October 12, 2014

Philip Who? On the recent reanalysis of skeletal remains from Vergina

Facade of the tomb at Vergina
When I was an undergrad, one particular class lecture on Greek archaeology made a big impression on me.  We were learning about the amazing tomb discovered buried underneath a mound of dirt at Vergina in the late 1970s.  It's sort of a house-tomb style, with a gorgeous facade, wall paintings, and a slew of artifacts.  We also learned that the excavators had found the remains of at least four people in three tombs -- but that's all we learned, as classical archaeologists in the 1990s almost never waded into the analyses of biological material, preferring to stick to artifacts and architecture.  The debate about who was buried in the tomb at Vergina was kicked off as soon as it was discovered, though, with many researchers hoping it was Alexander the Great, but others insisting it was his father, Philip II.  Contemporary, scientific approaches to bioarchaeology were only just beginning when the tomb was discovered, and even by the late 90s when I was in school, there was precious little analysis of the remains.

Last week, though, a team of Greek researchers promised big changes and new information.  I've been waiting for a full report of their findings, which unfortunately hasn't been forthcoming in the media, perhaps owing to the fact that the remains were studied by Greeks and the English-speaking news media isn't great at fully covering finds in Greece.  Or perhaps it's because the Amphipolis Tomb has been overshadowing everything coming out about ancient Greece for the last six months or so.  Let's take a quick look back at the analysis of the human remains from Vergina before tackling the spotty coverage of the recent reanalysis.

Male skeleton from Tomb 2 at Vergina, on display
at the University of Bristol, date unknown. (via LiveScience)

Right eye socket of male occupant of Tomb 2, supposedly
showing a healed injury attributable to Philip II.
In 2010, LiveScience covered the analysis of the Tomb 2 occupants in Tomb Twister: Skeleton May Be Alexander the Great's Father. I'm not clear why it was news in 2010, as researchers Jonathan Musgrave, John Prag, and Richard Naeve had already posited that the male occupant of that tomb was Philip II (rather than Philip III, Alexander's half-brother), back in the 1980s. Their identification rested mostly on an injury to the skeleton's right eye socket, which was consistent with a wound Philip was known to have sustained in battle.  In 2000, however, a paper came out in Science written by Antonis Bartsiokas showing that the previous researchers had misconstrued normal variation (and some amount of taphonomy related to cremation) as an old, healed injury to the eye.  Essentially, the practice of bioarchaeology had advanced significantly in the 20 or so years since Musgrave and colleagues looked at the right eye orbit, so the reanalysis was warranted and revealed they were incorrect.  Bartsiokas' new analysis attributed the eye changes to taphonomy -- namely, cracking during cremation and improper reconstruction after excavation. In fact, Bartsiokas' paper in Science showed that numerous "injuries" reported in the 1980s were simply taphonomy.  This led Archaeology magazine to trumpet that the male in Tomb 2 was "Not Philip II of Macedon" in April of 2000.

I haven't heard anything about the Vergina remains since the 2010 LiveScience piece, so it was a bit of a surprise when a new research team, headed by Theodore Antikas, announced the other day that they have confirmed the male in Tomb 2 was Philip II and that the female was a Scythian warrior princess (no, her name was not Xena).  The announcement, though, has only been covered at length by Discovery News and very briefly by eKathimerini in English, and my google-fu has revealed one article in Greek that doesn't have much more info (at To BHMA).  It seems that Antikas and his team, which includes archaeometrist Giannis Maniatis, reanalyzed 350 bone fragments from Tomb 2 looking in particular at activity markers (or musculoskeletal markers of stress), trauma, and other pathologies that could point to a positive identification with an historical figure. Discovery News reports that Antikas and the research team engaged a whole bunch of new technology in their analysis and have thousands of photographs to back up their conclusions. So, what makes them think this is Philip II?
  • Demographics -- The deceased was male and in his 40s when he died.
  • Frontal and maxillary sinusitis -- The researchers suggest that the male individual may have suffered from these as a result of an old facial injury, such as the arrow wound Philip II is known to have gotten in battle.  This, however, is a bit of a stretch, as sinusitis is reasonably common and has an easy explanation as a primary pathology, rather than secondary to another injury.  So I'm not convinced by this.
  • Chronic pathology in the visceral surface of several lower ribs, suggesting pleuritis -- Somehow, the researchers attribute this to when Philip II's clavicle was shattered in a battle.  This also seems like a stretch, attributing a condition that could have been a primary pathology to a secondary disease (and not attributing it to a disease like tuberculosis but rather to trauma).  So I'm still not convinced.
  • Sharp trauma to the left hand, possibly caused by a weapon -- Specifically, the fourth metacarpal (although the To BHMA article says metatarsal). And this relates to Philip (and no one else) how?
  • Degenerative lesions and musculoskeletal markers suggest an older individual who rode a horse frequently -- I'm not fully convinced that MSMs can tell you someone rode a horse, but let's say they do.  We have an older dude who rode a horse, which I'm guessing was relatively common in ancient Greece.  So, again, not conclusive evidence of Philip II.
  • Fully fleshed cremation -- The older analyses in the 1980s and 2000 suggested the cremation occurred after some amount of excarnation, so the remains were more likely those of Philip III.  But the new taphonomic reanalysis suggests a fully-fleshed cremation, consistent with the historical record of Philip II's death and burial.
  • Traces of gold near the head -- CT scanning revealed gold at the cervical vertebrae and shoulder bones. Given the gold wreathe found in the tomb, the researchers believe it was cremated with the deceased.
  • Identity of the female buried in Tomb 2. The association of the Scythian greaves with the skeleton of a young female suggest she was the daughter of Scythian king Ateas, whom Philip II defeated -- The linking of the greaves with the skeleton is interesting in its own right.  The female skeleton had a fracture and associated atrophy of the left tibia, and the greaves were mismatched in length, which is a really strong link between artifacts and the deceased. The researchers talk in To BHMA about this being the "first ever case of a disabled royal," which is probably not true but interesting nevertheless.  But there is no historical information about who this woman was nor that Philip II had a Scythian princess as a wife-concubine.
If we add up all the circumstantial evidence provided in the Discovery News piece, the identification of the male in Tomb 2 as Philip II is pretty strong.  But it's not conclusive by any definition (not by modern forensic definitions, and not by forensic archaeology definitions, as the identification of Richard III through DNA shows).  The To BHMA article in Greek mentions something about DNA, but my modern Greek knowledge is poor and Google translate struggled with the second half of the article for some reason.  Can any Greek speakers fill me in on the DNA bit?

