By Robert Payne
For some of my quasi-pleasure, quasi-professional reading for the past week or so, I read through an old biography of the man who is sometimes called the “father” of modern archaeology – although modern archaeologists would more often than not prefer to disown him – Heinrich Schliemann, the excavator of Troy, Mycenae, and other sites from the very early history of Greece. I picked the book up at our local library's annual book fair earlier this year with the intention of reading it before I got to early Greece in my Ancient History class this fall – and of course ended up barely making it in under the wire. I taught this stuff yesterday morning. But the book is quite good – light, popular history, it nevertheless gave me a better understanding of this man whom I'd frankly only met in various textbooks and surveys of Greek history, never having read anything specifically about him. My specific historical specialization is the Middle Ages, after all.
Schliemann was a very interesting character. “Character” is indeed the right word. “Scoundrel” could be applied as well. He was the son of a minor Lutheran pastor, who grew up in relative poverty in central Germany. When his father remarried after the death of his mother, he was basically thrown out on his own. He was a hopeless romantic from childhood, but cruel reality (including shipwreck soon after he had boarded a ship bound for America) forced him to become a shrewd businessman, eventually one of the richest men of the nineteenth century. He was an accomplished linguist, picking up languages very quickly. He hobnobbed with presidents and kings. His romanticism was suppressed until he reached middle age, by which time he had made three fortunes (one in the California Gold Rush) and an unhappy marriage with three children. He was a miserable man in the depths of despair when there came to his mind the stories of Homer he had listened to as a child. They became his obsession. Even while in the process of divorcing his Russian wife – falsely declaring himself to be a citizen of the United States to avail himself of the lax divorce laws of the state of Indiana to divorce her in absentia – he solicited friends in Greece to find him a Greek wife. He had certain specifications: his prospective bride should be poor, beautiful, enthusiastic for Homer, dark-haired, well-educated, the possessor of a good and loving heart. They presented him with Sophia Engastramenos, age seventeen (he was 47 but looked ten years older). He met her, quizzed her on Homer, married her – and they headed off to prove the truth of Homer’s stories in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Yes, she was essentially a mail-order bride, but it was a good match. Sophia was right there in the middle of it, right down in the trenches as often as not. And she gave him two beloved children, named Andromache (after Hector of Troy's wife) and Agamemnon.
A little perspective: In the 1800s, the Trojan War and much of pre-Classical Greek history was considered more myth and legend than anything else with no basis in fact. There was no “Bronze-Age Greek History,” per se. Remember also that there was no archaeological “science.” Schliemann basically went with the Iliad in one hand and money in the other. He hired diggers to dig. He had an indomitable personality. He was also a bit of a rogue, quite unscrupulous. Hence the continuous rumors even during his life that he “salted” his digs – bought up artifacts, planted them during the night to be “discovered” by day! It’s probably largely untrue….
In any case: Schliemann went to western Turkey, the traditional location of Troy, ca. 1870, and, simply following the Iliad’s indications of geography, determined to dig at Hissarlik. It’s a big hill, previously untouched because local tradition held a much larger hill with more apparent ruins about ten miles to the south was Troy. Schliemann said, “That hill’s too far from the sea to match the description given in the Iliad.” He dug at Hissarlik, and found … Well, not “Troy” as a great city, but an impressive enough find – a stack of cities, repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt. One, about midway through the stack, is now generally accepted as “Homer’s Troy.” There is evidence of a siege, sacking, and burning at about the right time, turn of the 13th-12th cs. BC. And he did find treasure, albeit at an earlier level – there's an amusing story about how he managed to smuggle it out of the excavation right under the nose of the Turkish official overseeing the dig by hiding it under Sophia's red shawl. (From then to the end of his days he always sported a red pocket handkerchief.) “Smuggle,” because regardless of any agreement he'd made with the authorities, Schliemann meant the treasure to be his. He managed to smuggle it out of Turkey and held on to it until virtually the day he died. Regardless of the ethics of that, the news of Troy's discovery electrified the world – and largely inspired the birth of bronze-age Greek studies. It directly inspired Sir Arthur Evans, the excavator of Knossos and discoverer of the Minoan Cretan civilization.
And five years later Schliemann did it again. With considerably stricter oversight from the Greek government, he excavated Mycenae in the northern Peloponnesus, and for all intents and purposes discovered the great Myceanaean civilization, the first truly Greek, European civilization. He found more treasure, including the famous death mask he believed to be that of King Agamemnon, sacker of Troy, himself (it wasn't). There were other great accomplishments as well, and amazingly he managed to keep his hand in his business interests all the while. This book covers all of that in a sympathetic but not idol-worshipping portrait of this very important man. It effectively captures his personality and his obsession with gold and treasure in addition to the historicity of the Homeric tales. Near the end, the tale of how “his” treasure, the Gold of Troy, ended up bequeathed by him to the nation that was in fact most sceptical of his claims, his own native Germany (he was far more a celebrity in England and America), is fascinating in itself. Ultimately, no matter what, Schliemann could not turn his back on his fatherland – so the artifacts from Troy ended up in Berlin … until the end of World War II when they disappeared into the Soviet Union.
He died in 1890 and has been a figure of controversy for his methods ever since. But he is one of the “three gifted amateurs” whom I talk about in my Ancient History and Ancient Greece classes as establishing, as much as anyone since, our view of the earliest history of Greece – Schliemann, Evans, and Michael Ventris, the man who “broke the code” of the “Linear B” writing associated with the Mycenaeans and proved that they did indeed speak an early form of the Greek language. As the first of those, regardless of his methods, Schliemann deserves to be remembered.
A passage in the last chapter sums up Schliemann's contradictory and ironic legacy: “With his death his new life began. The man who had conjured gold out of the earth had been a legend while he lived, but he was still more of a legend when he was dead. His rages, his arrogance, his embarrassing eccentricities were forgotten. They remembered his faith in Homer and the vastness of his determination to reveal the mysteries buried in the earth. His vices became virtues – his ruthless egoism no more than natural pride, his exaggerations the pardonable excesses of a man impatient for discovery. Men forgot that he retained to the end of his life the habits which had made him a successful bank clerk ….
“Yet the legend which depicted him as a man of indomitable spirit, standing upon the battlements of Troy and waging implacable war on his enemies was sufficiently truthful to be credible. When his coffin was laid on trestles in the hall of his palace [in Athens], a bust of Homer was placed at its head; there was something wonderfully appropriate in the gesture, even though in all his life Schliemann never discovered any object dating from Homeric times. [The Gold of Troy and the Mask of Agamemnon both were from too early, although Schliemann himself did not know that. It remained to later excavators to make sense of it.]
“So in the end he became one of the great forerunners, the man who opened the way, the first of the archeologists ..., the pure romantic who threw the windows wide open and let the air in. ...” (pp. 257-258)
Thanks for reading, and Cheers!