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Behind the Mask of Agamemnon
Not A Forgery. How about a Pastiche?
Volume 52 Number 4, July/August 1999
by Kenneth D.S. Lapatin

The work of Calder, Traill, and others has taught us the necessity of being skeptical of Schliemann's accounts of his finds, but we should not fail to apply similar skepticism to Calder's own highly circumstantial and tendentious arguments regarding the authenticity of so-called Mask of Agamemnon. For unlike past revelations of Schliemann's "fictions" outlined in Calder's first paragraph (which, at least regarding archaeological matters, moreover, consist of embellishments of provenance rather than outright forgeries) there is here no smoking gun.

Calder's arguments not only are circumstantial, as he himself admits, but also rely heavily on rumor and innuendo. Point 5 seems to me to be especially empty: "A relative of Sophia Schliemann is alleged to have been an Athenian goldsmith." Traill has demonstrated by means of Schliemann's own letters (a smoking gun if there ever was one) that, as Calder states in point 2, "Schliemann was quite ready to have modern duplicates of finds made which he would pass off as genuine." But not only did Schliemann fail to follow through and actually have duplicates of Priam's Treasure made (he bought off the Turks instead), he had to write to his (rather reluctant) agent in Paris (!) in the hope of finding a discreet goldsmith for this purpose, and one that wouldn't charge him too much. Would this have been necessary if he had recourse to a relative of Sofia's at Athens?

Chronology, too, presents a major difficulty for Calder (points 4 and 5) in my view. Schliemann found (or "found") the mask on 30 November, three days after the excavations had been closed temporarily. Schliemann does not, however, appear to have stopped work of his own volition. Not only was 26 November a Sunday, and Schliemann rarely worked Sundays, but rain had plagued the excavations for weeks previous. Schliemann's diary, as untrustworthy as Calder and Traill have shown it to be at times, records numerous suspensions of digging on that account, for example on November 14 ("It having rained all the night and today all the day there was no work."); November 17 ("It having rained all night, I had but 42 workmen today, and, the path being slippery did no great work."); November 22 ("It rained today and there was no work."); November 23 ("frequently interrupted by rain"). Although I readily admit that on November 18, Schliemann "made excellent progress, in spite of the continual rain." Of course, Calder might argue that whatever the reason for stopping work on November 26-27, a convenient holiday or bad weather, it still provided Schliemann with an opportunity for malfeasance. But more than weather or the calendar prevented Schliemann from digging. "Masses of gold" had came to light earlier in the excavations, and the lists of treasure unearthed on November 23 and 25 are especially impressive. Unlike in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and even Troy, Schliemann was carefully supervised at Mycenae, against his will and much to his annoyance, by the very competent Greek archaeologist Panagiotis Stamatakis. A third, even more significant reason for the work stoppage, is outlined by Schliemann in a letter to Max Müller of November 27 (reprinted by Traill on p. 227, n. 265 of Myth, Scandal, and History, co-edited by Calder): Schliemann complains "But these immense treasures make the Greeks tremble of their shadow; thus delay after delay in the excavation; for two days they have stopped me saying that the governor of the province must be present and the governor came but said two officials from Athens must assist. But at all events I hope to continue the work tomorrow and to finish it this week." (See also p. 160 of Traill's biography, Schliemann of Troy, where Stamatakis is said to have insisted on the presence of other officials.) Calder might claim that this, too, would have provided a convenient break for an excavator resolved to salt his finds with forgeries, but Schliemann would still have to have had a competent goldsmith produce the Mask of Agamemnon and see that it was buried without being found out by Stamatakis, Professor Phinticles (whose arrival on the evening of November 27 enabled the resumption of digging the next day), or anyone else, including members of the Greek press who, apparently, arrived at the site in time to report the still more spectacular discoveries that ensued. (Note that Calder in point 5 writes "Excavations were also closed on November 26 and 27 while Schliemann was away. Where was he?" What evidence is there that he went away? The excerpt of letter to Müller published by Traill implies that he was in the Argolid on the November 27--I have not seen the entire thing--and Traill elsewhere mentions workmen's receipts dated November 26.)

