Greece is one of the most popular holiday destinations in Europe, yet the country’s north (the regions of Epirus, Thessaly, Western Macedonia, Central Macedonia and Eastern Macedonia and Thrace) remains fairly off the beaten trackRead more...
Northern Greece - Vergina
Hill and entrance to Royal Tombs of Aigai © Andrei Nekrassov, Shutterstock
The scared city of the kingdom of Macedon hosts an enormous palace and treasure-filled royal tombs.
Some 12km east of Véria, past the Aliákmonas River dam, the road rises into the gentle foothills of Mount Piería to a village created by 1922 Greek refugees from the Pontus and Caucuses. But people have lived here since the cows came home, or at least since the 11th century bc, the date of the oldest of the area’s 500 tumuli. One of these mounds had some old stones that the locals called the ‘little palace’ of a certain queen Vergína (Βεργίνα) who gave her name to the village. Decades earlier, in the 1860s, the French had begun excavations and found a Macedonian tomb, but war and troubles prevented further investigations until 1937, when it became a project of the archaeology department of the University of Thessaloníki, under Manólis Andrónikos.
War stopped work again until 1959 when Andrónikos returned to lead the dig. British classicist N G L Hammond, who knew Macedonia so well that he was recruited as an SOE officer in the region during World War II, had theorised that Vergína (not Édessa, as many believed) occupied the site of Ancient Aigai, the first capital of the kings of Macedon. Convinced that Hammond was right, Andrónikos set to work on the Great Tumulus, 110m in diameter (once believed to be the largest in Greece, although it is dwarfed by the Kásta tomb at Amphipolis, which is so large that people just presumed it was a hill).
Excavations showed that the clay and gravel of the tumulus had fragments of damaged funerary steles from 300–250bc – which slotted in with the historical fact that Gaulish mercenaries of King Pyrrhus, left to guard Aigai in 274bc, had plundered its cemetery. And in 1977–78 Andrónikos found, under all the rubble, what he had sought: the royal tombs. What he hadn’t expected was to find one unplundered, with the fabulous treasure and ashes of Philip II – confirmed by the forensic reconstruction of the skull showing the horrific eye wound he suffered at the battle of Methóni.