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The royal palace at Aegae, an area of 12,500 square metres, is considered, alongside the Parthenon, to be one of the most important buildings in Classical Greece. Excavations in the 1970s revealed magnificent tombs, and recently further tombs have been found. Over 500 objects from the royal palace and tombs of Aegae (modern day Vergina), the royal capital of ancient Macedon in northern Greece, have been lent for five months to the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford. Many are being exhibited for the first time anywhere in the world in a groundbreaking exhibition of archaeology, ‘Heracles to Alexander the Great: Treasures from the Royal Capital of Macedon’ (7 April–29 August 2011), which follows the history of Alexander’s dynasty, the Temenid kings and queens of Aegae, from the seventh to the fourth centuries BC.
Presented in three spacious rooms in the temporary exhibition galleries, the display has been divided thematically into Kings, Queens and the Royal Symposia. In Room 1, the advancement of the Temenid dynasty is explored through references to its most vivid kings, from Heracles, the dynasty’s mythical founder, to Alexander the Great. Many objects are from the tomb of Phillip II (reigned 360/359–36BC), father of Alexander III, ‘the Great’ (reigned 336–23BC), including a tiny gold Medusa head (3.6 x 3.5cm), one of two found attached to a linen cuirass of the king, worn to ward off evil. The high quality of the craftsmanship and the physical features of Medusa lead the curators to consider it one of the finest examples from antiquity. It vies for attention with the king’s golden wreath of oak leaves and acorns discovered in 2008 in a gold urn; and an adjustable silver-gilt diadem, a unique object that represents the king’s role as high-priest.
Themes of war and hunting are the focus of many of the displays in this room, where one can examine Phillip II’s sturdy greaves and other pieces of military equipment. A life-size photo mosaic, of a colourful hunting frieze excavated above the door of the king’s tomb entrance at Aegae, undoubtedly depicts at its centre Alexander the Great, dressed in purple on horseback, with his father Phillip, lion hunting. Adjacent to it, a marble group, Hunter and Wild Boar (fourth century BC) reveals workmanship of stunning realism. The hunter’s dog attacks the boar whilst riding on its the back. At the room’s centre a long display cabinet is filled with hundreds of large iron nails and metal pieces including a doorknob, and fragments of the large ceramic storage jars known as amphoras, the extraordinary remains of a wooden house purpose-built to be burnt on the funeral pyre of Queen Eurydice c.344–3BC, the mother of three kings and grandmother of Alexander the Great.
In Room 2 the spotlight is on ‘Queens, Princesses and High-Priestesses’ through the contents of their tombs. One of the most precious objects is a golden myrtle wreath found in the antechamber of the tomb of Phillip II, commissioned for Meda of Odessa, one of his wives. It vies for attention with perhaps the most arresting display of jewellery ever seen at the Ashmolean; the ‘Lady of Aegae’ thought to be the wife of King Amyntas I. When she died in her early thirties, around 500BC, her body was adorned from head to foot in the finest jewellery. Also in this room is a remarkable display of life-like, life-size clay heads, from about 480BC, part of a collection of 26 heads found in the ‘queens’ cluster of burials at Aegae. Their display position, at head-height, allows one to closely examine the expressive facial features. To form statues, the heads would have been placed on top of clothed wooden poles.
In Room 3, dedicated to the Royal symposia (banquets), silverware used in these lavish events, held at the Royal court, is displayed near much earlier-dated clay cooking pots and household utensils used by the royal court in its less opulent infancy, when the rise of the Macedonians led to the formation of the Temenid dynasty. One masterpiece amongst many on show is a superbly crafted silver jug decorated with the head of bearded satyr, a companion to the god of revelry, Dionysus. It was one of two found in the tomb of Phillip II. In this room examples of the architectural design of buildings at Aegae are also on display.
To lead one through the exhibition a useful 32-page guide (£4.00) explains many of the objects in their historical context. For pre-exhibition or post-exhibition reading, or for those unable to get to the museum, the choice should be the superb 264-page exhibition catalogue Heracles to Alexander the Great: Treasures from the Royal Capital of Macedon.It greatly expands on the history of the Temenid dynasty in 14 engaging essays written by the exhibition’s curators and other experts. Alongside maps and plans of the region, many of the illustrations are on-site photographs taken as the tombs’ contents were uncovered.
To coincide with the exhibition, the Ashmolean Museum has created a series of public events, including curatorial tours of the exhibition, lectures, art classes and workshops (www.ashmolean.org/exhibitions).
Heracles to Alexander the Great: Treasures from the Royal Capital of Macedon by Dr Angeliki Kottaridi and Dr Susan Walker (Eds) is published by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism, 2011. 264 pp. 312 colour/ 5 mono illus.ISBN 9781854442512
Media credit: Picture © Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Tourism - Archaeological Receipts Fund