Ancient History & Civilisation

5/SCHLIEMANN (II): THE MASK OF AGAMEMNON

Certain lives are played out almost entirely on the level of hyperbole, lives in which successes accumulate so improbably that they defy belief. This is particularly true of the career of Heinrich Schliemann. His exploits were consistently fabulous. His archæological success reached three peaks, the first of which was the discovery of “Priam’s treasure,” the second the exploration of the royal tombs of Mycenæ.

One of the darkest and most sinister chapters in the semi-legendary history of ancient Greece is the impassioned story of the Pelopidæ of Mycenæ, especially that part of it dealing with Agamemnon’s return and death. For ten years Agamemnon had been away, laying siege to Troy, and Ægisthus had made good use of his absence.

We were yet

Afar, enduring the hard toils of war,

While he, securely couched in his retreat

At Argos, famed for steeds, with flattering words

Corrupted Agamemnon’s queen.

Ægisthus ordered a lookout to be kept for the returning husband and then lay in wait with twenty men. He invited Agamemnon to a banquet—“thinking shameful knavery”—and “struck him down at the banquet, as one slaughters the ox at the crib. None of Agamemnon’s friends escaped, all following him.” Eight years passed before Orestes, the filial avenger, appeared to kill his adulterous mother, Clytemnestra, and Ægisthus, his father’s assassin.

Tragic poets have often dramatized this famous theme. Æschylus’ most powerful play deals with the story of Agamemnon. In our own time Eugene O’Neill and Jean-Paul Sartre, among others, have written plays based on the story of Orestes and his family. The memory of the “king of men,” ruler of the Peloponnesus, one of the mightiest and richest of historical characters, has remained forever green in posterity’s mind.

Mycenæ had golden as well as sanguinary connotations. According to Homer, Troy was rich, but Mycenæ even richer, and the word golden was the adjective that he characteristically used in describing the city. Enchanted by his discovery of Priam’s treasure, Schliemann was eager to find new riches. And—contrary to universal expectation—this he actually did. Mycenæ lies “in the farthest corner of Argos, pasture land of horses,” halfway to “the Isthmus of Corinth.” Viewed from the west, the former royal citadel is seen as a field of ruins, among them the remains of heavy walls. Behind these ruins, rising at first gently, then steeply, is Mount Eubœa, capped by the Chapel of the Prophet Elijah.

About A.D. 170 the Greek travel writer Pausanias visited the spot and described what he saw there. Then there was still more than what greeted Schliemann’s nineteenth-century eyes. Yet the archæological problem at Mycenæ was simpler than at Troy. There was no doubt whatever about the site of the city called Mycenæ. The dust of thousands of years covered the ruins, and sheep were grazing where once kings had held sway. Still, the ruins were there to behold, mutely testifying to the splendor and majesty of yesteryear.

The Lion Gate, main palace entrance, stood high and open in full view. Accessible, too, were the so-called “treasuries,” once thought to be bakers’ ovens, the most famous of which was that of Atreus, first Pelopid and father of Agamemnon. This subterranean room is fifty feet high, and shaped like a dome. It is constructed of concentric rings of stones laid flat, and crowned by a single capstone (see cross section, below).

Schliemann found that several ancient authors had located the graves of Agamemnon and his murdered friends at Mycenæ. The citadel site was obvious enough, but the graves were another matter entirely. Schliemann had found Troy by depending on his Homer. In this instance he staked his claim on a certain passage in Pausanias, which he declared previous archæologists had incorrectly translated and misunderstood. Up to this it had been assumed—and two of the greatest experts of the day, Dodwell, an Englishman, and Curtius, a German, supported the idea—that Pausanias had pictured the graves as outside the walls of the citadel of Mycenæ, but Schliemann maintained that they must be inside the walls. He had already expressed this opinion in his Ithaca, in keeping with his tendency to place more stock in the writings of the ancients than in scientific deliberation. In any event, speculation, as he saw it, was irrelevant. He went ahead and dug, and his diggings shortly proved that again he was on the right track.

Cross section and ground plan of the “Treasury of Atreus.”

“I began the great work on August 7, 1876, with 63 workers.… Since August 19 I have carried on the excavating with 125 laborers and four carts, on the average, and have made good progress.”

