chapter  10
19 Pages

Shifting horizons and emerging ontologies in the Bronze Age Aegean

WithBronze Age Aegean Andrew Shapland

Like a Homeric stock phrase, the Shaft Graves of Grave Circle A at Mycenae have come to be associated with the words of a famous telegram: “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon.” That this apocryphal quote has come to stand for the discoveries at Mycenae is problematic for a number of reasons. The first is that Heinrich Schliemann did not quite use those words in his telegram announcing the discovery of a well-preserved body during the course of his excavations in 1876 (nor was it associated with what is now called ‘The Mask of Agamemnon’) (Traill 1995:163). The second is that archaeologists no longer believe that he had discovered the burial of Agamemnon, leader of the Greek forces in the Trojan War, although the Shaft Graves remain perhaps the single most important Aegean Bronze Age discovery. The third is the ontological problem which is central to this chapter: namely, that the grave goods have been metaphorically stripped away so that Schliemann’s discovery becomes essentially interpersonal. Indeed, the extraordinary assemblage of objects was something of an obstacle to Schliemann’s identification of the accompanying bodies with those of Agamemnon and his followers, murdered on their return from Troy. Although copiously illustrated in his publication, the objects had to be explained away: “it would therefore appear that, in burying the fifteen royal personages with immense treasures, the murderers merely acted according to an ancient custom, and consequently only fulfilled a sacred duty” (Schliemann 1878:345). The idea that these treasures were simply expressions of the royal or princely identity of those buried has proved more enduring than the more literal aspects of Schliemann’s interpretation. This paper will instead seek to place these acts of burial in the context of the network of people and objects, or humans and non-humans, which expanded over the course of the Bronze Age in the Aegean.