Friday, September 19, 2014

Alexander's tomb? Only time will tell...

Since the beginning of August I am following the news about the excavations of a monumental tomb at Amphipolis, Greece, allegedly Alexander the Great's. Before then, I wasn't even aware there was a place called Amphipolis. And when I heard about first, I thought it was somewhere near Athens! So much for my history and geography genius. Listening recently to friends from my youth, I was told that I should have also been nearby during school trips in the 1960-ies, and I must have definitely seen the Lion of Amphipolis.

The lion was found in ruins during the Balkan Wars, early half of last century, near its current position, a few km away south-west from the tomb hill, at the banks and bottom of the Strymon river. The ruins were put together by a team led by Swedish archaeologist Oscar Broneer and a Greek sculptor in the late 1930ies. The project was supported by the US Ambassador Vy (?), a friend of Greece. The monument can be still admired today if you make a stop there during you travels on the Egnatia highway. That's a hundred steps away, literally, from the Strymon river banks as it flows towards its delta to the Aegean sea.

I was fortunate to find, from very early on, a blogger site called Amfipoli News that posts updated and of reasonable quality articles multiple times a day, 24x7. Since the discovery of historically significant findings in the tomb hill (aka known as Kasta), the Amfipoli News blogger seems to post almost exclusively articles related to the works. Most of the info and pictures I have summarised in this post I have borrowed from that blog. It is true that other blogs run 'professionally' by the main Media establishments in the country are not half as good, and I have abandoned those altogether. Sheer waste of time and Internet space.

So, the known facts are the following: (Click the Google maps satellite view above for a larger view. The arrow shows the exact location and the inset shows a closer view from above of the Kasta hill.)

There is a round hill of a circumference 500m, along which an impeccable marble wall 3m (10 feet) tall was unearthed. At the south-west side of the hill, facing the ancient city of Amphipolis, archaeologists discovered an entrance to the tomb that for more than two millennia was hidden away, under tones of earth. The surrounding marble wall was also hidden inside the soil 3m deep! Nothing to witness from the outside for thousands of years. The 15m tall Lion monument mentioned earlier was recently proven to have been removed from the top of the Kasta hill, presumably during Byzantine times, and was demolished to pieces to serve in the construction of a Byzantine dam at the Strymon river. It was eventually found a few km away at the banks and bottom of that river. Until recent years Kasta was merely a hill in the community of Mesolakkia (Amphipolis area). Feeding place for goats and wild rabbits.

The compelling event that triggered the start of archaeological excavations was the discovery of few ruins as late as back in the autumn of the year I was born... 1953! Same year that Jozef Stalin passed. It took modern day Greeks 60 years to decide it was worth looking at that hill seriously. In the meantime, the US has flown astronauts to the moon and brought them back safely. An entire electronics and computer industry has popped and changed out lives for ever. The Soviet Union emerged from its Stalin era, scared the sh*t out of us in the West for decades, during the so called 'Cold War' (better that than the current hot wars against jihadists) and subsequently fallen apart. Another infamous Wall was raised in Berlin and decades later torn apart. Steve Jobs was born, raised, created Apple Inc, gave us an entire iCulture that changed our lives, and passed, far too young of pancreatic cancer. Half of the original Beatles passed too. The US (once more) has flown to Mars and beamed pictures back to earth. We entered a new millennium for crying out loud! We have even flown to the end of our solar system and continued to travel away from it, for billions of miles. We dug a hole into the ozon layer and almost started filling it back. And only now after all this has happened and much more, ourselves, 'lightning speed' Greeks, we are finally about to discover our greatest hero's tomb. Sitting under our nose for that long! We been sitting on it for 60+ years, pissing against the wind, leaving that tomb hill to the mercy of hungry rabbits and stray goats, looters and tomb-raiders. Better late than never though, one could claim.

Thanks to the current project manager, a very serious person, Mrs Peristeri, excavation works advance at the necessary high pace. Like I said, better late than never. Here's what we publicly know they have found so far:

Starting at the top of the outside marble wall, there's 13 stairs leading downwards to a first chamber (θάλαμος). The entrance to that chamber was concealed by a large stone wall. After  that wall was taken down, the first monumental discovery of this project emerged. A pair of sphinxes facing each other, missing their heads and wings. Needless to say, workers and archaeologists had to pour away the sand and soils covering all these structures. The original architects of the monument took good care to fill in all chambers and gaps with sandy soils to discourage and potentially trap inside ambitious raiders and looters. 

