Lost Tombs – Cleopatra and Mark Antony

Antony and Cleopatra are one of histories most well known power couples. Their love story has captured the imagination of artists and historians for millennia. However, little hard evidence of the duo has ever been found. Coins, busts and other depictions and references are comparatively rare which leaves open to interpretation and speculation many questions about their lives and respective deaths. However, many questions historians have about the pair, including whether Cleopatra really died of an Asp bite, may soon be answered.

Taposiris Magna, known to the Ancient Egyptians as Per Usiri or “Dwelling of Osiris” and modern Egyptians as Abusir, is a ruined Greco-Roman city located 45km to the West of Alexandria. The prominence of its temple, the wealth of its people and its proximity to Alexandria, as well as the presence of physical indicators, have led the Dominican Archaeologist, Dr Kathleen Martinez to theorise that it is the final resting place of Cleopatra and her husband, Mark Antony.

Still surrounded by its limestone ‘tememos’ the temple covered 84sqm and rose to prominence as one of the sites it was believed the God Osiris was buried after his murder and dismemberment by his brother, Seth

The City

A center of industry, trade and religion, Taposiris rose to prominence in the third century BC and remained occupied into the 7th century. It became one of the focus points of Egyptian paganism in the Ptolamaic Period (305 – 30BC) and a huge temple complexto Osiris and Isis was constructed about 270BC. The city around the temple was a major stopping point along the trade routes between Egypt and Libya with its merchants buying and selling goods from all across the ancient world. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of a thriving glassware industry that would have provided the site with a lucrative export, the value of which is reflected in the public works that have been unearthed and including Greek style public baths and hippodrome and the Tower of Abusir that acted as a funerary monument to the City’s dead.

The Ptolemies were not a native Egyptian Dynasty but of Macedonian origin. Ptolemy I Soter was one of Alexander the Great’s generals and when the empire was divided he took Egypt as his own.The mixing of Hellenic and Egyptian culture can be seen in this gold ring depicting Ptolemy VI.

After it was abandoned around the time of the Muslim invasions the city was largely lost to history and it is only in recent years that the potential significance of the place has been realised. It has afforded historians an almost unique window into life during the tumultuous final years of an independent Egypt and the transition period that followed the reign of the last Pharaoh. The graveyard that surrounds the Tower of Abusir is the largest Greco Roman burial ground yet found in Egypt and  has given archaeologists a new perspective on a society passing through a substantial socio-political and religious change. Even if Taposiris and its temple does not yield the tomb of Celopatra and Marc Antony it remains a significant site in its own right for what it can tell us about the lives of its denizens and how they prepared for the afterlife.

Is there a Tomb?

The Temple complex is an impressive and substantial structure that holds value simply for being one of the most important centers of worship in the Greco-Roman period but subsurface scans and digging has revealed a network of tunnels within and outside the walls. One prominent shaft extends to a depth of 35m whilst others run for hundreds of meters at slightly shallower depths. Human remains have been found in them, including the skeleton of a pregnant young woman which proves that the temple precinct is a site where burials took place. Such extensive tunneling is not common for temples in any period but shaft burials and shallow subterranean Temple tombs are a feature of the third intermediate and Late periods that preceded the Ptolemies.

From the 21st Dynasty onward Pharaohs constructed shallow subterranean burial chambers in or beneath temples and there are examples of shaft burials in even the most holy sites. This manner of tomb building offered greater security than a pyramid or the valley of the kings and allowed a Pharaoh to more closely associate themselves with particular deities and temples. For example the unoccupied tomb of Nectanebo II in Memphis, though not strictly subterranean, was directly attached to a temple dedicated to his cult and the structure bears evidence that the suspected burial chamber was added after the temple was completed.

Anthony and Cleopatra were married for just two years but had three children together. The twins, Alexander Helios, Cleopatra Selene and Ptolemy Philadelphus.

Evidence that this practice was utilised by the Ptolemies is scant as there is so little evidence of Royal tombs from this period, however one tomb was identified in 2017 in the ancient necropolis known as the ‘Tombs of the Kings’ in Paphos, Cyprus. The tomb, belonging to the boy King Ptolemy Eupator who lived 100 years before Cleopatra, was discovered by Professor Theodoros Mavroyiannis, Professor of Classical history at the university of Cyprus. He identified it by the presence of Doric columns, which indicted a temple had existed over the tomb, as well as the presence of two sculpted Eagles, images of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and the Greek Letters ‘TH’ of ‘Theos’ i.e God, which he postulates were part of an inscription giving the King’s full names and titles. The tomb itself is a relatively simple affair, below ground and cut directly into the rock but does show that, at least on this occasion, Ptolemaic royal tombs were constructed in conjuncture with dedicated or linked temples.

