MIC – March 6, 2007 – 9:58am

Nade Proeva, Ph.D.

On 30 September 2002, at a distance of only 13 kilometers (Ohrid-Trebenište), in the Ohrid region a funeral gold mask, the fifth in the range, was again found which represents a rare practice in archeology. Namely, in less than a century, or more precisely, after 84 years, at such a small distance and in a country that cannot actually invest a lot in the expensive archaeological excavations, up to five gold masks have been found! This finding, like so many before, proves that Macedonia is indeed a Balkan archaeological pearl.
Normally, the finding of the fifth gold mask, as it was the case with the first, incited an enormous interest, with the only difference that the first one found caused particular interest with the scientific public whereas the fifth excited the wider public. Beside the admiration for the artistic quality, especially shared by the larger public, a number of questions were immediately imposed, like the time and the place of the manufacturing of the mask(s) and the other objects (the glove and the ring) discovered in the grave (the 132nd in the archeological notebook on the necropolis within Samoil’s fortress), the purpose of these luxurious objects, but mostly who were the people who had ordered them, that is who owned them. What were their names and who they actually were…?
Before answering these questions, let us recall the history of the discovery of the gold masks in the necropolis near the village of Trebenište, actually near the village of Gorenci, at 10 kilometers to the north of Ohrid. In this necropolis, on two occasions, two times two, four funerary masks were found in the so-called princely graves dating from the end of the 6th - beginning of the 5th century B.C., with rich funerary offering (gold and silver jewelry, silver and bronze vessels, glass and amber beads, black-figured vases, local pottery, arms, terracotta, and so on). The first two masks were found quite accidentally in the spring of 1918 during the war activities of the Bulgarian army, which had occupied this part of Macedonia. And yet, even under warring circumstances, some archeological excavations were made  by the archeologists B. Filow in collaboration with K. Shkorpil when, apart from the poor graves, seven princely graves (No I-VII) were discovered and the entire material was taken to the Archeological Museum in Sofia, where it  is even today.
In 1919, after the sanctioning of the partition of Macedonia to four parts the largest part of the Ohrid region belonged to the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenians (a part of the Ohrid Lake and 22 villages were given to Albania). Twelve years later, from 1930 to 1934, the Serbian archeologist N. Vulić discovered six other princely graves (No. VIII-XIII) in the same necropolis and two more gold masks that, together with the other findings, were taken to the National Museum in Belgrade.
The unexpected discovery of such rich graves and funeral gold masks from the Ohrid region, which date  an entire millennium after the only gold masks in the Balkans and in Europe in general found so far, surprised the scientists of that time, who immediately started solving the enigma about who had made these luxurious objects and for whom. We should immediately reject the thesis about foreigners who accidentally happened to be in the region and had been buried there, because not only does the necropolis have a continuity (VII-IV/III centuries B.C.), but it also has an internal cohesion. Namely, apart from the rich graves, so-called poor graves from the same period had been discovered as well, which undoubtedly proves that it was the local aristocracy, that is to say the ruling class that could order such luxurious objects.
The question about the origin of the objects was easier and more quickly resolved than the question about the ethnic origin of the inhabitants in the region. Namely, it is well known that at that time (the Archaic period), Corinth was the center for manufacturing metal objects, particularly made of bronze, although bronze vessels were not used in Hellas until the Hellenic age due to the different social structure: polis in Hellas, kingdoms in its “barbarous” periphery. The Corinthian colonies were also included in the manufacturing and distribution of these products, both the ones in the northeast and the ones on Chalcidice, where a specific style had been created, especially for the bronze vessels, the so-called Chalcidicean style. Today we know that the bronze vessels (like craters decorated with a frieze of horsemen or cows) found in Trebenište were manufactured in Corinth, and some in the South-Italic colonies, whereas the silver ones (rhythons, schifos) are believed to have been manufactured in the Ionic-Persian style, suitable to the taste of the local population. Namely, the connections between Macedonia and the eastern Mediterranean are very old, and the Macedonian artisans started to adapt and imitate different kinds of objects (Persian vessels, silver cups-calyx) relatively early. The jewelry in composite style was manufactured in the workshops on Chalcidice that, in spite of foreign influences, maintained the predilection and style of the local population (round-headed needles decorated with stylized palmettes as on the sarcophagus of Phillip II in filigree technique, needles with stylized poppy berries, etc.).
Taking into consideration that the gold masks were found in graves, it is obvious that they were intended for funeral purposes. In the funerary cult of the Macedonian tribes, the body of the deceased, particularly the open parts of the body - the faces, the palms, the soles, and so on, were covered with gold: masks, gloves, sandal soles, gold leaflets attached to the clothes and the arms, the so-called applications. Funerary masks or gold leaves have been found on other sites in Macedonia as well: in Beranci near Bitola, in Aiane (now Eani in Greece), near Gevgelija (the material has not been made public yet), in Sindos (Tekelievo), Zejtinlik, Mikro Karabournu near Thessaloniki, Pella, Amphipolis etc. (see map).

