The Tombs of Vergina: When Definitive Proof of Macedonia’s Greek Origin Was Uncovered



Forty-two years ago today, one of the most important archaeological discoveries in the world, and the definitive proof of Macedonia’s Greek origin, was announced by Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos.

On November 8, 1977, Andronikos discovered a pair of royal tombs from the fourth century BC which contained many objects of gold, silver, bronze, and iron, several wall frescoes, and two caskets of human bones, which he believed to be the remains of the parents of Alexander III, Philip II and his fourth wife, Olympias.

Archaeologist Andronikos at the excavations

It was the crowning achievement of Dr. Andronikos’s career, in the village of Vergina, in northern Greece. He had been excavating there for 40 years, finding rich tombs and artifacts from ancient times along the way — but nothing he had ever uncovered could prepare him for what he unearthed that day.

Finally, at a depth of 17 feet underground, he struck the largest tomb at the site and announced the discovery of the tomb of King Philip II, who lived from 382-336 B.C., This was the very Macedonian king, who had conquered all of Greece and was the father of Alexander the Great.

Dr. Andronicos, a professor of archeology at the University of Salonika, based his stunning conclusion on ivory busts found on the tomb floor which greatly resembled known portraits of Philip and Alexander.

Chemical dating placed the tomb at the right time, between 350 and 320 B.C., and in addition, it is known that other Macedonian king was buried in northern Greece during that time.

At the time the magnificent tomb was discovered, scholars said it was one of the most splendid and important archaeological finds since World War II. They generally, though cautiously, accepted the evidence that associated the tomb with Philip II.

Among the treasures of the tomb were the first complete paintings from the Hellenistic period, exquisite silver and gold ornaments and weapons, as well as a marble sarcophagus containing a gold casket with bones believed to be those of Philip.

The Golden Larnax, housed at the Archaeological Museum of Vergina, contains the remains of Macedonian King Philip II.

Dr. Andronikos believed that a smaller casket might have held the remains of Olympias, the first of Philip’s seven wives and the mother of Alexander the Great. In his book, “Vergina: The Royal Tombs,” Andronicos says the discovery provided “new information about Macedonian Hellenism.”

Previous knowledge concerning Philip II had been based almost exclusively on Athenian literary sources. However, the archaeologist noted that the view from Athens was often biased, because Macedonia was a serious political rival of that city.

The discovery appeared to confirm a previously disputed theory that Vergina, and not Edessa, which is farther north, was the site of Aegae, the capital of ancient Macedonia.

Andronikos was born in Bursa, in northern Turkey, in 1919 and began studying classical archaeology at the University of Salonika in the 1930’s, receiving his doctorate there in 1952. He spent two years of post-doctoral studies at Oxford University.

He first excavated in Vergina in 1937 as a student assistant. But his work was interrupted by World War II and the Greek Civil War in the late 1940’s.

Dr. Andronikos’ statue in Thessaloniki

He was a member of numerous scholarly societies, including the Archaeological Society of Athens, the German Archaeological Institute of Berlin and the Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies in London.

In 1982, Andronikos received the “Olympia Prize” from the Onassis Foundation. Just a few days before he died, he received Greece’s highest distinction, the Grand Cross of the Order of the Phoenix.

Andronikos died at the age of 73, on March 30, 1992 at a hospital in Thessaloniki, where he had lived. He had liver cancer and had also suffered a stroke.

But his magnificent discovery of the tomb of Philip II of Macedonia will live in the annals of history for all time to come.