Heracles to Alexander: Ashmolean Museum unveils spectacular collection of Ancient Greek artefacts

By Richard Moss | 06 April 2011
a photo of two golden medallipons representing the face of Medusa
Medusa Gold, from the tomb of Philip II© The Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism - Archaeological Receipts Fund
Exhibition: Heracles to Alexander the Great, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until August 29 2011

In the 1970s one of Greece’s foremost archaeologists discovered a series of tombs that had lain hidden for centuries beneath the great tumulus of Vergina in the ancient Macedonian city of Aegea.

A once great and shimmering metropolis situated on the southern rim of the Macedonian Plain in northern Greece, Aegea was the seat of the Temenids, an almost mythical dynasty which claimed descendency from the Greek hero Heracles. They ruled for 350 years, from the mid-7th century to the 4th century BC.

What Professor Manolis Andronikos had unearthed was the undisturbed and unlooted tomb of King Philip II and other members of Alexander the Great’s immediate family. 

The discovery made Aegea into one of the most important archaeological sites in the world, and the magnificent tombs and surrounding ancient landscape went on to yield an astonishing collection of treasures which opened a window into the Kingdom of Macedon.

“The Macedonians lived under the same political system uninterruptedly for 500 years,” says Robin Lane Fox, Ancient Historian at the University of Oxford. “Nowadays we admire the ancient Greeks for their invention of democracy, but even among the Athenians it lasted much less long.

“Macedon’s system was monarchy, the most stable form of government in Greek history. It persisted from about 650 to 167 BC and only stopped because the Romans abolished it."

a photo of a silver jug with handle and head motif on the side
Silver wine jug from the tomb of Philip II© The Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism - Archaeological Receipts Fund
Now Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum is exploring this fascinating society with an exhibition of more than 500 stunning archaeological objects from The Museum of the Royal Tombs at Aegae, together with never before seen treasures unearthed during the past 20 years.

Following the mythological origins of the Temenids through to the rise and domination of Aegae as the seat of power of Macedon, the haul of perfectly preserved artefacts opens up a period that stretches from Alexander the Great through classical and Archaic times to the beginning of the first millennium BC. 

Vivid reconstructions allow visitors to explore the role of men and women at the palace and the royal court, find out about the lavish banquets (symposia) and the architecture of the palace at Aegae.

Among the objects are priceless items including a golden head of Medusa, one of two found in the tomb of King Philip II, together with arms and armour, golden wreaths, marble sculpture and exquisite silver banqueting vessels. 

a photo of a terracotta head
Clay bust (circa 480 BC), one of 28 recovered from the © The Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism - Archaeological Receipts Fund
Andronikos’ original discovery led to further spectacular finds including the theatre where Philip II was assassinated on the day of his daughter’s wedding in the autumn of 336 BC, as well as further tombs of the royal women, including that of the famous Lady of Aegae.

A queen and high-priestess, wife of Amyntas I and most probably mother of Alexander I, she was found in an undisturbed tomb, bedecked head-to-toe in gold jewellery which had been sewn into her clothes.

A reconstruction of this and other burials showcases more treasures including marble heads, figurines, golden shield decorations and a strange collection of terracotta heads that once adorned full size funerary figures. 

An international first for the Ashmolean, the exhibition is a rare chance to see a wealth of objects ranging from beautifully intricate gold jewellery, silverware and pottery to sculpture, mosaic floors and architectural remains.

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