maski mapa

Unfortunately, there are still scholars who believe that this funerary cult in Macedonia is of Egyptian origin. There are scientists who believe that such covering of the body with gold leaves was taken over to Macedonia from Egypt via Crete, so they connect it with the legend of Minos and his search for Daedalus, or for his son Glaucias. However, they are not taking into consideration the huge chronological distances, which is not possible to be explained. So, the most logical and therefore the most acceptable explanation is the one of a convergence. This means that the people living on distant territories, for which we are sure that had no mutual contacts at all, came to identical or similar solutions and answers for similar or completely identical needs and issues. So, in Egypt, the bodies of the richest and the most powerful people, i.e. the pharaohs, were covered with gold masks. In Macedonia, and not only in the Ohrid region, the bodies of the most distinguished members of the communities, i.e. the leaders, were covered with gold. These were local rulers from the VI and V century B.C., the period before the state had been united by the most powerful dynasty – in this case the Argheads, the first dynasty of the Macedonian kingdom. Nevertheless, the biggest problem for the scholars was the question related to the ethnic origin of the owners of these luxurious objects, that is to say the inhabitants of the Ohrid region. According to the written sources, the first inhabitants of the Ohrid region known by their name were the Encheleis/Engelanes, and later the Dassaretai. Even before the discovery of the gold masks, there had been several opinions expressed as regards the origin of these tribes: Illyrian, an old population that was Illyrized as a part of the Illyrian state, Macedonian, Brygian, and Greek. When the first two gold masks were found in Gorenci/Trebenište 84 years ago, it was not just an epochal discovery, but an enigma for the scientific world, because with the ancient people(s) (Greeks, Thracians, Illyrians) from the Classical Age gold masks had not been discovered until then. The masks from Mycenae are dated thousand years before and they belong to the Achaeans, whose overall social structure and culture are entirely different from those of the peoples in the Classical Age, including the ancient Greeks. And since the Macedonians at that time, with a few exceptions, were considered Greeks, these masks were ascribed to their eastern neighbors - the Illyrians, whose border was then not precisely defined, first of all because of lack of sources. Namely, the ancient sources are very inaccurate in describing the countries and nations, as they were mostly based on oral information. So, archaeologists, linguists, and historians usually included the tribes (Encheleis/Engelanes, Paenests, etc.) in these border areas, which from the 4th century B.C. occasionally used to be parts of the Illyrian state, in the Illyrian group. However, the Engelanes, whose name was adapted in the old Greek language in the more familiar form Encheleis, were not included in the Illyrian tribes in the earliest written sources, but were always mentioned separately from the Illyrians. For example, Herodotus wrote that the Cadmeans from Thebes had come to the Encheleis i.e. Engelanes (Her., V, 61), whereas Apollodorus, after more than five centuries, wrote that they (Encheleis) had been fighting with the Illyrian tribes (Apol., Bibl., III, 5, 4). The Engelanes were mentioned as part of the Illyrian tribes for the first time in the IV century B.C. when the Greeks were more interested in the Adriatic coast (Pseudo-Sxylax, 24-25). That was the time of the first Illyrian state when the Engelanes fell under Illyrian authority and, normally, they were encompassed by the name Illyrians. In fact, the Engelanes and the other border tribes would fall under Illyrian power every time the Macedonian state got weak. Polybius, for instance, mentions the Engelanes in 217 B.C. referring to the battles for these territories between Philip V and the Illyrian King Scerdilaidas and this was their last mentioning in written sources (Polyb., V, 108, 8).

