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The Aegean

Randy H. Sooknanan

ASAG Journal

March 21, 2023

Aegean civilization is a general term for the Bronze Age civilizations of Greece that arose and flourished c. 3000–1000 BCE around the Aegean Sea. They include Crete, the Cyclades, the Greek mainland south from Thessaly, including the Peloponnese, and Macedonia, Thrace, and western Anatolia. 

The ancient Aegean region, which includes modern-day Greece and the surrounding islands, has a rich artistic tradition that spans thousands of years. The art of this region was heavily influenced by the culture, beliefs, and everyday life of the people who lived there.

One of the earliest examples of Aegean art is the Cycladic figurines, which date back to the third millennium BCE. These small, abstracted, and simplified figures were typically made from marble and represented the human form. The Minoans and Mycenaeans, who flourished on the islands and Peloponnese respectively, also left a great legacy of art.

Minoan art, which emerged on the island of Crete around 2800 BCE, is known for its vibrant colors, intricate designs, and depictions of nature, animals, and humans. Frescoes found in the Palace of Knossos, for instance, showcase detailed and colorful scenes of life in the Minoan world.

In contrast, Mycenaean art, which emerged on the Greek mainland during the second millennium BCE, was characterized by its emphasis on military exploits and death. This is visible in the elaborate funerary masks, armor, pottery, and frescoes uncovered in the royal tombs at Mycenae.

Greek art further evolved during the Dark Ages that followed, leading to the emergence of monumental styles - such as the Archaic and Classical Greek periods. The focus of Greek art shifted from the glorification of death and militarism to an emphasis on idealized human form and proportion, and the portrayal of gods, myths as well as scenes from daily life.

Overall, the art of the ancient Aegean region represents a range of styles, motifs, and themes that reflect the unique history, culture, and beliefs of the people who lived there. The legacy of this region, particularly of Greek art, continues to inspire art lovers and creators around the world today. 

Let's take a look at one example from the Mycenaean ...

"The Mask of Agamemnon"

"The Mask of Agamemnon" (Fig 1) is an ancient artifact discovered by archeologist Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 at the remains of Mycenae, a city in the northeastern Peloponnese region of Greece. This intricately designed funeral mask was made of beaten gold and depicts a man's eyes, nose, and mouth, as well as his beard, hair, and brows. It measures approximately 12 inches in height and 8 inches in width. Schliemann named the find after the legendary Greek king Agamemnon, who was the leader of the Greeks during the Trojan War.

At one point before it was dated, some scholars believed it to be a forgery based on Schliemann's tendency to embellish his discoveries and his unprofessional excavation methods. Although Schliemann thought the mask was that of Agamemnon, his theory was later disproven. It was confirmed to have been created outside of Agamemnon's time, to around 1550-1500 BCE. And so, since the mask dates back to the 16th century BCE, we can safely say it was most likely used as a burial mask for a wealthy Mycenaean ruler and not the mythical character from Homer's tales.

Despite the initial uncertainty about its origins and meaning, this artifact is considered one of the most significant works of art of the Mycenaean civilization because "The Mask of Agamemnon" symbolizes their culture's wealth and sophistication while demonstrating the skill of its artisans. It is now housed in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, where it is one of the most popular and frequently visited exhibits.


Fig 1. "The Mask of Agamemnon"
Description: Shaft Grave V, Grave Circle A, Mycenae.
Found in Tomb V in Mycenae by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876.

Gold death-mask known as the "Mask of Agamemnon". This mask depicts the imposing face of a bearded noble man. It is made of a gold sheet with repoussé details. Two holes near the ears indicate that the mask was held in place of the deceased's face with twine. The authenticity of the mask has been formally questioned due to the high level of detail, such as the beard and ears. No other mask of its type has a similar amount of detail.

National Archaeological Museum of Athens, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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