Photograph by Culture Ministry via AP

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Archaeologists excavating a massive burial mound in northern Greece have uncovered this female figurine, one of a pair sculpted from marble.

Photograph by Culture Ministry via AP

Who's Buried in Largest Tomb in Northern Greece? New Finds Raise Intrigue

A relative of Alexander the Great may lie in the 2,300-year-old burial site.

Fans of ancient history are laying bets on who was buried in the dark heart of a massive marble-walled tomb that is slowly coming to light in northern Greece.

Dating to the tumultuous years surrounding the death of Alexander the Great, between about 325 and 300 B.C., the tomb is the largest ever found in northern Greece—a resting place monumental enough for royalty.

The burial borders the ancient Aegean port of Amphipolis (near modern-day Amfípoli), which once served as the base for the fleet that Alexander the Great took on his invasion of Asia.

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After nearly two years of digging at the site (known as the Kasta tumulus after the name of the hill it lies beneath), archaeologists are now exploring its inner chambers.

This past weekend the excavation team, led by Greek archaeologist Katerina Peristeri, announced the discovery of two elegant caryatids—large marble columns sculpted in the shape of women with outstretched arms—that may have been intended to bar intruders from entering the tomb's main room.

"I don't know of anything quite like them," says Philip Freeman, a professor of classics at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.

The curly-haired caryatids are just part of the tomb's remarkable furnishings. Guarding the door as sentinels were a pair of carved stone sphinxes, mythological creatures with the body of a lion and the head of a human. And when archaeologists finally entered the antechamber, they discovered faded remnants of frescoes as well as a mosaic floor made of white marble pieces inlaid in a red background.

The finely crafted floor, says Ian Worthington, a classical scholar at the University of Missouri in Columbia and the author of two books on Alexander the Great, "is a clear sign of wealth. The palace of Pella [where Alexander the Great was born] yielded a number of mosaics, and they were all very costly."

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Two female figurines, known as caryatids, once guarded the entrance to the tomb with outstretched arms.

Opulence Points to Prestige

A big question now is: Who was interred in the inner chamber? Peristeri and her colleagues have yet to break the seal over the entrance, so archaeologists can only make educated guesses. Most agree, however, that the tumulus is unlikely to hold the remains of Alexander the Great, the Macedonian king who defeated the Persian army, invaded Asia and Egypt, and created one of the ancient world's largest empires.

Historical texts agree that Alexander the Great died in Babylon in 323 B.C., possibly of an infectious disease such as malaria or typhoid fever. Mourners then reportedly preserved the king's body in honey and placed it on a funerary cart destined, according to some accounts, for his home in Macedonia, now northern Greece.

But along the way, says Worthington, one of Alexander's favorite generals, Ptolemy, "kidnapped the corpse and buried it somewhere in Egypt. So I will bet you ten dollars that Alexander the Great is not in the tomb of Amphipolis."

Instead, the smart money among archaeologists is on a member of the king's immediate family—perhaps his mother, Olympias; his wife, Roxana; or his young son, also named Alexander.

After the king's death, his generals divided up his empire. One of them, Cassander, executed all three of the king's next of kin in order to secure his own reign over Macedonia. But it is very possible that Alexander's well-heeled followers constructed an opulent funerary mound at Amphipolis for at least one of their own.

"It is an enormous tomb, and one assumes that it was built for some prestigious and wealthy person," says archaeologist Hector Williams at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. If the tomb proves to be unlooted, and the clues to the original owner's identity remain intact, some history buffs may soon be able to collect on their bets.