. Animal bones were also present. The osteoarchaeologists refrained from speculating about who the people might have been, and didn’t comment on a genetic or other link among the skeletons. But anonymous ‘scholars of the Ministry of Culture’, without citing any specific evidence, said that ‘the most likely scenario points to Olympias.’
The site has been known to archaeologists since the 1960s, but a year and a half ago the superintendent of antiquities in the area decided to restart work, convinced that a ‘big secret’ was hidden under the site, which is part natural hill and part artificial tumulus. She believed it to be a burial mound of the fourth century BC, with a possible unspecified connection to Alexander the Great. Last summer, the archaeologists unearthed a monumental entrance guarded by two headless sphinxes. The prime minister, Antonis Samaras, decided to pay a visit. Samaras had lost his job as foreign minister in 1992 because of his hard line on the naming of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
In front of the entrance, in the shadow of the sphinxes, the prime minister assumed the role of an archaeologist, describing the dimensions of the monument to the nearest centimetre. ‘The land of our Macedonia continues to surprise us and to move and touch us,’ he said, ‘revealing from its womb unique treasures, which all together compose and weave the unique mosaic of our Greek history, of which all Greeks are proud.’ The culture minister later said: ‘We have been waiting 2314 years for this tomb.’
A flood of media stories, blog entries and Facebook comments followed. There’s been even more public excitement over Amphipolis than there was in 1977 when Manolis Andronikos found an unlooted tomb at Vergina in Macedonia, which, he claimed, contained the remains of Alexander’s father, Philip II. Other archaeologists disagreed.
Meanwhile, the cash-strapped culture ministry offered plenty of funding to the Amphipolis dig, and the prime minister was regularly briefed on the progress of the excavation as archaeologists were working frantically to unearth the ‘secret of Amphipolis’ and the ‘occupant’ of the tomb. Access to the site and the dissemination of information about it were tightly controlled. Dissenting voices, who expressed doubts about the chronology of the monument or concerns about the methodology of the dig, were vilified. The Association of Greek Archaeologists wrote an open letter to the ministry, protesting against ‘the publication of working hypotheses as if they were certain conclusions even before the excavation is completed’.
At Amphipolis, treasure-hunting is entangled with national destiny. Macedonia holds a prominent place in the Greek national imagination; Alexander is pre-eminent among the mythic ancestors who conquered the world, civilised the barbarians and accumulated the riches of the orient, and who can perhaps come again to the rescue of their descendants in their time of need.
Never mind that the scattered bones at Amphipolis belonged to several individuals, some human and some animal, of various genders and ages, of uncertain date. There are clear signs of the burial chambers having been looted, and the monument seems to have been used and reused at several times in the past. With the country about to go to the polls, Alexandromania and national treasure-hunting are proving too seductive to be abandoned.