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The History of the Rosetta Stone

by October 29, 2019

By Edward Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Ancient Egypt has fascinated people since ancient times. However, the history and knowledge of the land of the Pharaohs were lost for centuries because people were unable to read the ancient writings of the Ancient Egyptians…that was until the chance discovery of the Rosetta Stone. This remarkable artifact allowed the modern world to once again read the texts of the Ancient Egyptians.

The Rosetta Stone

Egyptian writing
Ancient Egyptians used hieroglyphs in their writing system, which are pictographs that represent some concept or idea and is very different from those based on alphabets. However, they also developed a demotic script that was similar to other writing systems, such as Greek and Latin. Following the Christianization of Egypt, knowledge of the ancient writing systems was lost because the Egyptian priests were persecuted, and their temples all destroyed. As a result, the world of the Pharaohs and their subjects remained a mystery.

Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics

The History of the Rosetta Stone
The writings of the Egyptians remained enigmatic until the invasion of Egypt by Napoleon. In order to outflank the British in 1798, the French general decisively defeated the Mamelukes, the descendants of slave-soldiers who ruled the country, at the Battle of the Pyramids. Napoleon also brought with him to Egypt scientists, historians, and other researchers. They played a very important role in the development of Egyptology, which opened up the wonders of Ancient Egypt to the West.
The most important discovery was the stele that came to be known as the Rosetta stone.
One day in the hot summer of 1799, a French officer and engineer, Pierre-François Bouchard, was overseeing work on a planned fortress in Rosetta, an important port in northern Egypt. When he came across a stele or monument that was made from a block of granite, he knew it was important and alerted experts. The officer had discovered one of the most famous artifacts in Egyptology.

The Battle of the Pyramids

The Rosetta Stone- What Is It?
The stone is a stele which has engraved on three sides a decree that was issued by Pharaoh Ptolemy V in 196 BC. He was a member of the Macedonian Ptolemaic Dynasty that was founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals. The decree was a ruling from a priestly council in Memphis which granted the monarch the status of a living god and urged Egyptians to make sacrifices to the new god-king. This was an effort by Ptolemy V to legitimize his rule in the eyes of his Egyptian subjects, who hated their Macedonian overlords.
The granite piece stood in a temple for many centuries but when Christians closed it, the stele was used in the foundation of a new building. The original stele was broken up, and what remained was the largest fragment. It was later incorporated into the foundation of a building during the Middle Ages and laid there until it was rediscovered by the French officer.

One possible reconstruction of the original stele

The Rosetta Stone’s Writing
The stone is not important in itself. However, what makes it priceless is that it contains three different versions of the decree of Ptolemy V. There is Greek which was the language of court and the Macedonian elite who ruled the country. However, the vast majority of Egyptians could not read Greek and could only read demotic Egyptian or Hieroglyphs. This meant that the decree was also issued in demotic and hieroglyphs. This was a stunning find.
Experts could read Ancient Greek and indeed were very proficient in it. They could use the Greek to learn how to decipher the two Egyptian texts. In this way, they knew that they had a great opportunity to finally understand the writings of the great and mysterious Pharaohs.

Experts inspecting the Rosetta Stone during the Second International Congress of Orientalists, 1874

The discovery of the stone and other treasures led to a craze in Europe for all things Egyptian.
The Race to Decipher the Stone
Technically it should have been easy to decipher the decree, especially as the French made impressions of the writings and they were published and circulated all over Europe. Classicists and linguists all studied the writings in a race to be the first to read the words of the Ancient Egyptians.
It took many years before a breakthrough in 1803 when the first full translation of the Greek version of the decree appeared. However, here was a great rivalry between experts, in particular the French and English, with regards to the Egyptian texts. Finally, in 1822 Jean-François Champollion announced he had made a successful transcription. He was the first person to fully decipher the stone and allowed people for the first time in centuries to read the writings of the Pharaohs. It’s important to note still that his work was only possible because of the earlier research of English linguists, especially Thomas Young.

Visitors viewing the stone at the British Museum

The Fate of the Stone
Nelson’s great victory over the French at the Battle of Aboukir Bay (1799) doomed Napoleon’s invasion. He soon fled back to France and the stone was seized by the British after they defeated the French in 1801. The stele was taken back to London where it has remained ever since. It can be seen to this day in the British Museum.

Ray, J. D. (2007). The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt. Harvard University Press.

The Bear in the Big Blue Abyss: Ursa Major

by October 21, 2019

By Danielle Alexander, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
When you look up at the twinkling stars in the velvet sky, what constellation is it you look for to orientate yourself? It is almost always the Ursa Major and Ursa Minor constellation duo – or as some (me) prefer to call them, the ‘saucepan set.’
This starry collection has been known by many names, including the Plough, Big/Little Dipper, Wagon/Oxherd, respectively, but most importantly, the Greater and Lesser Bears. Our focus today is on the Ursa Major; in the northern hemisphere, the constellation never sets below the horizon and reaches its’ zenith in the night sky at midnight in March.
Ursa Major

Seven bright stars are indicating Ursa Major. (Image: ESA Science & Technology)

Ancient Greek Astronomy?
This easily identifiable set of stars is the third largest constellation in the sky out of the 88 officially recognized constellations according to the International Astronomical Union – a pretty impressive feat. Most of these accepted groups have been documented since 150 A.D, by Ptolemy in his The Almagest.
But that doesn’t mean Ptolemy was the first to study the sky. It was during the 6th century BC that Greece absorbed the astronomy and mythology of their cultural neighbors: Mesopotamians, Persians, and Egyptians. Then, around the 4th century B.C, they adopted the Zodiac from the Babylonians. Indeed, the Greeks were quite late to the party, as the Mesopotamians had most of their constellations recorded between 1300 – 1000 B.C.
Painting of Ptolemy

Ptolemy with an armillary sphere model, by Joos van Ghent and Pedro Berruguete, 1476, Louvre, Paris

Mapping the stars and their movements likely developed alongside lunar monitoring. The skies were not only used for navigation and tracking time but also for inspiring awe and sparking the imagination. The star clusters became associated with mythic figures, legendary tales or, simply, aspects of daily life. The astral mythology that is most commonly known today had its canon unintentionally cemented by Eratosthenes in a work that is now, tragically, lost to us.
However, that does not mean we are without insight into ancient astral mythology!