The common name Illyrians was used as the ancient authors knew very little about the tribes in the interior of the Balkan Peninsula, which can be seen from the data of the periegetes Pausanias: “…the Illyrians who were  called Encheleis before.” (Paus., IX, 5, 13). The Roman authors had better knowledge of the ethnic situation in the Balkans, so from the 2nd century B.C. they used the term “Illyrii proprie dicti”, which literary means “Illyrians in proper speaking”, i.e. Illyrians in the real sense of the word. Namely, the Romans were perfectly aware that the huge province of Illyricum, which later they will divide into two smaller provinces (Dalmatia and Pannonia), was not inhabited only by Illyrian tribes. Nevertheless, even they (Romans) predominantly used the administrative name Illyrians – as was the name of the province - for tribes on the same or similar economic, cultural, and social level living from Epirus in the south to Istria in the north. We should here mention the example with the name of the tribe that lived in the Ohrid-Struga region, as an indicative one. Namely, the ancient author Mnaseas, for whom we do not even know when he exactly lived, wrote that Engelanes was the same as Enkheleis, i.e. Encheleis, which is ancient Greek transcription of the Macedonian name of the tribe. It was long ago determined that in ancient Macedonian the sound “g” stood for “ch”. The author Stephanus of Byzantium from the VI century B.C. took over this data from Mnaseas, adding that the tribe was in Illyricum. This is taken as an evidence for the Illyrian origin of the Engelanes, without taking into consideration that Stephanus of Byzantium wrote about the prefecture Illyricum from his own time (which encompassed almost the entire Balkans), and not about “Illyria” in geographic or ethnic meaning.
These data from written sources can be supported with the new types of sources, like archeological and epigraphic ones, the analysis of which shows that the tribes living in the Ohrid region belonged to the Macedonian group of tribes.
The study of the onomastic data has shown that out of the 50 names found in the Ohrid-Struga region, no more than four can be classified as Illyrian. Some of the personal names can be classified neither as Illyrian, nor ancient Greek, or Thracian. Other names that were formerly considered to be Illyrian have many analogies in Asia Minor, which proves that they should be ascribed to the Bryges (i.e. to the Engelanes) who were living in this part of Macedonia before their migration to Asia Minor. And today we know that the Briygian tribes used to be the foundation/basis (substratum) in the ethno-genesis of the Ancient Macedonians.
Ever since the Bronze Age, the material culture is different from the one of the Illyrian tribes, and it is almost the same with the one in other parts of Macedonia from Pelagonia to Vergina (Kutleš). It should be stressed that the material culture in the valley of the River Devol (a region of the Engelanes/Dassaretai) is substantially different from the culture in the valley of the River Shkumbina (a region of the Illyrian tribes) starting from the end of the Bronze Age. So, the cultural group Bubusti-Tren is related to the one in Pelagonia, and it is completely different from the Illyrian regions – the border between the two cultural units was the River Shkumbina. This is yet another proof that the tribes living around Lake Ohrid (Engelanes, Dassaretai) were of Macedonian ethnicity. Nevertheless, in spite of the obvious differences between the Illyrian material culture (north of the River Shkumbina) and the Macedonian (south of the Rriver Shkumbina), some scholars still consider the material culture of the Engelanes as Illyrian, and some even go so far as to interpret the tumuli in Vergina/Kutleš as Illyrian, thus “proving” the alleged Illyrian origin of the Macedonians. This conclusion is also supported by other types of archeological material. For example, in the village of Dolno Selce near Podgradec, on the Albanian side of Lake Ohrid, a grave of the Macedonian type has been found, plundered back in the ancient times. However, one funeral offering was found left in the grave, which is a rectangular military clasp of bronze with an image of a horseman with Macedonian arms killing a barbarian, probably a Celtic, judging by his garments. Bearing in mind that the Celtic invasion did not cover south Illyria, and comparing it with the military clasps found in the northern parts of Illyria, we will see that they are also different in shape (the Illyrian are trapezoid), and the soldiers are equipped with totally different arms.  What is most important, there is a horror vacui in the presentation, which is not typical for the Macedonian art. We should here also mention the necropolis in Sindos, discovered in the 90s of the last century, in the heart of Macedonia, with an almost identical culture and funerary ritual that is contemporaneous with the culture in Gorenci/Trebenište (gold masks, arms, jewelry, etc.). It is of great importance in defining the material culture of the inhabitants from Trebenište and its surroundings, and thus for determining their ethnic origin. Namely, it has been proven that the characteristics of the funerary ritual in these necropolises are neither Greek nor Illyrian or Thracian. So far, funerary masks have been found only in Macedonia, and not on the territory of Ancient Greece. Gold masks were not used in the funerary cult of ancient Greeks: to connect them with the masks from the Cretan-Mycenaean culture is methodologically wrong, because the ethnic, the cultural, and the chronological differences between them are huge. Another characteristic of the Macedonian funerary ritual is the tripod for the funeral feast, which is not found with the Ancient Greeks, where the cult bed, the so-called “kline” was used for the funeral feast. These two most significant characteristics were indicated by the renowned French expert Claude Rolley after the discovery of the necropolis in Sindos. Apart from these characteristics, metal vessels were found in the necropolis in Gorenci/Trebenište that were not used at that time in Ancient Greece. All this proves that we are faced with  two different funerary customs. If we point out that the funerary ritual is one of the most significant elements of a religion, which, after the language, is the most important element in defining the ethnicity of the tribes, it is obvious that the Engelanes belonged to the group of Macedonian tribes.