After the extraction of the sandy soils another prohibitive wall appeared at its other end. Taking down the upper part of that wall revealed the second breathtaking discovery of the tomb. A pair of Caryatides extending their arms together to form an entrance below them. Only parts of their bodies were unearthed to this day, the following days scheduled to clear out the wall in front in its entirety and reveal them girls in all their glory. Unfortunately one of them had her face missing probably because of pressure from the ceiling exercised upon the head of the statue. The second lady only misses her nostrils, and for the rest she looks pretty solid.

The pencil drawing depiction shown earlier shows the first two chambers as they were found. The drawing is signed by the architect who is in charge for years now of the restoration of Parthenon and the Acropolis in Athens. It clearly shows what I described so far. 

The second chamber, shown in the drawing as still covered with soil up to half its total height is where the team is working as we speak. As they dig further, they encounter ambient temperatures and humidity conditions like being in caves. The back of the chamber wall appears to only have one gate in front, not as glorious as in the previous two passages. The ceiling and walls show damages that could turn lethal if the whole structure is not urgently supported with the necessary means. Indeed, along the excavation works, supporting structures are set in place to keep the entire chamber from collapsing. Even large amounts of the hill soils are being dug away to lighten the gravity forces from the soils from the outside, on top. These folks are leaving nothing to chance.

Needless to say, the side walls, and the floors were found to be decorated in marbles and stones and a few rests of colours. The original engineers who built that 24 centuries ago made sure it was built not to be entered easily by your typical looter. The tools necessary to enter from this gate to the final tomb/s (one doesn't know yet) would be highly sophisticated for a small team of looters trying to enter the tomb. Peristeri mentioned ironically that she hasn't found any human remains of skeletons yet of those presumably perished in their effort to enter, thus responding to those with an 'opinion' that the tomb was previously looted and all valuables removed.

The army was called in the meantime to safeguard the works from curious passer-by's and potential modern day tomb raiders. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras follows progress personally, step by step, literally by the minute, and the main opposition party is sitting on burning coal. We suspect they asked their own 'expert' professors and wise noses to publish articles diminishing the work of the team in charge. They'd wish that not much was eventually found as the discovery of Alexander's tomb would mean their collapse in the next polls for reasons only comprehended by Greek Political Party dogs! The entire charade by so-called experts, historian, architects and archaeologists, not involved in the works whatsoever, criticising shamelessly Mrs Peristeri and her team is beyond belief. Modern day Greeks, hardly yet recovering from the financial cluster-f*ck they managed themselves into, have plenty of time to critic the real doers and express their useless opinions about a matter they are standing so far from and are so remote to. "Opinions are like a-holes, everybody's got one", said Confucius and few select intellectual and poisonous Greeks are a living proof of that saying.

I can only applaud the works of the experts as well as their attitude towards the Public. They appear to be genuine professionals. Everytime I surf to the Amfipoli News blog my heartbeat speeds up, and the day I saw the Caryatides pictures I couldn't hold the emotion. Imagine what those expert workers felt when they saw it in real. "We all wept" mentioned Mrs Peristeri yesterday...

How far are they still from the real thing? Some simple geometry math can easily help you calculate that. They have now reached 23m towards the centre from the stairs. There are about another 50m to the actual centre of the circle, if one assumed the tomb to be located at that spot. If the original architect wanted to fool potential raiders even more, he might have created a sort of a maze leading to blind spots. Who knows what they are going to find in the next days, or months. A picture taken of the area by academic researchers years ago with soil penetrating waves/rays (I am unaware of the exact technology used) shows strange concentrations below the hill of areas supposedly looking solid, like interior walls, and more chambers. They seemed to move in various asymmetric directions all over the place, which kind of supports the 'maze' hypothesis. That university study dates from more than ten years ago. Even then nobody asked the right questions about what to do with that hill. Civil servants sitting on their fat ass then were too busy looting the national cash safes instead. Anyways. Besides all that, it currently sounds extremely intriguing and promises to overwhelm the planet with a worldwide sensation. The greatest archaeological discovery for more than 100 years, to say the least.