Astral Mythology: Zeus and his childhood
Both of the earliest Greek sources, Hesiod and Homer (8th century B.C), mention the Great Bear constellation, but throughout Greek and Latin history, the mythos became muddled, and with the loss of essential works, it’s not possible to determine an ‘original.’
There is the claim that the duo of the Ursa Major and Minor constellations are the nymph nurses of Zeus, Helike and Cynosura, who raised him after he avoided getting eaten by his father, the Titan Cronos. Zeus then rewarded their help by placing them in the sky.

Showing the Bear image of the Constellation. (Image: Little Astronomy)

Another variation claims that Helike was a Cretan born worthy of heavenly placement, and it was just Cynosura who had been his nurse. Meanwhile yet another myth claims that the Ursa constellations are his bear-morphed nurses, and Zeus transformed himself into the constellation Draco to hide from Cronos, his baby-eating father.
However, these myths are much less common and recounted than the tale of Zeus and Callisto.
Zeus and one of his unfortunate lovers, Callisto
Callisto was a nymph huntress in service to the goddess Artemis, and as such, committed a vow of chastity. In some versions, she is the daughter of Lycaon, ruler of Arcadia, though her service to Artemis remains the same.
One day, the young maiden is seduced (again, variation dependent and also with questionable consent) by Zeus and is impregnated by the encounter. Artemis noticed the growing baby bump and banished Callisto. For a goddess connected with childbirth, you would have expected a little more leniency before banishment, but that isn’t the Olympian way…
Callisto’s transformation into a bear varies per tale. One states that Artemis caused the change as she banished the girl. Another places the morphing magic in Hera’s jealous hands, another in Zeus’ after being afraid he would get caught. Either way, Callisto birthed Arcas while in bear form.
Diana and Callisto by Rubens, c. 1635

Diana and Callisto by Rubens, c. 1635

The babe grew old and raised in Arcadia. One variation claims that Callisto, hearing his voice in the forest, rushed to Arcas, who knocked his hunting bow instinctively, unknowingly seconds from matricide. Another two sources state Hera encourages Artemis to hunt the bear; in one, Artemis kills the bear with no issues, whereas the other sees her spare the bear upon realizing its’ identity.
A differing source claims that Zeus raped Callisto when he was in the form of Artemis, causing the girl to claim the goddess was the cause of her misfortune, and thus Artemis punished the maiden for the miscommunication by changing her into a bear. Meanwhile, Arcas grew older and became a hunter and when the bear was brought to the city, Arcas naturally went to hunt her, his mother. However, Zeus interrupted the accidental attempted matricide, and feeling sorry for Callisto due to their bond, placed her in the heavens. It seems being hunted by your son is worth eternal twinkling in the sky.

Callisto and Arcas by Hendrik Goltzius (1590) (Image: The British Museum)

Versions differ in retelling Callisto’s rise to the heavens. Some claim it’s after her death, some before, sometimes by Zeus and sometimes by Artemis. In another, Arcas grows to be the ancestor of the Arcadians, and in yet another, Callisto is the daughter of Arcadian ruler Lycaon and Arcas grows old as a hunter. The mythos is obviously ancient, complicated and has become confused over time. One even claims that her name was, in fact, Megisto, daughter of Ceteus, the ‘Kneeler’ constellation. Another name variation originates from Creten verses, which also indicates just how old this tale was within Greek culture;

“And thou, born of the transformed Lycaean nymph,
Who, snatched from the frozen heights of Arcadia,
Was forbidden by Tethys from ever bathing in the ocean,
For daring to consort with the husband of her foster-child.”
(Mythical Tales 177, Callisto)

As seen in the Cretan verses, the Titaness Tethys, wife of the Ocean had banned the Great Bear from ever bathing, or setting below the horizon, due to her involvement with Zeus’ infidelity.
It seems complicated
There is no doubt this tale is old and that the variations are confusing. But the most common mythos that the ancients understood to be connected to the Ursa Major constellation was bear-focused, and mostly centered around the myth of Callisto and Zeus, albeit with many variations. While we may never know the ‘real’ story of the Ursa Major, we can continue to marvel as its twinkling lights and imagine, as the ancients did, how they got there.

Cornelius, G. (2005). The complete guide to the constellations. London: Duncan Baird.
Boutsikas, E. (2011). Astronomical Evidence for the Timing of the Panathenaia. American Journal of Archaeology, 115(2), pp.303-309.
Schaefer, B. (2006). The Origin of the Greek Constellations. Scientific American, 295(5), pp.96-101.
Gibbon, W. B, (1964). Asiatic Parallels in North American Star Lore: Ursa Major. The Journal of American Folklore, 77(305), pp.236-250.
Graves, R. (2012). The Greek myths. New York: Penguin Books.
Ératosthène, Hygin, Aratus and Hard, R. (2015). Constellation myths. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ruggles, C. (2005). Ancient Astronomy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, pp.378-380.

The History Behind the Vitruvian Man

by October 18, 2019

The story sounds like a Dan Brown thriller: Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks contain a skillfully executed, albeit curious image.  A man with two sets of arms and legs poses in the center of a circle and square.  With one set of arms forming a V and one set of legs out-splayed, the figure’s soles and fingertips define the circumference of the circle.  With the other set of arms outstretched and legs straight, the figure defines the perimeter of the square.
Known in Italian as  L’Uomo Vitruviano—the Vitruvian man—the c. 1490 image is perhaps the most recognizable of all Leonardo’s sketches.   A simple internet search reveals literally hundreds of reproductions, adaptations, and parodies.  It may come as a surprise that this sketch, unlike others, did not spring from Leonardo’s fertile imagination, but was designed to illustrate someone else’s ideas:
[I]f a man be placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a pair of compasses centred at his navel, the fingers and toes of his two hands and feet will touch the circumference of a circle described therefrom. And just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square figure may be found from it.
Da Vinci

Vitruvian Man, Leonardo da Vinci. Year c. 1490

This passage appears in Book III, chapter 1 of De Architectura, the only comprehensive work on architecture to survive from Classical Antiquity, authored by Marcus Vitruvius Pollio.  It’s an interesting concept, to be sure, but what about it would inspire Leonardo to produce one of his most evocative drawings?
There is indeed much more to this story: behind the Vitruvian man stands an enigmatic builder, a learned manuscript, a legendary name, and cultural prestige.

