Two headless sphinxes emerged from a massive burial site in northern Greece as archaeologists began removing large stones from the tomb’s sealing wall.
The headless, wingless 4.8-foot-high sphinxes each weigh about 1.5 tons and bear traces of red coloring on their feet. They would have been 6.5 feet high with their heads, the Greek Culture Ministry said in a statement.
The statues are believed to have been placed there to guard the burial, which is the largest tomb ever uncovered in Greece.
The tomb dates back to around 325-300 B.C., at the end of the reign of warrior-king Alexander the Great. It lies in the ancient city of Amphipolis, in Greece’s northeastern Macedonia region about 65 miles from the country’s second-biggest city, Thessaloniki.
The city, an Athenian colony, was conquered by Philip II of Macedon, Alexander’s father, in 357 B.C.
Prominent generals and admirals of Alexander had links with Amphipolis. It’s here that Alexander’s wife Roxana and his son Alexander IV were killed in 311 B.C. on the orders of his successor, King Cassander.
Archaeologists began excavating the site, a huge mound complex, in 2012. They revealed a circular tomb measuring 1,600 feet across which featured a 10-foot high perimeter wall. This was built of marble brought from the island of Thassos.
The burial complex site was possibly built by Dinocrates, a famous architect of the time and a close friend of Alexander. It is 10 times larger than the tomb of Alexander’s father, Philip II, which was discovered in Vergina, central Macedonia, in the 1970s.
A wide path leads to the tomb whose entrance is guarded by the two sphinx statues.
“Pieces of the sphinx’s wings were found at the site, allowing for a full restoration,” the Greek Ministry of Culture said.
“Part of the back of the statue of the Lion of Amphipolis was also unearthed at the site,” the statement said.
Work led by Katerina Peristeri, the archaeologist in charge of the dig, proved the impressive 16-foot-tall marble lion statue which now stands on a pedestal three miles from the excavation site, once crowned the monumental tomb.
Much of the tomb was demolished during the Roman occupation of Greece, and several marble blocks were reused to stabilize the banks of the river Strymon. It was right on the river bed that the 4th century B.C. lion and other marble blocks were found in 1912 by the Greek army.
According to the Culture Ministry, the sphinxes and the lion, both in Thassos marble, appear to be have been crafted in the same workshop.
“The seated sphinxes — as opposed to the lying sphinxes in Egyptian art — are unusual,” classical archaeologist Dorothy King wrote in her blog.
“The closest parallel I can think of are those from the Hecatomnid Androns at Labraunda, about a quarter of a century earlier,” she said.
Those bearded Hecatomnid figures reflected Persian royal iconography, King noted.
Behind the sphinx guarded entrance, the archaeologists found a mosaic floor featuring black and white rhombus shapes.
What lies behind the entrance remains a mystery. A geophysical survey carried out last year indicates the interior of the tomb consists of three rooms.
Peristeri’s team hopes to fully explore the burial by the end of the month to determine who was laid to rest there.
Archaeologists have debunked speculation that the body of Alexander the Great lies in the tomb. Alexander, the overlord of an empire stretching from Greece to India, died at Babylon, now in central Iraq, in June of 323 B.C. — just before his 33rd birthday.
His elusive tomb is one of the great unsolved mysteries of the ancient world.
History has it that after Alexander died in Babylon, his body, en route to Macedon, was hijacked by Ptolemy and taken to Egypt. The sarcophagus of the warrior king was then moved from Memphis to Alexandria, the capital of his kingdom, and there it remained until late Antiquity.
By the fourth century A.D., the tomb’s location was no longer known.
At the moment, the leading theory is that a senior general of Alexander’s army was buried in the imposing tomb at Amphipolis.
But what if the Lion Tomb was indeed built for Alexander?
“If Alexander was on his way to being buried in Macedonia when Ptolemy pinched his body … to me that suggests that there was a tomb that had been or was being prepared for him in Macedonia,” King wrote.
Image: The headless sphinxes carved from Thassos marble guard the tomb’s entrance. Credit: Greek Ministry of Culture and Sport.