Wednesday, September 24, 2014

It's a heroon!

UPDATE: On October 2, 2014, the Greek Ministry of Culture press release stated that a door (or at least its remnants) had been found inside the monument; see King for more discussion on its significance. The lack of a door had implied that the monument was not a tomb, leading to the heroon theory. Now the existence of a door does the opposite: it shows that the monument was most likely a tomb, or at least some sort of tomb and heroon hybrid. Heroa were always built either on the graves of heroes or in association with their bones.

It was also reported that the next chamber of the tomb is 6 feet (2 meters) lower than the previous ones, implying that some steps or a ramp will be uncovered soon. This would strengthen the arguments made below about the monument having an "Egyptian" tomb aspect and about how the monument takes the visitor downwards, as if traveling to the underworld, suggestive of cult practices.
It's looking more and more like the "tomb" is really a symbolic tomb that served as a cult center, probably for Alexander the Great. Dorothy King's thoughts on this are here.

The evidence so far:

Connection to Alexander

  1. The monument is in Macedonia and is dated to about the time of Alexander's death. Alexander was by far the most important thing that ever happened to Macedonia; they must have made a major monument for him. Heroons were also an essential part of Greek society; a major heroon for Alexander must have existed.
  2. The monument is by far the largest object of its kind anywhere in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Alexander is the most logical Greek to have the largest monument.
  3. The monument seems to have been designed by Dinocrates, who was Alexander's architect (you might say he was Alexander's "art director for state propaganda," a role similar to Albert Speer).
  4. There was a gigantic lion statue on top of the monument. The lion was about 20 feet tall and sat on a base about 30 feet tall for a total height of about 50 feet. For comparison, the Statue of Liberty (without base) is 151 feet high. Lions are associated with royalty and Alexander always had himself portrayed in busts with hair reminiscent of a lion's mane.
  5. The monument has certain Egyptian touches (e.g., enormous size, entered by steps going down, sphinxes, possibly started during Alexander's lifetime). Alexander was deeply affected by experiences in Egypt and considered himself the living Amun. The most important city he founded was Alexandria in Egypt.

Why it's a cult center and not a tomb

  1. See the first point above. There must have been a major heroon for Alexander in Macedonia.
  2. The monument is unlike any tomb found in Greece.
  3. The monument does not have a door [Note: a door was found! see the update above]. The monument appears to be designed for people to enter and exit; for instance, the decorated entrance hallway so far uncovered, and the steps down at the entrance.
  4. There are steps going down into the monument. This apparently does not occur in Greek tombs. The steps downward are suggestive of "go down into the underworld" and imply religious activity.
  5. The monument aged and suffered damage over time (e.g., the face of one of the caryatids fell off). It appears to have been open during this aging process. It was then carefully back-filled and sealed up. Special septal walls were constructed out of crude stone, not matching the monument's original design, to help seal it.

The back-fill problem

The "back-filling" of the monument has been a major mystery for classical scholars commenting on the dig. Dorothy King has asserted that Romans were responsible for the back-filling, although she never explained her reasoning. Others seem to have thought, at least initially, that the back-filling was part of the original tomb design, perhaps as protection from looters. Thus when holes were seen in the septal walls, it was assumed to be evidence of looting.

The statues so far uncovered in the monument have all shown heavy damage. This was seen as further evidence of looting or vandalism. Apparently, it was thought, the tomb had been vandalized at some point and then at a later date it had been back-filled (by Romans?) to seal or protect it.

But why would the Romans do this? Indeed, if the Macedonians themselves back-filled it, why? Some Macedonian tombs had been back-filled and sealed at the time of the burial; in one such tomb, the frescoes hadn't yet dried when the tomb was back-filled and sealed, causing paint to be found stuck to the dirt.

However, the Amphipolis monument was not back-filled initially. Clearly, much damage had accumulated in the monument before the back-filling; and the septal walls are made of crude stone that does not match the rest of the monument's construction.

The crude stone of the septal walls was never meant to be seen by the public; that's why crude stone was acceptable. But this suggests, by contrast, that the original construction of the monument -- the nice stone and mosaics and statues -- was meant to be seen.

The answer to the back-fill mystery is this: the monument was a heroon and the Macedonians back-filled it themselves to protect the monument from collapse. Filling the insides with dirt stabilized the walls. This was an act of reverence, to protect an important site. If there were ever valuable items inside the complex, the Macedonians themselves would have removed these items to a secure and sacred location before back-filling the monument.

Thus the monument was not "looted" per se, but no valuable items will be found inside. However, a wealth of information will be gleaned from the site. It may contain inscriptions, for instance. It may contain scraps of items, perhaps leftover debris from visitors to the site. It is already known to contain mosaics and two important statues.

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