Sewell-Lasater on Grant, 'Unearthing the Family of Alexander the Great: The Remarkable Discovery of the Royal Tombs of Macedon'

David Grant. Unearthing the Family of Alexander the Great: The Remarkable Discovery of the Royal Tombs of Macedon. Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2019. Illustrations, maps. 360 pp. $42.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-5267-6344-0; $42.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5267-6343-3.

Reviewed by Tara Sewell-Lasater (University of Houston)
Published on H-War (March, 2021)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

Unearthing the Family of Alexander the Great proposes to be an “account of rediscovery for both the royalty of Macedon and the family of Alexander” and a “search for the truth amidst decades of misleading identity claims” (pp. vii, 8). The author, David Grant, an independent researcher who holds a master’s degree, succeeds somewhat with these goals. He provides a thorough historiography of the royal tombs at Vergina, and he proposes an interesting new identification for the female in Tomb II.

When summarizing the identity debates about those buried in Tomb II at Vergina, Grant mentions that many of the previous theories were “aggregates of earlier ideas from various scholars” (p. 110). That description is applicable to this work as well. Unearthing the Family of Alexander the Great is a handy summation of all the work and scholarly argumentation that has surrounded the royal tombs of Vergina since their discovery in 1977. Does it offer any new scholarship? Somewhat in chapter 15; but, if you are looking for a book that makes groundbreaking new conclusions about the family of Alexander the Great, this is not that book. That does not mean it is without merit; several of the early chapters could have classroom use in teaching about the archaeological work done at the tombs of Vergina. But the book itself does not offer anything that was not already known about Alexander’s family, as the title suggests. Grant’s conclusions about the identities of those buried in the tombs, especially Tomb II, are still just as conjectural as all the previous theories, since no new information has been discovered.

The book itself is reasonably well organized; although, there are parts, especially toward the end, that are long-winded and seem included without purpose. Chapters 1-5 serve as an introduction to the excavations at Vergina. Each is told in a narrative style, with chapter 1 providing an attention-grabbing anecdote of the discovery of the tombs by Manolis Andronikos and his team. Chapter 2 details the author’s first visit to Vergina in 2017, and chapter 3 outlines the historical background of the site, from the foundation of the Temenid/Argead dynasty through to Philip II and Alexander the Great, the conquest of the area during the Wars of the Successors and later by Rome, and finally its abandonment by the late Roman and Byzantine periods. Chapter 4 provides a brief narrative of early archaeological explorations at the site and its initial misidentification. Chapter 5 presents a summary of Andronikos’s work at Vergina prior to and immediately following the discovery of Tomb II, the tomb thought to be that of Philip II and an unidentified female, providing a bit more context to the anecdote of chapter 1. It also details the identification of the site as ancient Aegae and provides a good overview of the structure/layout and contents of Tomb II.

Chapters 6-8 provide the backstory to the author’s own eventual argument about the identity of the female buried in the antechamber of Tomb II, which he presents in chapter 15. Chapter 6 presents a succinct overview of Amazonian myth and Scythian history, since the woman in the antechamber of Tomb II was buried with Amazon accoutrements. Chapter 7 highlights a more detailed history of Philip II and his immediate family, carrying on from the more general overview of chapter 3, especially focusing on the presence of warrior women within Philip’s family. Chapter 8 explores the initial forensic research done on the bones in Tomb II and the scholarly debates that soon after emerged and were ongoing through 2010, which attempted to identify the remains as either Philip II and one of his wives or Philip III Arrhidaeus and Adea-Eurydice. Chapters 9-11 explore the most recent forensic findings about the bones from Tomb II from the study of Theodore Antikas and Laura Wynn-Antikas, beginning in 2009 through 2015, culminating at the end of chapter 11, where the author recaps his correspondence and meeting with Antikas leading to the inspiration for this book.

Chapters 12 and 13 are rambling chapters that serve little purpose. For instance, chapter 12 finishes by making a good point: that determining the occupants of Tomb II would require that all the tomb contents be analyzed as a whole. But that good point is almost lost in the rambling narrative of the chapter, which includes tangents about the hunting frieze above the Tomb II entrance, the practice of physiognomy (a dubious historical methodology that the author seems to admire), a section on a symposium frieze found on a tomb at Agios Athanasios (sixty kilometers from the Vergina tombs), Tyrian purple, and the making of papyrus.

