mask of agamemnon
The "Mask of Agamemnon" (Credit: Xuan Che, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The iconic “Mask of Agamemnon,” the Homeric king

A fascinating piece of ancient metalwork transports you back to the fabled Mycenaean era

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Discovered at the citadel of Mycenae, in Argolis in the North-East Peloponnese in 1876, by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, the “Mask of Agamemnon” is one of the most famous gold artifacts of the Greek Bronze Age. “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon,” boasted Schliemann referring to the legendary Mycenaean ruler and commander-in-chief of the Greek army at Troy.

The gold leaf funeral mask was found still on its corpse in a shaft tomb designated Grave V, at the site Grave Circle A, Mycenae. It was in fact one of five masks discovered, but due to its nobility and level of preservation Schliemann claimed it to be that of the legendary Greek king Agamemnon of Homer’s Iliad.

Created from a single sheet of gold, heated and hammered against a wooden mold, the mask is three-dimensional and includes cut-out ears, full detailed facial hair, and eyelids that appear open and closed simultaneously. 

Much controversy has come up regarding the identity of the elegant mask with the intense facial characteristics but the majority of scholars today agree that the gold mask is authentically Mycenaean.

Mycenae is the largest and most important center of the civilization that was named “Mycenaean” after this fortified city. Renowned for its technical and artistic achievements but also its spiritual wealth, which spread around the Mediterranean world between 1600 and 1100 BC, the Mycenaean civilization was indissolubly linked to the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which have influenced European art and literature for more than three millennia.

According to Homer, the city was founded by Perseus, the son of Danae (a princess) and Zeus (a god); and by King Agamemnon’s time, the Royal House of Atreus, which ruled Mycenae, was the most powerful of the Achaeans (Homer’s name for the Greeks).

The tholos tomb of Agamemnon in Mycenae, Greece (Credit: George E. Koronaios, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The palatial administrative system, the monumental architecture, the impressive artefacts and the first testimonies of Greek language, preserved on Linear B tablets, are unique elements of the Mycenaean culture. Significant stages in monumental architecture are still visible in the property, such as the ‘Cyclopean’ defensive walls (13m high and 7m thick), the beehive-shaped tholos tombs and the dramatic Lions Gate, a solid construction of massive stone blocks over which rear two large lions.

The mask is on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, draws in tourist crowds and found its way onto introductory art history course syllabi. It stands as a representation of the skillful artistry present in ancient Greece and illuminates our understanding of the past, giving a glimpse into the burial and ritual practices of that time. 

The decline of Mycenae palatial system occurred around 1100 BC, possibly due to large natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. However, this great empire’s cultural influence endured. Mycenae stamped its reputation on the history not only of Greece, but the entire world.

Visit: National Archaeological Museum of Athens