Vitruvius qui de architectonica

So, who was the original Vitruvian man?  Who was Marcus Vitruvius Pollio?  The facts of his existence are few and the questions are many.  To begin, even his name is a conjecture. His praenomen was most likely Marcus, but we’re not certain. The cognomen Pollio is also only probable. Faventinus, an architect writing in the 3rd century CE, is believed to be the first writer to use Vitruvius’ full name. However, an alternate theory suggests that he may have been referring to two separate individuals: a Vitruvius and a Pollio.

Presumed portrait of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (80/70 B.C. circa-25 B.C.)

As with his name, almost everything else we think we know about Vitruvius is a matter of more-or-less certain extrapolation from brief autobiographical scraps in his De Architectura.
Of his background and upbringing, Vitruvius says only that his family was able to give him a good education.  Similarly, when he makes observations about the preferred education for architects, he is clearly referring to his own.  After all, in the first chapter of Book I, Vitruvius says an architect needs a wide-ranging education, which is precisely the sort of education he claims for himself in the preface to Book VI.
We would expect an architect to have working knowledge of mathematics, materials, and physics.  But what about pre-Socratic philosophy?  Indeed, Empedocles’ elemental philosophy is essential to the city planner.  Like many Classical thinkers, Vitruvius derived from Empedocles the belief that differences between human groups reflected different elemental mixtures.  The blend of elements in the Gauls, for instance, was vastly different from the corresponding blend in the Egyptians.  Therefore a building site that would be healthy for one group would be harmful to another.  Put in practical terms, Vitruvius held that a wise city planner should know how to select particular environments that promote the general health of the citizenry.
In other parts of De Architectura, Vitruvius expresses familiarity with Eratosthenes’s calculations of the circumference of the earth and Pythagoras’ philosophy of harmony.  Needless to say, Vitruvius also owes much to Aristotle.  On a basic level, Vitruvius’s statement about the three divisions of architecture —usefulness, durability, and beauty—merely specifies Aristotle’s assertion that the goal of all human endeavors is some definable “good.”

Frontispiece of De Architectura

No mere theorist, Vitruvius states that much of his know-how was learned hands-on.  “I myself know by experience,” he remarks. In parts of the work, he gives details on construction techniques, materials, and the machines used in building.  He states that he superintended the construction of a basilica in Fano.  Occasionally, he gives details that seem to come from the workshop, such as his claim that bricks should be dried for a full five years before use, whereas cut stone need only be seasoned for two.
In several passages, Vitruvius also mentions his military service.  He says he built artillery pieces for Julius Caesar, and gives detailed instructions for such weapons as ballistas and scorpions.  He even refers familiarly to how experts evaluate whether these weapons are well made: the control ropes vibrate at a certain pitch, like a well-tuned musical instrument.
A few historians have tried to identify our Vitruvius as a contemporary, Marcus Vitruvius Mamurra, possibly because Mamurra was also a military engineer and also served under Julius Caesar.  Such an identification is highly unlikely since Mamurra is believed to have died around 43-46 BCE.  Moreover, Mamurra was known for ostentation and graft.  Our Vitruvius claims that he preferred honest poverty:
I have never been eager to make money by my art,” he writes, “but have gone on the principle that slender means and a good reputation are preferable to wealth and disrepute.

An Unlikely Authority

All this makes up the merest outline of a life.  And if we look to Roman writers of the era for corroboration, the picture does not become much clearer.  Scholars have identified only five Roman writers who mention Vitruvius or his book.  These are Pliny the elder, Frontinus, Faventinus, Servius, and Sidonius.  As we shall see, how they discuss the man and his work would change as time passed.
Pliny the elder knew De Architectura and listed Vitruvius as a source in his Natural History, but doesn’t mention him by name in the text.
Vitruvius’s name also appears a few decades later in a technical report written by the Roman official Sextus Frontinus. His De Aqueductibus Urbis Romae briefly mentions a Vitruvius who had a supervisory or advisory role in pipe repair or construction.  However, Frontinus says nothing more, not even what aqueducts Vitruvius and his pipefitters worked on.  De Architectura is not mentioned at all.
A few centuries later, however, the name “Vitruvius” appears to have become culturally significant, shorthand for architectural excellence.  We can see this in an abridgement of De Architectura produced by the 3rd-4th century CE architect M. Cetius Faventinus.  His De Diversis Fabricis Architectonicae highlights the practical aspects of Vitruvius’s book and leaves out most of the learned theory.  By doing this, Faventinus created a handbook on methods and materials for a new audience.
Illustration from De Architectura

An Illustration from De Architectura. Vitruvius illustrated his theories and rules with technical drawings and examples. Source:

Vitruvius wrote for the political and philosophical elite.  Faventinus seems to have written for supervisors, builders, and contractors.  Although this change in audience is significant, even more significant is the fact that Faventinus attributed the work to Vitruvius.
In the world today it is generally held that newer is truer.  All else aside, a technical report published in 2019 is considered more reliable than a similar report from 2009.  In Classical Rome, the opposite belief held true.  Older information was considered more trustworthy because it had stood the test of time.
In attributing the summary to Vitruvius, Faventinus was emphasizing the work’s trustworthiness: it was a handbook from the golden age of Rome. It was not just information; it was Vitruvius’s timeless advice.  Copies of Faventinus spread throughout the western empire and were copied by generations of monks for the next thousand years.
Of course it could be argued that Frontinus and Faventinus were builders writing for other builders.  Even Pliny was focused on scientific issues.  It would not be unusual for such writers to mention Vitruvius or cite his work.
But what, then, are we to make of a literary critic who also cites Vitruvius while discussing poetic diction?  In the late 4th century to early 5th century CE, our fourth writer, M. Servius Honoratus, references Vitruvius in his commentaries on Virgil’s Aeneid.  In Book VI, Aeneas and his companions arrive at the Cumean Sibyl’s grotto:
Deep in the face of that Euboean crag
A cavern vast is hollowed out amain,
With hundred openings, a hundred mouths,
Whence voices flow, the Sibyl’s answering songs.  (Line 43)
In the underworld

