By Kristina Kilgrove
As a bioarchaeologist, I routinely pore over the skeletons of ancient populations so that I can learn about their health, diet, and lifestyles. Most of my research focuses on understanding the ancient Romans whose lives didn't make it into history books. Follow me on Twitter or Google+.
A warrior and a diplomat, Philip II ruled the kingdom of Macedon from 359-336 BC. He was assassinated during a visit to the town of Aegae, now called Vergina, by a member of his bodyguard, but both ancient and modern historians are at odds as to why. With his assassination, his son Alexander ascended the throne at just 20 years old, earning the title of Great by becoming one of history’s best military commanders and empire builders.
When a spectacular tomb full of artifacts was found buried under a mound of dirt at Vergina in the 1970s, archaeologists began their quest to discover the identity of the tomb’s occupants. In the 1980s, Jonathan Musgrave, John Prag, and Richard Naeve posited that the male occupant of that tomb was Philip II based on an injury to the skeleton’s right eye socket consistent with a wound Philip II was known to have suffered in battle. Fast forward to 2000, when Antonis Bartsiokas writing in Science showed that the eye socket damage was related to cracking during cremation and reconstruction after excavation. Is this or is this not Philip of Macedon?
In an article published this week in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, researchers Theodore Antikas and Laura Wynn-Antikas attempt to settle the longstanding question. Their new analysis is based in part on computed tomography (CT) and x-ray fluorescence (XRF) techniques and identifies two of the Vergina tomb occupants as Philip II and a Scythian princess.
The skeletal evidence that Antikas and Wynn-Antikas spell out for their identification of Philip includes basic demographics: the skeleton in question was male and around 40-50 years old based on traits of the skull and the pelvis. But the pathological issues are more interesting, as they give bioarchaeologists information about injuries suffered during a person’s life. Evidence for horseback riding comes from herniated disks in his lower back and bone markers of attachment sites for muscles heavily used in riding. Bone growth was evident in the facial sinuses; this could relate to an old injury to the face, which Philip is known to have endured, or it could relate to an upper respiratory disease. Additional bony changes on the ribs suggest a disease that targeted the lungs, but the researchers cannot pinpoint an origin. As a king, Philip’s life and appearance are well-recorded in histories. Philip is said by Demosthenes to have suffered injuries during his lifetime to his eye, hand, clavicle, and leg. Sharp trauma to one of the bones of his palm is actually the only injury the researchers found that lines up with historical accounts, but they point out that soft tissue injuries, such as to the eye, may not show up on bone.
More evidence may still point to an identification of the skeleton as Philip’s, including one of the other skeletons in the tomb. The second skeleton is not as complete as the first, but based on features of the skull and long bones, the researchers think they have a female in her early 30s. She also suffered from herniated disks in her mid-back, suggestive of a life riding horses, as well as a fracture of her lower leg that had healed before her death. The fracture was so severe, however, that it ended up shortening one leg. In excavating the Vergina tomb originally, archaeologists found greaves (shin armour) that were two different lengths; Antikas and Wynn-Antikas speculate that these were made specifically for this woman with the injured leg. Because of her age, the warrior weaponry, and her propensity for horseback riding, it is suggested that the woman was Philip’s seventh wife, the daughter of King Atheas of Scythia.
Antikas and Wynn-Antikas want us to add up all the circumstantial evidence provided in this new analysis of two of the Vergina skeletons and reach the conclusion that the identification of the male in Tomb 2 as Philip II is reasonable. While it may be reasonable, it is not a conclusive identification by the definition of forensic anthropology or forensic archaeology. Without clear injury patterns or DNA, which helped researchers positively identify King Richard III for example, we cannot be 100% certain of the attribution of the skeleton to Philip II.
Interestingly, in their press conference last fall, Antikas and his team reported finding bone that had never been analyzed before. From the 70+ bones, the team came up with seven additional people from the Vergina tomb — an adult male, an adult female, a child, four perinates (8-10 lunar months, or full-term fetuses that may or may not have been born), and one fetus (6.5 lunar months). Considering early investigations simply talked about scattered remains, this reanalysis is intriguing and merits additional work. How are these people related to the man and the woman detailed in this study, whether they are Philip and a Scythian princess or not?
There is no denying that the intricately-painted, gold-filled Vergina tomb is fit for a king. The question remains whether it was indeed occupied by one.
Read the article by Antikas and Wynn-Antikas, “New finds from the cremains in Tomb II at Aegae point to Philip II and a Scythian princess,” at the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.
Battle scenes appear in a detail from a golden bow-case, believed to have belonged to a Scythian princess, that was found in a richly furnished tomb believed to belong to ancient King Philip II of Macedon, is displayed at Vergina museum, northern Greece, on Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
A fresco painting of a hunt tops the facade of a tomb believed to belong to the ancient King Philip II of Macedon, at Vergina museum, northern Greece, Oct. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris))
A heavy solid gold casket from the rich, unplundered tomb of Philip II of Macedon, which contained the assassinated king’s burnt bones, is displayed at Vergina museum, northern Greece, Oct. 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)