The Quest for Aristotle’s Tomb

At the 2,400 Years World Congress, which marks 2,400 years since Aristotle’s birth, archaeologist Konstantinos Sismanidis presented a paper announcing that he thinks he may have found the tomb of famous philosopher Aristotle. But, is he right?

Sismanidis was studying some ancient records written about Aristotle. Most texts say that Aristotle died on the island of Euboea in 322 BC, but Sismandidis found some Arabic copies of a paper written by historian Ptolomy, usually a reliable resource on history, that suggest that after Aristotle died on Euboea, his ashes were brought to Stagira, the philosopher’s hometown, where they were interred in a building supposedly built in his honor.

There is, in fact, a building in Stagira that fits the description in the Arabic copies of Ptolomy’s account. It’s a small building with an altar and a marble floor. It was a public building, and dates back to the time of Alexander the Great, Aristotle’s famous pupil. Archaeologist Sismanidis uncovered the building in 1996, and has spent 20 years excavating it, trying to discover the exact location of the supposed tomb. His research has yielded no human remains or any inscriptions mentioning the Greek philosopher. But, nevertheless, Sismanidis wants to publish his findings this Fall in a book.

The jury is still out on whether or not the building at Stagira is, actually, Aristotle’s tomb or not.

In 2014, a couple of archaeologists thought that a tomb found in Amphipolis in Macedonia was Alexander the Great’s tomb. But, when the theory was tested and poked a bit, it didn’t stand up to testing and research. Further investigation revealed an inscription that suggested that the tomb probably belonged to Hephaestion, Alexander the Great’s close friend.

Most archaeologists think that Sismanidis has made a similar mistake.

“That the tomb found by Sismanidis at Stagira is that of Aristotle is a plausible suggestion but not a provable one, as the Greek archaeologist himself admits, Barring the discovery of an inscription, that state of affairs is unlikely to change.” – James Pollitt, Professor of art history at Yale

Other archaeologists have added their voices, and most agree that even though the tomb is in the correct time period, the archaeological and historical community needs more evidence before they can fully support Sismanidis’ claim. Some, like Pollitt, have been very polite in their skepticism. Others, namely Edith Hall, think the entire idea that Aristotle’s tomb has been found is utter nonsense.

“Call me a cynic, but has archaeologist Kostas Sismanidis really found a single shred of evidence that the tomb excavated in ancient Stageira long ago in 1996 houses the remains of Aristotle?” – Edith Hall, professor at the Centre for Hellenic Studies at King’s College in London

There is one person who supports Sismanidis’ claim, however. Elizabeth Kosmetatou believes that the location at Stagira is most likely where Aristotle’s ashes were interred.

Archaeological work on the building did produce a few ceramic roof tiles stamped with Greek that were produced in a royal workshop in Pella, the capital of Alexander’s Macedonia. This suggests the building was, in fact, a public building financed by Alexander the Great.

According to the Arabic copies of Ptolomy, Aristotle’s tomb was a public gathering place that was extremely important to the people of Stagira. That semicircular structure found near the building thought to be Aristotle’s tomb matches other architecture designs across Macedonia and Greece where speeches, plays, and other public events were held.

Elizabeth Kosmetatou believes these Arabic copies of Ptolomy are “probably reliable”.

So it seems the archaeological community can’t decide whether or not Aristotle’s tomb is at Stagira or not. Until Sismanidis can produce further archaeological or textual evidence of either human remains, an inscription saying that the philosopher was buried there, or someone else finds Aristotle’s tomb somewhere outside of Stagira, the theory will remain up in the air. Only time will tell.