The even stronger chronological argument against Calder's thesis, however, is that the three gold masks that might have served as models for Schliemann's putative weekend foray into forgery were, if I am not mistaken, only recovered on Tuesday, November 28, that is to say, after the suspension of digging! (I could be wrong, but from my reading of Schlimann's diary and the other news reports collected by Traill, no masks came to light before this date, though Schliemann seems to have antedated his letter to The Times ascribing the finds of the 28th, written later in Athens, to the 25th.) When the Mask of Agamemnon was found two days later, on the 30th, Stamatakis (apparently) and a reporter for the Argolis commented on its superior quality (both mentioning the beard, and the latter mistakenly (?) stating that there was no mustache). Schliemann, however, made no such remarks in initial reports made immediately after the finds. Indeed, in his letters to The Times, apparently written after he had shut down the excavations (which he did on December 4, at about the time he had indicated he would to Müller. Schliemann is much more concerned with demonstrating the differences between the three masks he found first (two of which are almost identical), insisting that they convey the individuality of the heroes whose faces they covered, than in asserting the noble nature of the so-called Mask of Agamemnon--a designation which, as Oliver T.P.K. Dickinson has noted, Schliemann seems never to have used. It would, in fact, seem that the Mask of Agamemnon was not immediately recognized by Schliemann as the "dramatic find" it came to be. Schliemann merely mentions it as another mask, not bothering to describe it at all, in his brief notice of 1 December to Ephemeris or in his longer letter to The Times, where he is far more interested in the bones underneath it. Of the three masks found earlier, on the other hand, Schliemann wrote to the The Times "Each mask shows so widely different a physiognomy from the other, and so altogether different from the ideal types of the statues of gods and heroes, but there cannot be the slightest doubt that every one of them faithfully represents the likeness of the deceased hero whose face it covered...." Later, as in Mycenae, quoted by Calder (point 7), Schliemann did make much of the heroic aspects of the mustachioed mask, employing it, like so many of his finds (e.g., the alleged cremation of the shaft grave bodies), to support his own ideas about the historicity of Homer, ideas that were firmly based in his own preconceptions. Of course, accusations of such biases can also be made of many others, Calder (and myself) included--"There is nothing new under the sun."

The Mask of Agamemnon is indeed different from the other masks, but not so much in its state of preservation or long straight nose, of which Calder makes so much. As has long been observed, the eyes are differently rendered, as if both open and closed, and they lack lashes (although these last are also absent on some of the other masks); the ears are partially cut out; and, most strikingly, this mask has a beard, mustache, and triangular "imperial," (or "van Dyck") between the lower lip and chin. We today in the West have come to fetishize the "original." On account of this mask's physical anomalies and Schliemann's proven mendacity, Calder, Traill, and others have suggested that it might be a forgery. But the distinct, mutually exclusive categories of genuine and false are often unhelpful and ultimately limiting. My own work on early twentieth-century forgeries of Minoan gold and ivory statuettes suggests a third, more elastic category, that of pastiche, which is to say, ancient pieces reworked in modern times. The alternately bulbous and flattened faces of the other masks from the shaft graves might not have lived up to notions of the proper appearance of a hero who led the Greek host against Troy. (But recall that Schliemann was happy to attribute heroic qualities to even what we today consider to be the most unsightly of the masks.) Still, it remains possible that one of those less aesthetically pleasing pieces have been, shall we say, "enhanced." The Mask of Agamemnon's curled mustache, whose existence is explicitly denied in the report published in the Argolis on December 2, 1876, has the same outlines as the upper lip of two of the less spectacular masks: these masks are both circular like the Mask of Agamemnon; both have a "bib" running around the edges; and both also lack eyelashes (as well as eyebrows). Of course, if Schliemann had had the opportunity to "enhance" the eyes, lashes, and hair of Mask of Agamemnon after discovery, Stamatakis, who commented on its quality almost as soon as it came out of the ground, should have been aware of that fact. But we must remember the quantity of material emerging from the shaft graves and the fact that the now famous gold lion's head rhyton was originally mistaken for a helmet. It took some time for it to be recognized for what it is. The shaft grave material had to be extracted from the mud, cleaned, and returned to its "original" form. Attitudes towards "restoration" vary with time and place. In an early twentieth-century catalogue offering reproductions of Mycenaean and Minoan antiquities, including the Mask of Agamemnon, moreover, Paul Wolters, Director of the Munich Glyptothek and former secretary of the Imperial German Archaeological Institute at Athens informed potential customers that the objects, made "with the help of exact now presented to us, are not in the bent, crushed or broken condition in which they were found, but have been reset in their original forms so far as these could be ascertained with certainty. Even the needful restorations are throughout founded on reliable traces, or trustworthy analogy." I do not know the chronology of the "restoration" of the shaft grave material. Might the Mask of Agamemnon have been "restored" to what Schliemann, or perhaps even someone else, thought it should, or wanted it to look like? (Pity there are no excavation photos of the mask, or are there, hidden away in some archive?)