Aeneas and the Sibyl in the Underworld. Arnold Houbraken, early 1700s

Discussing Virgil’s poetic diction, Servius cites “Vitruvius the architect” to explain Virgil’s meaning in using such words for access points as aditus and ostia.  The commentary would be reasonable only if Servius and his contemporaries believed Vitriuvius was the authoritative answer for any architectural question, whether actual or literary.
An even more lofty status is attributed to Vitruvius at the end of the fifth century CE.
In an ironic letter to a contemporary, the late Roman official and bishop Sidonius Apollinaris rhetorically equates Vitruvius’s mastery of building to Orpheus’s mastery of music, Aesculapius’s mastery of healing, or Euclid’s mastery of geometry (Book IV, chapter 3, 5).  In a different letter, he tells his reader that Vitruvius’s book, likely Faventius’s digest, is indispensable for domestic repairs and construction.

Nature as Architect


Robert Fludd – The Mirror of the Whole of Nature and the Image of Art.

As historians have suggested, Vitruvius’ status as the leading authority on architecture persisted well into the Italian Renaissance. Whatever else was lost in the collapse of the Roman empire in the west, the concept of Rome as the apex of cultural prestige certainly survived.  Likewise, we know that Faventinus’s digest of Vitruvius survived.
Those who aspired to create monumental works like those of the Roman empire, had much to learn from Vitruvius.  Certainly the breadth of learning he demonstrated, along with his hard-won practical know-how appealed to Renaissance thinkers like Leonardo.  They considered him one of their own.
Vitruvius’s book is not just about architecture, after all, but about architects and builders as well.  What he writes about architects surely appealed to Renaissance architects and engineers—even part-timers like Leonardo.  To Vitruvius the architect had a hallowed heritage, stretching back to the framing of the universe:
The heaven revolves steadily round earth and sea on the pivots at the ends of its axis. The architect at these points was the power of Nature, and she put the pivots there, to be, as it were, centres, one of them above the earth and sea at the very top of the firmament and even beyond the stars composing the Great Bear, the other on the opposite side under the earth in the regions of the south. Round these pivots (termed in Greek πόλοι) as centres, like those of a turning lathe, she formed the circles in which the heaven passes on its everlasting way. In the midst thereof, the earth and sea naturally occupy the central point.
Nature itself, according to Vitruvius, is an architect. The architect is, in a certain sense, carrying on and trying to imitate the works of Nature. It is not difficult to imagine why the work in which this passage appears would inspire Leonardo so many centuries later.

Unearthing the Family of Alexander the Great: PART 2

by October 11, 2019

In November 1977 the ‘archaeological discovery of the century’ emerged from soil below a great tumulus at Vergina in northern Greece. Eventually four tombs and a shrine would be unearthed and dubbed the ‘cluster of Philip II’, the father of Alexander the Great. But the hopeful identification led to a backlash from scholars who questioned the archaeology.
Following thirty years of claims, counter-claims and deep divisions within the academic community, the ‘battle of the bones’ over the identities of the ‘king’ and ‘queen’ buried in Tomb II had led to nothing but a Socratic truth: ‘all I know is I know nothing for sure.’ The cremated skeletal remains from antiquity still lay silent and anonymous, but they had not been devoid of ‘nationalist’ political controversy.

In the name of ‘national’ archaeology

In 1991 Yugoslavia dissolved and out of the fallout emerged a new socialist republic to Greece’s north. Its borders fell between Albania and Bulgaria in what would have been largely ancient Paeonia and western Thrace in the time of Philip II’s predecessors. Arguably a slither of ancient ‘Upper Macedonia’, the northern cantons annexed by Philip in his expanded realm, fell into the new state. Despite the questionable geopolitics, the new Republic of Macedonia immediately adopted a twelve-point Vergina starburst of the Argead kings to adorn its national flag.
Greece saw the republic’s name and its flag as national identity theft and demanded both be changed. Street protests followed on both sides of the border and airport names were changed in line with each nation’s cause. The new regime was duly recognized by the United Nations in 1993, but only under the title ‘Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ (‘FYROM’). Claiming ancient roots in the region under a tide of nationalism, FYROM accused its neighbor of stealing the biggest part of ‘Aegean Macedonia’ and incorporating it into northern Greece. The response from Athens was a blockade of the new Balkan player staking identity claims to the kings buried below Vergina.
The tides of politics had always tugged at the archaeology attached to Vergina and the lack of harmony between ministries responsible for antiquities resulted in a chronic lack of funding needed to make forensic progress. But the tomb debate was finally given forward momentum in 2010 when an anthropological team led by Professor Theo Antikas, with a modest 6,000-euro grant from the Aristotle University of Thessalonica, commenced a several-month task of cataloguing the Tomb II bones; their ground-breaking study would last five years.
The excavator’s proposition that Philip II and one of his wives were interred in Tomb II had always been undermined by an early ‘quick’ prognosis by a UK-based anthropologist; he had taken a ‘cursory’ look at the skeletal remains found scattered in the soil infill of looted Tomb I and his ‘tentative’ findings concluded the cist chamber housed a well-built male in the prime of his life, a young woman and a newborn baby or foetus.
What the anthropologist unwittingly did was to give ammunition to the faction backing Philip III Arrhidaeus and Adea-Eurydice as the residents of Tomb II. By concluding that the Tomb I bones were those of a middle-aged man, a young woman and a baby, he had all but described the events surrounding the death of Philip II, whose young wife Cleopatra and her newborn were executed by his estranged wife Olympias, Alexander’s mother. If they were buried in Tomb I with its beautiful wall fresco, Arrhidaeus and Adea must have resided in Tomb II. But that was not what the anthropologist believed at all.