Indeed, the first important find, after he had uncovered an enormous number of vases, was a curious circular structure, made of a double row of stone slabs set on edge. Schliemann believed immediately that the stone circle was a bench on which the elders of the Mycenæan citadel had sat in the agora while addressing assemblies, taking counsel, and dispensing justice. Here, he believed, Euripides’ herald had stood—as recorded in Electra—while he called the people to the agora.

“Learned friends” confirmed his view. Presently he found the following sentence in Pausanias, relating, to be sure, to another agora: “Here they built the place of senatorial assembly, in such fashion that the heroes’ graves would be in the midst of the meeting-place.” Thereafter he knew with the same somnambulistic certainty that had led him safely through six layered cities to the “treasure of Priam” that he was standing on Agamemnon’s grave.

And when, in short order, he found nine stelæ, four of them with well-preserved bas-reliefs, his last doubt vanished, and with it, too, all scholarly restraint. “Indeed, I do not hesitate for a moment,” he wrote, “to announce that here I have found the graves that Pausanias, following tradition, ascribes to Atreus, to Agamemnon, king among men, to his charioteer, Eurymedon, and to Cassandra and her companions.”

Meanwhile the work on the treasuries near the Lion Gate progressed slowly. Masses of stony rubble aggravated the difficulties of excavation. But here, too, Schliemann’s mystical certainty would not be shaken. “I am convinced,” he wrote, “of the absolute validity of the tradition which says that these mysterious structures were used as storage places for the treasure of primeval kings.” The first find, taken from the debris that he had heaped to one side in an attempt to gain entrance, exceeded in delicacy of form, beauty of execution, and quality of material anything of a similar sort discovered in Troy. There were fragments of friezes, painted vases, terracotta idols of Hera, stone molds for casting ornamental articles, (“these apparently of gold and silver”), as well as glazed clay objects, gems, and beads.

The amount of work involved in the project is suggested by Schliemann’s following observations: “So far as the diggings have progressed to date, nowhere do I find debris piled deeper than 26 feet, and this extreme depth only near the big circular wall. From that point the rock rises rapidly, and farther along the depth of the rubble notably diminishes, being anywhere from less than 13 to approximately 20 feet in thickness.”

But the effort paid dividends.

The discovery of the first grave was noted in Schliemann’s journal on December 6, 1876. The grave must have been opened with great care. For twenty-five days Sophia, the tireless helper, explored the earth with fingers and pocket-knife. Eventually five graves were found, in them the skeletons of fifteen dead. On the strength of this revelation Schliemann sent a cable to the King of Greece:

“It is with extraordinary pleasure that I announce to Your Majesty my discovery of the graves which, according to tradition, are those of Agamemnon, Cassandra, Eurymedon, and their comrades, all killed during the banquet by Clytemnestra and her lover, Ægisthus.”

One skeleton after another came to light, the bones of heroes who had fought before Troy, only to be banished to the realm of fable by posterity. One can only imagine Schliemann’s emotions when he looked into their faces, eaten away by time, but still recognizable as such, the eye sockets empty, noses gone, mouths twisted into a terrible smirk as if remembering some last frivolity. Flesh still clung to some of the bones.

Schliemann did not entertain the least doubt about his discoveries. “The bodies were literally covered with gold and jewels,” he wrote at the time. Would such valuables have been interred with the bodies of ordinary persons, he inquired. He found expensively fashioned weapons, seemingly placed in the grave so that the dead would be armed against any contingency in the shadow world. Schliemann pointed to the obviously hasty burning of the corpses. The burial crew, it appeared, had hardly taken time to let the fire do its work before piling gravel and earth on the scorched victims. This implied the haste of murderers frantic to hide their crime. True, the corpses had been furnished with funerary gifts and accouterments, but this concession could be explained by the force of custom. As for the graves as such, they were anything but pretentious—indeed, as unworthy, one might imagine, of the rank of the deceased as hatred could make them. Had it not been said that the murdered were “thrown like the carcasses of unclean animals into miserable holes”?

Schliemann sought to buttress his identification of the graves by recourse to his beloved authorities, the writers of antiquity. He quoted from the Agamemnon of Æschylus, from Sophocles’ Electra, from Euripides’ Orestes. It simply did not occur to him to question the correctness of his notions. Today, however, we know that his theory was false. He had, it is true, found royal graves under the agora of Mycenæ; they were not, however, the graves of Agamemnon and his followers, but of people who most likely had lived some four hundred years earlier.