This brings us finally to motivation. Schliemann, when he came to write Mycenae, had decided that he had indeed, gazed on the remains of Homer's heroes. (Although it is now acknowledged that the famous telegram to the King of Greece is apocryphal, and Schliemann himself attributed diverse finds to Agamemnon himself.) Schliemann had set out to find the wealth of the Atreids, but there is no evidence that he resorted to salting his finds. The shaft graves are extraordinarily rich (point 6), but that too is keeping with ancient belief in the wealth of the Atreids: addressing Ptolemy II Philadelphos, Theokritos (Idyll 17) remarks, "What can be finer for a wealthy man than to win good fame among men? Even for Atreus' sons that endures, while the countless treasures won when Priamos' great house was sacked lie hidden somewhere in that mist from which there is no return."

Schliemann may well have disputed that, at least the last part, but when he excavated at Orchomenos and other Homeric sites alleged to be rich in gold, he came up with nothing. No forgeries planted there. Nor does the pattern of deceit (to use a phrase fresh off the evening news) that Calder would like to trace from Troy to Mycenae seem to include the production of forgeries: Priam's Treasure, so far as I am aware, is ancient, even if neither Priam's nor found precisely as Schliemann described. But those who produced and marketed forgeries of "Minoan" chryselephantine statuettes, like those who created Tanagra figurines earlier, and Cycladic statuettes later, did so to meet the demands of an enthusiastic market of collectors and museum curators desirous to own newly discovered relics of ancient civilization. The market conditions surrounding the discovery of the Mask of Agamemnon were quite different, and though it might be argued that Schliemann consisted of a market in and of himself, it should be remembered that his finds were initially dismissed as Byzantine or worse.

In short, I do not believe Schliemann could have commissioned the Mask of Agamemnon before the discovery of the other masks, and it is difficult to see how he might have done so and inserted it to be "discovered" between the 28th and 30th, especially as he was under rather strict scrutiny. The mask just might be an example of "over-restoration," making a find more palatable after discovery, which is to say, more in line with the expectations of the day, as Calder notes with a different subtext, but just when this might have been possible, I cannot say. The early Greek newspaper reports do say that the bearded mask was "intact" and "much finer than those found hitherto." Still, it might have needed some "touching up."

Science, of course, may help to resolve this dilemma, but unless the gold of the mask is refined or contains modern trace elements testing is likely to be inconclusive. Much more useful would be comparative testing of the composition of all of the masks and of other Mycenaean goldwork, and especially careful macro- and microscopic examination of their surfaces for tool marks, etc., which might reveal differences in workmanship. Even if such a program fails to resolve the mysteries surrounding this one mask, such investigations would certainly teach us more about Mycenaean metalwork. William Calder has already taught us a lot about Schliemann, and for this, too, we should be thankful.--KENNETH D.S. LAPATIN, Department of Art History, Boston University

* "Is the Mask a Hoax?" by William M. Calder, III
* "Insistent Questions," by David A. Traill
* "The Case for Authenticity," by Katie Demakopoulou
* Coming soon: Oliver T.P.K. Dickinson and John G. Younger
* Epilogue
* Back to Introduction
© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America