Questioning the Mycenaean Death Mask of Agamemnon
The German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann is perhaps one of the luckiest archaeologists in history. His discovery of the Mask of Agamemnon was not his first, but second remarkable discovery. Having already discovered the real location of the legendary Troy, Schliemann’s next project was to discover the final resting place of Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae who led the Greek forces during the Trojan War. Though there is debate if Schliemann ever reached his second goal, he certainly made another impressive find in the process - the 'Mask of Agamemnon.'
Schliemann is probably best known for his identification of Troy at Hissarlik, and the unearthing of the ‘Treasure of Priam’. Less well-known, may be his subsequent excavation in Mycenae, Greece. However, it was here that he made another stunning discovery, a golden death mask.
Portrait of Heinrich Schliemann (Wikimedia Commons)
Agamemnon, King of Mycenae
Agamemnon is one of the most famous characters in Classical Greek literature. Apart from appearing in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Agamemnon was also a favorite character amongst Greek writers of tragedy, as his triumphant return from Troy was soon followed by his murder at the hands of either his wife, Clytemnestra or her lover, Aegisthus. It was the work of the 2 nd century A.D. traveler, Pausanias, that would provide Schliemann with the clues required to uncover the tomb of Agamemnon.
In Mycenae, according to Pausanias, “there are also underground chambers of Atreus (the father of Agamemnon) and his children, in which were stored their treasures…. Agamemnon has his tomb, and so has Eurymedon the charioteer, while another is shared by Teledamus and Pelops, twin sons, they say, of Cassandra,… Clytemnestra and Aegisthus were buried at some little distance from the wall. They were thought unworthy of a place within it, where lay Agamemnon himself and those who were murdered with him.”
The Assassination of Agamemnon illustration in Stories from the Greek Tragedians (1897), Alfred Church (Wikimedia Commons)
According to Schliemann’s interpretation of Pausanias, Agamemnon was buried within the walls of the Bronze Age citadel. This ran contrary to the interpretation of previous scholars, who believed that the tombs were outside the walls of the city. In 1874, tests conducted by Schliemann inside the wall revealed house walls, a tomb stone, and some terracotta artifacts. This meant that the site had potential for future investigation.
- The eerie masks that preserve history and breathe life into the dead
- Mycenae, the Ancient city founded by Perseus
- The Treasures of Priam: Golden Riches from the Legendary City of Troy
Uncovering the graves of Mycenae
Two years later, Schliemann began excavating at Mycenae on behalf of the Greek Archaeological Society. Schliemann’s workmen would soon uncover stelae marking the boundary of a grave circle about 27.5 meters (90 feet) across which was located just within the citadel’s gate. This grave circle would eventually be labeled as ‘Grave Circle A’. By the end of August, the first of the five late Bronze Age shaft graves were found within Grave Circle A.
Grave Circle A at Mycenae, Greece (Wikimedia Commons)
By the end of November, Schliemann’s excavation of the shaft graves revealed that they contained the remains of several Mycenaean chiefs, five of whom wore gold face masks. In a telegram sent to King George of Greece, Schliemann proudly declared: “With great joy I announce to Your Majesty that I have discovered the tombs which the tradition proclaimed by Pausanias indicates to be the graves of Agamemnon, Cassandra, Eurymedon and their companions, all slain at a banquet by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthos.” Schliemann claimed that one of the remains belonged to Agamemnon himself, hence the gold mask on his face was called the ‘Mask of Agamemnon’.
The golden death mask
The mask was a death mask, and made of a thick sheet of gold hammered against a wooden background. A sharp tool was used later to chisel the finer details. The mask is said to depict the face of a man with “an oblong face, wide forehead, long fine nose and tightly closed thin lips.” The details of the eyebrows, moustache and beard were indicated with repousse. Near the ears, two holes were made so that the mask could be held over the deceased’s face with twine. Of the five gold masks, this was the only mask showing a bearded man, hence Schliemann’s conclusion that it had belonged to Agamemnon.
Agamemnon sitting on a rock holding his scepter, Fragment of the lid of an Attic red-figure lekanis by the circle of the Meidias Painter (410–400 BC) (Wikimedia Commons)
Although Schliemann’s discovery was indeed remarkable, it would later come into question. The strongest evidence against his claim is that it would later be shown that the graves discovered by the German archaeologist predated the Trojan War by at least 300 years. Thus, it would have been impossible that the owner of the ‘Mask of Agamemnon’ was the legendary Greek ruler. Nevertheless, it is still possible that the graves belonged to the Mycenaean elite.
Top image: The ‘Mask of Agamemnon,' Mycenae, 16th Century BC death mask, Source: Xuan Che / Flickr
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[Jones, W. H. S., Omerod, H. A. (trans.), 1918. Pausanias’ Description of Greece.]
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Available at: http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/4/eh430.jsp?obj_id=4503
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Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/the-many-faces-of-agamemnon-1586005.html
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Available at: http://archive.archaeology.org/9907/etc/traill.html