Image: Facial reconstruction of Philip II
University of Manchester
This facial reconstruction of the mystery skeleton, done by medical illustrator Richard Neave, purports to show Philip II with his famous eye wound.
updated 9/16/2010 10:27:38 AM ET 2010-09-16T14:27:38

A cremated male skeleton in a lavish ancient Greek tomb is not Alexander the Great's half-witted half-brother, according to a new study.

The research reignites a 33-year-long debate over whether the burned bones found in the tomb belong to Alexander the Great's father, Philip II, a powerful figure whose years of conquest set the stage for his son's exploits, or Alexander the Great's half-brother, Philip III, a figurehead king with a less successful reign.

The researchers argue that a notch in the dead man's eye socket is consistent with a battle wound received by Philip II years before he died, when an arrow pierced his eye and left his face disfigured. They also dispute claims by other scientists that the bones show signs of having been buried, exhumed, burned and re-interred - a morbid chain of events that would fit with what is known about the murder and burial of Alexander the Great's half-brother and successor, Philip III Arrhidaios.

The study is unlikely to settle the debate over whether the body is Philip II's or Philip III's, which has raged since the treasure-filled tomb was excavated in 1977. But identifying the tombs' occupants would complete the last chapter in at least one royal couple's sordid life story.

Murdered monarchs
Philip II was a powerful king with a complicated love life. He married between five and seven women, though the exact number is disputed, causing intrigue over the line of succession. In 336 B.C., Philip II was assassinated at a celebration of his daughter's wedding, perhaps at the behest of a former wife, Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great. Or the assassination could have been spurred by an ugly rape case involving members of the royal family. In either case, Philip II's last wife, Cleopatra (not the famous one ), was murdered or forced to commit suicide soon after by order of Olympias.

Alexander the Great succeeded his father as king. After he died, his half-brother Philip III Arrhidaios ascended to the throne. Philip III was a figurehead king who was likely mentally disabled (ancient historians blamed a childhood poisoning attempt by Olympias, who seemed to have a reputation for that sort of thing). His wife (and niece) Eurydice, on the other hand, was "what you would call feisty," said anatomist Jonathan Musgrave of the University of Bristol, who co-authored the current study.

Eurydice was a warrior queen who led an army into battle in 317 B.C. During that fight, she and her husband were captured by Olympias, who put Philip III to death and forced the 18- or 19-year-old Eurydice to commit suicide. Ancient historians reported the couple was buried but then exhumed for a royal funeral four to 17 months later to shore up the legitimacy of the next king.

"You couldn't make this story up," Musgrave said.

Who's in the tomb?
When the mystery tomb was first excavated near Vergina, Greece, archeologists were stunned to find it undisturbed and full of priceless jewelry, weapons and statues. Amid the riches lay the cremated remains of a man and a young woman. The woman's skeleton had been reduced to bone fragments, but the man's was nearly complete.

Based on the evidence at the site, the archeologists announced the male remains belonged to Philip II. That would make the woman in the tomb his last wife, Cleopatra. But other researchers soon challenged that claim, arguing the treasures in the tomb dated a generation later. That would make the male skeleton Philip III and the female skeleton Eurydice.

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In the 1980s, Musgrave and his team examined the bones and created a reconstruction of the face of the man whom they'd concluded was Philip II. Among their evidence for the identification was a notch in the skull's right eye socket, which seemed consistent with Philip II's blinding battle wound. They also argued that asymmetry of the skull may have been caused by trauma.

Their analysis did not go unchallenged. A 2000 paper published in the journal Science argued the notch in the eye socket was normal anatomy, and that the skull's other oddities were leftovers from cremation and reconstruction of the skull.

Antonis Bartsiokas, a paleoanthropologist at the Anaximandrian Institute of Human Evolution in Greece argued in the paper that the bones showed little evidence of warping, suggesting they were cremated "dry" instead of "green," or flesh-covered. In other words, the researcher wrote, the flesh had rotted away and the bones dried out before the bodies were cremated. The findings suggested that the bones were Philip III's, who was buried, exhumed, cremated and reburied, they wrote.

Burned bones
Musgrave said the two camps are probably at an impasse when it comes to arguments over the skull's injuries. But, he said, Bartsiokas is wrong about the timing of the cremation. Photos taken during the 1980s examination of the bones show warping in the long bones of the arms and legs, Musgrave and his co-authors contend in the new paper. The skull is also warped, with one large flap of bone peeled away and sticking out at an angle. Compared with dried bones burned at 1,652 degrees Fahrenheit, the researchers report, the colors and shape of the ancient skull suggest a fully fleshed cremation.

Ancient Greeks would have found the idea of exhuming a putrefying corpse disgusting, Musgrave said, so it's more likely that Eurydice and Philip III would have been cremated just like Cleopatra and Philip II and other royalty — soon after they died. The reburial, then, would have been of their pre-cremated bones.

Even if the bones were burned dry, Musgrave said, studies of modern murder victims suggest that 17 months in the ground isn't enough to dry out a skeleton.

"[Philip III] Arrhidaios' body would still have had putrefying skin and muscle attached to his limb bones, and rotting viscera filling his thoracic, abdominal and pelvic cavities after even 17 months in the ground," Musgrave and his colleagues wrote. "It would not have become a dry and degreased skeleton."

Unsolved mysteries
Bartsiokas said that even if Musgrave and his colleagues are right about the fleshy cremation, it doesn't rule out the skeleton belonging to Philip III Arrhidaios.

"They argue that the skeleton was cremated fleshed, and that the flesh would be preserved even after 17 months in the ground," Bartsiokas wrote in an e-mail to LiveScience. "Then, in their way of thinking, these circumstances could well apply to [Philip III] Arrhidaios."

Musgrave and his colleagues also argue that the placement of the remains and the absence of the body of Eurydice's mother, who was said to have been buried with her, point away from the tomb being the burial place of Philip III. But years of study of the tomb's construction and contents have yielded conflicting interpretations from different researchers, prompting one historian to write in 2007 that "a consensus on the identity of its occupants will probably never be reached."

"It's definitely not the last word," Musgrave said. "Somebody will challenge what we've written."

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Explainer: Seven deep mysteries of history

  • Image: Amelia Earhart
    FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

    What happened to Amelia Earhart?

    Amelia Earhart raised the spirits of Depression-era America as she soared into the aviation record books with feats of altitude, distance and endurance. The mood took a gloomy turn, however, when she and her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937, during a much-heralded attempt to fly around the world. Their fate remains one of aviation's greatest unsolved mysteries.

    Theories abound: They ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. They were captured by the Japanese and executed. They survived, and Earhart lived out her life as a housewife in New Jersey.

    A prominent theory with tantalizing clues holds that they survived the crash landing and but perished as castaways on Nikumaroro, an uninhabited island in the republic of Kiribati. An expedition to the island in 2010 recovered pieces of a pocket knife and a glass jar that may have belonged to the castaways. If DNA analyses on these and other items match Earhart's, the mystery may finally be resolved.

    Click ahead for six more stories of historical mysteries.

  • Where are Cleopatra and Mark Antony buried?

    Image: Kathleen Martinez, director of a Dominican-Egyptian archeological mission
    Orlando Barria  /  EPA

    Excavations underway at a temple near Alexandria, Egypt, may reveal the final resting place of the doomed lovers Cleopatra and Mark Antony. The Egyptian queen and Roman general committed suicide in 30 B.C. following their defeat in the battle of Actium for control of the Roman Empire. But where the lovers were buried is unknown.

    Zahi Hawass, Egypt's top archaeologist, believes the lovers were put to rest in the temple of Taposiris Magna and launched a dig with a Dominican-led team to locate the tomb. "It my opinion, if this tomb is found, it will be one of the most important discoveries of the 21st century because of the love between Cleopatra and Mark Antony, and because of the sad story of their death," he told reporters during a tour of the temple.

    Dominican archaeologist Kathleen Martinez is shown here with an alabaster bust of Cleopatra that was found at the excavation site near Alexandria.

  • Where is Genghis Khan buried?

    Image: The foundation of a Genghis Khan's mausoleum.
    Japan-Mongol Joint Research Team via AP

    Genghis Khan united warring tribes in 1206 and became the leader of the Mongols, creating an empire that eventually stretched from China to Hungary. The famed warrior's tomb, however, has remained a mystery ever since his death in 1227.

