When I first visited Greece in 1987, I sent approximately 40 postcards to my friend Donald, with whom I had studied at Oxford. Each one was filled with as many words as I could fit on it in the tiniest legible block letter handwriting I could manage. We were as close as two young friends could be at the time. All of one’s life, we long for more friendships of that fierce sort. They are probably only possible in that strange golden period between adolescence and the moment we settle down to live–and mating. I would give anything to have those postcards back now. They represent my first impressions of Greece, when I was a young classicist, seeing the world I had only read about for the first time.
We are in Santorini now. My daughter and I spent two days in Athens, then took the ferry to Santorini, where we are luxuriating in the simple joys of being in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Tomorrow we return to the mainland, rent a car, and meander down into Mycenaean sites.
Today’s postcard: The Mask of Agamemnon
Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) grew up believing the Homeric epics were true stories, not fables from Greek myth. After amassing some wealth, he ventured to the northwest coast of Turkey in 1869 to dig for Troy. He found it and shocked the skeptical academic world. Then he turned his amateur attention to Argos, the home of the Mycenaean king Agamemnon, who launched the thousand ships (1180 BC) to recover Helen, who had run off with the Trojan playboy Paris. Schliemann excavated the megaron at Mycenae in 1870, confirmed that it was precisely the sort of palace described in Homer, and uncovered one of the greatest archaeological treasuries in history. Among the treasures at Mycenae was a gold death mask. Schliemann, who w
as unashamedly romantic, immediately decided that it was the death mask of Agamemnon, who was killed by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Igisthus on the day of his homecoming, after the ten-year siege of Troy.
Schliemann wrote a telegram to the King of Greece to announce his discovery: “Today I have looked upon the face of Agamemnon!”
Modern archaeologists doubt that the mask could be of Agamemnon, but it is still one of the greatest single object ever uncovered from underneath the surface of the earth. It is housed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. We rushed to it the moment we passed through the turnstile of the museum, and gazed on it with a sense of pure joy and wonder.
Nearby, we found several dozen tablets containing Linear B, the pre-Greek script that was used as a kind of palace accounting system, but which had also (by ca. 1600 BC) evolved into a kind of early Greek alphabet. Cracking Linear B (accomplished by British amateur Michael Ventris) was one of the most important portals to our understanding of early Greek (and Homeric) culture. But that is another postcard.