Beautiful – isn’t it? – And quite astonishing, too!
What you are looking at is an extraordinary piece of ancient craftsmanship: a wreath or crown made entirely of gold, fashioned 23 centuries ago so as to imitate a myrtle bough in bloom – in intricate detail.
To be more exact, the object – now on display in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki – is from a grave dating to about 330 BC, most likely of a rich and important male individual at Pydna in the South of ancient Macedon. The place, located in the Southeast of the modern Greek province of Central Macedonia, is known to historians as the location of the 168 BC battle that effectively ended the 150-year hegemony of Macedon as the major power in Greek lands. To archaeologists, it is known as a time-honoured centre of power within Macedon, and as the site of a major cemetery that has yielded an extraordinarily rich array of very important finds and continues to do so.
Like any such high-status object, our wreath can be placed and analysed in multiple ways. It is an expression of the culture that created it, the people who fashioned it, the skills, traditions and knowledge that went into it and the beliefs or values that led to its making and its use.
It is made of individual sheets of gold, hammered over (probably) wooden moulds to realistically copy the leaves and flowers of a branch of myrtle. They are attached to the main bough, represented by a thicker strand of gold wire that is twisted into a wreath of a little over 20cm (8”) diameter, evidently to fit the top of someone’s head. As any hand-made object, it is unique in the individual detail of its form, but it still belongs to a group or type of objects, as any visitor to the Thessaloniki museum and various other museums in Greece and beyond will find. We could call them “Macedonian burial wreaths”, from their usual context and geographic origin, or we could name them “Hellenistic leaf crowns”, from their actual morphology (the way they are shaped) and chronology. Archaeological word-play…
Our wreath is actually immensely significant as an expression of its distinctive cultural background. The workmanship is Greek and so is the meaning: myrtle was considered sacred to the ancient Greek goddesses Demeter and Aphrodite. But you will not find such objects in graves (or any other context) in the city states of southern Greece before the late 4th century BC, i.e. before Macedon became the dominant force in that part of the world. You will find them in Macedon, essentially what is now the North of modern Greece, a little earlier, because that is clearly where they developed.
Why? Because the different parts of the Greek world developed along slightly different cultural trajectories. Macedon was only united into a fully homogeneous state and kingdom by Phillip II, father to Alexander the Great. Before that, it was a confederation (of some sort) of smaller kingdoms, dominated – unlike the city states of the south – not by politically organised citizenry, but by “big men”, i.e, warriors, nobles and the wealthy. Burial is a very major ritual, it expresses how we define and place our deceased peers, family members, ancestors and so on. As we discussed here earlier, in more-or-less democratic Athens, burial had at that time turned out to focus on long-term commemoration, not on temporal pomp, which was looked down upon there. In Macedon, however, the burial of an important person clearly entailed major expense of very visible resources to underline the importance of the deceased – what anthropologists call conspicuous consumption – and that had been the case for centuries. It was to become a wider trend as Macedonian power increased, and our wreath is a great example of it. The fact that such wreaths are now known from various parts of Greece and also Anatolia indicates the spread of Macedonian culture along with Macedonian power.
Power? The myrtle wreath is from a vital period in this regard: its bearer died when Macedon had recently subdued all of Greece and when its inspirational king Alexander was out and about, conquering what we now call the Middle East. Macedon was a world power at that time, and it was just about to become the main factor feeding Greek culture into the entire eastern Mediterranean and beyond. The type of Macedonian cultural expression that is the golden myrtle wreath was then just on the brink of becoming a global trend for those who could afford it (or whose descendants could).
Finally, is it a “burial wreath” or a “leaf crown”? As we said, such objects are quite common in high-status graves. Common, but not commonplace: we have dozens of them, certainly not hundreds. It is quite possible that they were made specifically for dead people prior to cremation (which was the common burial habit in Macedon and during which such gold objects would be removed). It has been argued that they may be objects from the actual life of the individual, worn at religious ceremonies etc. That is also possible, but I am personally tempted to argue that on such occasions, the participant would have worn an actual wreath of myrtle (or another plant, as the occasion and his or her rank required and as would have been both available and appropriate) and that the burial version is different from that. The gold version is, in my view, meant to eternalise whatever meaning the actual wreath had.
Many of the gold wreaths that have been found are as carefully worked as this one, imitating myrtle, laurel, oak, olive and various other plants, all of them imbued with sacred meaning in ancient Greek religion. Most famously (perhaps), the burial of Philipp II at Vergina (Aigiai), included a very finely crafted golden oak wreath, with leaves, acorns and all – the oak was sacred to Zeus, the king of the gods.
In the Thessaloniki Museum, the Pydna wreath is but a small part of an enormous exhibition on the various necropoleis, or cemeteries, of ancient Macedon. It displays a vast and wonderful array of weaponry, jewellery, vessels and other containers, much of it made from gold and other precious material, spanning the entire region and many centuries of ancient life (and death). The exhibit “the Gold of Macedon” is truly stunning – it contains many objects just as superb as this one. You can see it on our tour From the Slopes of Mt Olympus to the Shores of the Aegean, and we show you other examples of the object type on our Exploring Crete tour, our Exploring Athens tour and also when we visit the museum in Bodrum Castle during our various Carian itineraries.