This discrepancy did not really matter. The important thing was that Schliemann had taken a second great step into the lost world of prehistory. Again he had proved Homer’s worth as historian. He had unearthed treasures—treasures in a strictly archæological as well as material sense—which provided valuable insight into the matrix of our culture. “It is an entirely new and unsuspected world,” Schliemann wrote, “that I am discovering for archæology.”

Schliemann was a proud man, yet never arrogant or inconsiderate of others. Even at the height of success, when he was exchanging telegrams with kings and ministers, he was in touch with the humble side of his affairs. He could become violently incensed over an injustice done those whom he liked and trusted. Typical of this is the occasion when the Emperor of Brazil, among countless others, came to look at Mycenæ. Upon his departure the Emperor gave the police commander Leonardos the niggardly tip of forty francs to distribute among the police. The commander had always been loyal to Schliemann, and so Schliemann was much upset when it came to his ears that envious officials were spreading the story that Leonardos had actually been given a thousand francs, all of which, excepting forty, he had pocketed. When Leonardos, on account of this accusation, was relieved of his post, Schliemann moved into action. The world-famous investigator used all his influence in the interest of the obscure policeman, striking straight into the heart of the matter. Immediately he sent a wire to the Greek Minister of the Interior: “As countervalue for the many hundreds of millions by which I have enriched Greece, I pray you to do me the kindness of pardoning my friend the policeman Leonardos of Nauplion and of returning him to his post. Please do this for me, Schliemann.” When he failed to get an immediate reply, he sent off a second telegram: “I swear the policeman Leonardos is honest and efficient. Nothing but calumny. Guarantee that he got only forty francs. I demand justice.” And more than this, he did the most extravagant thing possible. He also sent a telegram to the Emperor of Brazil, who meanwhile had landed in Cairo. This telegram said:

“Upon leaving Nauplion, Your Majesty gave the police commander Leonardos forty francs to divide among the police. The mayor, in order to defame the brave fellow, claims that he received a thousand francs from Your Majesty. Leonardos has been removed from his office, and it was with difficulty that I was able to keep him out of jail. Since I have known him for ten years as one of the most honest people in the world, I beg Your Majesty in the holy name of truth and humanity to telegraph me, saying how much Leonardos got, forty francs or more.”

Heinrich Schliemann, archæologist, in the name of justice put the Emperor of Brazil in the awkward position of having publicly to admit his stinginess. But the policeman Leonardos was saved.

The golden relics found by Schliemann were of enormous value, and not exceeded in opulence until Carnarvon’s and Carter’s finds in Egypt. “All the museums of the world taken together,” Schliemann said, “do not have one fifth as much.”

In the first of the five graves he found on each of three skeletons five diadems of pure gold, laurel leaves, and crosses of gold. In another grave, containing the remains of three women, he collected no less than seven hundred and one thick golden leaves, also wonderful ornaments in the shape of animals, flowers, butterflies, and cuttlefish. Besides these he found golden decorative pieces showing figured lions and other beasts, and warriors engaged in battle. There were precious pieces shaped like lions and griffons, others showing deer at repose, and women with doves. One of the skeletons wore a golden crown, on the fillet of which were fastened thirty-six golden leaves. The head wearing the crown had almost completely crumbled to dust. In another grave was a skeleton so near dissolution that only a fragment of the skull was still stuck to the elegant diadem at its head.

Most important of all, he found certain gold masks and breast-plates, which, according to tradition, were used in outfitting dead kings to protect them against malign influence after death. Down on his knees, his wife hovering over him ready to lend a helping hand, Schliemann scraped away the layers of clay sheathing the five corpses in the fourth grave. After a few hours’ exposure to the air the heads of the skeletons dissolved into dust. But the shimmering golden masks kept their shape, each mask representing completely individual features, “so utterly different from idealized types of god and hero that unquestionably each of the same is a facsimile of the dead person’s actual appearance.”

Evenings, when the day was done and the shadows of night were creeping over the acropolis of Mycenæ, Schliemann had fires lit “for the first time in 2,344 years.” Watchfires—recalling those which once had warned Clytemnestra and her lover, Ægisthus, of the approach of Agamemnon, but this time serving to frighten thieves away from the greatest treasures ever taken from the grave of dead kings.

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