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A sealed tomb, a pile of ashes and the pebble mosaics of Pella

A sealed tomb, a pile of ashes and the pebble mosaics of Pella

New discovery at Amphipolis tomb

There’s a fizz in the air. A crackle of excitement. Something is about to happen. Something big (we hope).

Amphipolis tomb mosaic - chariot led by Hermes
Amphipolis tomb mosaic – chariot led by Hermes.

First an unopened tomb dating from the time of Alexander the Great was found at Amphipolis in Greece (go here for a 3D video of the tomb’s structure).  Tombs from this period have been found before but this is something different. The tumulus covering it is huge – the largest ever found – and the walls surrounding it are capped with fine white marble. Next, things began to emerge. Two sphinxes were unearthed under the entry arch. Draped female stone figures, known as caryatids, were found on either side of a chamber door. Then, last week, part of a pebble mosaic,  measuring 4.5 metres by 3 metres, was revealed and the rest of the mosaic was cleared a few days later. Mosaics in a tomb! Whatever next?

Amphipolis tomb mosaic - detail of Hermes
Amphipolis tomb mosaic – detail of Hermes

The mosaic, made of finely calibrated coloured pebbles, shows Hermes,  wearing his trademark floppy hat, leading a horse drawn chariot bearing Pluto and a distraught looking Persephone into the underworld. It was laid in the second chamber of a tomb complex which contains at least three chambers. The others have not yet been opened.

Persephone. Amphipolis mosaic
Detail of Persephone. Photo:

Whose tomb is it?

We don’t know who the 2,300-year-old tomb was built for but speculation is rife. A contemporary of Alexander the Great. Someone from his inner circle. Perhaps his first wife, Roxana, or his mother, Olympias.  Facebook entries, online articles and official statements are coming thick and fast. Here’s a good one on the likelihood of this being Olympia’s tomb and now the Ministry of Culture is coming out plain as plain can be to say it must contain someone very close indeed to the royal household. But let’s stop tip toeing around. At the back of all of our minds, is the thought that this could be a monument for Alexander himself, a cenotaph to honour the greatest general who ever lived and who died far from home.

The entry arch to the Amphipolis tomb contains two wingless sphinxes.
The entry arch to the Amphipolis tomb contains two wingless sphinxes.

The Pebble Mosaics of Pella

But it’s the mosaics that interest me. There are no other figural mosaics in tombs to be found in that period. Take note – no other, none, none at all. In fact the only ancient mosaic that I could find that has any connection to tombs, is this Roman one from Isola Sacra near Ostia:

Mosaic at Isola Sacra. Tomb marker. classicswithMrsB
Tomb marker, Isola Sacra. ClassicsWithMrsB.blogspot

The fact that this is the only example of a Macedonian tomb mosaic suggests that this monument is in a category of it’s own. This is reinforced by the graves of Alexander’s very own father, Philip II of Macedon and members of the royal household at Vergina, 170km to the east of Amphipolis.  Those tombs contained a rare wall mural showing an almost identical scene of Pluto driving off with Persephone into the underworld. And although the exquisitely worked contents of the Vergina tombs dazzled the world, none of them contained caryatids and sphinxes, let alone mosaics.

But not far from Vergina is Pella – the capital of the ancient kingdom of Macedon, Alexander’s birthplace and the place where the art of pebble floor mosaics was first established. The floors of his father’s palace there were decorated with intricate mosaic patterns and motifs which still survive. At the Pella Archaeological Museum among other things you can see the famous hunting scene with a naked Alexander the Great confronting a lion:

Alexander the Great lion hunt. Pella, Greece
Alexander the Great lion hunt. Pella, Greece. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

A patterned floor of interwoven flowers:

Pebble mosaic floor, Pella, Greece.
Interwoven flower mosaic. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics
Griffon eating deer. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics.

And Dionysus riding a compliant cheetah:

Dionysus riding cheetah. Photo: Helen Miles Mosaics

The Vergina tombs

When the Vergina tombs were excavated in the 1970s they were lauded as one of the greatest discoveries of their time. The tombs contained caskets, ceremonial armour and delicate oak leaf wreaths delicately wrought in gold but one of the most moving artefacts in today’s museum on the site is not the gold but a seemingly unremarkable pile of ashes:  pot fragments, bone shards and twisted metal. The label tells you that this is all that was left of Philip’s funeral pyre. That horses, chariots, and household effects were put inside a huge wooden structure alongside Philip’s body and set alight. The twisted metal you see are the remains of the horses’ harnesses, of huge nails, or of roundels – as large as the palm of a workman’s hands – once fastened to the front of the pyre. The fire was so intense the metal curled and each time I look at those ashes I can hear the horses screaming.

And back at Amphipolis the pebble mosaic – in a mere antechamber – shows the mythical horses, the chariot and their passengers being led into the after life.. What nobleman or warrior was so important that his (I don’t buy the idea of this being a female grave) tomb should dwarf that of the great Philip of Macedon?

The door to the third chamber remains sealed. We must wait and see.
















    1. How fascinating. Thank you very much for this. I agree the photograph is a little confusing as light is streaming down and it shows a wide space, suggesting that the excavation of the mosaic is not being done underground.

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