The face of Agamemnon

Heinrich Schliemann was a lucky man. As he removed the earth from the fifth grave he had discovered at Mycenae, he discovered three male bodies; their chests were covered in gold breastplates and their faces were hidden behind golden masks. He removed the first mask and the skull crumbled away. He did the same thing with the second one, only to see another skull fall apart as soon as it was exposed to air. The third body lay at the north end of the tomb but when Schiemann lifted the mask the round face with all its flesh remained intact. The hair was gone, but the eyes were perfectly visible, while the mouth was wide open and showed thirty-two teeth. The German archaeologist kissed the mask in triumph. That same evening he sent a telegram to King George in Athens with a powerful message: “I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon”.

Guiding light

The meeting between Schliemann and Agamemnon could not have taken place without Pausanias. He was a tireless and inquisitive traveler with a keen interest in all things mythological. Mycenae, the kingdom of mighty Agamemnon and site of his gruesome murder at the hands of his wife, was irresistible. Pausanias visited the massive fortifications of the Acropolis and left us a concise description:

“There still remain…parts of the city wall, including the gate, upon which stand lions…In the ruins of Mycenae…there are also underground chambers of Atreus and his children, in which were stored their treasures. There is the grave of Atreus, along with the graves of such as returned with Agamemnon from Troy and were murdered by Aegisthus after he had given them a banquet…Clytemnestra and Aegisthus were buried at some little distance from the wall. They were thought unworthy of a place within it, where lay Agamemnon himself and those who were murdered with him.”

Identity theft

When Pausanias visited Mycenae, the town was but a shadow of its former royal self. The Argives had utterly destroyed the city in 468 BCE in an effort to aggrandize themselves and remove irritation to the self-esteem of their city. After all, the Myceneans had participated in the common struggle against the Persians in 480-479 BCE, while Argos had refused to send troops.

With Mycenae gone, the Argives took a number of steps to incorporate its glorious past into their own history, setting up a memorial to those who were killed at Troy. The geographic proximity of the two cities worked in their favor too and soon Argos and Mycenae became interchangeable in the minds of the ancient Greeks. Euripides used both names whenever referring to the homeland of Orestes and Iphigeneia in some of his tragedies.

What Pausanias knew

Grave Circle A survived the destruction of Mycenae and remained important to the Argives, perhaps as the burial site of Perseus, a hero much honored in Argos. The rest of the citadel (and the lower town) was more or less abandoned. Greek and Roman travelers paid no particular attention to Mycenae. Several Roman emperors visited Troy, but none is recorded as traveling to Mycenae. It is even doubtful whether there was a local shrine dedicated to Agamemnon, whereas Menelaus (his brother) was worshipped as a hero in Sparta. Only Pausanias seems to have actually visited the Acropolis, but even in his case, we cannot be certain as to what he actually saw. Was Grave Circle A still visible or did he just report local stories and fables regarding the illustrious founders of the city?   

The second wall

Schliemann read Pausanias carefully and took him at his word. Most scholars could not accept that the tombs seen by the ancient traveler were inside the walls of Mycenae. There was not enough space for a proper cemetery there. Most of the area was a bare rock and the slope was too steep. They claimed that Pausanias referred to a different wall, which had since completely disappeared. This second line of fortification must have enclosed the lower city outside the Cyclopean walls and would have contained the tholos tombs that still survive in the countryside. But Schliemann refused to accept this theory. He pointed out that Pausanias clearly considers the Lion Gate as part of THE wall, while any defenses in the lower city had been demolished by the Argives more than six centuries before Pausanias’ visit.    

The ring

The Greek authorities adhered to the general belief regarding the cemetery of Mycenae and were rather bemused when Schliemann asked for permission to conduct an excavation there. Since there was no chance that he would find anything valuable, the permission was easy to obtain. Early finds of house walls, female idols, and terracotta cows were soon replaced by a circle of erect stone slabs and sculptured gravestones with scenes of battle or hunting. Eventually, the workers reached the solid rock and the beginning of a vertical shaft. They kept digging until, suddenly, Schliemann’s wife, Sophia, realized that there was a gold ring lying in the dirt. The workers were immediately dismissed; the final clearing of the graves would be undertaken by Heinrich, Sophia, and Panagiotis Stamatakis, an ephor appointed by the Greek Archaeological Society to oversee the work of the German adventurer.

Rich on gold

The Grave Circle contained six graves (Schliemann found five; Stamatakis discovered the sixth at a later date). The tombs contained nineteen people and rich offerings. The women were adorned with gold frontlets, diadems, or discs embossed with bees, rosettes, and fish; the bodies of two children were wrapped in sheet-gold; the men had their swords, daggers, and gold drinking cups. Schliemann was certain that he had discovered the fabled final resting place of Agamemnon and his followers. The chariots on the gravestones honored Eurymedon, Agamemnon’s charioteer. The bodies of the two children belonged to Cassandra’s twins. Many of the artifacts matched the descriptions of Homer. It would be some time before scholars would determine that the burials belonged to an era long before the purported time of the Trojan War. In the summer of 1876, almost nobody could be blamed for believing that Schliemann had indeed looked at the face of wide-ruling Agamemnon.

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Homeric Routes - Mentor - Study abroad in Greece
Link to Homeric Routes – Mentor – Study abroad in Greece

Homeric Routes – Mentor – Study abroad in Greece

Homer is the legendary blind poet who wrote the two classic epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Almost nothing about his life is known with certainty.

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