Academic

All that Glitters is Gold: Museology and the Mask of Agamemnon

Written by Tristan Craig. The excavations of Mycenae from 1876 have been the subject of controversy for over a hundred years. A so-called 'Mask of Agamemnon' was discovered, but it's origins are still questioned, and the methods of excavation remain under scrutiny.

 When German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered a gold funerary mask in a shaft grave on the edges of the Bronze Age citadel of Mycenae in 1876, he reportedly declared that he had gazed upon the face of the mythical Mycenaean king Agamemnon. Of the five gold funerary masks unearthed in shaft graves within Grave Circle A, none has received as much attention as the so-called ‘Mask of Agamemnon’, although its discovery has not been without contention. Schliemann’s concern with asserting the historicity of Homer’s works through archaeological evidence has led scholars to question the rigour with which his excavations were conducted and whether the objects, now proudly on display within the National Archaeological Museum at Athens, are in fact genuine. The museum’s handling of the objects and their placement within the grand narrative of the Bronze Age provokes further exploration into the manner in which these spaces are curated, and the ideology they seek to instil upon a visiting public. This article will explore the issues surrounding Schliemann’s excavations, the scholarship which has questioned the authenticity of his finds, and how such issues might be addressed in the curation of public spaces. 

Excavations at Mycenae commenced in 1841 with the uncovering of the Lion Gate, the main entrance to the citadel, by Greek archaeologist Kyriakos Pittakis. However, the excavations with which this article is concerned were carried out some three decades later by Heinrich Schliemann, where the discovery of Grave Circle A south of the gate in 1876 revealed a swathe of materials. Amongst the fine weaponry, ornate libation vessels, and other grave goods, some fifteen kilograms of gold was unearthed within the burial site, including the Agamemnon mask, herein referred to by its designation, NM 624 (Fig 1). A second gold mask, known as NM 623 (Fig 2) and found within shaft Grave IV alongside NM 624, has somewhat complicated the story. Schliemann’s telegram to King George I of Greece, in which we professed to have ‘gazed upon the face of Agamemnon’, has become somewhat apocryphal and imbued with as much myth as the discovery itself. Greek archaeology expert Oliver Dickinson, highlighted a letter in which Schliemann declares that the ‘man with the round face… is very like the picture which my imagination formed of Agamemnon long ago.’ Comparison of masks NM 624, which is much more angular in appearance and NM 623, with its distinctly circular shape, suggests that he was most likely referring to the latter. The goods found in Grave V alongside the body bearing NM 623 were more numerous, including a plethora of weaponry, and are perhaps more befitting the Mycenaean king. However, there remains the fact that Schliemann’s stance later changed, and that in the decade following its discovery mask NM 624 was designated as the face of Agamemnon – perhaps unsurprisingly due to its spectacular appearance. 

Figure 1. The “Mask of Agamemnon” (NM 624). Credit: Xuan Che, Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.0. 

The most acknowledged rebuttal of Schliemann’s finds is that of Classicist and expert on the nineteenth century archaeologist, William M. Calder III, who published a report expressing the dubious nature of Schliemann’s excavations. Calder’s concerns highlight issues with previous excavations in which finds were proven to have been forgeries and the canon of Bronze Age art in which the mask, with its exceptional craftsmanship and distinctly ‘Hellenic features’, does not comfortably sit. Likewise, the position of the Greek Ministry of Culture, who have refused further analysis of the mask, does not aide Schliemann’s claims. Whether their position centres on conservation concerns or fear of casting doubt on the provenance of the finds is a matter of pure conjecture, but one which makes addressing the authenticity of the goods immensely difficult. This position is largely supported by the research of Classicist David A. Traill whose analysis of Schliemann’s excavations at Hisarlik, widely believed to be the site of Troy, and the discovery of ‘Priam’s Treasure’ have elucidated his tendency to embellish the reporting of finds. Subsequent scholars have expressed scepticism with Calder’s report, noting that it is premised largely on supposition with limited qualification. Schliemann did not initially report the distinctions between NM 624 and the other grave masks, but rather gave greater attention to NM 623 and the ‘mummy’ to which it was attached. Although analysis of the material believed to be the mummy in question have revealed only minimal skeletal remains, the emphasis on this particular artefact complicates the mask’s purported ownership. 

Figure 2. NM 623 (left) and NM 624 (right) in their display case at the National Archaeological Museum at Athens. Author’s own image. 