Wall painting depicting the Abduction of Persephone in Tomb I.

The Tomb I bombshell

This theory was finally put to the sword by an ‘identity-shattering’ discovery made by the Antikas team. In 2014 they came across forgotten and unanalysed skeletal remains from Tomb I in storage below the Vergina laboratory. These bones were probably consigned to thirty-five-years of obscurity in the aftermath of the ‘great’ Thessalonica earthquake of 20 June 1978 when the preservation of the unlooted Tombs II and III was the focus of attention. These additional Tomb I skeletal fragments contained the remains of at least seven individuals, not two just adults and a baby. An ugly fact had once again slayed an attractive idea.
To effectively analyse and then catalogue the Tomb II bones, the Antikas team resorted to computed tomography (CT) scanning, then each bone was catalogued with a unique number, with entries on weight, condition and morphological changes such as colour, warping or cracking. Any signs of foreign materials such as rare minerals were noted, along with comments on the conservation condition from previous handling. They next photographed each fragment from every anatomical plane, capturing over 4,000 images.
CT scans

Theo Antikas and a colleague conducting CT scans of the male skull from Tomb II.

 Some 350 male bones had been found in the gold chest in the main chamber. His skeleton weighed in at 2,225.8 grams, remarkably close to the mean weight, 2,283 grams, of adult male cremation remains today, a testament to the care with which the bones had been collected from the funeral pyre.
Yet, with all the modern technology at hand, on occasion there is no replacement for intense scrutiny with a simple magnifying glass. Using no more than a hand-held lens, they determined the Tomb II male suffered from a respiratory problem, a chronic condition that could have been pleurisy or tuberculosis, evidenced by the pathology they found on the inside surface of his ribs. Visible ‘wear and tear’ markers on his spine indicated he had experienced a life on horseback, while further age-related changes to the male skeleton, which had not been brought to light before, allowed the Antikas team to narrow down the estimate of the Tomb II male to 45 +/– 4 years at death.

The limping ‘Amazon’

In another ‘eureka moment’, the team identified a major shinbone fracture which had shortened the left leg of the female in Tomb II. This was a significant find as it conclusively united her with the antechamber armour, because the left shin guard or greave of a gilded pair, which had always looked rather ‘feminine’ in proportion, was 3.5 cm shorter and also narrower than the right. That, in turn, linked her to the weapons which lay beside them. Historians now had the conundrum of a limping warrioress with a precious artefact from the Scythian world.
Archaelogical Museum of Vergina

Theo Antikas with Laura Wynn-Antikas holding the shorter greave in the Archaeological Museum of Vergina

Closer analysis of the previously unseen complete pubic bone aged her at 32 +/- 2 years years at death, and that ruled out both the earliest and the most prominent of Philip’s wives who were too old when he died, and also his final teenage bride, Cleopatra, as well as the equally young Queen Adea-Eurydice, the wife of Philip’s half-witted son Arrhidaeus. But the ‘intruder’ question remained: what was a Scythian artefact doing in a Macedonian tomb?
David Grant, a historian of the period who has collaborated with the Antikas team for the past three years, doesn’t see the need for a ‘foreign’ identity, despite the Scythian-styled quiver: ‘the Scythians were not renowned as metalsmiths; the exquisite jewellery we find in their graves is the workmanship of overseas Greeks, likely from the Bosporus Kingdom, close to today’s Crimea in the northern Black Sea.’
But there was also a thriving metalworking industry in Macedon itself, where weapons and armour were fashioned for Philip II. The possible domestic manufacture of what could have included ornate goods for Scythian warlords, with whom diplomatic links were being forged in the era of Philip, means the ‘Amazon’ of Vergina could have been born rather closer to home’. Grant has now proposed a new identity for the Tomb II warrioress.

Traditional Scythian occupied regions stretching east from Ukraine.

In doing so Grant highlights the prominence of politically empowered women in Macedon during and after the reign of Philip and his son. There was even a pivotal conflict termed the ‘First War of Women’ between Alexander’s Epirote mother Olympias and Arrhidaeus’ young martially trained wife, the part-Illyrian Adea-Eurydice, in the scramble for power in the post-Alexander years. The now-preeminent nation into which Philip had ‘imported’ foreign brides’ was not short of pugnacious women prepared to ‘weaponise’ themselves!

Orphic mask and burial rituals

The Antikas team comprised both anthropologists and material scientists. Their additional microscopic finds, including textile stains, composite material fragments and melted metals on the cremated skeletons, hinted at ancient burial rituals, a death mask and the profound belief in the afterlife as part of the funerary rites.
The rare white mineral huntite was discovered with Tyrian Purple on the bones of the Tomb II male, bound with egg-white in layers. This clearly man-made composite material which evoked a vivid image of an unknown Orphic funeral rite involving a white death mask of the type found at Mycenae as well as other Bronze-Age and Archaic-Period graves. Melted gold on the upper vertebrae suggested the king was initially wearing his gold wreath as flames licked the funeral pyre, because the incomplete oak-leave-shaped wreath found inside the tomb showed similar signs of intense heat.
Mask of Agamemnon

The so-called ‘Mask of Agamemnon’ discovered at Mycenae by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876

There may even be fragments of a fireproofing asbestos shroud which wrapped the cremated male, just as the Roman naturalist Pliny claimed was the practice of ancient Greek kings to separate the bones from the rest of the pyre debris. What had also become clear in the study was that the bones of the ‘king’ and ‘queen’ were subject to distinctly different pyre conditions, supporting the idea that they were cremated at different times.

