xxxxxThe German Heinrich Schliemann made a vast fortune as a business man, and in 1870 was able to fulfil his ambition to prove that Homer’s city of Troy - as described in his Iliad - was not a legend but an historical fact. By 1873, excavating at Hissarlik in Asia Minor, he discovered the remains of nine cities and named one of them as the site of Troy (the wrong one, as it so happened). He also found a cache of jewellery which, he claimed, had belonged to Priam, the King of Troy. Then in 1876 he uncovered five graves in the ancient city of Mcyenae (near Athens) and announced that he had discovered the tomb and death mask of Agamemnon, the legendary King of Mycenae, the man who had waged war against Troy. Later, this find was also found to be dated incorrectly. Even at the time, some critics felt that Schliemann had found evidence all too conveniently to support his preconceived and passionately held beliefs. Be that the case or not, he did make an important contribution to archaeology. He made probable the existence of a city named Troy; he uncovered a wealth of knowledge about the Aegean Bronze Age (continued as we shall see by the English archaeologist Arthur Evans in 1900 (Vc)); and, by his many books and newspaper despatches, he aroused a great deal of public interest and excitement over the discoveries of earlier civilisations. This served, even in the short term, to make archaeology a more exact science and the archaeologist more accountable for his findings.

HEINRICH SCHLIEMANN  1822 - 1890  (G4, W4, Va, Vb, Vc)


Schliemann: date and artist unknown. Aeneas: detail, by the Italian artist Federico Barocci (1526-1612), 1598 – Galleria Borghese, Rome. Map (Greece): licensed under Creative Commons – /wiki/:talk:troy. Hissarlik: by the Scottish painter William Simpson (1823-1899), c1877 – University of Arkansas, USA. Treasure: Pushkin Fine Arts Museum, Moscow. Mask: National Archaeological Museum, Athens. Mycenae: an impression, date and artist unknown. Sophia: date and artist unknown, “Jewels of Helen” – Pushkin Fine Arts Museum, Moscow. Mausoleum: built by the German-born Greek architect Ernst Ziller (1837-1923), 1892. Zeus: by the Romanian photographer Andreas Savin. Hermes: Archaeological Museum of Olympia, Elis, Greece.

xxxxxThe German Heinrich Schliemann, a man of outstanding talent and somewhat questionable integrity, came to archaeology late in life after making his fortune as a successful business man. His discoveries at the sites of Troy in Asia Minor, and Mycenae in southern Greece threw light on the Early Bronze Age of Greek civilisation, and also gave some credence to his belief that Homer’s epic poem the Iliad, though seen as a tale of myth and legend, also had an historical basis. Though the accuracy of his research can be called into question, and others had made earlier discoveries into Aegean prehistory, he can rightly be called the “Father of Mycenaean Archaeology”.

xxxxxSchliemann was born in the small village of Neubukow in the duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, the son of a pastor. He spent a year in a grammar school at Neustrelitz, but then his father was accused of embezzling church funds and money became scarce. He was forced to leave school at the age of 14, and he became apprenticed to a grocer at Furstenberg. Over the next five years he studied in his own time, determined to become wealthy and do something with his life. He became particularly interested in Greek history and Homer’s epic poem the Iliad, and he began to show a remarkable ability at mastering foreign languages, including Russian and Ancient Greek.

xxxxxIn 1841, because of a back injury, he was obliged to leave the grocer’s shop, and he chose to go to sea as a cabin boy. Fate then took a hand. His ship was wrecked off the Dutch coast and he ended up working as a bookkeeper in an Amsterdam trading firm. Here his knowledge of languages proved his key to success. In 1846 he was sent to St Petersburg as an agent where, apart from working for his company, he made a deal of money by starting a business of his own. The early 1850s found him in California where, taking advantage of the gold rush, he set up his own bank and made another fortune buying and selling gold dust. He returned to Russia in August 1852 and, during the Crimean War, substantially increased his already sizeable bank balance by working as a military contractor.

