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


William Calder and David Traill have for some time now leveled serious charges against Schliemann, not only for his character defects but also for his archaeological work. The most serious of these accusations is that Schliemann compromised his excavations by planting fakes. As a prime example they cite the erroneously named Mask of Agamemnon, whose authenticity they have repeatedly called into doubt without, however, giving any scholarly basis for their arguments.

It must be emphasized from the start that the two scholars' accusations against Schliemann have not been generally accepted by the academic community. Furthermore, they have succeeded neither in reducing the importance of Schliemann's excavations for archaeology, nor in shaking the view that Schliemann was a pioneer researcher of the prehistoric Aegean.

The Mask of Agamemnon has been considered from the very beginning to be a genuine Mycenaean creation, like the five other gold and electrum masks from grave circles A and B at Mycenae. Apart from Calder and Traill, no one has ever seriously questioned the authenticity of the mask or any other finds from the grave circles. To be sure, the Mask of Agamemnon is the finest of all the masks. Its technical workmanship and rendition of a man's features, which in a sense makes it a true portrait, allow no doubt that it is an original Mycenaean work, a judgment shared by specialists such as Emily T. Vermeule in The Art of the Shaft Graves of Mycenae and Sinclair Hood in The Arts in Prehistoric Greece. Moreover, Günter Kopcke's article on the style of the masks, to which Calder refers, nowhere states that the mask is not genuine. Ellen N. Davis has drawn attention to the fact that in their rendition the locks of the mane and beard of the gold lion-head rhyton from shaft grave IV and the beard of the Mask of Agamemnon are "almost identical." Vermeule had noted this earlier, attributing both rhyton and mask to the same artist and citing them as characteristically Mycenaean works. I should add that the rendering of the moustache on the mask is similar to the locks of the mane on the lion-head rhyton; moreover, its shape is the same as the upper lip of two of the masks from grave circle A. The small triangular beard growing below the lower lip of the mask also recalls the triangular beard of the lion-head rhyton.

Calder and Traill's theories are totally unsupported archaeologically; specialists have nonetheless seen fit to respond to these groundless accusations. Among them are Edmund F. Bloedow, Reinhard Witte, and Sinclair Hood. More recently, Olivier Masson's "Recherches récentes sur Heinrich Schliemann" in the Revue des études Grecques has a well-documented discussion on the authenticity of the Agamemnon mask. Traill, also, in Schliemann of Troy, is no longer so categorical on the subject of the mask's authenticity, influenced, probably, by the negative reaction of specialists. David Turner's review of Traill's book in the Journal of Hellenic Studies, for example, includes a sharp reply to the theory that the mask is not genuine. Calder makes no reference to these studies. Moreover, he uses rumors and unpublished comments as evidence without providing sources.

It is not clear what Calder's purpose is in questioning the authenticity of the mask. I must stress the fact that the mask came from Schliemann's excavation at Mycenae in 1876, which the Greek state, at that time, took care to supervise closely. The work was carried out under the aegis of the Greek Archaeological Society and with the continuous supervision of the ephor (director) of antiquities, Panagiotis Stamatakis. Stamatakis' conscientious supervision of Schliemann's excavation is well known, an important piece of evidence refuting charges that Mycenae's royal tombs were planted with fakes.

Calder refers to Traill's request for a scientific examination of the mask to determine its authenticity. It is true that this request was rejected, quite rightly, by the Central Archaeological Council in 1983, following the National Archaeological Museum's negative opinion. It was determined that since there was no reason at all to throw doubt on the authenticity of the mask, it was unnecessary for it to be tested.

Casting doubt on the authenticity of a famous masterpiece of ancient Greek art that comes from a venerable excavation may be calculated to arouse commotion. It demands, however, a groundwork of scholarly evidence. Calder is obliged to show on what evidence he bases his argument that the mask is a fake, and he is obliged to provide thorough archaeological data. Since Calder is, by his own admission, not qualified to evaluate the archaeological evidence, it might be better to leave these serious matters in the hands of specialists.--KATIE DEMAKOPOULOU

* "Is the Mask a Hoax?" by William M. Calder, III
* "Insistent Questions," by David A. Traill
* "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