Mystery of Alexander the Great-era tomb holds Greeks in thrall

Television program Anatropi, normally a political talk-show, has twice devoted a two-hour segment to the excavation.

Reuters November 27, 2014

ATHENS: Greek archaeologist Katerina Peristeri dug in obscurity for years before unearthing a marble tomb from the time of Alexander the Great - a find that has brought her instant fame.

In a land with one of the world’s richest cultural heritages, archaeologists rarely receive much public notice. Yet Peristeri has become the face of the Amphipolis crypt, a 2,300-year-old sepulcher beneath the sandy hills of northern Greece. She has received three Greek awards in the past month alone.

“I’m just a simple archaeologist, doing my duty,” she beamed at one prize ceremony. At another, she joined a choir in a rousing ode to Alexander’s homeland.

The tomb may be the last resting place of Alexander’s wife Roxane, his mother Olympias, or one of his generals, according to competing theories. But the speculation is not the only thing fuelling Peristeri’s popularity.

After six years of economic crisis, political tumult and a humiliating international bailout, Greeks are desperate for heroes and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s government is eager for some good news.

“It revives Greeks’ hopes that despite their big struggle to survive there is a ‘holy grail’ that will reconnect them to a period of glory and power,” said Christos Kechagias, a sociologist who teaches at the University of Athens. “In times of crisis, people have the chance to redefine their identity.”

The popular television program Anatropi, normally a political talk-show, has twice devoted its entire two-hour segment to the excavation. In a front-page spread, the Espresso tabloid suggested the identity of the tomb’s mysterious resident could be divined with methods taken from the novels of Dan Brown. The answer, it said, lay in a painting by Renaissance master Giovanni Antonio Bazzi depicting Alexander’s wedding.

Greek broadcasters have been transfixed by discoveries from the tomb -– a pebble mosaic showing the abduction of Persephone; two sculpted Caryatid figures; skeletal remains in a limestone grave that are now being analyzed for identification.

“It’s very unusual to have play-by-play coverage of archaeological work,” said David Rupp, a classical archaeologist and director of the Canadian Institute in Greece. “It’s almost become like a reality TV program.”

Samaras has frequently highlighted the tomb in his speeches. With his wife Georgia, he toured the site in August, walking along the marble wall that rings the tomb. He then stood before the tomb’s entrance guarded by headless sphinxes to announce a “significant discovery” that makes “all Greeks proud”.

Stories on the Amphipolis tomb sell like hot ‘koulouri’ or pretzels, the Kathimerini newspaper said. “It has unfolded in a thrilling way, never before has an archaeological excavation been unveiled this way,” Culture Minister Constantinos Tassoulas told Greek television.

Not everyone is happy. The opposition has criticized Samaras -- whose government handles all announcements related to the tomb -- for trying to make political capital from the discovery.

“Amphipolis is not the place for political games,” said Panos Skourletis, spokesman for the opposition Syriza party.

Despina Koutsoumba, an archaeologist who belongs to the small, anti-capitalist Antarsya party, says Samaras is using Amphipolis to hide cutbacks at archaeological and other sites: “They highlight Amphipolis to cover up the nation’s bankruptcy.”

Published in The Express Tribune, November 28th, 2014.

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