Not Philip II of Macedon
April 20, 2000
by Angela M.H. Schuster
Skeleton from Vergina royal tomb reappraised.
A skeleton thought by some to be that of King Philip II of Macedon, is not, in fact, that of the accomplished military leader and father of Alexander the Great, but rather one of Alexander's half brothers, Philip III Arrhidaeus, a far less prominent figure in the ancient world, according to a new study published in the April 21 edition of the journal Science.
Found within a two-chambered royal tomb unearthed at Vergina, Greece, in November 1977, the nearly complete skeletal remains of a man, 35 to 55 at the time of death (Philip was 46 when he died), had been placed within a golden chest, or larnax, bearing an embossed starburst, the emblem of the Macedonian royal family. Also within the burial were a gilded silver diadem, an iron helmet, an elaborate ceremonial shield, an iron and gold cuirass, and two small ivory portrait heads believed to represent Philip II and Alexander. The remains of a woman, which had been placed in a similar chest, were found in the tomb's second chamber. Both individuals had been cremated.
University of Bristol anatomist Jonathan Musgrave, along with British archaeologist John Prag and medical illustrator Richard Neave, both of the University of Manchester, had identified the skeleton as that of Philip II, based on damage to the skull, caused, they believed, when an arrow penetrated Philip's right eye either during the siege of Methone or while the king was inspecting the Macedonian siege mechanisms in 354 B.C. The researchers identified two marks on the roof of the skull's right eye socket--one, a groove in the inner corner of the arch near the nose, which was interpreted to be an indentation caused by a piece of metal; the other, a bump closer to the center of the arch, thought to be a healed-over nick from the incoming arrow. What appears to be a general distortion of the right side of the face, they argued, was a skeletal response to the injury.
Right eyesocket (internal view): the left arrow shows the bony protuberance of the supraorbital notch, and the right arrow shows the frontal notch. No evidence of healing or callus formation can be observed. (Antonis Bartsiokas, courtesy Science) [LARGER IMAGE]
The identification of the couple within the tomb as Philip II and Cleopatra, his seventh or eighth wife, made its discovery all the more exciting as no other royal burials at Vergina, site of the ancient Macedonian capital of Aigai, had escaped the ravages of looters and invaders. During his reign (359-336 B.C.), Philip had quelled the military and political turmoil in Macedonia and conquered much of Greece, thus laying the groundwork for his son Alexander to conquer lands from Greece to India.
Recent research has indicated that the style of the artifacts in the royal tomb dated to approximately 317 B.C., a generation after Philip's assassination at his daughter's wedding in 336 B.C. As Alexander is known to have been buried in Egypt, this later date called into question the identities of those buried in the tomb, prompting a reassessment of the remains.
According to paleoanthropologist Antonis Bartsiokas of the Anaximandrian Institute of Human Evolution at the Democritus University of Thrace in Voula, Greece, and assistant professor at the Democritus who used a technique called macrophotography to study the skeleton in meticulous detail, the features identified by Musgrave, Prag, and Neave are simply normal anatomical quirks, accentuated by the effects of cremation and a poor reassembly of the remains. "The bump, for example," says Bartsiokas, "is part of the opening in the skull's frontal bone called the supraorbital notch, through which a bundle of nerves and blood vessels pass." Most people can feel this notch by pressing their fingers underneath the ridge of bone beneath the eyebrow. The bone at the site of the "injury" is simply the frontal notch and also shows no signs of healing in the bone fabric, a problem for Bartsiokas given that the wound was inflicted 18 years before Philip II's death. Furthermore, he says there is no reason why such a facial wound would result in such extensive facial remodeling as Musgrave, Prag, and Neave have posited. Instead, he argues, the zygomatic arch (cheekbone) probably cracked while being cremated and was later glued back together improperly, an opinion echoed by forensic anthropologist Anagnostis Agelarakis of Adelphi University in New York, who took issue with Prag and Neave's work on the remains in 1998. "It is extremely difficult to undertake such a reconstruction," says Agelarakis, "given the non-homogeneous warping and shrinkage of the bone mass in the cremation process. Add to this taphonomy, especially if one is looking for ante mortem manifestations of trauma, and the job becomes nearly impossible."
