Unmasking Fakes

Nov 5, 2022 | Diggings Online | 0 comments

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Ever since Lorenzo Valla uncovered the forgery of the “Donation of Constantine” – a hoary old document which purported to record the gift by the first Christian emperor of temporal authority to the papacy – some scholars have attempted to build their reputation by questioning the authenticity of things.

At first these people performed a valuable service, for there is no question but that there was plenty to question and no great accumen was called for to discern that the feather from the wing of the archangel Gabriel was likely to be of dubious authenticity. By the time these easy targets had been disposed of, however, two unfortunate things had come to pass: the first was that cavilling and carping had become accepted as legitimate scholarly activity; the second was that there was a paucity of worthwhile objects of doubtful provenance.

As a result those with scholarly pretensions began to question even those things concerning which there was no reasonable doubt. For example, German scholars of this school began to criticise the Homeric corpus, first suggesting that Homer had taken over some of the work of earlier poets, then relegating him to the mere position of editor or redactor of these putative earlier poets, and finally denying that there ever was a Homer of any sort.

(As an amusing aside, the Hebrew scholar Cassuto wrote a little monograph tracing the links between German critical theories concerning Homer and those concerning the Pentateuch. One rather gets the impression that the alleged faults in both existed more in the eyes of the scholars themselves rather than in the actual documents.)

Today there is virtually nothing left that has not been questioned or doubted in some way and those who wish to gain this particular form of notoriety are forced to seek ever more arcane subjects on which to exercise their skills. With an eye on the American market, it helps if you can work in some sort of conspiracy theory to spice things up a bit.

There was, for example, the gentleman who took the undoubted impatience in the scholarly world over the leisurely way in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were being handled and turned it into a vast conspiracy in which atheist experts connived with Vatican priests – some of them, no doubt (gasp! horror!) Jesuits – to hide the “fact” that the Dead Sea Scrolls contained material that would bring Christianity crashing to the ground.

Well, now the scrolls have been fully published and we may wonder just how much the cause of human happiness has been advanced by the knowledge that fragment 27Q1234567 has the letter “L” on the front and what may be a “Z” or possibly a dead termite on the rear. The only thing certain is that Christianity is in fine form and the carping chappy’s books have been remaindered.

Recently another of these aspirants to fame, a certain David A. Traill, has published a book the main premise of which seems to be that the so-called Mask of Agamemnon, discovered by Schliemann at Mycenae, is a fake.

The arguments seem somewhat dubious. In the first place there is an alleged stylistic incongruity between the mask and other objects found in the tomb; in the second there is the fact that Schliemann was not always strictly truthful in what he recorded in his diary.

Given that the masks found in the Mycenaean tombs are fairly unique, it is difficult to know exactly what style they should have followed. There are a number of the masks, some of gold and some of electrum, and all bear a stylistic similarity, so that if one is doubted, all must be doubted – but it is far more reasonable to believe that all are genuine. Any suggestion that Schliemann might have had any of the masks made are disproved by the fact that an electrum mask was found in the 1950s in grave circle B outside the citadel walls near the ticket booth.

It is true that Schliemann did put things in his archaeological diary that were not true, but these are to do with his personal life, including his Greek wife Sophie. It was to his advantage to enhance the romantic aspects of his background and his marriage to a girl he had never met. However so far as is known Schliemann was always strictly accurate in what he wrote about his excavations. The truth there was sufficiently startling – and perhaps his respect for genuine scholarship was strong enough – that he had no need to embroider it in any way.

If you want to see the masks for yourself and reach your own conclusions, you should come on the Greek tour in 2002, for all six masks are in the Athens Archaeological Museum, together with a substantial treasure of gold jewellery and other objects. If, however, you wish to follow further in Schliemann’s footsteps you will have to do so on your own. It is possible to stay in Schliemann’s room at the Hotel Belle Helene at Mycenae; the room is number 3 and it is furnished with an iron bed and period furniture. Those on the Diggings Tour of Greece will be staying in 5-star hotels with modern furnishings and considerable luxury. There will be no need for exaggeration in your diaries.

January 2002

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