A cremated male skeleton in a lavish ancient Greek tomb is not Alexander the Great's half-witted half-brother, according to a new study.
The research reignites a 33-year-long debate over whether the burned bones found in the tomb belong to Alexander the Great's father, Philip II, a powerful figure whose years of conquest set the stage for his son's exploits, or Alexander the Great's half-brother, Philip III, a figurehead king with a less successful reign.
The researchers argue that a notch in the dead man's eye socket is consistent with a battle wound received by Philip II years before he died, when an arrow pierced his eye and left his face disfigured. They also dispute claims by other scientists that the bones show signs of having been buried, exhumed, burned and re-interred — a morbid chain of events that would fit with what is known about the murder and burial of Alexander the Great's half-brother and successor, Philip III Arrhidaios.
The study is unlikely to settle the debate over whether the body is Philip II's or Philip III's, which has raged since the treasure-filled tomb was excavated in 1977. But identifying the tomb's occupants would complete the last chapter in at least one royal couple's sordid life story.
Philip II was a powerful king with a complicated love life. He married between five and seven women, though the exact number is disputed, causing intrigue over the line of succession. In 336 B.C., Philip II was assassinated at a celebration of his daughter's wedding, perhaps at the behest of a former wife, Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great. Or the assassination could have been spurred by an ugly rape case involving members of the royal family. In either case, Philip II's last wife, Cleopatra (not the famous one), was murdered or forced to commit suicide soon after by order of Olympias.
Alexander the Great succeeded his father as king. After he died, his half-brother Philip III Arrhidaios ascended to the throne. Philip III was a figurehead king who was likely mentally disabled (ancient historians blamed a childhood poisoning attempt by Olympias, who seemed to have a reputation for that sort of thing). His wife (and niece) Eurydice, on the other hand, was "what you would call feisty," said anatomist Jonathan Musgrave of the University of Bristol, who co-authored the current study.
Eurydice was a warrior queen who led an army into battle in 317 B.C. During that fight, she and her husband were captured by Olympias, who put Philip III to death and forced the 18- or 19-year-old Eurydice to commit suicide. Ancient historians reported the couple was buried but then exhumed for a royal funeral four to 17 months later to shore up the legitimacy of the next king.
"You couldn't make this story up," Musgrave said.
Who's in the tomb?
When the mystery tomb was first excavated near Vergina, Greece, archeologists were stunned to find it undisturbed and full of priceless jewelry, weapons and statues. Amid the riches lay the cremated remains of a man and a young woman. The woman's skeleton had been reduced to bone fragments, but the man's was nearly complete.
Based on the evidence at the site, the archeologists announced the male remains belonged to Philip II. That would make the woman in the tomb his last wife, Cleopatra. But other researchers soon challenged that claim, arguing the treasures in the tomb dated a generation later. That would make the male skeleton Philip III and the female skeleton Eurydice.
In the 1980s, Musgrave and his team examined the bones and created a reconstruction of the face of the man whom they'd concluded was Philip II. Among their evidence for the identification was a notch in the skull's right eye socket, which seemed consistent with Philip II's blinding battle wound. They also argued that asymmetry of the skull may have been caused by trauma.
Their analysis did not go unchallenged. A 2000 paper published in the journal Science argued the notch in the eye socket was normal anatomy, and that the skull's other oddities were leftovers from cremation and reconstruction of the skull.
Antonis Bartsiokas, a paleoanthropologist at the Anaximandrian Institute of Human Evolution in Greece, argued in the paper that the bones showed little evidence of warping, suggesting they were cremated "dry" instead of "green," or flesh-covered. In other words, the researcher wrote, the flesh had rotted away and the bones dried out before the bodies were cremated. The findings suggested that the bones were Philip III's, who was buried, exhumed, cremated and reburied, they wrote.
Musgrave said the two camps are probably at an impasse when it comes to arguments over the skull's injuries. But, he said, Bartsiokas is wrong about the timing of the cremation. Photos taken during the 1980s examination of the bones show warping in the long bones of the arms and legs, Musgrave and his co-authors contend in the new paper. The skull is also warped, with one large flap of bone peeled away and sticking out at an angle. Compared with dried bones burned at 1,652 degrees Fahrenheit (900 degrees Celsius), the researchers report, the colors and shape of the ancient skull suggest a fully fleshed cremation.
Ancient Greeks would have found the idea of exhuming a putrefying corpse disgusting, Musgrave said, so it's more likely that Eurydice and Philip III would have been cremated just like Cleopatra and Philip II and other royalty — soon after they died. The reburial, then, would have been of their pre-cremated bones.
Even if the bones were burned dry, Musgrave said, studies of modern murder victims suggest that 17 months in the ground isn't enough to dry out a skeleton.
"[Philip III] Arrhidaios' body would still have had putrefying skin and muscle attached to his limb bones, and rotting viscera filling his thoracic, abdominal and pelvic cavities after even 17 months in the ground," Musgrave and his colleagues wrote. "It would not have become a dry and degreased skeleton."
Bartsiokas said that even if Musgrave and his colleagues are right about the fleshy cremation, it doesn't rule out the skeleton belonging to Philip III Arrhidaios.
"They argue that the skeleton was cremated fleshed, and that the flesh would be preserved even after 17 months in the ground," Bartsiokas wrote in an e-mail to LiveScience. "Then, in their way of thinking, these circumstances could well apply to [Philip III] Arrhidaios."
Musgrave and his colleagues also argue that the placement of the remains and the absence of the body of Eurydice's mother, who was said to have been buried with her, point away from the tomb being the burial place of Philip III. But years of study of the tomb's construction and contents have yielded conflicting interpretations from different researchers, prompting one historian to write in 2007 that "a consensus on the identity of its occupants will probably never be reached."
"It's definitely not the last word," Musgrave said. "Somebody will challenge what we've written."