Accessible Art History
Art History Mystery #6: Is the Mask of Agamemnon a Fake?
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History Blog! This week, I have another addition to the Art History Mystery series! The Mask of Agamemnon is to Ancient Greece as the Funeral Mask of Tutankhamun is to Ancient Egypt. But, there are some that believe that it is actually a fake! Heinrich Schliemann, the amateur archaeologist who discovered Troy, had a less than stellar reputation on his finds. This has led to doubts about the credibility of some of the artifacts, including the spectacular golden mask. So to find out more, keep on reading!
Before we dive into the mystery itself, I think that it is important to establish some background information. The city of Troy has long held a special place in our collective imaginations. According to the famous Homeric epic, it was the center of a powerful kingdom. It was also the site of a famous battle, waged for possession of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. Until the late 19th century when Heinrich Schliemann discovered it, there were many who thought that it was entirely a figment of Homer’s creation.
Agamemnon, for whom the mask is named, was one of the participants of the Trojan War. He was the King of Mycenae and brother-in-law to Helen of Troy. When she left his brother, Menelaus, for Paris of Troy, Agamemnon answered his brother’s call for war and rounded up the “reluctant” Greeks to sail for Troy. However, at one point along the way, he insults the
goddess Artemis. The only way to appease her wrath (and continue the journey to Troy), is to sacrifice his daughter, the princess Iphigenia. Agamemnon survived the war, only to be killed by his wife and her lover when he returned home to Mycenae.
If you would like to learn more about the discovery of Troy, you can listen to the podcast episode about it by clicking here!
Alright, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the star of this post: The Mask of Agamemnon. It is made of a thin sheet of gold that was hammered to resemble a man’s face. It is highly likely that it was used as a funeral mask. It was discovered in Grave V
at the site Grave Circle A. The mask is one of five discovered in Troy, indicating that the deceased were of incredibly high status. Always the lover of Greek mythology, that is why Schliemann chose to name the mask after the ancient king.
However, with a find as beautiful and historically significant as this mask, could it be too good to be true? It is no secret that Schliemann embellished stories of his finds. Sometimes, he even made stories up! So, this fact has led archaeologists and historians to wonder if he planted the mask in his dig at Troy to make himself seem even greater than the public thought.
There are some pieces of strong evidence that indicate that the mask is a fake. Firstly, Günter Kopcke of New York University's Institute of Fine Arts analyzed the stylistic elements of the piece and contends that it is quite different from other masks found in the same area and that date from the same time period. According to Kopcke, this can be particularly seen in the eyebrows and facial hair.
Secondly, it is documented that Schliemann toyed with the idea of having copies of his finds made. This is because, in order to dig at Troy, he made a deal with the Ottoman Turk government. Part of the agreement was splitting any treasure that was found at the site. But, if Schliemann could give the government the fakes, he could keep all the real items for himself!
Thirdly, Schliemann was, in all honesty, a shifty fellow! Memoirs of his contemporaries stated "He who hideth can find " and called him a ‘schwindler und pfuscher” (swindler and con-man). Another reason to be suspicious of him was the fact that the mask was discovered right before the dig closed. A few days before its discovery, Schliemann was absent and (allegedly) a relative of his wife Sophia was spotted at a local goldsmith’s shop!
It is important to note that many modern archaeologists do believe that the mask is authentic, but dates from several centuries earlier than the Trojan War.
If the Mask of Agamemnon is fake, then it would have major implications for the archaeological world. This piece is considered one of the pinnacles of Greek art and it would be a shame if it was a ploy by a greedy treasure hunter!
Mask of Agamemnon
CC 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
CC 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of Heinrich Schliemann
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons