The Eye Injury of King Philip II and the Skeletal Evidence from the Royal Tomb II at Vergina

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Science  21 Apr 2000:
Vol. 288, Issue 5465, pp. 511-514
DOI: 10.1126/science.288.5465.511


The Royal Tomb II was discovered in Vergina, Greece, in 1977. It contained a male skeleton and a rich array of grave goods. Evidence of trauma supposedly in the orbital bones of the skull has been thought to correspond to an eye injury that King Philip II is historically known to have suffered. However, reexamination of the orbital morphology showed no evidence of such pathology. Therefore, the skeleton does not belong to Philip II. New skeletal evidence shows that the skeleton belongs to King Philip III Arrhidaeus. In this case, the tomb may well contain some of the paraphernalia of Alexander the Great.

A tomb designated Royal Tomb II was discovered at Vergina by Andronicos in 1977 (1). It was divided into two chambers. The main chamber contained a marble sarcophagus inside of which a golden chest (or larnax) bearing the Macedonian star burst was discovered. The chest contained the almost complete cremated skeleton of a man. Within the antechamber, a similar sarcophagus and chest were discovered, containing the cremated skeleton of a woman. The richness of the grave goods was astonishing. Among them, two small ivory heads have been identified as those of King Philip II and Alexander the Great (1). There were also a gilded silver diadem, a gold-sheathed sceptre, an iron and gold cuirass, an iron helmet, and an elaborate ceremonial shield (1). Considerable interest has been focused on the identification of the male occupant of the tomb. Andronicos, on the basis of archaeological evidence that pointed to a date around 336 B.C., identified the tomb as that of King Philip II of Macedon (1), father of Alexander the Great. However, mounting archaeological evidence (2, 3) that points to a date around 317 B.C. suggests that the tomb belongs to King Philip III Arrhidaeus, son of Philip II and half-brother of Alexander the Great. As a result, the anthropological evidence became crucial to test the archaeological hypotheses.

The aim here is to study the paleopathology of the male skeleton using macrophotography, because no close-up pictures of his injuries had ever been obtained to study the microstructure of the wounds. Macrophotography was used for all points of facial anatomy at issue (Figs. 1 through 4). This method provided the proper magnification, often termed “natural size” (1:1) among photographers; that is, that obtained between a microscope lens and a normal camera lens. As a result, the whole structure under study was included in the photograph, and the necessary depth of field was obtained. Here, for instance, the magnification obtained in Fig. 1, with a Minolta 700si camera and a macro lens, is ×4. It could have been much more if needed. Fujichrome Sensia film rated at 100 was used at an f-stop of 32 and a shutter speed of 1/60 s in all close-up pictures. This method is simple, fast, and portable, but it requires some skill in photography. With microscopy, it is difficult to obtain such a low magnification with such a high depth of field. I examined the male skeleton from Royal Tomb II in the laboratories of the Vergina Archaeological Museum in 1998. The bones were in excellent condition because they were consolidated and restored quite satisfactorily (wherever that was possible) by Xirotiris before 1981 (4).

Figure 1

(left). The right orbital margin of the male occupant of Royal Tomb II at Vergina (frontal view). The left arrow shows the bony protuberance of the supraorbital notch, and the right arrow shows the frontal notch. No evidence of healing or callus formation can be observed.

Figure 2

(right). The right orbital margin of the male occupant of Royal Tomb II at Vergina (internal view). The left arrow shows the bony protuberance of the supraorbital notch, and the right arrow shows the frontal notch. No evidence of healing or callus formation can be observed.

Figure 3

(left). The area of zygomaticomaxillary suture showing the “nick,” that is, the misalignment of bones owing to the fact that some fragments, such as the jugal crest shown here, are badly stuck together. No evidence of injury can be observed.

Figure 4

(right). The left orbital margin of the male occupant (internal view). The asymmetry observed between the two orbits (6) is mainly a postmortem effect: The top part of the bone was lifted up during cremation.

The bone pathology of the male skeleton is crucial as to the identification of the occupant of Royal Tomb II, because it is historically known that Philip II, being a warrior, suffered many wounds (5); whereas Arrhidaeus, being unwarlike, suffered none (1, 6). These wounds of Philip II would undoubtedly have left their mark on his skeleton. For instance, his right clavicle was shattered with a lance in 345 or 344 B.C., a wound to his right femur was nearly fatal and left Philip II lame 3 years before his death, and another wound maimed his arm (5). The most important of his wounds is the blinding wound Philip II suffered to his right eye from an arrow at the siege of Methone in 354 B.C., 18 years before he was assassinated in 336 B.C. (5).

