Mask of Agamemnon

Mask of Agamemnon, from shaft grave V, grave circle A, Mycenae c.1550-1500 B.C.E., gold, 12″ / 35 cm (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

“I have gazed into the face of Agamemnon,” boasted the man who discovered it—but is it really the Homeric hero?


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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re looking at a gold mask that Schliemann referred to as “Agamemnon.” He actually, when this was on unearthed, said, “I have gazed into the face of Agamemnon.” Now, Agamemnon was the great Greek hero of Homer’s “Iliad.”

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:17] We know now that this is not Agamemnon, but a great publicity stunt. What we do have is an enormous cache of gold objects from the grave circles, where we found many bodies surrounded by precious objects and, in a number of cases, a figure would be wearing a gold mask.

Dr. Harris: [0:36] They were found fastened to the faces of the deceased people in these graves.

Dr. Zucker: [0:40] If you look closely, just next to the ear you can see small holes where we think there was some sort of string that kept it fast to the face.

Dr. Harris: [0:47] Now, there are two grave circles at Mycenae that Schliemann found and excavated, Grave Circle A and then also Grave Circle B. Schliemann was a businessman and a kind of amateur archaeologist, so some art historians have questions, especially [about] the one very fine mask that he referred to as Agamemnon.

Dr. Zucker: [1:05] There’s speculation that Schliemann may have over-restored it and made it a little more attractive to 19th-century sensibilities.

Dr. Harris: [1:12] But there’s also many art historians and archaeologists who find this completely authentic, so we just want to have a little bit of caution.

Dr. Zucker: [1:19] What we do know is that the vast majority of the cache that was found is authentic and gives us our clearest understanding of this Bronze Age culture. The technique that was used here is a hammering of the gold so that it becomes very thin and very flat. Then, it was probably hammered against a wooden mold in order to create the kind of sculptural form that we see.

Dr. Harris: [1:39] Schliemann worked on these two grave circles, which had many shaft graves in them. In those shaft graves, buried with what were obviously very important powerful families, were enormous amounts of gold objects. Not only these gold masks, but also necklaces, bracelets, cups, boxes, crowns, breast plates.

Dr. Zucker: [2:02] There were also swords and daggers. The estimate is that there were some 30 pounds of gold that were found.

Dr. Harris: [2:07] It’s important to think about where Mycenae is. Mycenae is a citadel, a fortified palace hilltop, and it overlooks a vast valley. The citadel of Mycenae gives its name to this entire culture on the mainland that we call Mycenaean because this culture dominated the mainland of Greece and traded far and wide across the Mediterranean.

Dr. Zucker: [2:30] Mycenae is one of the three primary cultures of ancient Aegean culture, that is, these Bronze Age cultures that come before the ancient Greece that we all know of, of the Parthenon, of the Greek gods. This is the period that was the stuff of legend to the Greeks that we know better.

[2:47] What we know of Mycenaean culture comes from these physical artifacts. From the citadel itself. From their various other outposts and from these treasures.

[2:57] That’s because there was so little writing that we have discovered. There was a little bit of what we call Linear B script. We do not have the kind of records that we have from ancient Egypt or that we have from Mesopotamia.

Dr. Harris: [3:08] Some art historians and archaeologists have referred to this culture as being warlike, especially in opposition to the Minoan culture, which is seen to be more peaceful.

Dr. Zucker: [3:17] There were reasons for this. For one thing, Mycenaeans lived in heavily fortified cities, whereas the Minoans had great palaces that were much less fortified. We find a lot of weapons, but whether or not that was offensive or defensive, we don’t know.

Dr. Harris: [3:29] It’s very hard to make generalizations about the character of these people.

Dr. Zucker: [3:34] One can only imagine the kind of extraordinary delight when Schliemann unearthed these graves.

[3:40] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Mask of Agamemnon," in Smarthistory, December 14, 2015, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/mask-of-agamemnon/.