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Behind the Mask of Agamemnon Volume 52 Number 4, July/August 1999
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

"I have opened up a new world for archaeology," said Heinrich Schliemann after his 1871-1873 excavation of Troy. Schliemann was speaking the truth; the businessman-turned-archaeologist had shown that Homer's epics may have been based in fact. Schliemann next turned his attention to Mycenae, where the ancient geographer Pausanias had located the grave of Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek assault on Troy, and his fellow soldiers. Unlike previous scholars, Schliemann interpreted Pausanias as meaning the Homeric graves were within the walls of the late Bronze Age citadel, not outside. Tests Schliemann conducted in 1874 inside the wall revealed house walls, a tombstone, and terra-cotta artifacts--promising evidence for a future investigation.

Two years later, between August and December, he excavated at Mycenae on behalf of the Greek Archaeological Society, which held the excavation permit. His work was supervised by Panagiotis Stamatakis, a conscientious Greek archaeologist who often accused Schliemann of destroying classical antiquities in his quest for Homeric remains. Schliemann's workmen soon exposed stelae marking the perimeter of a grave circle 90 feet across just within the citadel's gate. By the end of August the first of five late Bronze Age shaft graves was found within it. This grave circle became known as grave circle A, its five tombs indicated with Roman numerals. A second grave circle, known as B, was found by Greek archaeologists outside the walls between 1951 and 1952. Its graves are labeled with Greek letters.

While Schliemann's diary and newspaper and book accounts of the location and dates of his discoveries in the shaft graves are often vague and contradictory, it is clear that by the end of November he had excavated tombs containing the bodies of several Mycenaean chieftains, five of whom wore gold face masks. Elated, Schliemann sent a telegram to King George of Greece:

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.

Though the graves were later shown to be at least 300 years earlier than the conjectured date of the Trojan War, for a time it appeared as though Schliemann had once again laid bare the Homeric world.

Of all the masks discovered at the site, the Mask of Agamemnon from grave V is the most famous. "I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon," Schliemann is said to have telegrammed a Greek newspaper on first seeing the mask. In fact, he himself never identified it as belonging to Agamemnon, but since it was the finest of the specimens it became associated with the hero. Nor did Schliemann ever note in writing the obvious stylistic differences--facial hair, ears cut out from the body of the mask--that set it apart from the others. In any case, the masks and gold jewelry Schliemann found at Mycenae brought him world fame; he was henceforth known as the Father of Mycenaean Archaeology.

Nearly 30 years ago, William M. Calder III, now a professor of classics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, began to question the veracity of the claims in Schliemann's autobiographical writings. An award-winning author and editor of numerous books on nineteenth-century classical studies, Calder demonstrated that Schliemann had a penchant for self-mythologization. Stories he told about himself--his desire from the age of eight to excavate Troy, his 1851 White House meeting with President Millard Fillmore, his discovery of a bust of Cleopatra at Alexandria--were patently untrue. Calder also questioned the authenticity of the Mask of Agamemnon. "I've learned to doubt everything Schliemann said unless there is independent confirmation," said Calder. While his revisionist scholarship has been criticized by some (Machteld Mellink, a former president of the Archaeological Institute of America, characterized it as a "vendetta against Schliemann"), many now concur that Schliemann was a brilliant dissembler.

Late last year ARCHAEOLOGY received a manuscript from Calder restating his claim that the mask is a forgery. While his evidence is circumstantial, he believes that considered cumulatively it is sufficient to kindle skepticism. Because of its serious implications, ARCHAEOLOGY solicited responses from five experts, printing in full those of David A. Traill, author of Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit, and Katie Demakopoulou, former director of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. Although several scholars refer to Traill's work, only Calder's text was circulated for comment.

* "Is the Mask a Hoax?" by 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
* Epilogue

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America