Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.
For the last year and a half, archaeological news has been filled with snippets of information regarding the ongoing excavation of a giant, Macedonian-style tomb at Amphipolis due to the possibility that its occupant may be an ancient celebrity related to Alexander the Great. (Popular speculations of the identity of the interred include Alexander’s wife Rhoxanne, their son Alexander IV, or his trusted admirals Nearchos and Laomedon, but reports that the bones inside belong to five humans mean that the tomb will likely remain a puzzle.) The excavation site can be seen from miles away standing out like a quarry in the landscape.
The excitement surrounding Amphipolis encourages reconsideration of other Macedonian-style tombs popular in the North Aegean region. A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to step inside the tomb chamber of the tumulus near Stavroupoli with Marina Tasaklaki, co-director of the Molyvoti, Thrace, Archaeological Project. A stone-lined passage (dromos) leads into the tomb through a decorative façade. A vaulted antechamber creates a vestibule and an airlock-like seal into the burial chamber closed by marble monoliths sculpted to imitate wooden doors studded with nails (which now lie out of the way, smashed by ancient looters). Within the burial chamber, bodies were laid out on marble replicas of dining couches (klinai).
A Macedonian-style tomb has a very different in-person experience than you might imagine from photos and plans. I had always assumed that the antechamber plan was a defense mechanism and that prop furniture was the result of ancient aristocrats trying their hardest to disprove the maxim ‘you can’t take it with you.’ Instead, I found that stepping inside is off-putting, like the pervasive social awkwardness of arriving under-dressed to a fancy dinner. These ancient royals and power-brokers weren’t aiming at an afterlife, but at the appearance of eternally enjoying the party you haven’t been invited to. This same mix of ostentation and seclusion creates the exciting sense of celebrity at Amphipolis, but may ultimately leave its interred tantalizingly anonymous.
Photo credits: Author