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The Royal Tombs

The absolute highlight of the trip for me (as I think for most people, unless they had a frankly unhealthy obsession with early Byzantine basilicas) was the museum at Vergina, displaying the contents of the Macedonian royal tombs. These had been the subject of a superb exhibition at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford in 2011. I had seen that and enjoyed it so much that I really wanted to see the original site – hence my decision to visit Thessaloniki.

The ancient Macedonian city of Aigai, now called Vergina, is about an hour’s drive inland from Thessaloniki. It was the royal burial ground of the Macedonian kings – including one identified as Philip II, and another of a teenager tentatively identified as Alexander IV, respectively the father and son of Alexander the Great. They were both murdered, and buried very elaborately with masses of grave goods in sunken tombs. A few generations later a huge tumulus was erected over the top of a group of the most important tombs, apparently to deter tomb-robbers. I would have thought that instead it would be like highlighting the location with a huge flashing neon sign “Here Be Treasure”! But perhaps the tumulus was so big that the tomb-robbers couldn’t work out how to tackle it. Whatever the reason, the tombs were undisturbed until those modern tomb-robbers, the archaeologists, excavated it in the 1970s. They found beautiful gold funerary wreaths, gold and silver banqueting sets, and complete sets of armour, amongst lots of other grave goods.

The museum is one of the best site museums I’ve been to – it’s been built on the site of the graves, with the tumulus re-erected above it. You can actually walk down the ramp to the entrance to Philip II’s tomb, while his extremely rich grave goods are displayed spot-lit in cases around it. It was rather spine-tingling to be standing on the spot where Alexander the Great buried his father. The only problem was that the museum was very strict about prohibiting photography, so I had to make do with buying postcards to remind me of what I’d seen. I’ve found a photo of one of the wreaths online on the official Visit Greece page. That will have to do to give an impression of the richness. It is made of beaten gold oak-leaves, with acorns nestling in between the leaves. The workmanship was breath-taking, and I spent ages just gazing at this one, and its companions – some of which consisted of golden oak leaves, others of gold myrtle leaves and flowers.

One of the delicate gold funerary wreaths

It was a very interesting museum, well-displayed, and very atmospheric. There was also a small museum shop selling postcards and guide books. It was late afternoon on Christmas Eve, and our coach party descended on the shop just before it closed, all determined to buy souvenirs as we hadn’t been able to take photos. The museum shop, not just here but also the others we visited, had a policy of providing hand-written receipts itemising everything that was bought – including the titles of books and the identification numbers of the postcards (i.e. not just “4 x postcards” but “4 times postcards, numbers 30, 110, 25, 14”. So making one single sale took ages, and coping with a shop-full of eager tourists nearly overwhelmed the poor chap behind the counter! You would have thought that a modern point-of-sale system, with bar-codes and a printed receipt, would be much more efficient. But this was Greece, and they do things their own way there…..