Whilst the burial of major royals in or near temples was relatively unheard of before the 21st Dynasty it was commonplace for Egyptians of all classes to be interred close to important monuments and religious sites. Being buried near to the Pharaohs was a particularly prestigious honour, something we can see in the deserts surrounding the Djoser Pyramid, Egypt’s first, which are heavily populated with burials of those seeking to be close to the Pharaoh. A large number of tombs and mummies have been unearthed in the necropolis of Taposiris, close to the Tememos, and this can be interpreted as either an indication of just how sacred Taposiris was, as reverence of a more important burial or both. Many of the mummies have been identified as members of the nobility with the faces of one young couple gilded in gold leaf, a not uncommon practice in the Ptolemaic period where ointments, unguents and gilding were used to make up for a loss of skill on the part of the morticians.

If Cleopatra and Antony’s tomb, or another royal burial, was found at Taposiris it would reinforce the link between royal burials and temples that Eupator’s tomb indicates and suggest either a continuation or reintroduction of late period practices. The burials in the precinct and high status of many burials in the necropolis show it was a holy amongst holies where Egyptians of Cleopatra’s period wished to be buried. It is entirely possible there is an undiscovered Royal Burial at Taposiris Magna.

Is the tomb theirs? 

Despite digs in the opening years of the 20th century and the pre-war years much of the archaeological work has been done since 1998. Excavations by Dr Martinez have unearthed a wealth of impressive artifacts within the temple precincts and radically changed perceptions of the city and its religious buildings.

Anthony fought alongside Julius Caesar throughout his life before becoming the senior member of the second triumvirate alongside Octavian and Marcus Lepidus

It was first assumed that the site held little importance for the Ptolemies or Egypt as a whole. As more of the temple complex has been unearthed and properly recorded it has become clear that not only did the city have close links with the Dynasty but was in fact the most important site for the worship of Isis, the cult traditionally associated with Cleopatra, in lower Egypt.

Within the Tememos excavations have unearthed a wealth of artefacts specifically linking the site with Cleopatra and Marc Antony, including hundreds of coins in the shrine to Isis carrying Cleopatra’s image, an alabaster mask with a cleft chin that may represent the triumvir and carvings depicting the couple embracing.

It would be purely speculative to say that these finds indicate the couple are buried there but the artifacts unearthed thus far certainly indicates a close relationship with Cleopatra, and her dynasty as a whole.

Were they mummified?

In a dream scenario Cleopatra and Mark Antony would be perfectly preserved in an unsealed tomb filled with artifacts indicative of their achievements and life together. However, this is unlikely due to the reality of their demise and what we know of burials of the time.

The historical record is largely silent on the manner of the couple’s burial and where it isn’t it is unclear and often contradictory but for the most part the record that have survived agree that they were buried and they were buried together. Cassius Dio writes that ‘They were both embalmed in the same fashion and buried in the same tomb’, Seutonius records that Octavian ‘allowed them both the honour of burial, and in the same tomb, giving orders that the mausoleum which they had begun should be finished’, whilst Plutarch records that Octavian admired Cleopatra’s spirits and allowed her to be buried with Antony in ‘splendid and regal fashion’ whilst also stating that Cleopatra was allowed to conduct the burial rites during which she was seen to be ’embracing the urn which held his ashes’, which seems to confirm Antony was cremated. However, it is less clear what happened to Cleopatra though it is possible, if not probable, that she was mummified.

Antony died in Cleopatra’s arms as Alexandria fell to Octavian’s conquering armies.

In Ancient Macedonia, the ancestral homeland of the Ptolemies, the bodies were washed, anointed and buried but claims this practice was continued by Cleopatra’s predecessors are pure speculation because it simply isnt know for certain what custom they maintained. It is difficult to make assumptions because of the lack of physical and written evidence regarding royal burials. However, excavations in the cemeteries around Alexandria, the Ptolemies seat of power, show an absence of mummification and a distinct preference for inhumation over cremation in the region of 10:1. Given how diverse Alexandria was known to be in a time where we do have widespread evidence of aristocratic mummification and an increased popularity of mummification among Egypt’s poor this is peculiar and may in fact offer an answer to how she was buried.

Mummification is intrinsically linked with the Egyptian religion and its view of the afterlife, being as much a religious choice as a cultural one. As such it may be that those opting for mummification preferred to be interred near Egyptian sacred sites which were, for the most part, located some way from Alexandria, explaining the curious lack of mummies. The size of the Taposiris necropolis certainly would allow for people coming from outside the city and given its proximity to Alexandria it may be many mummies are of Alexandrians.

Given what we know of her character and religious outlook and burial practices at the time, it does seem possible that Cleopatra was mummified in line with more traditional Egyptian practices. However, techniques at the time were nowhere near as effective as they had been and the state of preservation of mummies of the period tend to be in poorer condition than those from over 1,000 years before.