Chapter 14 summarizes some of the scientific analysis done by specialist researchers on the burial goods of the antechamber in Tomb II, which led Grant to argue that the items, such as the gold gorytos (bow case/quiver), match Scythian designs and items present around the same time in burials in Scythian territories that were produced in Greek worship. These items identify the female of Tomb II as a Scythian warrior woman, which has led previous historians to identify her as a possible Scythian wife of Philip II. Grant, however, proposes a new theory in chapter 15, that Cynnane, Philip’s daughter, was buried in the antechamber. He proposes that Cynnane, like the goods in the antechamber, was born in Greece but of Scythian descent. There are some issues with the dating of Cynnane’s birth and death in correspondence with Wynn-Antikas and Antikas’s dating of the bones from the antechamber, which Grant seeks to address by reevaluating the habitually cited birthdate of Cynnane. Here, he makes a good point that in Hellenistic historiography, dates that were established in the nineteenth century or earlier, based on a single ancient source, are too often repeated without further analysis or reevaluation by more modern historians. He makes a solid argument for Cynnane in the chapter, which he then seems to challenge at the end by also proposing that the body could belong to Alexander’s wife Rhoxane. It is very strange, because the previous fourteen chapters build up to the Cynnane conclusion, but by the end of chapter 15, he has added yet another possibility to the series of identity claims. This is troubling because one of the author’s main goals for the book, as quoted above, is to end the series of misleading identity claims. Yet he feeds into that same issue because the proposal for Rhoxane is tacked onto the end of the chapter, with little convincing argumentation, which then brings his more well-researched argument for Cynnane into question and lessens its credibility.

Chapters 16 and 17 act as a summation to the work. At the end of chapter 15, after proposing the second identity for the female in Tomb II, Grant tantalizingly states that DNA testing on the bones might finally give irrefutable proof of the occupants for all the Vergina tombs. So, chapter 16 is a lengthy chapter about DNA testing, including a pointlessly long aside about ancient horse DNA and Bucephalus. Chapter 17 sums up the work that Wynn-Antikas and Antikas would like to accomplish at the site in the future. A postscript disappointingly notes that at the time this book was published, only the bones in Tomb I were permitted to be tested and the results had yet to be received. So, at the end of the work, although he claims to want to put an end to the issue of misidentification, he has instead produced two additional claims, none of which are confirmable with the current state of available research.

Overall, the strengths of this work include its narrative writing style, which is easy to follow and pulls the reader in, and its relatively good use of sources, especially in the introductory chapters where the author references many pertinent ancient sources, while also citing key modern historians. These introductory chapters and their citations will be useful for the nonspecialist reader. In other areas later in the work, citations are missing. For example, in chapter 10 there is a brief discussion about the origins of the obol (pp. 158-59), with no citation of numismatic sources.

There are some great maps and images throughout the work. Yet one thing I found unusual is that none of the figures or maps are labeled. There is no list of images or maps at the beginning or end of the work, so they are not easy to reference. For example, there is a random genealogy between chapters 6 and 7, on the unlabeled page 78. It is a helpful reference for the chapters that discuss genealogy, but because it is randomly placed in the book and not referenced in an images/tables list, the reader has no idea it is there until they are seventy-eight pages in.

Two major issues with this work are citation errors and poor editing. As an example, Grace H. Macurdy (1932) is mis-cited throughout as G. H. McGurdy (1935) or (1932). Macurdy produced one of the seminal works on women in the Hellenistic period. The mis-citation of this well-known and historiographically important author is concerning because it indicates either that Grant is unfamiliar with what should be a key work for the Hellenistic period or that he was not as careful as he should have been with his research and citations. It made me wonder what other errors might be within the work. This question was answered by the discovery that the footnotes by the end of chapter 9 are off by one. For example, footnote 38 in the text corresponds to footnote 39 at the end. There are also grammar errors throughout the work, such as on page 132 (“He was a rhetorician who squeezed ever [sic] drop”) and page 178 (“I nodded in sage agreement that is [sic] was redolent of”). It seems this work was rushed and not as carefully proofread as it should have been.

On the whole, this is a useful work for general readers looking for more info on the Argead dynasty and the archaeological work at Vergina. The narrative style will pull readers in, and the author provides just enough detail to be accurate, without overloading the general reader with details they would begin to find boring or too scholastic. For the specialist reader, this book will be a bit rudimentary, as it repeats much of the information already known about the Argead dynasty, Alexander, his family, and his successors. For the specialist, the book represents an easily referenceable historiography of the archaeological work at Vergina and the identity debate, and Grant’s own argument in chapter 15 may also be of interest, as long as that reader understands that Grant never reaches a confirmable conclusion of who is buried in Tomb II.

Citation: Tara Sewell-Lasater. Review of Grant, David, Unearthing the Family of Alexander the Great: The Remarkable Discovery of the Royal Tombs of Macedon. H-War, H-Net Reviews. March, 2021.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.