xxxxxIn 1858, with more than sufficient funds, he retired from business in order to fulfil his lifelong ambition: the discovery of Homer’s Troy. This had been his aim, he later claimed, since the age of eight when, in a book he had been given for Christmas, he saw a picture of Pius Aeneas fleeing with his father and son from the flames that were engulfing the legendary city (here illustrated). From then on he was committed to finding and proving that Troy was not a legend but an historical fact. Now, aged 36, he began to prepare for this task by spending long periods in Greece, Italy and Syria, and then making a world tour which included visits to India, China and Japan.

xxxxxIn 1868 he began work in earnest. He settled in Greece and began a study of the Homeric sites in his search for Troy (arrowed on map). In Asia minor there were two possible locations, but he quickly dismissed the one at Bunarbashi. It was too far from the sea and had no view of Mount Ida, and this did not fit in with Homer’s description of Troy. However, the second site, a man-made mound at Hissarlik, did meet these criteria. Furthermore,xthis mound had been seen as a possible site of Troy way back in 1822 by the Scottish geologist Charles Maclaren (1782-1866), and it was currently being excavated by the English archaeologist Frederick Calvert (1828-1908). In 1869 Schliemann published his conclusions in Ithaca, the Peloponnese and Troy, the first of his many books. In it he also referred to his study of Mycenae, an ancient city about 50 miles south-west of Athens. Concerning this site, he maintained that the grave of Agamemnon, the “legendary” King of Argos (and that of his wife Clytemnestra) were not the vaulted tombs situated outside the city, but were to be found within the city itself. He now had to substantiate his claims.

xxxxxHe began excavating at Hissarlik in 1870, assisted by his second wife, a young Greek woman named Sophia, and working in partnership with Calvert, who owned half the mound. By 1873, using a large shovel rather than a small trowel, they had dug a shaft over 50 feet deep and discovered the remains of no less than nine “cities”, one built upon the other. Schliemann discarded the last, earliest one because it appeared to have been destroyed by an earthquake (Troy was destroyed by fire) but chose - erroneously - the one above this (no.8) as being the city referred to in Homer’s Iliad. And, having presumed that the king of Troy, Priam, must have hidden away his valuables just in case the Greeks captured the city, he then searched for and indeed found a horde of gold jewellery which, surprisingly enough, had not been plundered. He named this “Priam’s Treasure” (a somewhat dubious assumption) and managed to smuggle most of it out of Turkey (part illustrated here). The Ottoman government, getting wind of this, imposed a heavy fine upon him, and from then on kept a closer eye upon his future excavation work, carried out in 1876 and 1878-1879 ( when a small cache of gold and silver jewellery was found) and 1882-1883. Schliemann published his early findings in Troy and its Ruins in 1874. Many scholars viewed them with a great deal of scepticism, but they were accepted by the public at large and, so we are told, by the prime minister of England William Gladstone, himself a classical scholar.

xxxxxInx1876 Schliemann turned his attention to Mycenae, the legendary home of Agamemnon, the Greek leader in the Trojan War. There, inside the citadel’s walls, he found a circle of five shaft graves containing 16 bodies together with a large number of gold, silver, bronze and ivory objects, and a variety of weaponry, such as rapiers and short swords. And among the grave goods were three death masks, one of which, Schliemann declared - again mistakenly - was that of the king himself. He cabled to a Greek newspaper, “I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon”. On the strength of this find, he believed he had found the tombs of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, and claimed to have done so in his next book Mycenae, published in 1878.

xxxxxIn his last two seasons in 1882-1883 Schliemann had the assistance of Wilhelm Dorpfeld (1853 -1940) a talented German archaeologist who had worked on the excavation of ancient Olympia. He brought a more systematic approach to the work at Hissarlik, and eventually succeeded in providing a chronology for the successive levels of the site. In 1884 he accompanied Schliemann to the fortified site of Tiryns, near Mycenae, and uncovered a Mycenaean palace of the 2nd century BC. After Schliemann’s death in 1890 - caused by a serious ear infection - Dorpfeld continued to work at Hissarlik and produced a detailed architectural plan of level VI, the level then thought to be the site of ancient Troy.

