A mysterious royal tomb in Greece may hold a relative or associate of Alexander the Great, portrayed here in a mosaic from Pompeii. Photograph by Araldo de Luca, Corbis
Heather Pringle, for National Geographic
Suspense is rising as archaeologists sift for clues to the identity of the person buried with pomp and circumstance in the mysterious Amphipolis tomb in what is now northern Greece.
The research team thinks the tomb was built for someone very close to Alexander the Great—his mother, Olympias; one of his wives, Roxane; one of his favorite generals; or possibly his childhood friend and lover, Hephaestion.
Over the past three months, archaeologist Katerina Peristeri and her team have made a series of tantalizing discoveries in the tomb, from columns sculpted masterfully in the shapes of young women to a mosaic floor depicting the abduction of the Greek goddess Persephone.
The tomb’s costly artwork all dates to the tumultuous time around the death of Alexander the Great, and points to the presence of an important person.
Alexander himself was almost certainly buried in Egypt. But the final resting places—and the rich historical and genetic data they may contain—of many of his family members are unknown.
The excavation at Amphipolis is bound to add a new chapter to the history of Alexander the Great and his family, a dynasty as steeped in intrigue, conspiracy, and bloodshed as the fictional Lannisters in the popular television series Game of Thrones.
Among Alexander’s family, “the king or ruler who ended up dying in his bed was rare,” says Philip Freeman, a biographer of Alexander the Great and a classical historian at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa.
To understand these palace intrigues, one must begin with Alexander’s father, Philip II, who ascended the throne of ancient Macedonia in 359 B.C. At the time, Macedonia was a modest mountain realm north of ancient Greece, but Philip had big dreams.
He transformed Macedonia’s army from a band of ragtag fighters into a disciplined military machine, and he armed it with a deadly new weapon, the sarissa, a long lance designed to keep enemy troops from closing in on his phalanxes.
The Nebra Sky Disk photographed in Basel, Switzerland, in 2006 – Dbachmann via Wikipedia
Henry Westphal is tired. It’s July 4, 1999, a Sunday. He and a friend are climbing the Mittelberg or “Central Hill,” a small mountain near Nebra, in central Germany.
Both men know of ancient ruins located here. Equipped with two metal detectors, they hope to find something of value.
Westphal stops to rest for a couple of minutes. It’s a hot day and he’s out of shape.
Suddenly his metal detector starts beeping wildly. He brushes some leaves aside with his shoe but can’t make out anything. The detector’s display reads, “OVERLOAD.”
With a pick, Westphal scrapes at the dry ground. Under a few inches of soil, the pick hits something hard several times.
Together the two treasure-hunters dig a small pit. They find several objects: two decorative swords, two ax heads, a chisel, and two bracelets. The objects are piled beside a large, round disk oriented upright in the ground.
Through the dirt sticking to the disk, a faint golden shimmer is visible.
The men take the objects, cover up the hole, and drive home. That night they go to a bar to celebrate the unusual and obviously valuable find. What neither of them knows is that the dirty disk would turn out to be a one-of-a-kind, 3,600-year-old artifact, later declared to be one of the most important finds of the 20th century.
After soaking the disk in a bathtub filled with water and dish soap for several days, Westphal sells it together with the other objects to an art dealer for 31,000 Deutsche marks (about 19,000 U.S. dollars at the time).
The dealer knows the items are worth more and tries to sell them to several museums. The museums decline, realizing that trading in this ancient find is illegal. The disk ends up on the black market.
In May 2001, Harald Meller, the new state archaeologist in Saxony-Anhalt, hears about the disk. Photos show it’s in bad shape; Westphal had accidentally damaged it with his pick and inexpert cleaning.
Meller, the State Criminal Investigation Office, and other officials come up with a plan to get the objects back. Like Indiana Jones, Meller knows that a find like this belongs in a museum.
The item of interest, now known as the Nebra Sky Disk, is a five-pound* plate of bronze inlaid with dozens of gold symbols. The gold figures include a lunar crescent, a large circle, and 30 small circles.
After studying the disk for many years, archaeologists have concluded that it is the oldest and accurate diagram of the sky ever found. The disk was a carefully made map used both for practical and religious purposes.
One of the most important components of the disk is a tight group of seven stars placed between the lunar crescent and the large circle denoting the full moon.
They represent the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters, a cluster of stars visible with the naked eye to people in the Northern Hemisphere. The Pleiades were known to, depicted by, and followed with interest by ancient cultures around the globe.
