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Behind the Mask of Agamemnon Volume 52 Number 4, July/August 1999


For 25 years I have researched the life of Heinrich Schliemann. I have learned to be skeptical, particularly of the more dramatic events in Schliemann's life: a White House reception; his heroic acts during the burning of San Francisco; his gaining American citizenship on July 4, 1850, in California; his portrayal of his wife, Sophia, as an enthusiastic archaeologist; the discovery of ancient Greek inscriptions in his backyard; the discovery of the bust of Cleopatra in a trench in Alexandria; his unearthing of an enormous cache of gold and silver objects at Troy, known as Priam's Treasure. Thanks to the research of archaeologist George Korres of the University of Athens, the German art historian Wolfgang Schindler, and historians of scholarship David A. Traill and myself, we know that Schliemann made up these stories, once universally accepted by uncritical biographers. These fictions cause me to wonder whether the Mask of Agamemnon might be a further hoax. Here are nine reasons to believe it may be:

1. Günter Kopcke of New York University's Institute of Fine Arts has stressed that the Agamemnon mask is stylistically different from all other Mycenaean masks. He draws attention to its distinctive eyebrows, ears, beard, and moustache. Kopcke suggests it is the work of an innovative and highly talented goldsmith: "Certainly the...mask is more original and has a stronger effect [on the viewer than the other masks]--the goldsmith...invested enthusiasm and pride in his craft."

2. Schliemann was quite ready to have duplicates of finds made that he would pass off as genuine. He had agreed to split his finds with the Ottomans in exchange for permission to excavate Troy. Once he discovered the gold and silver objects he called Priam's Treasure, however, Schliemann smuggled them to Greece. When it appeared as though the Ottomans might claim their fair share of the treasure, he explored the possibility of having forgeries manufactured in Paris to give to the Turks.

3. Memoirs of informed contemporaries preserve allegations that Schliemann planted finds with the intention of later "discovering" them. Among the skeptics were British scholars Sir Charles Newton, Percy Gardner, and A.S. Murray, who, discussing Schliemann's career, declared, "He who hideth can find." Ernst Curtius, director of the excavations at Olympia and professor of ancient history at Berlin, called him a schwindler und pfuscher (swindler and con-man). One could go on.

4. The Mycenae excavations took place between August 7 and December 3, 1876. The mask was discovered on November 30, 1876. Three days later the excavations were closed. Similarly, excavations at Troy were closed just after the discovery of Priam's Treasure. In both cases did Schliemann simply assume that the most valuable objects had been found, or had he only found what he had planted?

5. Excavations were also closed on November 26 and 27 while Schliemann was away. Where was he? A relative of his wife, Sophia, is alleged to have been an Athenian goldsmith. Did Schliemann obtain the mask from Sophia's relative in Athens, then return to Mycenae and bury it, to find it on the 30th?

6. Priam's Treasure is the richest single find in all Bronze Age Anatolia and was rumored to have been improved by modern additions. No Mycenaean grave has one-tenth of what was in shaft grave V. Was Schliemann's luck at Mycenae too good to be true?

7. There are suspicious details in Schliemann's publication of the mask. I quote his Mycenae: A Narrative of Researches and Discoveries at Mycenae and Tiryns (1880):

In a perfect state of preservation, on the other hand, is the massive golden mask of the body at the south end of the tomb (No. 474). Its features are altogether Hellenic and I call particular attention to the long thin nose, running in a direct line with the forehead, which is but small. The eyes, which are shut, are large, and well represented by the eyelids; very characteristic is also the large mouth with its well-proportioned lips. The beard also is well represented, and particularly the moustaches, whose extremities are turned upwards to a point, in the form of crescents. This circumstance seems to leave no doubt that the ancient Mycenaeans used oil or a sort of pomatum in dressing their hair. Both masks are of repoussé work, and certainly nobody will for a moment doubt that they were intended to represent portraits of the deceased, whose faces they have covered for ages.... We are amazed at the skill of the ancient Mycenaean goldsmiths, who could model the portraits of men in massive gold plate, and consequently do as much as any modern goldsmith would be able to perform.

One searches for a subtext. The opening reference to "a perfect state of preservation" is intended to anticipate suspicion. The mask's long, thin Hellenic nose makes me suspicious, as if it were created to fit the idea of Greek nobility articulated by the influential eighteenth-century German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann. Stress on the moustaches suggests that Schliemann believes them to be the most suspicious detail. He anticipates the objection that upturning a moustache requires pomade, which the Greeks did not possess, by asserting, through circular argument, that because of the moustaches, Greeks must have possessed pomade. At the end he shows his hand: "the ancient Mycenaean as much as any modern goldsmith." Why mention modern goldsmiths unless Schliemann knew that indeed a modern goldsmith had made the mask? In the English edition there is a note after "crescents" stating, "There is nothing new under the sun."

8. Schliemann stated that he had excavated objects which in fact he had purchased. One example is the so-called Cleopatra bust which he claimed to have excavated from a trench in Alexandria in February 1888. Wolfgang Schindler, however, pointed out that Schliemann's alleged 25- to 35-foot-deep trench would have been considerably below Alexandria's water table; the bust was most likely purchased a year before from an Egyptian dealer. There are also Attic inscriptions published by Schliemann and said by him to have been excavated in his garden. George Korres showed they were in fact bought from private collections.

9. There are obvious motives for Schliemann to have buried and excavated a modern forgery. He wanted to close the excavations with a bang. He also desperately needed a Herrscherbild, a portrait of a leader. The other four masks--billiard bald or pancake-flat--were not worthy of a great king. The authenticity of these masks is substantiated by later, similar finds. We must recall how contemporary German artists imagined Agamemnon. The great example is the brooding Agamemnon in a wall painting depicting Achilles dragging the fallen Hector about Troy in the Achilleion, a villa built on Corfu between 1890 and 1891. He has a full black beard and moustache. The closest parallel to the moustaches on the mask are those of Bismarck, Wilhelm I, and Wilhelm II. Prussian men of power, in Schliemann's day and after, all boasted beards and moustaches. Clearly Agamemnon required one. Schliemann ordered a Herrscherbild that combined Winckelmann's Greek nose with Hohenzollern facial hair.

My evidence is circumstantial. When considered cumulatively, however, it is enough to make me skeptical. If the mask is genuine, Schliemann is the luckiest archaeologist until Howard Carter. If it is a fake, he was a genius who duped the leading archaeologists and historians in the world for more than a century. Because I am a great admirer of Schliemann and spend a lot of time studying his life, I hope it is a fake. It is much better to be a genius than just lucky.

William A. MacDonald of the University of Minnesota observed that modern Schliemann research "is a mean spirited scholarly enterprise--particularly when aimed at one who cannot defend himself.... If deposits of genuine artifacts were salted with fake copies, scientific tests (not unsupported insinuations) are the constructive way to ascertain the facts."

The fact is that David Traill has more than once sought to test the mask, and the National Museum in Athens has consistently denied his request. This has always puzzled me. A metallurgist could silence annoying critics. What we must have is a public test by an independent expert not associated with the National Museum.--WILLIAM M. CALDER, III

* "Insistent Questions," by David A. Traill
* "The Case for Authenticity," by Katie Demakopoulou
* "Not A Forgery, How about a Pastiche?" by Kenneth D.S. Lapatin
* Coming soon: Oliver T.P.K. Dickinson and John G. Younger
* Epilogue
* Back to Introduction
© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America