The skeleton's left tibia (lower leg bone) is nearly intact, with minimal warping and a step transverse fracture, evidence of a dry bone cremation. This is consistent with the taphonomic history of Philip III Arrhidaeus according to ancient sources. Note that the step fracture in the distal part of the tibia, right, extends from the end of the longitudinal crack across the shaft of the bone. (Antonis Bartsiokas, courtesy Science) [LARGER IMAGE]
"More important," Bartsiokas told ARCHAEOLOGY, "we know that Philip II was a warrior and that he suffered numerous injuries that would undoubtedly have left their mark on the skeleton beyond the wound to the eye." According to several ancient authors, Philip's right clavicle (collar bone) had been shattered by a lance sometime around 345 B.C., a wound to his right femur (upper leg bone) in 339 B.C. had left him lame; and one of his arms had been maimed in battle. "The skeleton," adds Bartsiokas, "simply bears no evidence of these injuries."
Following Alexander's death, the throne went to his half brother, Philip III Arrhidaeus. A king in name only, Arrhidaeus may have been mentally ill or physically disabled. Plutarch, writing in the second-century A.D., tells us that Alexander's jealous mother Olympias attempted to kill Arrhidaeus, son of Philip's second wife, by poisoning him at a young age, so that the throne would go to Alexander, who was second rather than first in line. The remains in question show few signs of physical stress, consistent with a person of weak constitution.
The area of zygomaticomaxillary suture (joint between the cheekbone and upper jaw) showing the "nick," that is, the misalignment of bones owing to the fact that some fragments, such as the jugal crest shown here, are badly stuck together. No evidence of injury can be observed. (Antonis Bartsiokas, courtesy Science) [LARGER IMAGE]
In addition to the physical condition of the remains, Bartsiokas investigated whether the bones were covered with flesh when they were cremated. Bones cremated "dry" show little warping and contain a few small, straight fractures. "Fleshed" bones, on the other hand, warp and bear curved fractures as a result of the retraction of relatively fresh collagen during cremation. So, after cremation, dry bones are more or less complete, whereas fleshed bones are more or less fragmented.
Arrhidaeus' skeleton is thought to have been cremated under somewhat unusual conditions. He was buried after being assassinated, possibly by Olympias, in 317 B.C. But ancient historians reported that Arrhidaeus' successor, general Cassander, later exhumed, cremated, and re-buried the skeleton as a gesture of honor intended to promote his own legitimacy as king. Cassander, who was married to Thessalonike, Philip II's daughter by his fifth wife Nicesipolis, also had Olympias, Alexander's wife Roxane, and son Alexander IV murdered.
"The skeleton presents a conspicuous paradox," says Bartsiokas. "It is almost complete. Usually cremated skeletons are little more than a pile of small fragmented bones. Until now, Boone had realized that this completeness was owing to dry cremation. This is a characteristic specific to Arrhidaeus as no other Macedonian king is known to have had a dry cremation." This drives the final nail in the coffin of the Philip II identification, and it would also explain the seemingly late date of many of the artifacts which may have been inherited from Alexander the Great, among them the elaborate iron and gold cuirass that closely resembles the one worn by Alexander in the famous mosaic of Pompeii, and the gold and ivory shield that closely resembles that carried by Alexander in Roman medallions.
Left eyesocket (internal view): the asymmetry observed between the two orbits is mainly a postmortem effect; the top part of the bone was lifted up during cremation. (Antonis Bartsiokas, courtesy Science) [LARGER IMAGE]
Still, questions about the identification of the bones as those of Philip III Arrhidaeus remain. While cremation may have destroyed evidence of poisoning, if, in fact, he was poisoned as the ancient authors tell us, it is possible that traces of it survived. "Depending on the nature of the poison, and over what time period it may have been administered," Agelarakis told ARCHAEOLOGY, "traces of it may have left their mark and it would be advantageous to follow this line of investigation. Although there is mounting evidence that these are not the bones of Philip II, future research may provide the fine-tuning necessary to determine the true identity of those buried in the tomb.
As most of the Vergina tombs have been looted, chances of finding the real King Philip II are slim at best.
Angela M.H. Schuster is a senior editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.