Vergina, Greece — What kind of a ruler was Alexander the Great, and what messages has he sent our own time from the 4th century BC? The lush green land of Macedonia is yielding some clues to the answers, in golden treasures from the fabulous time when Alexander, a young Macedonian military genius and science enthusiast, briefly ruled much of the known world.
Following a first showing this summer at the museum in Thessaloniki, Greek Macedonia's capital and Greece's second city, a team of dedicated scholars has sent to the United States an exhibition called "The Search for Alexander."
It includes 170 precious objects from Western public and private collections. Among them are 92 from the Macedonian royal tombs here and from Greek museums, seen for the first time outside Greece. The Alexander exhibition will appear in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., from Nov. 16, 1980, to April 5, 1981 -- then, until mid-1982, successively at the Art institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.
The "search" for Alexander was officially launched here on a blazing hot morning in July 1980. A slight, bearded Greek archaeologist, Prof. Manolis Andronicos, of the University of Thessaloniki, disclosed a fourth and newly discovered in a series of what are almost certainly royal tombs of King Philip II of Macedonia, the father of Alexander, and members of Philip's family and entourage.
Professor Andronicos is a shy man. He appears to dislike some of the greatest publicity given an archaeologist since America's Howard Carter unearthed Egypt's King Tut treasures in the 1920s.
But the publicity is justified. It was Professor Andronico's patient digging and careful deductions from Macedonian history, art, and literature which uncovered Tombs 1, 2 and 3 in 1977 and their treasures, seen only in photographs so far by most Americans and Europeans.
Katerina Rhomiopoulou, director of the Thessaloniki Museum, says that Professor Andronico's discoveries at Vergina are "a focus, or, let's say, one of the stars" of the Alexander exhibition.
A warm, outgoing person, Miss Rhomiopoulou dedicates her busy working life to assembling and restoring Macedonia's ancient treasures.
"We put it in the center because, first of all, there are so many beautiful things found there, the most valuable ones" [gold, silver, and gilded objects, such as a wreath of oak leaves, a royal diadem, and armor].
"But I wanted to prove and show that Vergina is not the only flower in the desert of Macedonia." With this, Katerina Rhomiopoulou meant gently to tease scholars and others who have always looked down their noses at ancient Macedonia , and on Macedonians, as un-Greek "barbarians" who really had no share in classical Greece's high culture.
"And besides," added Miss Rhomiopoulou, "Macedonia was never a desert. It was a lot of flowers." Miss Rhomiopoulou is talking about archaeological flowers. She has found a good many herself, in such places as Pella, the birthplace of Alexander the Great, and in nearly Lefkhadia, both in the same region as Vergina, northeast of Thessaloniki.
Since 1971, when she discovered the tomb of a Macedonian noblewoman of the 4 th century BC at Lefkhadia, overlooked by grave robbers who, operating nearby, also missed the principal royal treasure at Vergina, she has not been able to take the time from the Vergina finds and her other work at the museum to publish her discoveries. She promises to do so soon.
Professor Andronicos, announcing his latest discovery of the fourth Vergina tomb, also put an end to the image popular among ancient Athenians (and some modern ones too) of Macedonians as barbarians who didn't even speak Greek.
"Near the fourth tomb," he disclosed, "we found tombstones, painted in color with Greek names -- 77 family names of common people, all from 400 to 350 BC -- so there will be no more discussions about the nationality of the ancient Macedonians now!"
Some Greek and foreign critics challenge the assumption that the biggest tomb , Vergina III, is really that of King Philip, despite such royal "signatures" as its starlike, royal Macedonian "sunburst" insignia, a diadem, and scepter and other regalia of gold and silver, Professor Andronicos responds to them:
"We cannot each conclusions until the excavations are all finished. Any way, what is important is not whether the tomb is Philip's, or the fourth (newly discovered) female burial is one of his wives, and so on. What ism important is how incredibly much we are now learning about a whole age which has been lost or forgotten."
"One of the big advantages we had in organizing this collection," says Miss Rhomiopoulou, "is that even before discovery of the Vergina tombs, we had assembled enough gold and other precious objects from Macedonian sites to establish a meaningful look at Macedonian metal-working techniques. When the 1977 Vergina discoveries came, we were already planning a show at the Thessaloniki Museum of this metal work. Of course, we decided to expand the Vergina show to include the Vergina finds."
Miss Rhomiopoulou organized a 1978 exhibition of ancient metalwork. It won for Greece its first international award for an exhibition in a Greek museum, the prize of the European Committee on Museums.
The theme of the American show is first to illustrate how the idea of Alexander as the Western world's first "universal man" show up in even contemporary 20th-century art and literature, and then gradually to work backward in time from the present.
"The show," Mr. Brown continues, "serves as a progress report, as our quest becomes more and more specific in its eagerness for data about the ethos of Alexander and the material culture of his own time and place. It is fitting that the climax of this search should be a royal tomb in Macedonia, which might even be that of Alexander's own father, Philip II."
Alexander's impact was great in what was later to become the Arab world, where he founded Alexandria, Egypt, (and, according to tradition, was sent there to be buried after his passing in Babylon, Mesopotamia, as he prepared to conquer Arabia, though his supposed tomb in Alexandria has still not been found). This impact is shown by such objects as a classical sculptured head of the 2nd or 3rd century, found in Upper Egypt; and a mosaic floor from Lebanon, showing Alexander's birth, on loan from the Beirut Museum.
Among the most stunning of the objects to be shown in the United States is the so-called Dervini Krater. This is a huge, bronze vase, with exquisitely embossed and strikingly realistic human and animal figures showing ancient Bacchanalian rites. From Vergina are the solid gold larnax, or casket, with the royal Macedonian sunburst, like a 16-pointed star and floral decoration; the ring-shaped gold diadem, and a gold wreath of oak leaves with accorns.
"These gold objects," confided Katerina Rhomiopoulou, "were the easiest of all to restore." The work, done by Greece's top expert, Dimitrios Mathios of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, was for the gold and simple matter of working with water.
"The bronze and the iron," she added, "were the most difficult." Mathios and his helpers tried to "dry clean" most of them with instruments, using no chemicals.
Philip II, historians now say, was a skillful diplomatist, as well as an efficient and often ruthless administrator and general. HE discovered that bribery, or lavish gift-giving, was often with stubborn opponents a better means for working one's will than defeating them in battle.
For this kind of policy, you need plenty of gold and silver. The Alexander exhibition's silver and later gold coins were minted after Philip managed to wrest control of the Pangaion mines. There, according to the Roman historian Pliny, gold was discovered and melted by Cadmos, the Phoenician whom merchants and bankers of modern Lebanon sometimes identify as their distant ancestor.
"Obviously," says National Gallery director Brown, "We are tremendously excited about the Alexander show.* If we can communicate some of this excitement to museum-goers in America, the years of work spent on it will have been well worthwhile."
As the autumn advances, and American crowds cram the exhibits, Professor Andronicos and his small team of diggers will be carefully uncovering the precious objects they now know lie in the fourth tomb of Vergina -- and probing beyond it in the earth of northern Greece for new clues about the Macedonian men and women who once ruled the world.