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Heinrich Schliemann: Discovery, Mystery And More


Heinrich Schliemann | Biography, Excavations, & Facts | Britannica
Pic: Britannica

Heinrich Schliemann was, to put it simply, a character. His life could fill a write-up in itself. Suffice it to say, he was a gorgeous polyglot with a gift for languages, and he first made his fortune during the California gold rush, following this with other successful pursuits in weapons contracting and the sale of indigo dyes. By 35, he was affluent enough to retire, and he was free to seek his true love: Troy.

Schliemann was assured that he could reveal the true location of the legendary city, and in its pursuit, he discovered nine buried cities and a king’s ransom in gold, pottery, and other treasures (through somewhat dubious means, as we’ll discuss), which he called the Treasure of Priam. But by the 1870s he had turned his scrutiny to Mycenae, an archaeological site in Greece. Here, Schliemann thought, he would discover the graves of the great Mycenaean kings. And here, Schliemann made what was to come to be one of the most crucial finds of his life: a golden mask.

Discovery By Schliemann:

In August 1876 Schliemann started his excavation of Mycenae. From his interpretation of the writings of Pausanias, Schliemann thought that Agamemnon was buried within the walls of Mycenae, and tests carried out in the preceding years had disclosed artifacts and the remains of stone walls. Much of his actions were concentrated on Grave Circle A, a gravesite with a diameter of about 90ft located near Mycenae’s western edge by the popular Lion Gate.

The Grave Circle comprised six shaft graves (“a type of deep rectangular burial structure…containing a floor of pebbles, walls of rubble masonry, and a roof constructed of wooden planks”). The unchanged state of these graves—royal graves, at that—was a remarkable rarity in Mycenaean Greece.

From the beginning, Schliemann knew he had encountered something tremendous. These shaft graves—five of which Schliemann excavated, and at least one of which may have been previously looted—contained 19 corpses (including 3 women and 2 infants), all of whom were encircled by treasures: medallions, goblets, ivory-pommeled swords, rings, and the so-called “Cup of Nester.” Even the infants were bandaged in gold foil. Gold, which implied royal status, was everywhere. Schliemann exposed troves of these extraordinary artifacts (including various gold burial masks), all of which were crafted in an extraordinary style that combined the techniques of several civilizations. But it was not until November 30th, in the 5th grave, that he made the once-in-a-lifetime discovery he was striving for: a golden mask, different from all the rest. This, Schliemann thought instantly, was the funerary mask of the legendary king Agamemnon.

The mask was prepared of a thin sheet of good hammered against the wood and finely chiseled, with holes in the ears so it could be linked to a corpse. Unlike the other masks, this mask had a beard and mustache (which would match depictions of Agamemnon) and was far more intricately made.

He (allegedly; there are always doubts when it comes to Schliemann) instantly messaged King George of Greece, writing “With great joy, I announce to Your Majesty that I have found out the tombs which the tradition proclaimed by Pausanias indicates to be the graves of Agamemnon, Cassandra, Eurymedon and their companions, all slain at a banquet by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus.”

But had he?


Before we go further, a short note on Agamemnon himself. For one so fascinated by ancient myths as Schliemann, the idea of revealing a piece of King Agamemnon would have been intoxicating. According to legend, Agamemnon was a great Mycenaean king, the commander of the Greek armed forces during the Trojan War who lived through many sufferings (including the sacrifice of his daughter for favorable winds). Though he was not quite comparable to Achilles, he had “kingly authority” (read: arrogance) and was even granted the prophetess Cassandra after the fall of Troy. Upon his return home, he was murdered by his wife’s lover along with all his followers. Still, Agamemnon was undeterred and made an impression from the underworld in Homer’s Odyssey to declare Odysseus not to trust trifling hoes.

Already, a few were starting to question that this was the mask of Agamemnon. Or that it was an actual artifact at all.


This was a tremendous discovery and for an amateur archaeologist no less. Understandably, some of Schliemann’s contemporaries challenged the authenticity instantly. This was not helped by the fact that Schliemann had a special. Reputation.

In the years since, Schliemann’s techniques have been interpreted as “pedantic barbarism,” “savage and brutal,” and far worse. While uncovering his believed Troy site, for instance, Schliemann dug what is to this day known as “Schliemann’s Trench,” eradicating layer upon layer of useful material. He even tried to using dynamite. In the Acropolis of Athens, he eliminated medieval edifices and destroyed the Frankish Tower. What’s more, he was accused numerous times of taking artifacts from certain sites and shifting them to other ones, a procedure is known as “salting.” And, in his prolific diaries, he claimed, among other aspects, to have been received by the president of the United States, to have survived (with a few heroic acts tossed in) the burning of San Francisco, and to have found out a bust of Cleopatra in a hole in Alexandria.