    According to legend, his burial party killed anyone who saw the procession. The slaves and soldiers who attended the funeral were also killed. Horses then trampled evidence of the burial, and a river was diverted to flow over the grave, which is thought to lie somewhere near Genghis Khan's birthplace in Khentii Aimag.

    Expeditions to locate the tomb have been aborted due to concerns that the excavations would disturb the site and destroy the soul that serves as its protector. In 2004, archaeologists uncovered Genghis Khan's palace, shown here, and they suspect the tomb lies nearby.

  • Did the Donner family resort to cannibalism?

    Image: James F. Reed and Margret W. Keyes Reed

    The legend is a harrowing tale of survival: A group of pioneers headed for California in 1846 got stuck on a mountain pass in the Sierra Nevada and resorted to cannibalism to survive the winter. But the claims that they feasted on human flesh may have been exaggerated, based on an analysis of bones found in a hearth along Alder Creek, where at least some of the Donner Party passed the time.

    The analysis shored up accounts that the family dog, Uno, was eaten, as well as a steady supply of cattle, deer and horse. No human bones were found at the site. While cannibalism may have occurred, if it did, the bones were treated in a different way. Perhaps the bones were buried. Or perhaps they were placed on the hearth last and have since eroded, according to project scientist Gwen Robbins, a professor of biological anthropology at Appalachian State University.

    Donner Party survivors James Reed and his wife Margaret Reed are shown in this photo from the 1850s.

  • Where is Billy the Kid buried?

    Image: William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, circa 1880.
    Lincoln County Heritage Trust

    Legend holds that outlaw Billy the Kid was gunned down by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881 and buried in Fort Sumner, N.M. A headstone marks his grave, but a controversy has roiled since the 1930s when an Arizona man named John Miller claimed that he was the legendary outlaw. Garrett, he said, shot the wrong man and lied about it. Matters became even more confused a few decades later when a Texan named "Brushy" Bill Roberts came forth and said he was the real Billy the Kid.

    An investigation aims to resolve the case by exhuming the body of Billy the Kid's mother and comparing her mitochondrial DNA to genetic material from the three men. But the investigation is controversial on several fronts. For one, the graves have been moved over the decades and nobody is certain the bodies and headstones match up. In addition, if the real Billy the Kid turns out to be buried in Texas or Arizona, it would kill off a legend that helps draw tourists to the New Mexico gravesite.

  • Christopher Columbus' remains in Spain?

    Image: Alleged tomb of Christopher Columbus, Cathedral of Seville
    Cristina Quicler  /  AP file

    In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue; after he died in 1509, his remains remained on the move. He was originally buried in the Spanish city of Valladolid, but his remains were shipped to the Caribbean island of Hispanola (modern-day Dominican Republic and Haiti) in 1537, in accordance with his will. When the Spanish lost the territory to France in 1795, they shipped Columbus's remains to Cuba, where they stayed until the Spanish-American War prompted their return to Seville in 1898. The tomb is shown here.

    The Dominican Republic, however, says Columbus' remains never left Hispanola. In 1877, a box was uncovered in a Santo Domingo cathedral with an inscription identifying the remains as belonging to the "illustrious and distinguished male Cristobal Colon (Spanish for Christopher Columbus)."

    DNA analysis of bone fragments from the Seville remains and those of Columbus' brother Diego, also buried in the city, are a perfect match. When researchers announced those findings in 2006, they declared that the century-old dispute was resolved. But DNA from the Dominican remains has yet to be studied, leaving the case not quite fully shut.

  • DNA seals fate of Russian czar's kids

    Image: Nicholas II, Prince Alexei
    AP file

    Bolsheviks gunned down Russian Czar Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra and their five children in 1918, but for 90 years the whereabouts of two of the children, Prince Alexei (heir to the Russian throne) and a daughter (Maria or Anastasia), remained unknown until 2008. That's when their bones were recovered from a grave near the rest of the Romanov family near Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains, about 900 miles east of Moscow.

    The bones from the second grave were burned and drenched in sulfuric acid, presumably to conceal the victims' identities or conditions at death. But scientists were able to examine mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down from mother to children. They also matched up Y chromosome markers from Crown Prince Alexei and Czar Nicholas II.

    Czar Nicholas II, left, and the Crown Prince Alexei, are shown cutting wood in this photo, taken at a Siberian prison months before their murder in 1918.


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