Female Stone Statues Revealed in Ancient Greek Tomb

caryatid body
A wall of sealing stones was removed to reveal the robe-covered bodies of two caryatids. (Image credit: Greek Ministry of Culture)

Archaeologists have uncovered the expertly crafted robes of two female stone statues standing guard at the entrance of a huge Macedonian tomb, dating back to the era of Alexander the Great, under excavation in Greece.

Excavators got their first glimpse of the wavy-haired statues — known as caryatids — last weekend, when the stone heads and torsos were unearthed at the ancient burial complex known as Kasta Hill in Amphipolis, 65 miles (104 kilometers) east of Thessaloniki. Archaeologists had to remove a wall of sealing stones to reveal the rest of the statues' bodies.

Anyone who has visited the Acropolis in Athens and stood in front of the Erechtheion would be familiar with caryatids, or female statues that take the place of columns or pillars. Though carved from stone, the diaphanous robes of the caryatids at Amphipolis have "exceptional" folds, officials with the Greek Ministry of Culture said in a statement yesterday (Sept. 11).  [See Photos of the Alexander-Era Tomb Excavation

The ongoing excavations at Amphipolis have been watched with excitement over the past several weeks. Two headless sphinxes were uncovered at the entrance of the huge burial mound, which is enclosed by a marble wall measuring some 1,600 feet (490 meters) in perimeter. Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras toured the site last month and hailed it as an "extremely important discovery."

As archaeologists venture deeper into the tomb, clearing sealing stones and sandy soil, they have revealed traces of paint and frescoes on the walls and door frames. The excavators have also found mosaics, some made with black and white pebbles arranged in a diamond pattern.

The discovery of the caryatids, partially covered by a sealing wall, suggests Kasta Hill is "an outstanding monument of particular importance," officials with the Greek Ministry of Culture said in a statement earlier this week.

"The right arm of the western caryatid and the left arm of the eastern one are both outstretched, as if to symbolically prevent anyone attempting to enter the grave," the statement added.

Katerina Peristeri, the lead archaeologist on the project, has said the team believes the tomb dates back to the fourth century B.C. and was built by Dinocrates, Alexander the Great's chief architect. The excavators have been tight-lipped about who they think might be buried inside. Some experts have speculated that the tomb might belong to one of Alexander's generals or immediate family members. But it likely won't contain the body of Alexander the Great himself — historical accounts indicate he was buried in Alexandria, though his remains have never been found.

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Megan Gannon
Live Science Contributor
Megan has been writing for Live Science and Space.com since 2012. Her interests range from archaeology to space exploration, and she has a bachelor's degree in English and art history from New York University. Megan spent two years as a reporter on the national desk at NewsCore. She has watched dinosaur auctions, witnessed rocket launches, licked ancient pottery sherds in Cyprus and flown in zero gravity. Follow her on Twitter and Google+.