by Rossella Lorenzi
The gentle female sculptures found in the massive burial complex at the Kasta Hill site at Amphipolis, Greece, might depict priestess who took part in orgies and ecstatic rites while scaring men away with snake-filled baskets, according to a new interpretation of the finely carved statues.
If true, some scholars argue the tomb would belong to the mother of Alexander the Great.
The sculptures represent Orphic revelers and priestesses of Dionysus, says Andrew Chugg, author of "The Quest for the Tomb of Alexander the Great."
Imagine a cave filled with the oldest known human-painted images, dating back over 32,000 years.
Technically known as caryatids -- pillars formed from sculptures of female figures common in Greek and Roman architecture -- the statues were unearthed in a mysterious massive burial mound in Greece's northeastern Macedonia region after archaeologists had already entered a chamber guarded by two colossal headless and wingless sphinxes.
According to team leader Katerina Peristeri, the structure dates to between 325 B.C. -- two years before Alexander the Great's death -- and 300 B.C.
Flanking a marble doorway, the curly haired female statues stand more than seven feet tall on a marble pedestal wearing thick soled shoes, their alternated arms outstretched as if to symbolically bar intruders from entering the chamber.
"These female sculptures may specifically be Klodones, priestesses of Dionysus with whom Olympias, Alexander the Great's mother, consorted," Chugg told Discovery News. "This is because the baskets they wear on their heads are sacred to Dionysus."
Chugg considers Olympias as the person most likely buried in the magnificent tomb.
"In his 'Life of Alexander,' the Greek historian Plutarch wrote how Olympias used to participate in Dionysiac rites and orgies with these Klodones," Chugg said.
Specifically, the Greek historian and biographer recounted that the mystical baskets were used to hold Olympias' pet snakes, which would rear their heads out of the baskets, terrifying the male participants in the Dionysiac rites and orgies.
"I have discovered there are Roman copies of a 4th-Century B.C. statue of Dionysus in both the Hermitage and Metropolitan museums with an accompanying figure of a priestess, who is dressed very similarly to the Amphipolis caryatids, including the 'platform shoes,'" Chugg said.
Sphinxes Emerge From Huge Ancient Greek Tomb
On the assumption that the Amphipolis tomb is that of Olympias, "the explanation for the caryatids would be they represent those Klodones that shared in Dionysiac orgies with the queen whose tomb they guard," Chugg said.
At 1,600 feet wide, the Kasta Hill mound is regarded as the largest burial site ever discovered in Greece. Hopes in the country are now high for an extraordinary find that might boost the country's economy after six years of recession and austerity.
"We are watching in awe and with deep emotion the excavation in Amphipolis," Greek Culture Minister Konstantinos Tasoulas told the BBC.
"The most beautiful secrets are hidden right underneath our feet," he said.
As the excavation began, basically revealing a long vaulted corridor, hopes grew the mysterious mound could be this century's tomb of Tutankhamun.
It emerged the structure, which originally was crowned by an impressive 16-foot-tall marble lion statue, was embellished in its underground space with colossal sculptures.
Two headless and wingless seated sphinxes, standing nearly 5 feet high and weighting about 1.5 tons each, guard the entrance, while two magnificent caryatids flank a second marble doorway.
So, who were these colossal sentinel statues protecting? Who is buried in the Amphipolis tomb?