Sunday, December 27, 2009

A mystery of Antony and Cleopatra solved?

On Thursday 17th December under the watchful eyes of Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosney and, of course, Dr. Zahi Hawass,  a 9-tonne pylon which once stood at the entrance to a temple of Isis was lifted from the water of Alexandria's Eastern Harbour.
However for me a much more interesting piece of information was the announcement by Harry Tzalas, head of the Greek archaeological mission, of the discovery of a piece of a giant granite threshold. Tzalas believes that this 15-tonne monolith was actually the threshold of the mausoleum that Cleopatra VII had built for herself shortly before her death.
The size of the threshold indicates that the doors would have been 7metres high, giving an idea of the  magnificence of the queen's mausoleum. The Guardian quoted Tzalas, as saying.“As soon as I saw it, I thought we are in the presence of a very special piece of a very special door."
The most intriguing thing about the door is that Tzalas believes that the discovery sheds new light on an element of the dying hours of Cleopatra and Marc Antony which has been a mystery for two thousand years. In the 1st century AD Plutarch wrote that after Mark Antony had been erroneously informed that Cleopatra had killed herself he had tried to take his own life. On learning that his love still lived, Mark Antony wished to see her before he died, and as she was hiding inside the mausoleum with her ladies-in-waiting. But Plutarch tells us that he had to be “hoisted with chains and ropes” to the upper floor of the building and brought in through a window. “When closed the door mechanism could not open again.” 
Tzalas believes that a door of such a size would be impossible for only Cleopatra and her ladies-in-waiting to open it. “Like Macedonian tomb doors, when it closed, it closed for good.”
Plutarch's account was based largely on the testimonies of eyewitnesses and he tells us that Antony died within seconds of seeing Cleopatra, his last hour probably not helped by having been hoisted up and into a building through a window! Days later, Cleopatra took her own life, and large parts of the story of Antony and Cleopatra passed into murky legend, but it seems that even after two thousand years with the help of archaeology it is sometimes possible to shed new light on, or have new theories about, what really happened.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

More finds at Vergina, ceremonial capital of Macedonia

The digging season at Vergina is over for 2009, and it has been an eventful one. The latest information to be revealed is that the substantial remains of the town's defensive wall have been discovered.

A team from the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki have been excavating the North East section of the wall, which is situated in privately owned land. This particular part of the wall is in an excellent state of preservation and at times reaches a height of 1.90m.

Some of the wall-towers reach a thickness of 2.80m: evidence of a very substantial fortification built to withstand threat from siege engines. Stone stairs gave access to the second storey. An interesting feature are the small protected gateways next to the towers, which perhaps allowed the defending troops to make forays against their attackers.

Of further interest is the fact that much of the construction material of the wall appears to be re-used masonry from public buildings in the ancient city. Thorough examination of this masonry should add to our knowledge of the city in the period prior to the wall's construction, which, from the dating of small finds and other evidence, is thought to be of the time of Cassander, or the early 3rd C BC. This was a time when Macedonia experienced unrest due to both civil conflicts and external invasions. The city had a strategic position on the route from the ports of Pydna and Methone to Upper Macedonia and this may have contributed to its need for fortification, in addition to its status as ancient capital and royal burial ground.

Apart from the discovery of the fortifications, a number of artifacts threw further light on city life during the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, including food residues such as the seeds of legumes, cereals and olive stones.