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


Some of the strongest grounds for suspecting the Agamemnon Mask derive from its appearance and its relationship to the other gold and electrum (gold-silver alloy) masks from Mycenae. William Calder refers briefly to them. Let me go into more detail. As Günter Kopcke points out, the mask bears a general resemblance to the two flat gold masks that Schliemann found in grave IV of grave circle A and to the flat electrum mask found in grave gamma in circle B in the early 1950s. (The two rather podgy gold masks that Schliemann found in graves IV and V are not flat but three-dimensional, or "in the round," and belong to quite a different tradition.) But when we compare the Agamemnon mask with the three other flat masks, striking differences emerge.

First, consider the eyebrows. On the other flat masks they form a single arch, and the hairs are indicated by engraved strokes. However, on the Agamemnon mask the eyebrows form two arches, and the individual hairs are actually cut out so that when the mask is viewed in profile they are seen to stand out from the brow.

Now consider the eyes. The other flat masks have their eyes closed at mid-eyeball; the lashes are engraved. The Agamemnon mask also appears to have its eyes closed at mid-eyeball (though the lashes are not indicated), but at the top and bottom of the eyes the eyelids are shown to be open. Now look at the ears. In the other three flat masks (and also in the two three-dimensional ones) the ears are incorporated within the body of the mask. In the Agamemnon mask, they are cut out like flaps.

Now consider the mouth, lips, and chin. The other flat masks have short mouths with thick, ill-defined lips and no discernible chins. The Agamemnon mask has a wide mouth, thin lips, and a well-defined chin. Finally, the facial hair. The others have none. The Agamemnon mask has a beard that runs from ear to ear, an upturning handlebar moustache, and an imperial (a pointed beard growing below the lower lip). Neither handlebar moustache nor imperial is attested elsewhere in Mycenaean or Minoan art. As Calder suggests, these features were fashionable symbols of authority in the nineteenth century and they contribute to our perception of the mask today as the portrait of a king. But had they a similar significance in Mycenaean Greece? Did people even wear them then? The Agamemnon mask is our only evidence.

The three other flat masks establish a norm, which, evidently, was highly conventionalized. Their consistency renders the many departures from that norm shown by the Agamemnon mask very surprising. The range of stylistic innovation that it presents becomes all the more remarkable when one reflects that graves IV and V, where Schliemann found the two flat masks and the Agamemnon mask, respectively, are dated by scholars as virtually contemporary, representing the burials of not more than two generations.

None of this proves that the mask is a fake. There are several good reasons for considering it to be authentic. Chief among these is the fact that below the chin the beard begins to form the characteristically Mycenaean V shape. But the numerous differences between the Agamemnon mask and the other flat masks do raise serious questions. Now that there is wider recognition that Schliemann was repeatedly dishonest, in both his private life and his archaeological reporting, questions need to be asked about the mask's authenticity.

Perhaps its most troubling feature is the upturned moustache. Closer inspection shows that the moustache also droops down to the beard on either side of the mouth and that the upturning parts seem to be later additions. These additions have been carelessly done. In the upturning part on the right (our right) the hairs run more or less horizontally. On the left they run vertically. Whether the additions were made ca. 1525 B.C. or some 3,400 years later is hard to say. Conceivably, the mask could be ancient but altered on Schliemann's instructions to give it a more imposing appearance. Interestingly, of the three earliest eyewitness descriptions of the mask, Schliemann's gives no details (simply "a gold mask"), Stamatakis mentions the beard but says nothing about a moustache ("a gold mask of a bearded man, of life size, much finer than those found hitherto"), and that of the reporter for the Greek newspaper Argolis actually denies the presence of a moustache ("a gold mask likewise intact, which depicts the likeness of a young man, handsome and brave.... He has an engraved beard four to five inches long, but no moustache." After its removal to Athens the mask was kept with the rest of the most valuable finds in the National Bank of Greece, of which Schliemann was a founding shareholder. The earliest photograph of the mask, which shows it with the moustache, dates from January or February 1877--at least five weeks after its discovery.

Anthony Snodgrass of Cambridge University, in a review of my Schliemann biography, recently called him "profoundly dishonest." Even Schliemann's staunchest supporters are beginning to admit that Priam's Treasure is probably not the single find that Schliemann claimed. So far, however, there is no proven instance of either his manufacture of a fake (though he certainly explored this option in the case of Priam's Treasure) or alteration of an authentic find.

This brings us to a third possibility: the Agamemnon mask is an authentic find from a later tomb. This could account for the differences between it and the other three flat masks. It is certain that Schliemann combined unrelated finds to create larger and more dramatic assemblages. He has been shown to have done this on several occasions at Troy. At Mycenae there is abundant evidence in Schliemann's diary that he came across far more tombs in and around the grave circle than the five shaft graves he reports in Mycenae. We know that Schliemann hid many of his best finds from the Turkish supervisor at Troy in 1873. The same could have happened at Mycenae, for Stamatakis, the conscientious Greek supervisor, frequently pointed out to his superiors in Athens that his staff was inadequate to supervise the 100 or so workmen that Schliemann was employing in various parts of the site. Schliemann gave a bonus to each workman for every antiquity found. Presumably, as at Troy, the bonus was higher if the piece was brought to him without the supervisors' knowledge.

In most of these scenarios, the Agamemnon mask would have to have been added to grave V before it was excavated on November 30. Here it is important to remember that the British scholar Percy Gardner reported that rumors were rife in Athens shortly after this that Schliemann had "salted" the graves. But how could he have done this? If we examine Schliemann's diary, it is clear that grave V had been excavated to within a meter or so of the burials by November 20. Given nine full days and nights, Schliemann was certainly capable of finding a way of adding the Agamemnon mask to the mud of grave V.

If asked to say whether I think the Agamemnon mask is an authentic piece found just as Schliemann reports, an authentic piece that has been altered, an authentic piece from a later burial, or a modern fake, I would have to say I simply do not know. It is easiest just to believe Schliemann, but that leaves many questions unanswered, and his credibility, even in his archaeological work, is steadily eroding.

Calder calls for a test of the mask. Such a test would be fairly straightforward. Though gold itself is not corroded by ground water, no ancient object was ever made of pure gold. The alloyed minerals that are constantly found in ancient gold do corrode and the effects of this corrosion are perceptible in the crystalline structure of objects that have lain underground for prolonged periods. A simple microscopic examination that would cause no harm to the mask could determine in a matter of minutes whether it had been buried for centuries or not. In 1982 and again in 1983 I proposed that such an examination be conducted by a recognized expert, but on both occasions Greek authorities denied permission. Now, nearly 20 years later, the questions have not gone away, but have rather become more insistent.--DAVID A. TRAILL

* "Is the Mask a Hoax?" by William M. Calder, III
* "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