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Academics and history buffs are thrilled at a discovery in Greece. Archaeologists there recently uncovered a massive ancient tomb in the northeast of the country that dates back to the era of Alexander the Great. Its discovery has dominated Greek media and set off worldwide speculation as to who might be buried there. And as Joanna Kakissis reports, it's also a momentary distraction for Greeks battered by the economic crisis.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Early last month, on a hill just outside a village of northern Greece, an archaeologist named Katerina Peristeri made a stunning announcement.
KATERINA PERISTERI: (Foreign language spoken).
KAKISSIS: We're in front of a tomb, a massive magnificent tomb, she told reporters. She says it's the biggest tomb discovered in Greece. And Peristeri, who is leading the excavation, says it is likely connected to the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia, which in the fourth century B.C. produced Alexander the Great.
(SOUNDBITE OF GREEK NEWS REPORTS)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Foreign language spoken).
KAKISSIS: Since then, there have been daily reports in the Greek media about the excavation known as Amphipolis, even though Peristeri and her team have refused interviews. They release each tidbit of news, each discovery of a statue or artifact, in press releases from the Greek Ministry of Culture.
MAYOR ATHANASSIOS ZOUNATZIS: (Foreign language spoken).
KAKISSIS: Speculation over who is buried here has drawn a steady stream of visitors to nearby Mesolakkia, a tiny, windy village of tobacco and almond farmers. It's a small enough place that Mayor Athanassios Zounatazis makes community announcements over a loudspeaker. Now he also doubles as a tour guide.
ZOUNATZIS: (Through translator) We've seen tour buses full of German tourists, the Dutch have come, even a few American families. And they all ask, where is the tomb? But they leave disappointed because they don't even get a glimpse.
KAKISSIS: Hello, Bernard. You're from Austria?
That's because Greek police have set up a roadblock to the excavation, which left Bernard Boehler, an art historian from Vienna, looking longingly at a grassy hill obscuring the site.
BERNARD BOEHLER: Needless to say, we are more than curious to see a bit more. But we realize that there is heavy surveillance and we can't come closer.
KAKISSIS: Archaeologists say the secrecy and security surrounding the tomb is about keeping the facts straight. But retired sanitation worker Giorgos Karaiskakis says he suspects it's also related to the conflict with the neighboring former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia over who owns Alexander the Great. This discovery, he says, is just more proof that Alexander belongs to Greece.
GIORGOS KARAISKAKIS: (Through translator) This great discovery doesn't get us out of the crisis because if you don't have money, what are you going to do? But it shows one more time that Macedonia is here, OK? Not up there with the Slavs.
KAKISSIS: Regardless of where Macedonia is, the tomb likely doesn't hold its most famous son, who died at age 32 in Babylon. And at least one archaeologist, Olga Palagia of the University of Athens, says she suspects the Amphipolis tomb might actually be Roman.
OLGA PALAGIA: Nobody has realized that Amphipolis was a very significant place in the first century B.C. because it was the headquarters of a huge Roman army led by Marc Antony and Octavian when they were fighting Brutus and Cassius, who had killed Julius Caesar.
KAKISSIS: And if the tomb turns out to be a monument to Roman generals, it won't mean much to Greece, she says.
PALAGIA: Modern Greeks are very insular-looking, extremely traumatized by the financial crisis. And they don't give a rat's ass about Octavian Brutus or Julius Caesar, and I think that they will feel really cheated if they realize this isn't Greek.
KAKISSIS: The archaeological team at Amphipolis says Palagia is wrong and that they're certain the tomb is Greek. Alexandros Kochliariades, who worked for 30 years as a guard on archaeological sites here, says he understands why the tomb means so much to Greeks now.
ALEXANDROS KOCHLIARIADES: (Foreign language spoken).
KAKISSIS: It reminds us that we are rich, in history at least, he says, and that Amphipolis was once the apple of an empire. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis.
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