After years of speculation and controversy, the occupants of three tombs belonging to the family of Alexander the Great have finally been identified. Located in the Great Tumulus of Vergina in northern Greece, the burials contain the remains of Alexander’s father, stepmother, half-siblings, and son, along with armor and other items belonging to the man himself.
First excavated in 1977, the tombs are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, according to the authors of a new study, “contained an astoundingly rich array of burial goods.” However, while there’s never been any doubt that the interred bones belonged to close relatives of Alexander, scholars have spent almost half a century bickering over who exactly lies within each grave.
To figure out who’s who, the study authors combined osteological analyses, macrophotography, X-rays, and anatomical dissections of the ancient remains with historical sources from the ancient past. In doing so, they discovered that Tomb I contained the bones of a man with an injured knee, as well as a woman and a baby, who was just days or weeks old at the time of death.
They therefore conclude that the male figure was King Philip II of Macedon - Alexander the Great’s father - who was known to have a limp. The extremely young age of the infant also lines up perfectly with the story of Philip’s assassination in 336 BCE.
According to most sources, Philip II was slain by his bodyguard just a few days after his wife Cleopatra had given birth. It’s thought that the murder was ordered by Philip’s previous wife Olympias, the mother of Alexander the soon-to-be Great.
Almost immediately after the assassination, Olympias then killed both Cleopatra and her baby - possibly by burning them alive - thus clearing the way for Alexander to succeed the throne. According to the researchers, the “skeletal evidence from the neonate is conclusive that Tomb I belongs to Cleopatra and her newborn child and consequently to Philip II, as Cleopatra’s child is the only assassinated newborn known from any royal Macedonian couple.”
Previously, some scholars had argued that Philip II was buried in Tomb II, which also contains the remains of a man and a woman. However, the absence of a baby, combined with no apparent signs of physical trauma on the male skeleton, ultimately rules this out as a possibility.
Instead, based on skeletal evidence for excessive horseback riding, the study authors conclude that Tomb II belongs to the “warrior woman” Adea Eurydice, wife of Alexander’s half-brother King Arrhidaeus.
“Due to ancient depictions and descriptions, some scholars have suggested that some of the objects in Tomb II, such as the armor, belonged to Alexander the Great, which is possible only if this is the Tomb of Arrhidaeus, not Philip II,” write the authors. Thus, these remains are determined to be those of “Alexander's much less impressive brother” and his rather impressive warrior wife.
Finally, the study authors find no reason to question the long-standing assumption that Tomb III contains the remains of Alexander IV, the teenage son of Alexander the Great.
To put it neatly, then, the researchers write that “the evidence presented supports the conclusion that Tomb I belongs to King Philip II, his wife Cleopatra and their newborn child. Tomb II belongs to King Arrhidaeus and his wife Adea Eurydice. Tomb III to Alexander IV.”
“These conclusions refute the traditional speculation that Tomb II belongs to Philip II,” they say.
The study is published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.