Some 200 foreign journalists, editors, photographers, historians, museum representatives, their friends and a few gadflies descended from their airconditioned buses to crowd around a large hole the size of a building foundation. Most had been flown here by the Greek government to view and write about what lay at the bottom of that hole: a royal Macedonian tomb that has been called the greatest archeological find in the post-World War II era.
Manolis Andronicos, the Greek archeologist who discovered this and three neighboring tombs after asearch of some 40 years, had agreed to act as tour guide for the day. Nervously, he showed the crowd the marble-columned entrance to the tomb and tried to explain why the Vergina finds have added so much to our understanding of ancient Greece. Some people listened. Some took notes. Others, like a European cameraman, slipped and stumbled near the mouth of the fourth century B.C. tomb trying to adjust his indoor lights.
Then a partner of the American public relations firm handling this tour fell over trying to photograph the tomb's brilliant freize painted above the columns.
Toward the end of a rowdy two-hour visitation, Andronicos lost his temper: "Please, please I asked you to stand here, with the others. And only a few photographs." Andronicos had tolerated this dangerous group of trampling feet in his dig because Greece, like Egypt with its King Tutankhamen exhibition, is promoting its ancient culture with a grand spectacular: a touring four-city exhibition to open at the National Gallery in Washington this November. Tied into that will be a four-part docudrama hosted by James Mason and shown on PBS; a new book on Alexander the Great and his march, written by an Oxford University lecturer and lavishly illustrated with 220 photographs; and a catalogue on the exhibit itself.
Timing was everything for this exhibit: Just as Greece was coming out of its shell and allowing its art to be exhibited abroad, Andronicos discovered these tombs, an American corporation was outlining a book-television series on Alexander and an American museum was negotiating with Greek authorities for an exhibit.
Andronicos' finds from the tomb are the stars. The draw, however, will be Alexander the Great, the real and mythic king.
Everything -- exhibit, television series and books -- will be titled "The Search for Alexander" and in one fashion or another it will be just that.
The exhibition is aimed at being as big a draw as King Tut and, no doubt, just as controversial. Critics will debate whether the museums are moving too close to the circus approach to art with these specialty displays or whether this might be an innovative way to show archeological pieces to a popular audience.
What is certain is that Washington museum-goers will be confused. The publicity will center on Alexander, the emperor they will remember from their childhoods at least, if not from a university. But how Alexander fits into the archeological showpieces will not be immediately clear. In fact, the only certain connection is that the tomb is Macedonian and royal, like Alexander, and was constructed in his era.
Andronicos held a press conference within weeks after dicovering the tomb and said it belonged to Alexander's father, Philip II. Soon the Greek archelogist had half the academic world protesting his claim. His tomb-side remarks were aimed at these unnamed critics.
"A Swiss colleague . . . a colleague from Italy . . . an American archeologist . . . they find one thing and make a theory," he said, rising his arms like exclamation points before a group that was largely ignorant about the debate. "I said my hypothesis was that the tomb belonged to Philip II. Now I say I don't care about this. The most important thing is the find, the wall painting, everything."
Never before had a royal Macedonian tomb been uncovered intact, overlooked by the ancient grave robbers who broke into these homes for the dead and stole all the gold, silver and bronze they could melt down. The frieze at the entrance alone is a major discovery. It is a beautifully preserved hunt painting with perspective and design that scholars had not thought possible for that era.
The solid gold pieces are exquisite, as beautiful as any others from the ancient world, let alone Macedonia. And there are weapons, armor and vessels in bronze and silver in the tombs that together are a historical and artistic treasure trove.
No wonder Andronicos felt this tomb must be that of a regal figure. Most of the experts along on the tour sympathized with him while wondering why he broke with the cautious tradition of archeology by holding the news conference. "I'd say Andronicos wished he'd kept his mouth shut," said one of the experts, who asked not to be identified.
Nothing could be a greater boon to the museums.
"We're going to play this like a whodunit," said J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery and a chief architect for the exhibit.
The operative word here is "who," for it is still quite possible that the bones are merely those of some distant cousin of Alexander's. But then, caution does not a publicity blitz make.
Macedonia is not the Greece of barren rocky hills, lemon and olive trees bent over cliff dashing into the sea. Here the countryside is green with cornfields, cotton fields, fruits orchards and flowers everywhere. Mums, oleander, sunflowers, geraniums and roses grow like weeds around village squares, in the sweet yards of the homes.
