Past January 6 2022 was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Heinrich Schliemann, one of the most controversial but also the most fascinating characters in the history of modern archeology. Well, just in these days, it has been relaunched by an important Italian archaeologist, prof. Lorenzo Nigro of “La Sapienza” in Rome, a hypothesis that once again undermines his credibility: the famous gold mask of Agamemnon would be a sensational fake. For many years this hypothesis has been rebounding in academic circles, and it was especially the scholars William M. Calder III and David Traill who focused on the many elements that lead to doubt about this famous gold artifact.
But let’s go in order. Who was Schliemann? Heinrich Schliemann was born in Neubukow, on the Baltic Sea almost on the border with Denmark, in 1822. As he tells in his autobiography, at the age of seven thanks to a book received as a gift, he would have had the revelation: he would have been the one to find the remains of Troy, the city sung by Homer. But his youth was not easy, given the family’s few financial means. He left his studies early and began a whirlwind of occupations and adventures: at 18 he embarked as a ship’s boy for Venezuela which was wrecked on the coasts of the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, he was a sales representative and he started to learn languages, at first English, French, Italian and Russian, and then many others, up to twenty! He opened a bank in California trafficking with gold miners, but following unclear events, he returned to Europe, and in Russia he married the daughter of a wealthy lawyer. His fortune grew enormously thanks to the Crimean War as a contractor for the Tsarist army.
At 36 he was finally so rich that he could finally dedicate himself to his desire as a child.
After divorcing from his Russian wife, in 1969 he moved to Athens and remarried with the beautiful Greek Sophia, 30 years younger than him, and began his adventure as an assault archaeologist. He went to Turkey to dig on a hill near Hissarlik and in 1873 he managed to fulfill his dream of discovering Troy. Or rather, he had discovered nine of it, one on top of the other: at the bottom of the last layer (which he believed to be the Homeric layer, which instead was the second layer, which he savagely devastated to get to the bottom) he found thousands of objects of gold, more than 8,700 to be precise, which he called the Treasury of Priam, which he secretly took to Greece (later paying a fine-indemnity to Turkey of 50,000 francs) and then to Germany, where in 1945 it would be confiscated by the Soviets and never again returned. After this adventure, Schliemann was certainly the most famous archaeologist in Europe, but he was fiercely attacked by the university and official circles. Also for this reason, in addition to his thirst for adventures, he was always in search of new mysteries and new triumphs with which to silence the enemies. So then he decided to excavate Mycenae, the city of the Achaeans, and here too, in the well and dome tombs he identified, he discovered incredible finds: the skeletons of ancient kings and many jewels, weapons, tools, breastplates, and above all three precious gold funerary masks, including the one attributed by him to Agamemnon himself.
Exactly this mask, the most beautiful of the three, is the one that raised suspicions, first in William M. Calder III in the 1970s, and then in David Traill in 1999. The mask of Agamemnon shows the best workmanship among those found by Schliemann, it is rich in details that the others do not have, but above all it has a strange upturned mustache that is very reminiscent of what in fashion in the 19th century. There is evidence that Schliemann on other occasions had fakes made and had passed off as some finds objects that he had instead purchased and sometimes “hidden” in the places where they were found. The fact that Agamemnon’s mask was found only 3 days before the closure of the excavations in Mycenae, almost a “final bang“, and that a few days earlier Schliemann had disappeared, and that perhaps a relative of his Greek wife was a goldsmith, are all elements that lead to think it is very likely that it is a fake.
But there is an inconsistency: why depict the alleged Agamemnon with that absurdly “modern” oiled mustache? No Mycenaean work reports such a detail and, by definition, all fakes try to be credible. And here prof Nigro intervenes, with his explanation: “The Mask of Agamemnon could be nothing more than a” youthful portrait “of Schliemann himself, as you can compare in the photos. The mustache is there, the oval of the face too, as in the photo that the archaeologist could have entrusted to a goldsmith relative of his wife a few days before the “discovery“. “Almost as if it were an ideal pendant to the famous portrait of his wife adorned with” Elena’s jewels “, but above all, a ferocious joke to his “friends” archaeologists, a mockery such as ante-litteram Modigliani’s heads. Professor Nigro again writes: “Schliemann could have discredited his critics, if need be, by revealing the joke, but in 1890 he died at the age of 68, taking the secret to his grave“.
If one reads the notes on the mask written by Schliemann in “Mycenae: a narration of researches” (1880) in this light of doubt, then they can appear tendentious and almost ironic:
“The beard is also well represented, and in particular the mustache, the ends of which are pointed upward in a pointed, crescent-shaped, nothing new under the sun. There is no doubt that the ancient Mycenaeans used oil or some kind of pomade to style their hair. […] No one will doubt for a moment that they were intended to represent the portraits of the deceased […] The ancient Mycenaean goldsmiths could do as much as any modern goldsmith “.
Already Calder was wondering why to emphasize the mustache, with that unsolicited (and undocumented!) justification of oil to style the mustache, and above all that unnecessary allusion to modern goldsmiths?
In all this, the clear refusal of the Greek Archaeological Council to carry out any examination on the metal to establish its antiquity does not favor the resolution of the dilemma.
Still, the simplest and least damaging analysis is X-ray fluorescence (XRF), which could reveal the metal alloy, whether or not gold has been bonded with other metals. Minoan and Mycenaean gold generally consisted of 5 to 30% silver. “If the test reveals that the mask is made of pure gold, or copper alloy, it would be a cause for concern,” says Paul Craddock, head of the metals section at the British Museum’s Department of Scientific Research. The Museum should not fear these analyses, whatever the outcome, because if they confirmed the antiquity of the piece they would sweep away any doubt and controversy, and if they reveal the false instead, the Museum could bet on the genius of the joke. As David Trail wrote: “If the mask is genuine, Schliemann is the luckiest archaeologist (…) If he is a fake, he has been a genius who has deceived the world’s leading archaeologists and historians for more than a century. Since I am a huge admirer of Schliemann and have spent a lot of time studying his life, I hope it is a fake. It is much better to be a genius than just lucky“.