Many describe Schliemann as a consummate conman and hack, and, whether this is valid or colored by a more modern understanding of archaeology, this means that many think what he said and recorded cannot be believed.

He said a lot; after his first Troy dig, he declared that he had “opened up a new world for archaeology.” Here, he was even more expressive, by most accounts saying he had “gazed upon the face of Agamemnon.” But whether the mask was substantial or not, he was enchanted by the Greek Myths, and as such, he was open to few other justifications but that the mask had to have been Agamemnon’s, and the tombs, tombs of legend.

Many detractors arose over the next century, founded mostly on Schliemann’s reputation: the mask, they said, did not fit the other masks discovered in shape or style and was likely commissioned and moved into the shaft during the excavation. It had to be a fake.

Still, the mask continued to thrive in renown despite these suspicions, becoming one of the best-known characters of antiquity. But towards the end of his life, even Schliemann was starting to doubt that the mask was Agamemnon’s (though he still doubted the accusations that it was a fake), saying, “So this is not Agamemnon… these are not his ornaments?”

But modern analysis has disclosed that the mask is authentic, or at the very least not anywhere near to modern.


Grave Circle A itself soundly proves to be false the King Agamemnon theory. It dates from around 16th century BC, at least 300 years before the conjectured date of the Trojan War, around 13th-12th century BC. More recently, some have implied the graves could be as old as 20th-21st century BC, taking them farther and farther from the Trojan War. The mask, like Grave Circle A, has been dated to the same period. (note: I can’t discover the technique of dating used, unfortunately.)

Now, the mask’s genuineness does not preclude tampering. Some have posited that Schliemann, dishearten by the lack of glamorous findings, edited the mask, probably reshaping or adding to it. As one regional reporter wrote many days later, the mask had “no mustache,” and the first picture of the mask was taken a whole 5 weeks after its finding. This editing could account for the differences between it and the other masks.

But, as others have pointed out, for this to be reasonable, Schliemann would have had to have operated on a very rigid schedule, one that was almost unthinkable; he kept records of each finding, and the other masks were discovered just days before this one, giving him small time to alter the mask so carefully it passed the assessment of every archaeologist who saw it. Instead, the other, less refined masks were likely prototypes for this mask, the technique of which fits other non-mask artifacts in the graves. If this is valid, it could mean that the man the mask was intended for was of an even taller status than previously thought. But who was he?

The burial itself tells us little. Schliemann intentionally left the exact section of 5th Grave he thought to be Agamemnon’s vague, and, in scouring for it, the regions themselves are contradictory; of the numerous sites within the chamber, two are usually recognized as the possible burial of a ‘Great King.’ The first, northern-facing, was more well-preserved and normally richer. But the second, southern-facing, had a second fine mask and breastplate. And as far as recognizing information, there just isn’t any. There is no writing, no descriptions, and nothing that can provide us more than a dubious idea of when these burials were created—or who they were established for.

The land above the graves offers a few clues; there is an indication that around 1250 BC it became a temenos (“a piece of land marked off from common uses and dedicated to a god, a sanctuary, holy grove or holy precinct”), probably with an altar added above one of the graves. From here, it was re-planned as a monument, likely in a try by later dynasties to “appropriate the possible courageous past of the older ruling dynasty.” So the inhabitants of these graves were possibly very crucial, though it is worth noting that archaeologists are still examining (and still disagree on) the precise building history of Grave Circle A, which illustrates dozens of its mysteries, and has been interpreted as “ambiguous and puzzling… provoking [dozens of] alternative readings.” But still… who’s buried there?

Final Thoughts & Questions:

After this dig, Schliemann left Mycenae and never came back, thinking his dig had been too closely policed by the government (relatively, for he had previously smuggled Priam’s Treasure out of Turkey and shortly been sued). After numerous more excavations throughout Greece, Schliemann passed away in 1890 and was laid to rest in a huge tomb modeled after ancient Greek temples.

Today, research proceeds. Although we realize the mask was not a full modern forgery, a vocal minority still argue that it was reworked, or that Schliemann shifted it to Grave Circle A from elsewhere. Testing on the mask of Agamemnon, particularly in comparison with tests on the other masks, would resolve many of the problems regarding the feasible edits to the mask (though some say that this testing would be extremely difficult). But the most recent article I can discover mentioning tests is from 1999, and the author writes, “In 1982 and again in 1983 I proposed that such an analysis be performed by a recognized specialist, but on both events Greek authorities refused permission. Now, almost 20 years later, the issues have not gone away, but have rather become more insistent” As far as I can tell, nothing has altered on this front.

But if this mask was, as is most probable, a real find—whose mask was it? Did it relate to a great king, one whose exploits were once renowned? Or could it have been the mask of an affluent but altogether unimportant Mycenaean elite?

Is the mask of Agamemnon completely authentic? Did Schliemann lie about any characteristics of the discovery?

To whom could the mask have belonged?

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