Nade Proeva, Ph.D. is an eminent Macedonian historian and a professor of Ancient History at the Ss. Cyril and Methodius University, Skopje, Republic of Macedonia.
The author has graduated from the Faculty of Archaeology in Belgrade.
She specialized in epigraphic, numismatics, and religion at Sorbonne - Paris.
Her published works include over 50 scholarly articles on Ancient History and Archaeology, and two books about the history of Ancient Macedonia.


1. Filow B. – Schkorpil K., Die archaische Necropole von Trebenischte am Ochrida-See, Berlin und Leipcig, 1927; Vasić M., Nekropola u blizini Ohrida, Srpski kniževni glasnik, 25, Beograd, 1928.

2.N. Vulić, Jedan nov grob kod Trebeništa, Glasnik Skopskog Naučnog Društva XI, Skopje, 1932, p. 1 sqq; Id., Novi grobovi kod Trebeništa, Spomenik SAN, LXXVI, Beograd , 1933, 1-31; Id., Das neue Grab von Trebenischte, Arch. Anzeiger, Bb. III/IV, 1930, pp. 276-279; Id., Ein neues Grab bei Trebenischte, Jahreshefte d. Ost. Arch. Inst., 28, Wien, 1932, pp. 164-186; Id., Neue Graber bei Trebenischte, Arch. Anzeiger, 1933, pp. 459-486; Id., La nécropole archaïque de Trebenishte, Revue archéologique, Paris, 1934, pp. 26-38; B. Filov, Le nouveau tombeau de Trebenište, IBAI, VII, Sofia, 1932/33 (résumé); Id., Nouvelles trouvailles de Trebenište, IBAI, VII, Sofia, 1934 (résumé); Popovic Lj., Catalogue des objets découverts près de Trebenište, Beograd, 1956.

3. Found by H. Schliemann in 1876, in Mycenae, on Peloponnesus, almost half a century before the “Trebenishte-Ohrid” ones.

4. Cl. Rolley, Les bronzes grecs, Fribourg, 1983, p. 132.

5. Cl. Rolley, op. cit., p. 142; R. Vasić, Greek bronze vessels found in Yugoslavia, Živa Antika, XXXIII.2, Skopje, 1983, p.189.

6. Popović Lj, La vaisselle d’argent de la nécropole de Trebenište, Živa Antika, VIII, Skopje, 1958, p. 154, (résumé); V. Popović, Sur l’origine des objects grecs archaïques de la nécropole de Trebenište et le problème des masques d’or (résumé, p.30), Starinar, XV-XVI, Beograd, 1964/65, p. 19-20.

7. B. Barr-Sharrar, Eastern Influence on the Toreutic art of Macedonia, Ancient Macedonia, IV, Thessaloniki, 1986, p. 79-81.


9.. Lately N. G. L. Hammond, Epirus, Oxford, 1967, as well as all the Albanian authors without an exception.

10. F. Papazoglou, Les royaumes d’Illyrie et de Dardanie, in Les Illyriens et les Albanais, Beograd, SANU 1988, p. 178, n. 20. We should say that in his earlier works, F. Papazoglou supported the thesis about the Illirian origin of the Enheleans.

11. A. J. R. Wace – A. M. Woodward, Ann. BSA. 18, 1909, p. 167; Fr. Geyer, RE, XIV, 1938, s.v. Makedonia, col. 638-701; N. Proeva, Enchéléens-Dassarètes-Illyriens, Acte du II coll. Intern. “L’Illyrie méridionale et l’Epire dans l’Antiquité Clemont-Ferrand, 1990, Paris 1993,  p. 197/8.

12. W. Pająkowski, Wer waren Illyrii proprie dicti und wo siedelte man si an?, God. CBI, XVIII/16, Sarajevo, 1980, p. 124-128.

13. M. B. Hadzopoulos, Limite d’expansion macédonienne en Illyrie, Acte du I coll. Intern. “L’Illyrie méridionale et l’Epire dans l’Antiquité, Clemont-Ferrand, 1984, Paris 1987, p. 82. N. 15.

14. See. N. Proeva, Enchéléens-Dassarètes-Illyriens, p. 197/8.

15. It is first of all related to Albanian scientists.

16. N. Ceka, Les tombes monumentales de la Basse Selce, Iliria, IV, Tirana, 1976, p. 367-369.

17. D. Rendić-Miočević, L’art des Illyriens à l’epoque antique (résumé), in Culture spirituelle des Illyriens, Sarajevo, 1984, p. 76.

18. The metal vessels and jewelry found in the necropolis in Trebenište are not used in Greece, see n. 4.

19. Cl. Rolley, Du nouveau sur la Macédoine antique, Archéologia, no 188, Paris, mars 1984, p. 35-37.