Bone, purple cloth, and gold wreath from larnax that
held the male skeleton in Tomb 2. (via Discovery News)
The Discovery News piece mentions that the findings were to be detailed at a news covered at the University of Thessaloniki on Friday, October 10, but I have not seen any coverage of this, unfortunately, outside of the eKathimerini piece that spends just one paragraph on it, and one paragraph on the artifacts in the Vergina tomb.

Interestingly, Discovery News also notes that additional information has been found about the remains in Tomb 1.  Namely, Antikas and his team found a bunch of bone that had never been analyzed before in "three recently found plastic bags." From the 70+ bones, the team came up with an MNI of 7 -- adult male, adult female, a child, four perinates (8-10 lunar months), and one fetus (6.5 lunar months).  Considering early investigations simply talked about scattered remains in Tomb 1, and later investigations mentioned a man, and woman, and a child, this reanalysis is really very cool.  I'm honestly more interested in it than in whether or not Tomb 2 held Philip II.  Granted, the individuals in Tombs 1, 2, and 3 are probably all related somehow.  I'd like to see much more work done on the other two tombs to learn more about who merited burial at this amazing tomb at Vergina.

Is the discovery of Philip II "confirmed"?  No.  At least, not from what I've read in the press.  But there is a massive amount of circumstantial evidence to support this conclusion.  I hope to see the results detailed further by the press or in a peer-reviewed publication, although I suspect that may be a while in coming.  I've been waiting for better analyses of the Vergina bones since I was an undergraduate, though, so I think I can wait a little bit longer.

Updated 13 Oct with information from and a link to the To BHMA article in Greek - Τα οστά του Φιλίππου του Β' βρίσκονται στους τάφους των Αιγών.


Maria Liston said...

I spent hours hovering over the bones when they were on display in the Thessalonike museum. There was nothing that could indivcidualize the bones in order to identify them as Philip II. There was no evidence of an eye wound--as Antonis Bartsiokas clearly described years later. There certainly is no evidence of a leg wound either. The age indicated by the bones could be either Philip II or Philip II Arrhidaeus. The skeleton is a male. That's about the only detail they are getting right. To add to the absurdity of this debate--the latest analysis was done by a veterinarian who reportedly specializes in horses. They can't find a bioanthropologist who will support the official view that Tomb II held Philip II. Sadly, Antonis Bartsiokas has made a very strong case that the occupants of the robbed tomb 3 are actually Philip, one of his wives and their infant child. But because there are no spectacular grave goods in the robbed tomb, that's not acceptable.
Can you tell I have strong opinions about this? :-)

Kristina Killgrove said...

Thanks so much for your comment, Maria! I am glad to hear from someone who has such strong opinions. It's always hard to tell, when you don't work in a particular region, how well trained the researchers are and how valid the research question is. My working knowledge of Greek history/archaeology is shaky, since it's been well over a decade since I thought I wanted to do Greek bioarchaeology when I grew up ;-). I was disappointed by the lack of coverage of this press conference; but it sounds like there may be a good reason for that... interesting.

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