Three new mosaics were recently discovered in the ancient Greek city of Zeugma, which is located in the present-day province of Gaziantep in southern Turkey.
The incredibly well-preserved mosaics date back to 2nd century BC.
Zeugma was considered one of the most important centers of the Eastern Roman Empire and the ancient city has provided a treasure trove of discoveries with 2000-3000 houses in remarkably good condition.
Photograph via iefimerida.gr
Up until 2000 the ancient city was completely submerged underwater until a project to excavate the area received funding from a number of sources.
There are still many areas of Zeugma—a city once home to nearly 80,000 inhabitants—left to excavate, including 25 houses still underwater.
It’s exciting to think of what other discoveries remain to be found.
Portrait of English monk, historian and theologian Saint Bede (673 – 735 AD).
The Venerable Bede, wrote the ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ which is our major source for the history of Britain from the late sixth to the early eighth century.
Bede tells how Gregory the Great (Pope from 590 to 604 AD) decided to send a missionary called Augustine to England to found major churches in London and York.
When Augustine arrived in the south east of England in 597 AD, he found that Æthelberht, king of Kent, was the most powerful king in the south east.
Thanks to Bede’s work, the new Anglo-Saxon kingdoms come into the light of history.
Æthelberht gave him land in Canterbury to build a church, and thus by accident Canterbury, rather than London, became the main centre for English Christianity.
Æthelberht and his court converted, and several neighbouring kings as well. The last surviving member of Gregory’s mission was Paulinus, who baptised Edwin, king of Northumbria, in York in 627 AD.
Thanks to Bede’s work, the new Anglo-Saxon kingdoms come into the light of history at the beginning of the seventh century.
In the south there were the kingdoms of Kent, of the South Saxons (Sussex), and the West Saxons (Wessex); to the east were the kingdoms of the East Angles (East Anglia) and the East Saxons (Essex); in the Midlands was the kingdom of the Mercians, which (like some others) was an amalgamation of several smaller kingdoms; and north of the Humber were Deira (Yorkshire) and Bernicia (north of the Tees).
These last two kingdoms were joined together as Northumbria in the early seventh century.
Northumbria swallowed up a number of other kingdoms in the early seventh century, such as Elmet (West Yorkshire) and Rheged (Lancashire and Cumbria). Wessex and Mercia (whose name means ‘the frontier kingdom’) also benefited from their ability to expand westwards.
Some British kingdoms remained independent, including Cornwall and Devon in the south west, Gwynedd and Powys in modern Wales, and Strathclyde, in what is now the region of Glasgow.
About 60 km northeast of the city of Chachapoyas, in Luya Province, in Peru, lies the archaeological site of Karajia, where the funeral tombs of the “ancient wise men” are located.
Perched high on a ledge by the side of a limestone cliff, the six sarcophagi (coffins carved in stone and displayed above ground) resembling six limbless torsos with large heads and enormous jaw lines, stand proud with their chin up and facing the abyss.
Some of the headpieces are embellished with horns, imitating deer antlers, while others have encrusted human skulls, which are presumed to be trophy heads. Each sarcophagus is 2.5 meters tall.
The sarcophagi were built by the Chachapoya people to house the remains of important individuals in their culture, about 600 years ago.
Originally, there were eight sarcophagi but two were destroyed by earthquakes and other natural elements.
Their inaccessible location high above a river gorge has thankfully preserved them from destruction by looters.
A kind of literary whodunit was solved recently when mysterious handwritten notations from a rare, 1504 edition of Homer’s Odyssey were identified.
The epic poem was part of a collection donated to the University of Chicago Library in 2007 by a collector, and ever since the unknown notations have told the library little besides their probable dating to the 1850s.
What better way to solve a mystery than to incentivize the correct solution with a thousand bucks? That’s just what the collector, M.C. Lang, did.
The deal was simple: Identify the script in the margins, prove the assertion, translate some of it, and then the fun part: pocket $1,000.
Italian digital humanities student Daniele Metilli took the prize when he and a co-sleuth with a background in stenography and the French language, Giula Accetta, cracked the case.
Because there were French words mixed in with the mystery handwriting, and the legible date of April 25, 1854 was present, the duo investigated French stenographic systems that were in use during that time.
After judging a few of those systems “not guilty,” Metilli and Accetta hit paydirt: The guilty party was Jean Coulon de Thévénot, creator in the late 1700s of the shorthand notation system scrawled amid the Greek text of the 1504 Homer.
The decoded notes were French translations of some of the Greek wording in the classic tome.