It would be malapropos to discuss the excavations at Mycenae without mention of the Greek archaeologist and Director of Antiquities assigned to oversee Schliemann’s work, Panagiotis Stamatakis who, despite encountering numerous difficulties with his colleague, gives credence to the authenticity of the finds through his rigorous record keeping. Had the mask been a forgery planted by Schliemann, it is unlikely to have escaped the auspices of Stamatakis – not least because the pair are noted to have had a particularly terse relationship. Likewise, Stamatakis cites the quality of the mask once it had emerged although there remains the opportunity that it may have undergone some restorative work to differentiate it further from the other gold funerary masks. Irish scholar J.P. Maffay commented on the exquisite goldsmithing of the masks but suggests that they were not in fact the pure gold objects they are widely accepted to be. Rather, they are likely to have been a gold alloy with a distinct ‘red bloom’ – a red bloom which no longer appears on the exhibits within the National Archaeological Museum. Therefore, it is highly improbable that Schliemann had forged the masks due to this visible corrosion. However, the physiognomy of the Agamemnon mask with its apparently Hellenic features, most notably an elongated and thinner nose, served to set its aside from its counterparts. This distinction was highlighted by Schliemann and would give credence to the surrounding myth, a myth embellished by its placement within the National Archaeological Museum at Athens. 

Curatorial decisions undertaken in the museum do not fully highlight the difference in wealth between the burials within Grave Circle A which makes it difficult for visitors to fully understand their context. The masks have been afforded a prime location as the first exhibition within the gallery, with NM 624 positioned centrally in its display case, NM 623 sitting to its left, and their collective grave goods spread throughout the rest of the gallery. Likewise, only NM 624 – referred to as the ‘Gold death-mask, known as the “mask of Agamemnon”’ – appears on the National Archaeological Museum at Athens website. This centring of very select objects perpetrates an ideology of the richness of Greece’s prehistoric past whilst offering limited attention their provenance. There also remains the issue of Grave Circle B which, despite being excavated significantly later in 1951, is accepted to predate Grave Circle A by approximately half a century. This secondary site, in both designation and prestige, is placed at the far end of the gallery, at which point visitors have already had the opportunity to marvel at the prized Mycenaean gold. How might the issue of addressing the mask’s provenance and rebalancing the narratives of Grave Circles A and B be resolved? A definitive answer is difficult, not least because Schliemann’s excavations are shrouded in as much mystery as the masks themselves. It is also important to stress that the finds have been removed from their original context.  

Mycenae, now a publicly accessible site under the guardship of the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, contains a museum highlighting finds from the site but which lacks the rich grave goods which have found their way to the National Archaeological Museum; in their place, a display cabinet containing replicas gives visitors an impression of what is missing without the emphasis of the cache housed in Athens. A simple answer might be to return the goods to their site of origin; however, that raises the issue of accessibility where visitor numbers at sites like Mycenae drop significantly off-season, nor does it guarantee that a similar issue would not arise in another location. Additional contextualisation that posits the questions surrounding the nature of the finds may improve their historicity, but it is important that a site which should be understood and enjoyed by the general public does not became overwhelmed by academic analysis. A less obtrusive solution may be to provide a more chronological layout, whereby Grave Circle B is the foremost collection, encouraging visitors to consider it before the rich goods of Grave Circle A are ‘unveiled’, but the extent to which that addresses the issue is dubious. Ultimately, one must also consider the extent to which it truly matters. If an ornate gold funerary mask, regardless of its true ownership, is enough to inspire interest in an individual, that perhaps the museum has achieved its aim, although there remains a responsibility for these spaces not to mislead their visitors through the perpetration of a one-sided debate. However, the intrigue surrounding Schliemann’s discoveries continues to inspire both scholars and the public to this day – and that is, in itself, not a bad thing. 

Written by Tristan Craig 

BIBLIOGRAPHY 

Arentzen, Wout. “An Early Examination of the “Mask of Agamemnon.” L’Antiquité Classique 70, No. 1 (2001): 189-92. 

Calder III, William M. “Behind the Mask of Agamemnon: Is the Mask a Hoax?” Archaeology 52, No. 4 (July/August 1999): 53. 

Dickinson, Oliver. “The ‘Face of Agamemnon.’” Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens 74, No. 3 (Jul-Sep 2005): 299-308 

Graziadio, Giampaolo and Pezzi, Elisabetta. “Schliemann and the So-called ‘Agamemnon’s Mask.’” SMEA 48 (2006): 113-31. 

Hellenic Statistical Authority. “Museums and archaeological sites (visitors, receipts) / March 2021.” Accessed 18 September 2021.  

https://www.statistics.gr/en/statistics/-/publication/SCI21/2021-M03

Konstantinidi-Syvridi, Eleni and Paschalidis, Constantinos. “The unacknowledged Panayotis Stamatakis and his invaluable contribution to the understanding of Grave Circle A at Mycenae”. Archaeological Reports, 65 (2019): 111-26. 

Lapatin, Kenneth D.S. “Behind the Mask of Agamemnon: Not A Forgery. How about a Pastiche?” Archaeology 52, No. 4 (July/August 1999): 58. 

Traill, David A. “Schliemann’s Discovery of ‘Priam’s Treasure’: A Re-Examination of the Evidence.” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 104 (1984): 96-115. 

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