‘Final-solution’ forensics

The Antikas team’s finds were published in an academic journal 2015. Although hampered by continued underfunding and a seeming lack of support from those fearing unwanted results, they continued to push for ‘next-generation’ forensics: DNA testing, radiocarbon dating, and stable isotope analysis on the Tomb II and Tomb III bones.
Permission was denied in 2016, Grant reveals. Instead the scientists were only allowed to test the scattered bones found in looted ‘Tomb I’ and a nearby ‘hidden’ burial pit found nearby the ancient city marketplace, but no formal funding was provided to facilitate the study.
Although these bones lay exposed in soil and water for over 2,000 years, dating and DNA results were successfully extracted, disproving yet more of the identity theories. Moreover, controversial Tomb I leg bones, which had been introduced into the ‘battle of the bones’ as supposed evidenced the terrible a knee wound Philip may have suffered in Thrace, appeared under scrutiny to be ‘intruders’ from a completely different tomb. The results have not been previously published and they will amaze everyone, says Grant.
Gold wreath

Gold wreath found sitting in muddy water with the cremated bones of an adolescent male near the ancient marketplace of Aegae.

What the results incontestably tell us is that the great earthen tumulus at ancient Aegae was bitten into by looters on more than one occasion, when the exposed Tomb I became a dumping ground for the dead.
Now Grant’s new book is revealing all, the pressure will certainly be on the Greek Ministry of Culture to take a new progressive stance on permitting the outstanding forensics on the ‘royal’ bones from the unlooted tombs. With the possible identities greatly narrowed down by the Antikas-team study, new DNA, radio carbon dating and stable isotope analysis of the ‘king’, ‘queen’ and ‘prince’ may solve the puzzle once and for all.
In Grant’s opinion, ‘the “bones” are the real magic of Vergina’ where a steady stream of tourist buses arrives every day to visit the ruins and subterranean museum which houses the still-visible tombs and gold and silver artefacts. His book is set to raise more than eyebrows as it unveils the untold backstory of the royal tombs of Macedon.
Unearthing the Family of Alexander the Great, the Remarkable Discovery of the Royal Tombs of Macedon by David Grant is available from Amazon and all major online book retailers.

Unearthing the Family of Alexander the Great: PART 1

by October 9, 2019

By David Grant, Guest Author, Classical Wisdom
On November 8, 1977, ‘Archangel’s Day’ in Greece, an excavation team led by Professor Manolis Andronikos was roped down into the eerie gloom of a rare Macedonian-styled tomb at Vergina in northern Greece. Dignitaries, police, priests and politicians watched on as the first shafts of light in 2,300 years penetrated its interior.
Tomb II emerging from the earth

Tomb II emerging from the earth

What finally emerged from beneath a great tumulus of soil was the ‘archaeological find of the century’, rivalling Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings and Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations at ‘Troy.’ After a century of barren digs in the hills backdropping the Thermaic Gulf southwest of Thessalonica, the ‘lost’ nation of ancient Macedon was finally being unearthed.
The removal of the keystone to enter Tomb II

The removal of the keystone to enter Tomb II

Inside the main chamber of the barrel-vaulted structure known as ‘Tomb II’ lay gold and silver artefacts, and exquisitely worked weapons and armour accompanied by invaluable grave goods which suggested the presence of royalty. Within a stone sarcophagus sat a never-before-seen gold chest containing carefully cremated bones wrapped in remnants of purple fabric. In a further gold ossuary in the antechamber and similarly wrapped in a textile, were the cremated bones of a female, surely the dead king’s wife, arranged with a beautiful diadem of gold. A second unlooted vaulted structure, ‘Tomb III’ was unearthed the following year containing the bones of an adolescent, probably a boy, buried with the wealth of a ‘prince’.
The artefacts within were broadly dated to the mid-to-late fourth century BC (350s to 310 BC) and stylistically corroborated by pottery, metal artefacts and the evolving tomb design itself. Intriguingly, these years spanned the reigns of Philip II and his son Alexander the Great. The unique ‘Vergina Sun’ or ‘Star’ design of the royal clan of Macedon was embossed on the lids of the two gold chests holding the cremated bones.

The gold chest of ‘larnax’ holding the male bones in the main chamber of Tomb II, with the royal ‘Vergina Sun’ or ‘Star’ symbol

In October 336 BC, statues of the twelve Olympian Gods were paraded through Aegae, the ancient capital of Macedon. Following them was a thirteenth, a statue of King Philip II who was deifying himself in front of the Greek world. Moments later Philip was stabbed to death; it was a world-shaking event that heralded in the reign of his son, Alexander the Great. Equally driven by his heroic lineage, Alexander conquered the Persian Empire in eleven years but died mysteriously in Babylon. Either side of his reign, his father and family were buried at Aegae with lavish ceremonies, but the location of the city was lost.
Andronikos proposed Tomb II could be nothing but the resting pace of King Philip II of Macedon who was assassinated at Aegae, the burial ground of its kings, while some commentators believed the adolescent in Tomb III was Alexander’s murdered teenage son. Along with an earlier looted cist tomb and the adjacent ruins of a shrine, the grouping soon became known as the ‘cluster of Philip II’. In November 1977, the exalted excavator had hastily convened a press conference and informed the Prime Minister of Greece, oblivious to the political backlash his identity claim would encounter in the decades that followed.
Model of the shrine and tombs

