Skeleton of Alexander the Great's Father Found

Left leg of King Philip II of Macedonia showing the massive knee ankylosis (fusion of the joint). Javier Trueba.
Janet Fang 20 Jul 2015, 22:32

King Philip II of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great, was known to have sustained a penetrating wound from a lance through his leg – crippling him three years before he was assassinated in 336 BCE. Macedonian royalty were interred at three tombs in the Great Tumulus hill in the northern Greek town of Vergina. It’s unanimously agreed that the occupant in tomb 3 is Alexander the Great’s son, Alexander IV. It’s believed that the remains of King Philip II were contained in tomb 2. It’s even commonly called “The Tomb of Philip.” But was that really him? After all, two male skeletons were excavated in the late 1970s: one from tomb 1, another from tomb 2.

After applying today’s forensic techniques to analyze the skeletal remains, Antonis Bartsiokas, from the Democritus University of Thrace, and colleagues say that Philip II was actually buried in tomb 1. Their findings are published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week.

First, the team estimated age with the help of CT imaging and by examining teeth and pelvic bones. And pelvic bones, together with cranial bones, also helped them to determine the sex. Then they used a 16-slice scanner and an x-ray technique called radiography to scan particular bones of interest. 

The 45-year-old male from tomb 1 was 1.8 meters (nearly 6 feet) tall. His left leg bone showed a stiffened knee joint (called flexional ankylosis) with signs of bone fusion (pictured above), likely the result of severe trauma-related inflammation. And right through the overgrowth of the knee, they found a hole that corresponds to a piercing wound made by a fast-moving projectile. This injury would have affected his locomotion, rendering the king lame. Additionally, asymmetrical bone lesions indicate what’s called “wryneck” – a potential side effect of the compensatory head tilting tied to an uneven gait. Every time he stepped on his left leg, he’d have to tilt his head to the right. His recovery after this wound is an incredible event in an era without antibiotics, the team says, and it demonstrates remarkable skill by his doctors to avoid bleeding.

Tomb 1 also housed the remains of an 18-year-old female and a newborn infant. These likely belonged to the king’s wife Cleopatra and their child. They were both murdered shortly after his death. Her maxilla is pictured above to the right, and the newborn’s remains are pictured below.

Since the male skeleton discovered in tomb 2 show no lesions indicative of a near-fatal leg wound, the researchers reason that the occupants of this tomb must have been King Arrhidaeus (Alexander the Great’s half brother) and his wife Eurydice. This unplundered tomb also contained armor with a helmet and a shield.


Newborn child of Queen Cleopatra and King Philip II of Macedonia. Antonis Bartsiokas.

Images: Javier Trueba (top, middle), Antonis Bartsiokas (bottom).

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