AMPHIPOLIS…the Prodigal Lion

On one of our days staying in Thessaloniki, we decided we would drive our hire car along the coastline of the Thracian sea that leads eventually to the border with Turkey. Given that as adolescents we had been exposed to the writings of Paul of Tarsus, it gave us a vague theme to check out the geography of his journeys. Our most distant destination for the day was the port town of Kavala where Paul entered Macedonia.

According to the ‘Acts of the Apostles’, Paul completed two journeys that took him through modern Turkey and then caught a boat from the Çanakkale coastline over to the Macedonian town of Kavala and then on to Philippi. After being beaten up, thrown into gaol and suffering an earthquake, he wisely decided to get the hell out of there and walk over the mountains to the ancient city of Amphipolis. Given his arduous travelling life, it is no wonder that his traditional portrait is less than flattering.

Amphipolis today is a small town on a hill with any past glories (rebuilt by Phillip II, conquered and converted by the Romans) well behind it. Ancient Amphipolis is further up the road a little on top of the usual hill with a good view of the coastline below. The archaeological site has clearly had significant time spent on it but an unenthusiastic visitor might be caused to comment… “Another ruined ruin!” The remains of 5th/6th century CE Christian Churches attest to communities that centuries later celebrated the Jewish travelers who had stopped there briefly centuries earlier and quickly moved on to Thessaloniki

On the road up the hill to Amphipolis we stopped to have a look at a large statue of an ancient lion that stood proudly on a T-junction. Its lichen marked body indicated that it had seen many centuries and the old sleepy black dog in front of it suggested that the locals took it for granted. However, I was very impressed by the sign near the statue which we discovered was called the Lion of Amphipolis. The sign incorporated a lot of information about the lion and a section of the sign is quoted below giving a confident history of the statue.

“A fourth century BC funerary monument set up in honour of the Admiral Laomedon from Lesbos, a devoted companion of Alexander the Great, who was initially a Trierarch (Commander of a Trireme) and in charge of prisoners of war before later serving as satrap of Syria. The monument was restored on a conventional pedestal at the site where it was found, on the west bank of the Strymon River, near the old bridge.

Our visit was in 2014 but I suspect this sign has been taken down in recent years as subsequent archaeology in the area has shown it to be completely erroneous. On the map of the area below right, it shows the River Stymon just behind the lion, but we did not notice it on the day we were there.

On our day trip in 2014, we drove up the hill and explored the Amphipolis archaeological site, enjoyed the view down to the coastline (above left) before driving on to the seaside port of Kavala. If we had done more background reading for our trip that day, we might have looked further right to the view that is shown in the panorama below and seen the Kasta Tumulus in the distance which was starting to provide information to the world that was causing much excitement in archaeological circles. However, in 2014, it hadn’t yet caused the authorities to start worrying about the dubious historical information on signs beside the statue of the Lion of Amphipolis.

Before I get on to the archaeology of Kasta Hill, its important to tell some of the back story of the lonely Lion of Amphipolis on the side of the road beside the Stymon river, about 8 or so kilometres from Kasta. It is known that the lion statue was created sometime late in the 4th century BCE but there had been no references to it in ancient sources. It must have been removed from the observable world some unknown years after its creation, its pieces used in local construction work. More than 2000 years later, the lion started to reappear at the start of the 20th century during World War 1.

  1. The first parts were discovered by Greek soldiers camping in the area during the First Balkan War. They discovered the base and large parts of the body.
  2. In 1915, British soldiers were digging trenches in the area and came upon more pieces of the lion.
  3. In the 1930s, construction work was being carried out in nearby Lake Kerkini and further large pieces of the marble lion were found.
  4. By 1932, archaeologists began studying the pieces and eventually put the broken jig-saw puzzle back together again in 1937. The image to the left was taken in 1937 of the resurrected lion, again gazing out over the fields of Amphipolis.

The photo on the left above shows British soldiers displaying some other finds from the area apart from pieces of the ancient lion. The second photo is from 1936 of visitors inspecting the pieces of the scattered lion.

As the sign beside the lion documented, the original archaeologists decided that the lion was part of a funerary monument that had been built nearby where the majority of the pieces were found. They also decided that it was dedicated to one of the companions of Alexander the Great. However on our return to Australia after our tour, I discovered a website devoted to the ‘Amphipolis Tomb’ (; information that had been briefly mentioned by our tour guide to Vergina but which I had taken little notice of at the time. Thus began my following of the unfolding story of the excavations of the Kasta Tumulus from 2014 to the present day. It’s been like watching a great detective series unfolding at snail’s pace.

Archaeologists began excavating the Kasta mound back in 1964 and again in the 1970s. They discovered that it was a man-made mound and found the stone wall that surrounded whatever was buried under the hill. This wall is 500 metres long and forms an almost perfect circle. It is constructed from marble that was shipped from the island of Thassos, situated just off this coast near the port town of Kavala. When the wall was uncovered, they found sections of it were missing. Who knows why they went looking near where the Lion of Amphipolis stood but they found 500 marble pieces scattered nearby. Another 100 pieces of stone from this wall were found in Lake Kerkini where they had been transferred by the builders of the Dam in the 1930s!!

