We’re at the site of the Field Museum’s future "Greeks" exhibit, but for now it’s just a grey room with even greyer unpacked boxes. What little light there is can’t help but reflect and re-reflect off the head being held up in the middle of the room: a reproduction of a gold death mask so old that it predates even that most ancient of Greeks – the poet Homer.
It’s the Mask of Agamemnon – only, what we're looking at isn’t the original mask and it’s not actually Agamemnon. Explanations are in order.
The original dates to the 16th century B.C. and is kept at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens in Greece. It was discovered by archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 – one of multiple death masks found during the excavation of a royal cemetery in Mycenae. At the time of its discovery, Schliemann was on a sort of Homer kick and had also just done a major excavation at Anatolia, believed to be a site of the mythical Trojan War. His brain was virtually swimming in ancient Greek lore.
Which may be why – as the oft retold story goes – as he began excavating the death masks, Schliemann sent a telegram to the king of Greece saying, “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon” – meaning the mask reminded him of the mythical king Agamemnon, who commanded the Greek forces in the Trojan War.
“It turns out, that might never have happened.”
That’s William Parkinson, the Field’s anthropology curator, who is also one of the head curators for "The Greeks" exhibit – which opens at the museum at the end of November and will be the largest exhibition of its kind to tour North America in 25 years.
According to Parkinson, it was the minister of Germany to whom Schliemann sent the telegram. And he wasn’t referring to the gold mask with the long nose (the one pictured in this story) but rather a different one with a rounder face.
“What he actually said was, ‘This is exactly how I imagine Agamemnon, the mythical king from Homer, would have looked,’” Parkinson said. “But then that quote got modified over time, through the press and through the way it was misquoted and rephrased.”
Visitors to "The Greeks" exhibit will be able to view both of these death masks – the round one that was originally discovered by Schliemann, and the more famous "Mask of Agamemnon” which has the characteristic long nose. While the more famous of the two is a reproduction, it’s not exactly small potatoes. It’s actually one of only two reproductions in existence and both were made in 1906 by Émile Gilliéron, a Swiss artist best known for his reconstructions of Mycenaean and Minoan artifacts.
“This piece is important as a replica because it’s an awesome, awesome, fabulous replica,” Parkinson said. “This object, even though it’s a replica, is a wonderful way for us to tell the story of the first time you really get hierarchy and royalty on the European continent.”
See both starting Nov. 25 at “The Greeks: Agamemnon to Alexander the Great.” Just be sure you keep your Agamemnons straight.
“The Greeks" runs through April 10 at The Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive.
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