Skeleton from royal tomb is not King Philip II

April 20, 2000

The skeleton thought to be King Philip II, accomplished military leader and father of Alexander the Great, is in fact one of Alexander's half brothers, a much less prominent figure in the royal lineup of ancient Greece. That's the conclusion of anthropologist Antonis Bartsiokas, who reports his findings in the 21 April issue of Science.

The skeleton was first identified as King Philip II, due to certain features in the skull that seemed to be traces of an injury Philip is known to have suffered when an arrow sliced through his right eye.

These features are simply normal anatomical quirks, accentuated by the effects of cremation and incorrect reconstruction, concludes Bartsiokas, who used a technique called macrophotography to study the skeleton in meticulous detail.

In 1977, researchers unearthed a royal tomb at Vergina, the site of the ancient Macedonian capital, Aigai. While most of the other Vergina tombs have been thoroughly looted, this one contained a cremated male and female skeleton and a variety of royal Macedonian artifacts, all currently on display in a museum at the Vergina site, in Greece.

The identification of the couple as King Philip II and his wife made the find particularly exciting. During his reign (359-336 BC), Philip quelled the military and political turmoil in Macedonia and also took control of Athens and Thebes, thus laying the groundwork for his son Alexander the Great to conquer his own vast empire.

Recently, however, research has indicated that the artifacts in the royal tomb are from approximately 317 B.C., a generation after Philip's assassination in 336 B.C. This date suggests that the inhabitants of the royal tomb were the king and queen who ruled after Alexander the Great, who was buried in Egypt.

After Alexander's death, the throne went to one of Philip's other sons, Alexander's half brother, Philip III Arrhidaeus. King in name only (Alexander's friends divided the empire among themselves), Arrhidhaeus was probably mentally ill or physically disabled. According to the ancient historian Plutarch, Alexander's jealous mother Olympias caused Arrhidaeus' condition by poisoning him at a young age.

To solve the mystery of the skeleton's identity, Bartsiokas, an anthropologist at the Anaximandrian Institute of Human Evolution, took photographs of the bones magnified at the same scale as a conventional microscope lens. The photographs allowed him to scrutinize minute features on the bones' surfaces, including the sites of the supposed wounds in the skull.

Previously, researchers had identified two marks on the roof of the skull's right eye socket as evidence of the Philip II's famous eye injury. One was a groove in the inner corner of the arch near the nose, which was interpreted to be an indentation caused by the arrowhead. The other feature was a bump closer to the center of the arch, thought to be a healed-over nick from the incoming arrow.

After taking a closer look, Bartsiokas concluded that both the groove and the bump are simply normal anatomical features of the eye socket. The bump, for example, is part of the opening in the skull's frontal bone called the "supraorbital notch," through which a bundle of nerves and blood vessels pass. Most people can feel this notch by pressing their fingers underneath the ridge of bone beneath the eyebrow.

Proponents of the Philip II theory also cited the skull's general asymmetry and a crack below the right eye socket as evidence that an arrow had smashed into the cheekbone after hitting the eye.

These features are not related to an injury, according to Bartsiokas, who found no evidence of healing in the bone fabric. Instead, he argues, the cheekbone probably cracked while being cremated and was later glued imperfectly back together. Incorrect reconstruction and the effects of cremation were also responsible for the skull's asymmetrical distortion, Bartsiokas reports.

As a final test, Bartsiokas investigated whether the bones were covered with flesh when they were cremated. Arrhidaeus' skeleton is thought to have been cremated under somewhat unusual conditions. He was buried after being assassinated by Olympias or a conspirator. But historians have suggested that Arrhidaeus' successor, Cassander, later exhumed, cremated, and re-buried the skeleton as a gesture of honor intended to promote his own legitimacy as King.

As forensic scientists know, bones cremated "dry" show key differences from bones cremated "fleshed." "Dry" bones show little warping and contain a few small, straight fractures. In "fleshed" bones, the retraction of the relatively fresh collagen during cremation causes warping and curved fractures.

The bones in the royal tomb, Bartsiokas reports, were clearly burned dry, as Arrhidaeus' bones would have been.

Thus the anthropological evidence helps settle the question raised by the age of the artifacts in the tomb, Bartsiokas concludes. And, because the skeleton in the tomb is probably King Philip III Arrhidaeus instead of King Philip II, many of the artifacts may have been inherited from Alexander the Great. Among the treasures were a gilded silver crown, an iron helmet, an elaborate ceremonial shield, and an iron and gold cuirass that closely resembles the one worn by Alexander in the famous mosaic of Pompeii.

Chances of finding the real King Philip II in the future seem slim. Excavation at Vergina does continue, but looters have long ago emptied the contents of most of the tombs.
A related News article by Robert Koenig will be available Wednesday, 19 April.

Order Article18: "The Eye Injury of King Philip II and the Skeletal Evidence from the Royal Tomb II at Vergina," by A. Bartsiokas, at the Anaximandrian Institute of Human Evolution, in Voula, Greece. CONTACT: Antonis Bartsiokas, at 301-895-0910 (phone), 301-895-0910 (fax), or (email). For copies of these articles please email or call 202-326-6440.

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