xxxxxSchliemann’s findings both at Troy and Mycenae were substantial, but they were seriously flawed timewise. The items of treasure alleged to have been discovered at Troy were dated well over a thousand years before Homer’s Trojan War, and the artefact unearthed at Mycenae, including the famous death mask, belonged to a period some three hundred years before the time of Agamemnon. Furthermore, his known tendency to be economical with the truth, both in his private life and his dealings with the Ottoman government, cast some doubt upon his motives and judgment in the field of archaeology. His declared aim to “establish an historical fact”, was laudable, but with it came a temptation to make his findings conveniently fit his preconceived and passionately held beliefs. Some archaeologists have even gone so far as to suggest that he fabricated some of the evidence, but that is purely conjecture.

xxxxxNevertheless, Schliemann’s immense contribution to Aegean prehistory in particular and to the study of archaeology in general must be recognised. Firstly, he discovered the remains of Greek civilisation in the Early Bronze Age, and paved the way for an extension of this knowledge, accomplished on the island of Crete, as we shall see, by the English archaeologist Arthur Evans in 1900 (Vc). Secondly, he provided to a large extent the strong possibility - if nothing more - of an ancient city of Troy. Homer’s Iliad was full of myth and legend, maybe, but Troy - and, indeed, other references - seemed to have had a basis in history. Certainly the pieces of armour and weaponry discovered bore a resemblance to Homer’s description of these items. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Schliemann, by his books, his numerous newspaper articles, and his personal skill as a promoter - enhanced by a liberal amount of “spin” - made archaeology interesting and exciting, and put it firmly into the public domain. This was to serve, even in the short term, to make archaeology a more exact science, and the archaeologist more accountable for his findings.

xxxxxIncidentally, Schliemann managed to smuggle out his so-called “Priam Treasure” and some of it (the “jewels of Helen”) are seen here adorning his young wife Sophia. In 1880, however, encouraged by his friend the pathologist Rudolf Virchow (then President of the Berlin Society for Anthology, Ethnology and Prehistory), he donated it to the Imperial Museum in Berlin. During the Second World War, it was seized by Russian troops from a bunker below the museum and taken back to Russia, but the Soviet government denied any knowledge of it. In 1993, however, following the collapse of Communism, it appeared on display in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow. ……

xxxxx…… After a great deal of research, Dorpfeld eventually came to the conclusion that the ancient city of Troy was at level VI (Schlieman had excavated level II), but a later study by the American archaeologist Carl Blegen, carried out in the 1930s, now suggests that it was more likely on level VII! ……

xxxxx…… While excavating at Hissarlik, Schliemann uncovered a number of crooked crosses or “swastikas” - prehistoric mystic symbols, possibly denoting good fortune or well being. Originating, it is thought, in Ancient India and found in classical antiquity, this symbol was later adopted by the Nazi socialist party of Germany in the 1930s and, as a consequence, has come to represent extreme nationalism. ……

xxxxx…… Following his death, Schliemann’s body was taken to Proto Nekrotafio in central Athens and interred in a mausoleum he had had constructed. It is built in the style of an ancient Greek temple, and the frieze surrounding the building shows him working at Mycenae and other sites. The front wall bears the inscription: For the Hero Schliemann.

xxxxxAnother important excavation at this time, and one in which Wilhelm Dorpfeld played a part, was conducted in Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympic Games, from 1875 to 1881. The central section of the sanctuary was uncovered, including the Temples of Zeus and Hera, and some 14,000 objects were discovered. Among these were the sculptures Nike (or “Winged Victory”) by Paeonius, c420 BC, and Hermes with the Infant Dionysus by Praxiteles, c350 BC (illustrated), the sculptor who, by his Aphrodite of Cnidus of the same period, is credited with starting the tradition of the life-size free-standing female nude in Greek sculpture. The man in charge of the excavations at Olympia was the German archaeologist and historian Ernst Curtius (1814-1896). Before starting the work he willingly agreed that all the artifacts found by his team would remain in Greece, and he kept to his word. He was professor of classical archaeology at the University of Berlin, and his major work was his five-volume History of Greece, completed in 1867.