Gold death-mask, known as the ‘mask of Agamemnon’, 16th cent. B.C., Gold
17 × 25 cm (6 3/4 × 9 3/4 in.)
The National Archaeological Museum of Athens
What he found, however, was almost more spectacular than his discoveries at Troy.
At Mycenae, Schliemann uncovered an entire Bronze Age citadel, its walls and gates preserved, with several shaft graves and spectacular tombs. Within the shaft graves he found five gold masks, clearly intended to cover the faces of the deceased – in fact, if you look closely at the image above you might just be able to make out two holes near the ears, where twine was used to attach the masks over the face. Schliemann immediately dubbed it 'the mask of Agamemnon' – and so it is usually called, although in fact the dating of the shaft graves suggests that this mask was probably made in the 16th century BCE, a good three to four hundred years before the traditional date of the Trojan War.
The mask is made of a sheet of gold hammered thin with repoussé details – that is, where the gold has been hammered into relief from the reverse side. It depicts the face of a bearded man with thin, well-defined lips, almond-shaped eyes and stylised eyebrows and ears created in a spiral pattern. Despite Schliemann's romantic labelling of the mask as Agamemnon's, it is highly unlikely that it depicts the legendary king described in Homer as the leader of the Greek army. But that doesn't mean it isn't fascinating in its own right. For the first time, we are looking into the face of a king from the Bronze Age of Greece: an era characterised by gigantic fortresses ringed by Cyclopean walls, forged bronze weapons, stunning art, and wide-ranging trade across the Aegean. The mask of 'Agamemnon' – whoever it really depicts – brings alive, not just the archaeological ruins of the period – which is often all we, as historians, are left with – but the image of the people who inhabited the palaces of cities like Mycenae.
More than that, perhaps, it's also a timely and important reminder, as we embark on the history of the classical world in a hundred objects, of the allure – and, sometimes, the danger – of trying to piece together the parts of the ancient past to make a coherent whole. It's tempting, given the lack of evidence we have about the classical world, the gaps, the tantalising guesses we have to make, to want things to fit together neatly, as Schliemann did – connecting a golden mask to a mythical king. But the past – and, indeed, the present – is rarely like that. Appreciating the complexity of identifying objects – their role, their function, who they belonged to, why they were made – is part of what this series is all about. And if we can't, like Schliemann, see Agamemnon in this death mask, we can at least acknowledge what is, to me, a far more exciting truth: that in the overlap between the mythical king described by Homer, the historical king who ruled the ancient city of Mycenae, and the image of the man depicted here, we may be able to understand a little more, both about the society and culture of Bronze Age Greece, and about the persistent appeal of myths and stories to our understanding of ourselves.