In a thorough investigation, including the use of radiography and histology, Xirotiris and Langenscheidt found no evidence of any postcranial injuries, only slight degenerative changes (4) that were apparently the effect of osteoarthritis. Similarly, Prag and Neave agree that there is no evidence of any fresh or healed damage to the postcranial skeleton (7), an observation that is confirmed here as well. The only wound previously reported on the skeleton of the male occupant of Royal Tomb II was an eye injury to the skull (6, 8). This injury has become the hallmark of the identification of the male occupant of Royal Tomb II as Philip II (7) and has led to a famous reconstruction of his face showing a scar over his right eye (8). The original report found no morphological or radiographic evidence of any injury to the skull that was consistent with the severe eye wound suffered by Philip II (4). It was concluded that the hypothesis that Philip II and his wife Cleopatra were the occupants of Royal Tomb II was supported only by the age and sex determinations of the human remains (4). In view of the similar biological ages of Arrhidaeus and his wife Eurydice, the age determinations are no longer conclusive for the identification of the occupants of Royal Tomb II (2,6). Others (6), however, reported that there is a “notch” on the superior margin of the right orbit, supposedly made by the arrow that injured Philip II (Figs. 1 and2). It was also reported that there is a “pimple” of bone close to where the supraorbital nerve would have passed; this was cited as evidence of healing after the injury (6) (Figs. 1 and 2). In this way, the alleged eye injury to the skull (8) provided the identification for the occupants of Royal Tomb II (5).

I studied the anatomy of the right orbit of the male skull of Royal Tomb II (Figs. 1 and 2) by means of macrophotography. As seen in Figs. 1 and 2 of the right orbit, the “pimple” anatomically corresponds to the bony protuberance of the supraorbital notch and therefore does not constitute evidence of bone remodeling or callus formation. This bony protuberance is even less pronounced than those of many recent nonpathologic skulls (9). There is some surface roughening over the bony protuberance, but there is more roughening on the left orbit. Similarly, the “notch” is identified with what is anatomically termed the frontal notch (Figs. 1 and2) and bears no evidence of healing or callus formation as would be expected in a notch made by an arrowhead. The evidence provided here regarding the right orbit may explain the discrepancy in which the famous reconstruction of the eye scar (8) shows a nick in the right eyebrow (presumably made by the descending arrow) running in direction from the upper left to the lower right (/), whereas the small ivory head of King Philip II used by the advocates of a Philip II identification (1) shows the brow nick running in the opposite direction (∖). It has been suggested that there is an abnormal asymmetry between the two orbits of the frontal bone that is caused mainly by the notch (6). However, a fracture line that runs parallel to the supraorbital margin of the left orbit shows that the bone was lifted up during cremation, so as to create this seeming asymmetry (Fig. 4). Regardless of the cremation effects, it is not unusual to have a supraorbital notch on the right orbit and a supraorbital foramen on the left orbit of the same skull, resulting in a normal asymmetry between the two orbits (10).

It has been reported that the male skull presents a facial asymmetry that is the result of the arrow wound that removed Philip's right eye (11). Since there is no skeletal evidence of such an arrow wound, as has been shown here, it follows that there is no facial asymmetry (at least caused by such an arrow wound) either. Besides, there is no reason why such a facial wound would result in such an extensive bone remodeling that would change the whole symmetry of the face. At the most, it would cause a bone reaction to a possible infection. But no such infection is evidenced by the skull. There has also been mention of a “healed fracture” (6, 7) at the zygomaticomaxillary suture caused by the arrow, which after hitting the eye “struck the cheekbone at the join between the maxilla and the zygomaxillare with such force that it caused the suture to open and the two bones to move out of alignment. A small piece of bone was knocked away in the incident” (7). Again, there is no evidence of healing at this suture (Fig. 3), because the trabecular bone is still exposed, apparently from a crack made during cremation. If it were healed, no trabecular would be exposed because 18 years had passed between the wound and Philip's II death. The suggested antemortem fracture in this area is an artifact of the skull reconstruction (12). What the skull shows is bone distortion owing partly to cremation and partly to a poor reconstruction of the facial skeleton. In other words, we conclude that the “healed fracture” is an artifact of whatever these bones suffered postmortem. Similarly, the reported gross asymmetry between the lateral walls of the right and left maxillary sinuses (7, 13) is a result of this poor reconstruction (Fig. 3). A fragment of the jugal crest was broken off, apparently during cremation, and then badly reconstructed so as to give the impression of asymmetry. The presence of “osteophytes” (13) (apparently meaning exostosis) and alveolar resorption on the right side of the alveolar process (11, 13) as a result of possible periodontal disease is too limited (4) to account for the seeming asymmetry. Regarding the state of preservation in the area of the “nick,” there is no difference between what Xirotiris in 1981, Musgrave in 1983, and myself in 1998 studied, as can be seen from the photographs they produced (4, 6). Thus, the material examined by Musgrave and myself was not less complete or in any way downgraded since Xirotiris reconstructed it, refuting any suggestion that differing things were examined.

