In the late Seventies, the discovery of the tomb of Philip II – identified by a skull damaged around the eye area exactly as Philip’s war-wounds were described in the chronicles – was a big media event.
In the intervening decades, excavations have quietly continued, and now 500 pieces from over 500 tombs are on show. Through them, the Temenid dynasty’s shift, from small kingdom on the edge of the Greek world to a major power, is brilliantly illustrated.
The first room explores the tombs of the kings. The possessions of the ruler were an expression of the kingdom’s power and wealth, going with him from life to afterlife.
Philip II had modernised warfare, developing the “phalanx”, the invincible wedge-shaped formation of pike-wielding men. His funeral, choreographed by Alexander the Great, was a great ceremonial occasion, with cremation followed by entombment. This was accompanied by the symbols of his military valour, as well as those confirming his regal and religious status.
Half-burnt bricks, pot-shards, and thousands of nails that are all that’s left of his wooden burial-house, run the length of the gallery, surrounded by the gorgeous grave-goods that accompanied him to the afterlife.
An astonishing gold wreath, constructed of beaten sheet-gold delicately modelled into the oak leaves and acorns sacred to Zeus, confirms Philip as his earthly descendant. (Heracles, son of Zeus, was the legendary founder of the Temenids.)
The second section is devoted to the royal women, their gallery presided over by three ghostly Perspex figures wearing the gold and bronze jewellery that was found lying in the tombs.
They face the devotional objects that reflect their roles as high priestesses in the Mystery cults, as well as the funeral objects for their voyage to the underworld: coins for Charon, boatman of the dead, and cups to quench their thirst on the way.
Twenty-six life-size heads used in their burial rituals line the gallery. They are both a puzzle and discovery: astonishingly realistic, the sculptures predate what had been the earliest examples of the realist style in art by 150 years.
The final room explores Philip II’s palace, which is now being restored by the curator of this exhibition. It was the largest building in classical Greece (the size of Buckingham Palace) and, excepting only the Parthenon, the most important. Silverware and ceramics show how banqueting was at the heart of social and political life.
Architectural innovation is also explored – many techniques that were thought to have been Roman (waterproof roofing, for instance) are now seen to have developed with the Temenids.
The Ashmolean, in a great coup, is displaying these objects for the first time outside Greece, in an exhibition that perfectly balances the scholarly with the artistic, the informative with downright glamour. The show of the summer.
"Heracles to Alexander: Treasures from the Royal Capital of Macedon" is on at Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, to Aug 29; www.ashmolean.org