A skeleton that was thought to belong to the father of Alexander the Great may in fact be that of his half-brother, according to scientists who have analysed the bones.
The new interpretation of the skeleton, found in a royal tomb unearthed in 1977, raises the possibility that some of the magnificent treasures that were found with the remains may actually have belonged to Alexander himself. His tomb has been lost.
When archaeologists discovered an elaborate tomb in a great tumulus at Vergina, in northern Greece, they found a chamber with a marble sarcophagus containing a golden chest holding the cremated skeleton of a man. Vergina is the site of the ancient Macedonian capital of Aigai and the richness of the tomb's treasuresindicated this was a person who belonged to the royal household of Alexander, whoconquered much of the known world in the fourth century BC.
A study in the Eighties involving British anatomists concluded that the skull of the man bore signs of the known injuries suffered by Philip II of Macedon, Alexander's father, who died in 336BC. Philip was also a famous warrior who was injured several times in battle.
His most visible scar was received during the siege of Methone in 354BC when he was blinded in the right eye by an arrow.
This would have left permanent marks to his skull that were apparently evident during the first anatomical analysis of the skeleton nearly 20 years ago. However, Antonis Bartsiokas, the director of Greece's Anaximandrian Institute for Human Evolution, has now questioned this interpretation in a study that has been published in the journal Science.
Microscopic photographs of the right eye socket and bone surface reveal a groove in the inner corner of the eyeball's arch near the nose, which was interpreted as the indentation caused by the arrowhead. Another feature was a bump or "pimple" close to the centre of the arch, thought to be the healed-over nick of the incoming arrow. Professor Bartsiokas argues that these are normal anatomical features. He says he has found no evidence that the bone had healed over an injury caused by a glancing blow.
He suggests that the skeleton is that of Philip's other son, Philip III of Arrhidaeus, who ruled Macedon for six years after the death of his half-brother. Professor Bartsiokas said: "It is historically known that Philip II, being a warrior, suffered many wounds, whereas Arrhidaeus, being unwarlike, suffered none." He supports his argument by pointing out that the skeleton shows no signs of the warped bones associated with cremating a normal corpse.
This indicates that it was cremated "dry", after the flesh had been removed. Whereas Philip II was probably cremated straight after death, Arrhidaeus was buried for six months, exhumed, cremated and then reburied, according to some historians. This, Professor Bartsiokas said, would have created a "dry" corpse and so resulted in little warping of the cremated bones.
If the skeleton in the royal tomb is Arrhidaeus, it raises the possibility that the treasures buried with it were items inherited from Alexander. These include a gilded silver diadem, a gold-sheathed sceptre, an iron and gold breastplate, an iron helmet and a ceremonial shield.
Eugene Borza, a specialist on ancient Macedonia at Pennsylvania State University, said: "Are we lucky enough to have found the helmet of Alexander the Great? It's too good to be true." Jonathan Musgrave, the Bristol University anatomist who helped with the original identification of the skull, remains sceptical. He told Science: "[Professor Bartsiokas] has concentrated on evidence that is limited in the extreme to postulate a hypothesis that cannot be sustained."
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