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The golden Macedonians of Pella show how nobles lived in antiquity

Macedonian warriors lying at eternal rest for more than 2,500 years in the ancient graveyard at Archontiko, Pella, have kept secret both their gold and the Greek character of Macedonia. An inscription in the Ionian alphabet on a 500 BC clay vase is thought to be one of the most important finds of recent years, as valuable as the gold which adorned the fully armed Macedonian warriors. The inscription came to light during this year’s excavation of the western graveyard of the ancient settlement, whose name is still not known. It has yielded, so far, 396 tombs from the seventh to the early third century BC and more than 5,000 finds. Among them are 80 gold-bedecked warriors dressed like heroes in their armor, and beside them their wives, revealing that there were Macedonians in Pella two centuries before the time of Phillip and Alexander. Their gold grave costumes, made by local Macedonian metal workers, bear witness to the wealth, noble origins, heroic stature and leading role of aristocratic Macedonian families in the second half of the sixth century BC. In full armor The warriors, buried in full armor, and their wives in gold funeral garments resembling their wedding dresses, indicate a high living standard and social status, and provide valuable evidence of funeral rites and beliefs about the pursuits of the dead in the «other world» during antiquity. Gold masks, breastplates, foil and other grave ornaments adorning clothes, shoes, helmets, shields, swords and spears, and Macedonian knives decorated with gold sheets or rosettes, gold jewelry and metal likenesses of farm carts, furniture and spits with their holders accompanied the dead in their simple pit graves. The gold finds, untouched by time or grave robbers, are slowly being dug up by archaeologists Anastasia Chrysostomou and Pavlos Chrystomos from the 17th Ephorate of Prehistorical and Classical Antiquities in Edessa. They found the first warriors and their wives in the summer of 2000, and ever since then everything that glitters in the graves they have excavated has been gold. Urban center «Built in the middle of a fertile region, on the main roadways of Lower Macedonia, near the ancient coastline of the Thermaic Gulf, Archontiko was the most important urban center of Northern Bottiaia during prehistoric and historic times and till the end of the fifth century BC, when Pella became the new capital of the Macedonian kingdom (around 410 BC),» Chrystomos told Kathimerini. The finds, which enable the archaeologists to detect the presence of Macedonians in Pella during antiquity, are numberless. The area is becoming one of the most important archaeological sites and still has many surprises in store, since excavation of the 20-hectare graveyard of the ancient cemetery has not even scraped the surface. Despite the relentless onslaughts of contemporary grave robbers, archaeological research in the past three years alone has brought to light 398 graves dating from the seventh to the early third century BC. This year digs have uncovered 64 graves (14 from the Iron Age, 21 from early antiquity, and 29 from Classical and early Hellenistic times). The Iron Age graves are either pit graves or casket-shaped graves. At that time the body of the dead person usually had a clay vase placed on the legs or head, and an iron dagger or clay slingshot. But the Hellenistic era men’s graves have gifts of red-figured, black-figured or unpainted vases, more rarely bronze vases. They also contained coins, gold or iron jewelry (rings, clasps), bronze or iron body scrapers, iron lances and daggers. The women’s graves held clay vases, clay idols and busts, bronze coins, and gold, silver, bronze or iron jewelry. The dead warriors found this year, buried in family groups beneath mounds on the hill’s slope, give a full picture of ancient Macedonians’ funeral customs. «The funeral customs that go back to the customs of the Mycenean and geometric periods in southern Greece, reveal the different political and social evolution of Macedonia, which was probably more conservative because of the monarchy,» explains Chrysostomos. The men, buried with their head toward the west or the north, are in full armor. Most have Argolic-type bronze shields, the inner sides of which are decorated with gold sheets, and rosettes and bronze sheets with pictures of myths, animals or plants engraved on them. Their bronze helmets are decorated with gold foil and rosettes, and their leather breastplates are adorned with gold sheeting. Their weapons include iron swords with gilt handles, iron spearheads and knives. Gold masks, mouthpieces, bracelets, rings and clasps covered faces and arms. Their clothes were trimmed with gold and their shoes decorated with foil and rosettes. Beside them were bronze coins (to be placed under the tongue for Charon) and a large number of vases made of gold, clay, glazed earthenware, and glass, clay idols in male or female animal or bird form, and metal likenesses of farm carts, furniture and spits with their holders. Of note is a rare gold-plated silver flask from the Achaemenid dynasty in Persia and a clay black-figured Attic kylix showing a scene of a battle between hoplites and cavalry. The warriors’ wives were stretched out, dressed and bedecked in whatever precious finery the Macedonian aristocracy possessed. On their heads they wore a gold or gold-plated diadem, a leather band with gold rosettes, or silver earrings. Their faces were covered either by a gold mask or gold eye- and mouthpieces. Their necks were decorated with gold earrings or necklaces with gold, amber or glass beads, and they wore gold rings on their hands. Their dresses were fastened with gold, silver or gold-plated clasps, and their clothes and shoes were decorated with gold foil, strips and rosettes. They had clay, bronze and glass vases with them for the needs of the afterlife, and clay idols and busts, metal likenesses of furniture and farm carts, as well as small flasks for aromatic oils used during burial rites. The origin of the finds reveals another aspect of the ancient Macedonians. The gold jewelry and metal vases confirm the presence of local metalworkers, while objects from Egypt, Ionia, the eastern Aegean islands, Corinth and Attica are evidence of trade and the notable standard of living enjoyed by the inhabitants of Archontiko, which has already been observed in Vergina (Aiges, capital of Argeades, Macedonia), Aiani (capital of Elimiotes, Macedonia) and the towns on the shores of the Thermaic Gulf (Sindos) and Halkidiki (Dikaia). «The connection between the finds in the ancient tombs of Archontiko, Sindos, Aiges, Aiani and Trebenice (north of Lake Ochrid in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) goes beyond the stylistic and technical connection between the objects to the level of ideology, raising a series of questions about the history and the cultural and social development of the Macedonians and other inhabitants of Macedonia,» says Chrysostomos. As to questions about the Macedonian realm in late antiquity (second half of the sixth century BC), research will provide the answers when what is probably the largest graveyard on Macedonian land is completely uncovered.