Under a narrow street of Vergina, one of the least memorable villages, Andronicos uncovered the tomb. He first began digging in the area in 1937, a young student who gave up studies two years later to fight with the free Greek troops in Asia Minor. He returned for good in the '50s, and by 1976, when he began excavating a large mound in Vergina, he was on a first-name basis with the villagers.
The archeologist first uncovered a tomb stripped by ancient grave robbers. When he struck the second and most important tomb 17 feet down, he expected it to be empty as well.
Instead, he found the unimaginable. Inside a large white marble sarcoph agus was a solid gold larnax, or chest, beautifully embossed with the royal Macedonian star on its lid, standing on lion's feet, and decorated with palmettes and rosettes on its side. Inside the gold casket were the bones. All around were the vases and vessels, the armor and shields, everything left in place for 2,300 years. No wonder Andronicos immediately set out to discover exactly how great was the man buried here with his wife.
"This is wonderful, it is a masterpiece," Andronicos said of the frieze at the tomb's entrance. "The painter knew very well perspective, colors. I believe this was done by the best painter of the fourth century B.C."
Washington museum-goers will not see that lion hunt painting, but they will view almost every other treasure unearthed: the two gold caskets, the woman's diadem, the man's gold wreath of acorns and oak leaves as perfect as if they had been plucked from a golden tree. They will also see the stunning ivory portraits, small as chess pieces of Philip II and his son Alexander.
The vessels are elegance itself. And among the weaponry is leg armor that Andronicos took as evidence that the tomb belonged to Philip, for one leg is demonstrably shorter than the other, as was Philip's.
By the time the exhibit reaches America, however, Philip will be upstaged by his son Alexander and the question of whose bones were encased in the larnax forgotten. Even in Thessalonica, where the museum directors identified the tomb as Phillip's without any qualms, six busts of the handsome, winsome head of Alexander were displayed, and only one of the stern conqueror Philip.
Art and artifacts will be gathered from private and museum collections to tell the story of Alexander as it grew into myth: the beautiful boy who tames the uncontrollable horse Bucephalus, the man who conquers the world from Greece to northern India, the student of Aristotle, the "civilized" emperor who controlled his troops' appetites for plunder and rape, the man of chivalry.
Even Alexander's name cannot account for the brouhaha surrounding this exhibit.
Without the worldwide publicity from Andronicos' press conference, the exhibit might not have happened. "The Search for Alexander" was an arts and media event waiting to happen.
Brown writes that it was "divine happenstance" that led Andronicos to the tomb in 1977 just as Brown was negotiating with Greece for an antiquities plotting a television series and book on Alexander.
Everyone got together -- Time Inc., the National Gallery and the National Bank of Greece -- all with the help of David Finn, the public relations man who fell over in the tomb.
A wing has been added to the Thessaloniki Museum to house the pieces from the Vergina tombs permanently. It was here that the Greek "Search for Alexander" exhibit was formally inaugurated. (The American exhibit will be many times larger and quite different.)
A poem by Greece's modern poet C. Cavafy is hung at the main entrance, printed in letters as bold as the characters of a Chinese wall poster. It begins:
And from this marvelous pan-Hellenic expedition triumphant, brilliant in every way, celebrated on all sides, glorified, incomparable, we emerged: the great new Hellenic world . . .
Just sending these artifacts overseas was a political act, questioned loudly by the opposition. But Greece is shaking off the fear that foreigners will try again to rob the country of its treasures and, instead, is trying to grow closer to Europe as January approaches and Greece becomes an official member of the Common Market.
President Constantine Karamanlis came to Thessalonica to open the "Search for Alexander" exhibit with a speech at once political and romantic.
. . . For Greece, Alexander has served as no other man has done, the dreams of the nation as a symbol of indissoluble unity and continuity between ancient and modern Hellenism," the 73-year-old statesman said.
He also made the point that this find proves Macedonia's essentially Greek character, a message to neighboring Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, which have had claims on Greek Macedonia.
"More than 2,300 years had to go by before the Macedonian earth, thanks to the excavations of our archeologists, could begin to attest, in the clearest possible way, not only to the grandeur but to the breadth and unity of Greek civilization throughout the area of Greek antiquity," he said.
The village of Vergina, after playing host to archeologists all these years, has finally got what it wanted -- pavement for the main road and two public toilets -- just in time for the hundreds of reporters and experts who descended on the town, and who, hopefully, will never return.