To the villagers near the ancient Greek town of Amphipolis, archaeological treasure is nothing new – many in the area have lived off antiquity smuggling for decades.
But a massive tomb unearthed near the town dating back to the era of Alexander the Great has locals and visitors abuzz like never before.
“The mystery hiding behind this discovery has excited our imagination,” says Katerina Arabatzi, who drove from the nearby city of Veria to see the tomb.
“In recent days, we have started to remember the tale of Alexander the Great once more,” she said.
The Hellenistic-era tomb lies within a mound 500 metres long and three metres high – the largest of its kind ever discovered in Greece.
A five-metre marble lion, currently standing on a nearby road, originally topped the tomb, and two headless stone Sphinx statues flank the entrance, officials said.
“We knew something lay here,” said visitor Eleni Avramidou, whose family hails from the area.
“All of northern Greece constitutes an archaeological treasure trove.”
The tomb’s outlines were originally discovered in 2012, some four decades after archaic graves were found atop the hill.
This week, archaeologists used a crane to gently remove limestone blocks barring access to the inner tomb, where a diamond-pattern floor mosaic has already been detected.
“This is a universal monument,” supervising archaeologist Katerina Peristeri told state agency ANA on Friday.
“We have currently (unearthed) the entry steps and floor, and the wall sealing the entrance… we are like surgeons, making slow progress,” she said.
The ring of marble slabs circling the tomb is the work of Deinocrates of Rhodes, the architect employed by Alexander to help design the city of Alexandria, Peristeri told ANA.
However, it is unclear whether the tomb’s contents will be found undisturbed, as its presence was known in Roman times.
The excavation site had been sealed off under police guard ahead of a visit earlier this month by Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, who described the find as “unique”.
“It is certain that we stand before an exceptionally important find,” Samaras said. “This is a monument with unique characteristics.”
Officials say the tomb is unlikely to contain the body of Alexander, who died in Babylon in 323 BC and was likely buried in Alexandria, Egypt.
According to archaeology professor Michalis Tiverios, a more likely occupant is Nearchus, one of Alexander’s admirals, who lived in Amphipolis.