On Disputed Authenticity
Updated: Jul 26
While travelling across Europe in the summer of 1975, a friend and I met up with some other young backpackers in Athens and rented a car in which we set of on a drive across the Peloponnesian peninsula. After four and a half decades many of the experiences of that sojourn are still surprisingly clear in my memory, and high among these was the visit to Mycenae. The ancient city is situated on a low hill surrounded by steep ravines and taller hills with rocky outcroppings, bare of any vegetation other that green and golden grasses and scatterings of remarkably late blooming poppies and other wildflowers. The site was almost empty of visitors, and we walked up the zigzagging path to approach the Cyclopean walls. Here was the famed Lion Gate with its huge stone gateposts and lintel supporting two enormous lions squeezed into a triangular space and reaching up either side of a central column, their heads raised like baying wolves. There were no arches here and no domes. Everything was triangular or conical: the gate, the water tunnel, and the monumental royal tombs in the necropolis at the top of the hill. Among these tombs was the so-called Tomb of Agamemnon, identified as such by the German businessman and pioneer/amateur archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, who uncovered it and found the gold funeral mask that allegedly led him to make the famous remark: "I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon". In fact, this mask, and the body it covered appear to have predated that Homeric character by about four centuries. No matter. It was a magnificent prize and it boosted Schliemann's reputation. In recent years, however, there have been outspoken proponents of the idea that the mask was not only incorrectly identified with Agamemnon but was indeed a fraud perpetuated by Schliemann. These opponents suggest that it may have been found elsewhere, or worse still, was manufactured for Schliemann, based on other Mycenaean masks.
Not all archaeological discoveries are all they are claimed to be. Another problematic example is the Holy Lance discovered by Peter Bartholomew, a hapless Provençal churchman and visionary who with some license we might regard as the first archaeologist of the Crusader period. The lance he dug up in the floor of the Church of St Peter in Antioch was that which, according to tradition, was used by the centurion Longinus to pierce the side of Jesus when he was crucified. Like the Cross itself it became a holy relic and was already so regarded in the fourth century when Eusebius of Caesarea described the lance or spear in a reliquary that was carried into battle by the army of Constantine the Great as a protective holy standard:
...a long spear, overlaid with gold. On the top was fixed a wreath of gold and precious stones, and within this the symbol of the Saviour’s name, two letters indicating the name of Christ by means of its initial characters – those letters the emperor was in the habit of wearing on his helmet at a later period. From the spear was also suspended a cloth, a royal piece, covered with a profuse embroidery of most brilliant precious stones and which, being also richly interlaced with gold, presented an indescribable degree of beauty to the beholder. The emperor constantly made use of this sign of salvation as a safeguard against every adverse and hostile power, and commanded that it should be carried at the head of all his armies.
By the sixth century the pilgrim, Antoninus of Piacenza (AD 570) claimed to have seen the Holy Lance in the Basilica of Mount Zion in Jerusalem , from where it was taken along with other relics during the Persian invasion of 614. Perhaps, like the True Cross it was restored to Jerusalem in 629 by Heraclius, for the pilgrim Arculf claims that he saw it in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in c. 670: The soldier's lance, with which he pierced our Lord's side, which has been broken in two pieces, is also kept in the portico of the Martyrdom, inserted in a wooden cross.
Here the history of the Holy Lance takes on a greater degree of legend, myth, and folklore than perhaps any relic other than the True Cross itself. The main part of the lance, that is, the shaft, was what Peter Bartholomew had supposedly discovered during Kerbogah’s siege of Antioch on 14 June 1098, after its location had been exposed to him in a dream. The discovery at a time of low moral led to a revival of the army’s spirit and enabled the crusaders to break the siege. Muslim accounts not surprisingly discredited it as a fraud. Ibn al-Athīr referred to it as a hoax perpetrated by a monk who had himself concealed the lance in the church prior to its so-called miraculous discovery. It was soon to lose most of its repute even among the Christians. To ensure its authenticity Peter Bartholomew was made to undergo a trial by fire, a test that for him and for the lance had disastrous results. Peter suffered severe burns and succumbed within a few days of the ordeal. The authenticity of the lance had been tainted. It nonetheless was carried by Raymond of Toulouse when he went into battle against the gathering Fatimid forces at Ascalon on August 10, 1099. It appeared again in the Crusade of 1101 when Raymond joined the crusaders at Nicomedia. It seems to have been lost during that crusade, although a piece of the shaft was supposedly preserved in Jerusalem in the 1220s and another piece was brought as a relic to Ardres, south-east of Calais.
More remarkable still is the mixture of fact and fiction surrounding yet another part of the Holy Lance. According to the seventh century Greek chronicle, Chronicon Paschale, the head of the lance was deposited in the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in 629 AD.  It was later housed along with other important relics in the Church of the Virgin of the Pharos, a chapel built in the southern part of the Great Palace of Constantinople, where it was set in an icon. One version of its history has the lancehead purchased by King Louis IX from the Latin Emperor, Baldwin II. In this account, Saint Louis than had it placed with the Crown of Thorns in Sainte Chapelle in Paris, from where during the French Revolution it was removed to the Bibliothèque Nationale and subsequently lost. In another and more convoluted history recorded by Gallus Anonymus, the twelfth century author of the Gesta principum Polonorum (Deeds of the Princes of the Poles), at the end of the tenth century a replica of the lancehead passed from Otto I (912-973) into the hands of Boleslaw I of Poland. The original however, remained as part of the Imperial regalia which from the fifteenth century was kept in Nuremberg. In 1796, with the advance of French troops, the regalia were removal to Regensburg and subsequently to Vienna. When Hitler annexed Austria to the German Reich in 1938 the lancehead was returned to Nuremberg and later hidden, only to be found by the U.S. troops in 1945 and returned to Vienna after the war. And yet another claimed head belonging to the Holy Lance is located in St Peter’s Rome, and there also is one in Echmiadzin (Vagharshapat), the religious capital of Armenia. The latter was first recorded in a thirteenth century and in 1805 it was moved to Tbilisi, Georgia, and later returned to Echmiadzin in Armenia where it is now in the city museum, preserved in a 17th century reliquary.
Whatever the authenticity of Schliemann's golden funeral mask at Mycenae, and despite the inaccuracy of his initial dating of the burial, the discovery enhanced his reputation and has left an enduring impression of the wealth and richness of the Mycenaean culture. So too, the dispute over the authenticity of the Holy Lance is secondary to the influence it had on the crusaders at Antioch where it motivated the dispirited troops and gave them victory, and to the enduring place it has held through subsequent centuries in religious belief.
1 The event appears in John 19:34.
2 Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine, Chapter XXXI.
3 Antoninus Martyr, Of the Holy Places Visited by Antoninus Martyr (Circ. 560-570 A.D.), trans., Aubrey Stewart, Wilson, CW, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, London, 1896, pp. 14. 4 Arculf, Early Travels in Palestine, ed. Thomas Wright, London, 1848, pp. 2.
5 A.C. Krey, "Raymond d'Aguilers' account of the discovery of the Holy Lance", trans., The First Crusade: The Accounts of Eye-Witnesses and Participants, Princeton, 1921, pp. 176-82.
6 D. S. Richards, trans., The Chronicle of Ibn al-Athir for the Crusading Period from al-Kamil fi'l-Ta'rikh, London, 2008, p. 16. 7 Chronicon Paschale vol. 1, in Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Bizantinae, Bonn, 1832, pp. 704-705. 8 The Deeds of the Princes of the Poles, transl., by Paul W. Knoll and Frank Schaer, Budapest/New York, 2003, p. 37.