Of all the treasures I’ve laid eyes on in my life, none have fascinated me more than the five Mycenaean gold masks at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The museum is home to thousands of spectacular treasures, but the gold masks are the stars. Heinrich Schliemann discovered the masks in 1876, while excavating in Mycenae, Greece. Three of the gold masks were discovered in Grave IV and two in Grave V.
Schliemann claimed that the mask above was that of Agamemnon, the antagonist in Homer’s Epic, The Iliad. However, current research indicates that the mask was made from 1550 – 1500 BC, long before the time of Agamemnon.
Historians have pointed out several reasons why the mask of Agamemnon may be a fraud, or at the very least may have been altered. If you compare the mask above to the four other masks found at Mycenae, you will notice several significant differences. First of all, the ears are cut out, which is not typical of the other masks. Secondly, the beard hairs are also cut out, again differing from the other masks. Finally, the handlebar moustache is more typical of Schliemann’s time period rather than Mycenaean Greece.
Despite all of the research and debate, it is likely that we will never know if the mask of Agamemnon is authentic. However the authenticity of the four additional masks in not in doubt, and they are a sight to behold. Staring at the faces of men who died more than 3,500 years ago sends the mind fantasizing back to the time of the Trojan war, and a chill down the spine. I spent a long time thinking on those five faces, staring at them while they stared back at me, and wondering who the men behind the masks might have been. Something about them was quite hypnotic.
My favorite mask, is the one I will call “smiley.” Even in an age of constant warfare and death, this one mask gives the impression of contentment and satisfaction. Was it a private joke between the artist and the deceased? Was it pre-arranged? Like the smirk on the Mona Lisa, we will never know. All we can do is smile back when he smiles out at us from eternity.
- National Archaeological Museum of Athens
- Archaeology Magazine: Behind the Mask of Agamemnon
- Heinrich Schliemann