A model of the shrine and tombs under the Great Tumulus at Vergina

Why the Tombs Vanished from History
The political capital of Macedon was moved from Aegae to Pella a century before Philip’s reign. Alexander died in Babylon in 323 BC, his thirty-third year, and his embalmed corpse was taken to Egypt where it remained well into the Roman Principate before vanishing. The failure to bury him in the traditional cemetery at Aegae invoked an ancient prophesy that the nation was destined to fall. The infighting of Alexander’s generals, who proclaimed themselves kings across the newly-conquered Graeco-Persian world, saw the empire fragment into Successor Kingdoms and there followed generations of internecine war when Macedon was itself divided. The prophesy was fulfilled.
In the 270s BC, two generations later, invading Gallic Celts ransacked the old cemetery at Aegae. When the danger had passed, the still-unlooted royal tombs were buried under a great earthen to protect them from further looting by an unnamed monarch.
A century on, when Rome defeated Macedon at the battle of Pydna in 168 BC, both Aegae and Pella were partially destroyed. A landslide covered much of what remained at Aegae in the first century AD, and as Rome’s influence expanded East, the importance of the cities diminished. When Rome’s empire was finally overrun, the name of the fallen-stone city survived in oral legend only. What was likely an earthquake caused the collapse of the top of the earthen tumulus and shattered doors in the tombs below, but the sturdy stone structure remained hidden under the occupied landscape for the next two thousand years.
Rediscovering the Ancient Kingdom
Modern excavations started in occupied Greece in 1855 in what was still part of the Ottoman Empire, but nothing more than ransacked tombs were found. However, the intriguing scale of the stone foundations suggested a substantial city once stood in the hills overlooking the Thermaic Gulf southwest of Thessalonica, the heartland of ancient Macedon.
Malarial marshlands hampered excavations and Greek refugees who had been resettled there from Turkish Anatolia after the Graeco-Turkish War knew nothing of its history. They used the ancient fallen stones from the anonymous ruins to build houses at the modern village of Vergina, named after a queen of legend.
In 1968 English historian Nicholas Hammond proposed the ‘heretical’ idea that the ruins at Vergina actually sat on the site of ancient Aegae. Few credited his theory; the belief prevailed that this was either the lost city of Valla, or a summer palace of unknown royalty.
In 1976 Professor Andronikos and team finally excavated the ancient necropolis where graves had been overturned and tombstones smashed in antiquity. This correlated strongly with the ancient texts claiming Celts had plundered the cemetery at Aegae; the burial ground of the nation’s kings had finally been found.
But an ‘unfortunate symmetry’ obscured the background to the double burial in Tomb II, says London-based historian David Grant who collaborated with the scientists studying the skeletal remains. This led to a ‘battle of the bones’ among historians, causing a rift which divided the academic community ‘obsessed’ on proving their identities.
The Tomb II occupants could either be Alexander’s father Philip II and his final teenage wife Cleopatra, as Andronikos believed, or Philip’s half-witted son Arrhidaeus who was executed twenty years later when of similar age with an equally young bride. Questions of ritual or forced suicide raised their head, because kings and queens rarely died together.
Philip II was a national hero who befitted such a tomb and he had seven wives we know of. But Grant’s research points out the elephant in the room: none of the ancient sources mention any women being buried with Philip at Aegae. What superficially appears to be a two-phase construction of Tomb II, plus the different cremation conditions the female bones underwent, suggest she was buried later than the male in the still-empty or incomplete second chamber.
On the other hand, Arrhidaeus and his young bride Adea-Eurydice were executed together by Alexander’s mother Olympias when she regained political control of the state capital. This ‘double assassination’ explains the ‘double burial’ given to them after Olympias was herself executed, the opposing ‘team’ of scholars argued.
When Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323 BC, his royal regalia, including his cloak, sceptre and ceremonial weapons were passed to the newly crowned ‘King Philip III Arrhidaeus’ and escorted with him and Adea-Eurydice back to Macedon. So, they further proposed, the artefacts in Tomb II could be the very weapons of Alexander, explaining the grandeur buried with the half-wit king.
Why Philip and Alexander remain Greek national treasures
Philip II was the twenty-fourth monarch of a royal line stretching back, court propaganda claimed, to Olympic Gods and heroes. He was the first king to unite ancient Macedon and treble the land mass under its control into the first ‘European Empire’. His military reforms and statecraft brought Greece to its knees, enabling his son, Alexander the Great, to conquer the Persian Empire. Philip was a cultured cunning diplomat whose polygamous court hosted seven wives.
Map of Reign

Lands controlled by Macedon at the end of Philip’s reign in 336 BC

Modern Greece reveres Philip and Alexander as national treasures. Yet this enduring adoration has always been something of a paradox: Philip and his son smashed Greek power at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC, thereby ending one-hundred-and-seventy years of democracy that would disappear from Athens for the next two millennia. It also marked the end of the ‘Classical Age’ of Greece. Moreover, contemporary Athenian orators like Demosthenes proclaimed that the ‘Macedonians did not even make good slaves.’ However, the reigns of Philip and Alexander paved the way for the Hellenistic Era which spread Hellenic culture throughout the Graeco-Persian world; this is the true achievement still embraced today.
The Mystery of the Scythian ‘Amazon’
At the centre of the Vergina tomb debate lay an ‘intruder’ weapon of great controversy: a gold-plated Scythian bow-and-arrow quiver like those carried by Scythian archers; the Tomb II female appears to have been a renowned ‘warrioress’. Grave digs in Russia and Ukraine have proven the existence of female warriors in this period, and so the excavator postulated that the Tomb II woman must have had ‘Amazonian leanings’. Here Andronikos was referring to the matriarchal race who featured prominently in ancient Greek legend and whose latter-day descendants were said to be Scythian female mounted archers.
The gold quiver and greaves of the female in Tomb II stacked against the chamber-dividing door.

The gold quiver and greaves of the female in Tomb II stacked against the chamber-dividing door.

Others were more skeptical of the connection. ‘Weapons were for men what jewels were for women,’ reads a plaque in the subterranean Vergina Museum. Because of this arguably archaeological “gender bias’, many commentators believed that the antechamber weapons belonged to the man next door, as their upright position against the dividing door might indicate. The tomb conundrum remained unsolved.
One early hypothesis of the identity of the Tomb II female favoured a presumed daughter of King Atheas of the Danubian Scythians who at one stage planned an alliance with the Macedonian king by adopting Philip as his heir, despite having a son. The once-friendly relationship with Atheas broke down, but scholars conjectured that a daughter, given freely or taken with the 20,000 captive women in the wake of the briefly-enjoyed Macedonian victory, could then have become Philip’s concubine or possibly his seventh wife of what would then be eight in total.
Scythian archer

A female Scythian archer with hip-slung bow-and-arrow quiver from an Attica plate dated 520-500 BC.

Elegant as the hypothesis sounds, no daughter is ever mentioned in the ancient texts. Adopting Philip was rather a strange move if Atheas had a daughter, as the established method of forging an alliance with Macedon was to marry a young daughter to Philip at his polygamous court.
The Scythian daughter theory encountered more hurdles: Herodotus’ colourful description of the Scythian pre-burial practice involved slitting open the belly of the deceased, cleaning it out and filling it with aromatic substances, after which the corpse was covered in wax before carting around for display to the tribe. In contrast, the Tomb II woman was cremated soon after death with no feminine adornments. Scythian female burials, however, were usually accompanied by jewellery: glass beads, earrings and necklaces of pearls, topaz, agate and amber, as well bronze mirrors and distinctive ornate bracelets. The Vergina mystery deepened.
The ‘battle of the bones’ on tomb identities continued for three decades. Arguments revolved around wounds evident or invisible on the Tomb II male bones when compared to the battle wounds Philip reportedly suffered. Wall paintings, entrance frescos of a hunting scene and even condiment pots found on the floor were heralded up as dating witnesses. But it was always debatable whether the twenty years between the death of Philip II and his half-witted son Arrhidaeus could be discerned by interrogating the subtleties of relics this way.
Tomb ii

The façade of Tomb II with the hunting-scene friese painted above the entrance.

Recurring questions filled academic papers: ‘did vaulted roofs exist in Greece in Philip’s reign? Was the hunting fresco, with its controversial depiction of lions in the quarry, inspired by the Persian game parks Alexander and his men witnessed on his campaign in Asia? All the ‘proofs’ for and against were argued both ways with equal dexterity.
By 2009, the ‘battle of the bones’ reached a stalemate when academics arguing the tomb identities ran out of debating ammunition. The American Journal of Archaeology even called for a moratorium on ‘Vergina papers’ until new evidence came to light, noting that the polarised positions of archaeologists dated back to political rivalries from decades earlier.
The mysteries and controversies of the royal tombs remained as profound as ever: would there ever be a resolution?
The entrance to the subterranean Archaeological Museum of Vergina.

The entrance to the subterranean Archaeological Museum of Vergina.

Unearthing the Family of Alexander the Great, the Remarkable Discovery of the Royal Tombs of Macedon by David Grant is available from Amazon and all major online book retailers.

The Palace of Knossos

by August 9, 2019

When we think about the birth of western civilization, we recall Knossos and its stunning palace. Crete is called the cradle of Europe, after all, and Knossos, the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete, is reputed to be Europe’s oldest city!
Knossos is thought to be the first settlement in the Neolithic period, though it is in fact, one of many Neolithic remains scattered across Crete. The site of Knossos is multilayered, revealing inhabitation for many, many years. From humble origins as an encampment, it eventually became the location of the most famous palace on the island, the Palace of Knossos.
The Palace of Knossos

The Palace of Knossos, Crete. Source: Pavel Timofeev / Adobe.

Founding a civilization
The Palace at Knossos flourished between 2700-1100BC when the Minoans shone as a prime example of Bronze Age Aegean civilization, both on the island of Crete and on other smaller Aegean islands. This palace, as well as the one at Phaistos, is remarkable due to the magnitude of its construction.
At the height of its power, the Palace of Knossos boasted the skills and resources of its inhabitants. These included oil, wine, and wool. Another source of revenue for the palace was the expansion of trade; the island of Crete was a humming hub of international import and export, with goods being shipped between Egypt, Italy, and the islands of the Cyclades.
Minoan fresco, showing a fleet and settlement

Minoan fresco, showing a fleet and settlement

The beginning of Knossos
What happened to Knossos, and why is it a ruin now? Well, the first Neolithic palace site dates around 7,000BC; these were wattle and daub structures and would have created a small village like enclosure.
The inhabitants of the hill-site eventually began using mud-bricks that were set upon stone bases. These houses usually had several rooms, with walls at right angles and centered doorways. They also had huge stones supporting areas that were under the greatest stress. The inner walls were smoothed over with mud-plaster, and flat roofs of interwoven branches were covered in mud. Inside, the rooms had earthen-hearths that were usually located in the center of the room.
ancient vases

Millennia-old amphorae in Knossos that have been pieced back together. (Ioannis Syrigos)

By the Middle Neolithic period, 5,000-4,000BC, the settlement housed between 500-1000 people. At this point, wood was being used in construction and houses became more family-oriented. Cretan family-life and society had arrived.
The Height of the Palace of Knossos
Around this time the first signs of the palace began to emerge. This ‘Great House’, as it’s known, was 100m2, built from stone, and had five rooms. Given the size and layout, it was more likely to be for public use rather than private/domestic occupation.
Palace Colonnades

The new palace made extensive use of colonnades. (Ioannis Syrigos)

Fast-forward a few centuries to around the second millennium BC and you’ll see the construction of first Cretan palaces that we might recognize. Earthquakes destroyed these palaces around 1,700BC, but they were soon rebuilt even grander than before.
At its height, Knossos covered a massive 3-acre site. It had an enormous staircase, staterooms on the top floor, sixteen storage rooms for pithoi (large earthenware containers), and an impressive plumbing system that included bathrooms, toilets, and drainage!
Reconstruction of the palace at Knossos

Reconstruction of the palace at Knossos

The palace’s construction included both stonework and timber, the rooms were lit with light-wells, and the wooden columns were ornate, not just structural. Adding to the majesty of the palace were brightly colored frescoes that depicted everyday Minoan life, some of which are still visible today.
All this splendor was attributed to the mighty sea empire that King Minos developed. According to Herodotus, this powerful empire lasted for hundreds of years, reaching its peak around 1,450BC before a series of events began its steady decline.
throne room

Throne Room, Palace of Knossos, Crete, Greece. Ed Freeman / Getty Images

The Decline of the Palace of Knossos
Much like the story of Pompeii, Knossos fell victim to a cataclysmic event; the volcanic eruption on the island of Thira (Santorini) c. 1,370BC. At the time, mainland Greeks had begun to inhabit the island, bringing with them their influences, both artistic and military.
Famous fresco

The famous Ladies in Blue fresco that once adorned the walls of Knossos palace. (Ioannis Syrigos)

After the eruption, it’s thought that successive invasions by the Mycenaeans brought about the final blows. Soon, as with much of the island, the palace lay in ruins. The site was abandoned and it passed into the dusty pages of history. That is, until the early 20th century when a man named Sir Arthur Evans, inspired by stories of a Minotaur and fabled kings, began exploring. The rest, as they say, is history.