It’s the time of year when archaeologists announce the most important finds of the season, and it has been another extremely productive season for Greek archaeologists working on the necropolis near on the ancient Macedonian capital of Pella.
More than 1,000 tombs have been discovered at the necropolis since excavations began in 2000, and yet it is estimated that only 5% of the site has so far been excavated. This season has seen the discovery of 37 ancient tombs dating back to the iron age and down to the Hellenistic period.
The tombs are incredibly rich in finds, reflecting the wealth of Macedonia over several centuries. As in previous seasons, there is consistent placement of iron swords, spears and daggers, plus vases, pottery and jewellery made of gold, silver and iron in the tombs, allowing the dead to have access to their precious belongings in the afterlife. Macedonia was (and is) an area of Greece rich in minerals, with access to various gold and silver mines, and therefore there is an abundance of gold grave goods from the 6th century onwards.
Further information on the grave goods excavated in this and recent seasons is needed before conclusions can be drawn, but it is looking increasingly that the excavations outside Pella will prove that the Macedon kingdom advanced towards the Axios River region much earlier than previously anticipated. Many scholars had proposed that this area did not come under the Argead dynasty of Macedon (the dynasty that will later produce Philip II and Alexander the Great) until after the Persian Wars, but the consistency of the type of grave goods and the form of burial seem to suggest that the accession of the area should be pushed back into the 6th century BC.
The discoveries at the site included the bronze helmet with gold mouthplate, shown here, from a tomb of a warrior from the 6th century BC which also included the warriors weapons and jewellery.
The gold mouthplate is particularly fine. A visit to museums in Macedonia will show the prevalence of the use of such mouthplates or ‘lozenges’. The use of them, and on occasion more full gold masks (such as at Sindos) has drawn parallels with the Mycenaeans, in line with the fact that there are many other aspects of Macedonian life and funeral practice that have parallels with Mycenaean culture. But there are other theories about the mouthplates too. The most obvious is that they are to be connected with the coin that was placed in the mouth in order to pay Charon, the ferryman whose job it was to guide souls across the river Styx.
Another intriguing theory has arisen via a remark by an author who, in the 12th century, was detailing heresies of early Christian sects and remarked that one of the accusations of heresy against the Phrygian Christian movement known as the Montanists was that they sealed the mouths of their dead with plates of gold like initiates into the mysteries. This is very interesting, since we know that Macedonia was a region of Greece that wholeheartedly embraced various mystery cults to an extent that some southern Greeks viewed as suspicious. Orphic texts were discovered in the famous Derveni burials, and legend has it that Philip II met his wife Olympias, future mother of Alexander, whilst they were celebrating the mysteries on Samothrace. The important point here, of course, is that initiates were not allowed to divulge anything about the mysteries to those who had not been initiated. Perhaps the gold lozenge is there to stop them from doing so, even in death? It is to be hoped that further research will enable us to understand whether there is a link between the use of the gold lozenges and particular cult.