Light shone in a display case protecting a dainty golden crown. Visitors, whose faces were obscured in the dimly lit underground chamber, murmured in hushed tones – awed by the magnificence of the museum’s precious metal treasures. I, too, stood in darkness, seeing the illuminated entrance to Royal Tomb II. Here at the Royal Tombs of Aigai, Alexander the Great’s father, King Philip II, and Philip’s wife were buried centuries ago.

An hour’s drive from Thessaloniki lands you in the small, tidy village of Vergina. Jars of olives aging in brine sit on rock walls built from the rubble of Aigai, Macedonia’s first capital. Sidewalk cafes serve fresh pomegranate juice. The tumulus, an earthen mound covering the Royal Tombs, is just across the street.

French archeologist, Leon Heuzey, spotted the tumulus in the 19th century and commented, “Within these Macedonian monuments (…) there is more than just a few ancient remains for us to uncover. There is the life and history of an entire people awaiting discovery.” A century later, Manolis Andronikos uncovered the Royal Tombs of Aigai. 

Unlike the iconic ruins of the Parthenon, Knossos, and Delphi, and the idyllic Greek islands dotting the Aegean and Ionian Seas, the Royal Tombs never make a top ten list of Greece’s attractions. But this underground UNESCO World Heritage Site, with only lit displays of grave goods and tombs punctuating the darkness, deserves a visit.

HISTORY OF THE TOMBS

King Philip II of Macedonia is the burial complex’s most famous inhabitant. He was a successful warrior, personally leading his troops into battle and conquering most of Greece. He survived battle injuries to his right eye and left knee but was assassinated by one of his bodyguards in 336 BC.

facade of ancient tomb

His son, Alexander the Great, immediately assumed the throne and continued his father’s agenda of conquering Persia. Alexander planned an extravagant funeral for his father, which was attended by his loyal subjects. The funeral made history in ancient Greece.

Funeral practices for royals involved cremating the body and some belongings – traditionally two spears and a helmet for the wealthy. The cremation took place on a pyre for all to see and mourn. Servants collected the remaining bones, washed them in wine, and arranged them anatomically on precious cloth. They placed King Philip II’s bones on a chryselephantine couch – a couch inlaid with gold and ivory – most likely in Tomb II. 

Servants put day-to-day necessities that weren’t heaped on the funeral pyre in the tomb. Unfortunately for the king’s wife, beloved horse, and faithful dog, these must-have afterlife necessities weren’t limited to armor, weapons, and banquet serving dishes.  Records show the king’s wife either committed suicide or was sacrificed with his animals. Clearly, afterlife must-haves included loved ones.

Enemy soldiers looted two graves in 276 BC, the remaining tombs – II and III – were untouched even though Roman invaders destroyed the city of Aigai in 168 BC. Centuries later, Manolis Andronikos’ pickaxe hit the façade of Tomb II, uncovering enough weaponry, crowns, and household goods in the two intact tombs to fill the museum’s display cases. His excavation offers you a glimpse into ancient Macedonia’s royal life.

WHAT YOU’LL DISCOVER

A tunnel guides you into the 2500-year-old tumulus. Once underground, the museum is subdued, respectful, and very dark. Lights focus on the artifacts, and in doing so, focus your attention on life and death of royals in Macedonia in the 4th century BC. 

Upon entering, you’ll find ancient tombstones dating back to 1000 BC. These set the stage for the tombs and artifacts you’ll see, especially those from Tombs II and III that steal the show. 

Tomb II survived intact until Andronikos excavated it in 1977. A ramp leads down to the tomb’s entrance. Spotlights highlight doric columns and a faded mural with Philip II and son, Alexander, hunting a lion. 

This tomb held King Philip II in the chamber and his wife or concubine, a Scythian princess and warrior herself, in the antechamber. 

Tomb III, also found intact, probably held the cremated remains of Alexander IV, Alexander the Great’s teenage son. 

gold diadem
A diadem of Philip’s wife’s.

Artifacts from these two tombs fill the display cases in the remainder of the museum. Curators grouped objects according to use with iron spear heads, greaves or metal shin guards, and metal parts of a shield in one display. Silver serving dishes for an afterlife banquet occupy another. Remains of a chryselephantine couch are pieced together in a large display. 

Displays with glowing golden crowns and larnakes or ossuary boxes from Tombs II and III are most impressive. Originally, the crown rested on or was placed in the larnax that contained the cremated remains. The larnax, in turn, was placed in a marble sarcophagus. These priceless, ornate artifacts represented the best craftsmanship of the time.

Ruins of Tombs I and IV, several showcases of stone or clay artifacts from these two tombs, a heroon or temple honoring a dead warrior, and a fresco of the abduction of Persephone round out the museum’s collection.

THE CONTROVERSY

Andronikos was certain King Philip II’s remains were found in Tomb II. Later research pointed to his body being in Tomb I because bone fragments showed damage consistent with Philip’s wartime injuries. The latest research has Philip II back in Tomb II after a cat scan and x-rays on remains found in the main chamber. We’ll never know for certain.

What is certain is the Museum of Royal Tombs of Aigai is worthy of your time. You’ll experience a museum like no other, coming away with an appreciation for royal life, and death, in ancient Macedonia. 

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Vergina is 70 kilometers southwest of Thessaloniki via A1, then A2 and E90 highways. MyDayTrip.com, a European car and driver service, is a convenient way to make the daytrip from Thessaloniki. The Royal Tombs are open from 8 am to 8 pm everyday but Tuesday, when it is open from noon to 8 pm. Admission is 12 Euros.

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Teresa Otto
Teresa Otto is a freelance writer, photographer, and retired pediatric anesthesiologist based in Billings, Montana. When she’s not traveling the world, she serves as a waitress and housekeeper for two rescued cats and a dog. Follow her travels at teresa-otto.com.