Queen of the Underworld Sheds New Light on Greek Tomb

Newly revealed mosaic may hold key to unlocking mystery: Who was buried in the massive mound?
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The newly excavated Amphipolis tomb mosaic, seen here, depicts the figure of a woman identified as the goddess Persephone, queen of the underworld. The image might hold a clue to the contents of the tomb.

Greek archaeologists have discovered the image of a young, red-haired goddess being swept off to the underworld inside a 2,300-year-old tomb near the ancient site of Amphipolis in northern Greece. Identified as Persephone, daughter of Zeus, the goddess portrayed on a mosaic floor provides a key new clue to what in recent months has become a much publicized mystery: Who was laid to rest in the immense, marble-walled tomb 61 miles (99 kilometers) northeast of the Greek city of Thessaloniki?

Monumental in scale and Macedonian in style, the Amphipolis tomb (also known as the Kasta tumulus) lies close to the Aegean port that Alexander the Great used for his fleet. Archaeologists have dated the tomb to the last quarter of the fourth century B.C., likely placing its construction in the fractious period following Alexander's death in 323 B.C. All this has fueled intense speculation that the tomb was built for someone close to Alexander, but clear evidence has been lacking.

Greece's Ministry of Culture and Sport announced at a news conference on Thursday that the newly discovered image of Persephone closely resembles one in a painting from the royal cemetery of Vergina, where Alexander the Great's father was buried. This discovery, noted Lena Mendoni, general secretary of the Ministry, links the Amphipolis tomb to the royal lineage of Alexander the Great. "The political symbolism is very strong," Mendoni said.

The new find is raising hope that the tomb will add another chapter to the tumultuous history of the ancient Macedonian royal house. "Without doubt," said archaeologist Katerina Peristeri, principal investigator of the Amphipolis tomb, "the deceased was extremely important."

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The woman featured in the mosaic is shown with fiery red hair and dressed in a white robe. Archaeologists believe the mosaic shows the abduction of Persephone by Pluto.

Carried Off to the Land of the Dead

Peristeri and her colleagues discovered the Persephone mosaic as they cleared the floor of one of the tomb's inner chambers. Extending over some 145 square feet, the finely executed artwork depicts the Greek myth of the abduction of Persephone. According to the ancient story, Hades, the god of the underworld, spied Persephone, the daughter of Zeus and the harvest goddess, working in a field, and decided to make her his wife. So he captured her and took her to the underworld, where she became his queen.

The mosaic portrays Hades as a bearded charioteer carrying off the curly-haired Persephone, who looks back wistfully toward her home. Running in front of the chariot is a third figure, the messenger god Hermes, who wears a scarlet cloak and hat and a pair of winged sandals as he leads the way to the underworld.

Peristeri was unwilling to speculate on the identity of the tomb's owner based on this new evidence. But Ian Worthington, a classical scholar at the University of Missouri in Columbia, thinks the excavators could be looking at "a female occupant of the tomb, because the mosaic shows a female being led to the underworld." If this proves to be the case, Worthington added, the tomb might hold the remains of Roxane, Alexander the Great's wife, or Olympias, his mother. Both women were put to death by one of Alexander's generals, Cassander, as he secured the throne of ancient Macedonia.

Surviving classical texts record that Cassander put Roxane and her young son to death at Amphipolis in 310 B.C., so it's very possible, said Worthington, that she could lie in the Amphipolis tomb.

But other evidence points strongly toward Olympias. Alexander intended to make his mother a goddess, like the female deity in Hades' chariot. Moreover, Olympias continued to hold considerable political power even after Alexander's death. Although she was murdered by Cassander and his allies, "I think she still could have been honored by such a tomb," said Philip Freeman, a professor of classics at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

Only time, and further excavation, will tell.

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