Mummification was supposed to be a long process that required the careful removal of internal organs and an extensive drying process that would normally take up to 70 days. Mummification techniques at the time were imperfect but Herodotus, writing about Egypt first hand in the 5th century BC makes a point of stating all three types of mummification he recorded, the ‘most perfect‘, the Second for those who ‘wish to avoid expense’ and the inexpensive method all featured exactly 70 days of drying in natron. Therefor the short period of time between Antony’s death on August 1st 30BC and Cleopatra’s death on the 12th of the same month make it impossible for him to have been mummified in time for Cleopatra to conduct his burial rites, reinforcing Plutarch’s indication he was cremated. This would leave us with a tomb containing one possibly mummified body and a big pot. 

Cleopatra became regent to her father aged 14 and Queen when she was just 18. She was 39 when she died.

Grave Goods.

To understand Egyptian grave goods one much understand the Egyptian view of the afterlife which was intrinsically connected the life itself. To an Egyptian his county was the most perfect on earth, crated by the Gods for human happiness, and as such was a close representation of the afterlife. The most important distinction being that after one has died and entered paradise all the things that made life uncomfortable, disease, hunger etc faded away. To enter the afterlife one much fulfill certain requirements, such as having lived a good life, and you could expect to have to work for the King of the Gods, Osiris as you had done for the Pharaoh in life, but on the whole the Egyptian view of immortality was consistent with most modern visions. This mirroring of life is why undisturbed Egyptian tombs contain items used in life because they believed you needed o take with you what you would need going forwards into eternity. This is why we see recreational items such as board games, chariots and pets, intermingled alongside more practical elements like jars of beer and food and furniture. Burial goods and tombs reflected the personality of the deceased. 

If Cleopatra’s tomb is found intact and undisturbed then it is likely that burial goods would mirror the sort found alongside Tutankhamen, just on a much less lavish scale and with visibly Hellenic influences. This is both because of the circumstances surrounding her death, the limitations imposed by the assumed size of the burial chamber and the fact Egypt under the Ptolemies was not as rich as it had been in previous centuries.


‘No matter what the senate’s wishes be,

She shall be buried by her Antony:

No grave upon the earth shall clip in it

A pair so famous. Thus I covenant

To honor these in death, in life my foes,

Who by their own hands ‘scaped a world of woes.’

Shakespeare – Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, scene ii:


Regardless of the state of the remains and the presence of ornate grave goods the discovery of the tomb of Cleopatra and Mark Antony at Taposiris Magna would be the archaeological event of the Century, catapulting Dr Martinez onto the world stage. There are a lot of unanswered questions and ultimately nothing may be found but in the meantime what Dr Martinez and her team have achieved in putting Taposiris back on the ancient map is a noteworthy and indeed praiseworthy achievement. Here’s to them and their dedication to finding the lost last Pharaoh.  

Cleopatra could speak 8 languages and was said to be the first of the Ptolemies to be able to speak Egyptian. A poet, she studied medicine and was very widely read. Her beauty is mostly a modern invention, in fact contemporaries send more time praising her intellect. By all measures she was a remarkable woman.

Other Contenders.

There are a number of other contender sites that some consider to have stronger claims than Taposiris.

  1. Her Palace.

It had been held as fact that she had been buried within the confines of her palace at Alexandria and her body lost to history when it sank into the sea. This is still very much a possibility.

2. An insofar undiscovered Royal burial ground.

It is hard to take a complete lack of Royal burials as mere coincidence. It may be that archaeologists are looking in the wrong places, burial practices made tombs and remains less likely to survive or indeed there may be some insofar undiscovered royal burial ground. The tombs of the 26th, 28th and 29th dynasties are located together at cities known to be their ancestral homes, in a similar fashion to what we see in Macedonia. The Ptolemies lacked an ancestral homeland in Egypt but from Ptolemy II Philadelphus onward their set of power was in Alexandria and it has been postulated that there was royal burial ground within the city itself that has since been erased. It is though that if one existed it would be near to or surrounding ‘the Soma’ which held the body of Alexander the Great.

3. Lost to history

For every site that is found in Egypt there is another that has been erased from history by human or natural means. Egypt has experienced many upheavals and much has been swallowed up by the sands of time. There is a great deal of human and natural history that is yet to be unearthed but even more that has been lost forever.

Useful and interesting reading.

A.M Chugg (2004) A Candidate For The First Tomb Of Alexander The Great’


T.P Landvatter (2013) Identity, Burial Practices, and Social Change in Ptolemaic Egypt’


J.J Mark (2017) ‘Grave Goods in Ancient Egypt’


Leave a Reply Text

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *