Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Cathy Gere – The Tomb of Agamemnon (*)

The story of Agamemnon, the King who led the Greeks to the siege of Troy is one that deserves reading. Possibly of far greater interest and excitement is the story of how the ancient city of Mycanae was named as the hero’s place of burial.

This story is fascinating because it shows how history and archaeology are often the battleground for more contemporary ideologies, and that far from being independent investigators of the past, archaeologists can suffer the same desires for fame and fortune as anyone else.

In 1876, the German archaeologist (Wikipedia describes him as a “treasurer hunter”, which is both accurate and amusing) Heinrich Schliemann, in search of the aforementioned fame and fortune discovered a spectacular trove of buried gold artifacts covering several bodies. Schliemann immediately announced that the location of the burial, in the ancient city of Mycanae was that of King Agamemnon.

The public response was amazing. Front page news on The Times and newspapers across the globe, fame, fortune and celebrity belonged to Schliemann. Few questioned that the 3000 year old grave goods were anything but what he said they were. Even fewer questioned his destructive methods of investigation.

The truth did eventually emerge - partly as the era of Colonial archaeology disappeared and local archaeologists did a more thorough and critical study of the sites. But in the creation of the idea that Mycanae was the lost city of Agamemnon, Schliemann brought into the world a more lasting idea.

Tourists still visit the lost city, some no-doubt still believing that Agamemnon did come from here. But the idea of a ancient “super hero”, gloried in battle and carrying before him all his foes, to be betrayed and murdered by those closest to him inspired many more. Poets, writers and politicians over the decades following the excavation traveled to Mycanae. For some this was a near divine moment of inspiration. For others the ancient Swastika symbols inspired more terrible ideas – as shown by the signatures of Goebbels, Himmler and Goering in the guest book of a nearby hotel.

Since the Second World War, theories about those who lived at Mycanae, now identified with Bronze Age Greece, have waxed and waned at great speed. First seen as the home of some sort of Aryan super-hero, then re-imagined as a place of “pacifism and democracy”, the site is now viewed as a place of war and defence.

Cathy Gere’s book is an immensely readable account of the way that Mycanae has been imagined throughout history. Anyone who reads it, will only be inspired to read further and visit the place. The most remarkable fact that she brings out however, is that the first people to dream of what had happened in those ruins weren’t the western archaeologists desperate for riches. Rather it was the ancient Greeks themselves, those who returned there long after the Bronze Age civilisations had vanished. Just as the modern tourists must stare at the ruins and wonder, those Greeks couldn’t comprehend the giant walls of the city. For them, only a hero from their greatest epics could have lived there, and so the myth was born.

(*) Full title – The Tomb Of Agamemnon, Mycenae and the Search for a Hero

There is a fascinating interview with Mary Beard, editor of the Wonders of the World series, of which "The Tomb of Agamemnon" is part, here.

Related Reviews

Ray - The Rosetta Stone
Hopkins & Beard - The Colosseum

1 comment:

Imani said...

You make this book sound very intriguing. I don't usually read archaeology texts but this book, and the series, could be a good place to start.