By early 2014 it had been determined that the site was a tumulus mound over tombs of presumably very significant local citizens from the fourth century BCE. Archaeologists began looking for an entry into the mound and the location of the doorway was discovered; it appeared to be an entryway into a multi-roomed tomb. Speculation began about who might be buried here. Most wanted it to be Alexander the Great but ancient sources had already indicated that his body had been moved from Babylon to Alexandria and had been displayed there for many years. The chances of his body making it back home to Amphipolis were limited. If not Alexander, maybe it was the tomb of his mother Olympias or his son?

The dream of any archaeologist is to discover an ancient tomb that hasn’t been damaged by looters in ancient times. Unfortunately, the Tomb of Amphipolis had not survived the millennia without such damage and this was obvious immediately the stone-wall that blocked the opening was removed.  The main doorway was revealed and its guardian statues of sphinxes appeared with their heads and wings missing. When the archaeologists were able to enter further into the tomb, they found one of the sphinx’s heads and parts of the missing wings. The floor of the first room was constructed of white marble fragments set in Red mortar.

The above image is a reconstruction of the Amphipolis Tomb and at the back of the first room can be seen the doorway of the second room. Flanking this doorway are two sculptured female statues of Caryatids that serve as pillar supports for the beam above the doorway. They reminded the first archaeologists when they were uncovered of the famous caryatids that held up a temple next to the Parthenon in Athens.

Entry through the Caryatid doorway led to a floor mosaic that immediately reminded me of the wonderful painting in one of the tombs at Vergina. Again the image is a depiction of the Greek Myth of Persephone being abducted by the God Pluto and the chariot and its horses are led by the guide to the underworld, Hermes. Some of the missing pieces from the damaged centre of the mosaic were found in the soil piled up on the floor and will eventually be restored to the mosaic.

The slow and thorough excavation of the entryway and the first two rooms of the tomb meant that the question of who was buried in this amazing tomb was left unanswered for most of 2014. When the archaeologists reached the start of the fourth chamber, they were faced with a series of issues that confirmed their worst fears that the burial chamber of the Kasta tomb had been looted. First of all, the doors to the chamber were missing and were eventually found smashed inside the third chamber. It also appeared that the large amounts of soil in all the chambers of the tomb was an attempt to obstruct further looting in ancient times. In the third chamber there was a significant amount of soil that had to be removed to clear the vault in the floor to access the grave beneath where human remains were eventually found. The whole process was also delayed by the reinforcing that needed to be built into the roof of this chamber to maintain the stability of the structure

By October 2014, the floor of the third chamber was exposed and a vault found in the floor. By November the contents of the tomb were announced to be skeletal material and iron and bronze pins plus other remains that presumably belonged to the original coffin. It was established by early 2015 that rather than one person being buried here, the remains were of five individuals…
– One woman, over 60 years old
– One man around 35 years old
– One man around 45 years old
– One infant
– One adult (man or woman), cremated.

Apart from the above details and some information about the nature of wounds on the bones of the 35 year old male, no further information has come out except a curious posting on the Amphipolis Tomb website.

“The Archaeologists at Amphipolis have revealed 3 new inscriptions. In one of them, they discovered the Monogram of Hephaestion, the closest friend of Alexander the Great. The head architect, Michalis Lefantzis, stated that the Amphipolis Tomb was commissioned by Alexander the Great, designed by Dinocrates and dedicated to General Hephaestion, who was Alexander’s closest friend and died in 324 B.C. at Ecbatana, Iran. The lead archaeologist, Katerina Peristeri, claims that the whole tumulus was a funerary monument for Hephaestion and that it was built between 325-300 BC.”

It seems a curious decision to announce that this funerary monument was dedicated to Hephaestion, Alexander the Great’s childhood friend, closest companion and key General throughout the ten years that they conquered the Persian Empire. He died in 324 from a fever and was cremated and his ashes taken to Babylon. If a monogram is the only evidence of his association with the Tumulus, it seems a big call to make. Perhaps there are other reasons for this big pronouncement that will come out at some stage. However, the Hephaestion announcement makes no mention as to the supposed identity of the folk who were actually buried here. No doubt slow progress is being made on establishing the DNA of the skeletal remains and cross checking with other sources of information, such as the skeletal remnants found in the Vergina tombs.

But what of the Lion of Amphipolis? The other important discovery is that the lonely lion on the side of the road to Amphipolis will one day be restored to his original site…at the pinnacle of the Kasta Tumulus… a prodigal son welcomed home after over a 2300 years absence!


NOTE RE PHOTOS: The images used in this post of Kasta Tomb are from press releases by the Greek Ministry of Culture and copyright rests with that institution.

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