It should be noted that the direction of the “notch” in the orbit is different from the position of the supposed “healed fracture” of the cheek; the “notch” goes straight into the orbit, whereas the supposed “healed fracture” is in a completely different level and direction. The arrow could not have knocked away a piece of bone from the zygomaticomaxillary suture had it not first struck the infraorbital margin, because the former is tucked under the latter. However, no evidence of such injury in the infraorbital margin exists. The suggested asymmetry of the mandible (6, 7) is also the result of cremation and not the result of congenital deformation or injury; the mandible, for instance, is wider than the maxilla. Bone is very pliable when on fire. Therefore, bones in cremations may easily be deformed by the weight of overlying items, such as burning wood. Experiments in kilns and ovens can be misleading [see, for example (7, 13)]. In such experiments, the bones are placed on flat surfaces and remain rather undistorted without the effect of any overlying weight.

For various archaeological and historical reasons (1, 6,14), it is unlikely that Arrhidaeus was cremated soon after death: It has been suggested that after Arrhidaeus' assassination and burial by Olympias in 317 B.C., Cassander exhumed, cremated, and reburied Arrhidaeus the following year; that is, about 6 months after his death. It seems that Cassander did that as a policy to establish his own legitimacy by honoring the last king of the Argeads. So the critical question that would determine the identity of the cremains is whether there is any way of determining from the bones themselves whether they were cremated with flesh around them or cremated dry (degreased) after the flesh had been decomposed by burial. Fortunately, forensic anthropology can give the answer: Long bones cremated dry are nearly intact in size and form and show negligible warping; they assume a light brown color and present infrequent and straight transverse fractures (15). Long bones cremated fleshed are fragmentary with marked warping; they assume a white, blue, and gray color and present frequent and parallel-sided transverse fractures that are either curved (thumbnail) or serrated (15) (it is not as yet clear what happens to the flat bones). In flesh-covered bones, the mechanical alterations mentioned above occur because of the denaturation and contraction of bone collagen at high temperatures (16). This produces many transverse cracks perpendicular to the direction of the collagen fibers (that is, the long axis of the bone) and marked warping as the collagen contraction drags the bone mineral along. If the bone is dry because of having been buried in the ground, the collagen-apatite bonds weaken (17) and the collagen is hydrolyzed into smaller peptide products (18). Then, during cremation, the collagen cannot drag the bone mineral along. As a result, warping and transverse cracking in dry bone are minimal and of different kind.

In mechanical terms, the transverse cracks formed in a fleshed bone during cremation are perpendicular to the direction of the collagen tensile forces, as when wedging a log. This results in curved or serrated transverse fractures. In dry bone, where the tensile forces of the collagen are weak and the transverse forces predominate, the transverse cracks are the result of a “tearing” phenomenon; that is, the shearing forces are perpendicular to the direction of the crack. This results in straight transverse or step fractures that extend from the margin of the longitudinal fractures across the bone. Such a step fracture is shown in Fig. 5.

Figure 5

The left tibia. A typical example of a long bone from the male skeleton: nearly intact, with minimal warping and a step transverse fracture, which are are all evidence of a dry bone cremation consistent with the taphonomic history of Arrhidaeus. Note that the step fracture in the distal part of the tibia extends from the end of the longitudinal crack across the shaft of the bone.

As can be observed from the long bones of the male skeleton, the preservation of the bones is excellent, with minimal warping and transverse cracking that is straight (Fig. 5). The skeleton is almost complete (11), and light brown is the dominant color of the bones. Only the left proximal ulna presents some curved transverse fractures, probably the result of insufficient decomposition in this area. The right ulna is nearly perfect, with a longitudinal crack. This type of preservation of the male skeleton shows that most of the bones were dry when cremated; that is, they were buried for some time before they were cremated. This is consistent with the taphonomic history of inhumation, cremation, and reinterment that only the bones of Arrhidaeus underwent, as already mentioned. Nevertheless, Musgrave reported that the bones appear sufficiently warped to have been burned fleshed (11), although he accepts the near-completeness and the huge size of many bones (6), the lack of transverse breaks, and the slight warping of many bones (6), despite his own experiments in a kiln with a dry radius that showed no transverse cracking (13). To explain the good preservation of these bones, he suggested a different cremation technique (13): burning in a brick box constructed around the body (6). But of course the real reason for the good preservation is the conspicuous lack of transverse cracks in many of the bones.

King Philip II suffered severe injuries, but there is no skeletal evidence whatsoever of any injuries to the male occupant of Royal Tomb II at Vergina, especially in the orbital bones. The reported facial injuries and asymmetries are mainly the result of cremation and poor reconstruction of the skull; there is thus strong anthropological evidence against a Philip II identification. The skeletal evidence that shows a dry bone cremation leaves no room for doubt that Royal Tomb II belongs to Philip III Arrhidaeus. This is consistent with the archaeological evidence that points to a later date (2, 3) for Royal Tomb II. In this case, some of the artefacts of Royal Tomb II may belong to Alexander the Great (2), which Philip III Arrhidaeus inherited from his half-brother Alexander in Babylon and brought back to Macedonia (2), where he was buried with them as the last king of the Argeads.


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