A dishonest digger

Schliemann of Troy

June 9, 1995

Heinrich Schliemann, self-made millionaire and excavator of Troy and Mycenae, has always had an uncertain reputation. Disliked and often attacked by his contemporaries, he succeeded in winning international fame as an excavator, and left behind a series of books which have immortalised him as a hero of pioneering archaeology. Now more than a century after his death, David Traill, who has devoted a great deal of careful research to his life, is attempting to replace the legend he carefully crafted with a fair and dispassionate judgement of his astonishing career.

No one can question schliemann's demonic energy and relentless drive. A glance at the itinerary of his travels between 1868 and 1890 shows that he rarely stayed in one place for more than a few weeks. He must have spent much of his life on trains or ships; but the time was never wasted, for he was always learning something fresh, usually a new language. His success in business was not achieved without accusations of dishonesty, and it gave him the notion that most things he wanted could be obtained at a price. Having decided, but not as early as the legend says, that he wanted fame as a scholar, he set about systematically exploring all the prehistoric sites he could locate in the Aegean area.

First came the quest for Troy. He started at the wrong site, but was redirected to Hisarlik (significantly meaning in Turkish 'fortress'), and was quickly convinced it was the Homeric city. Without waiting for official permission, or even bothering to buy up the land, he started digging; and even when the permit finally arrived, it became clear that he never had any intention of respecting its conditions. After three seasons which had produced a jumble of criss-crossing walls and a few small objects, one morning he spotted some metal objects emerging from the earth. At once he dismissed his workmen, and with no witness but his Greek wife, Sophia, unearthed a valuable treasure of gold, silver and bronze objects at no little risk from overhanging masonry. Or so he said.

Traill's analysis of this story is devastating. Sophia did not assist him, for she had gone back to Athens. His Greek foreman later asserted that he had been present, but was hazy about which articles were found then, and he placed the treasure neither inside nor on the wall, where Schliemann later claimed on separate occasions to have found it. In any case the wall was 1,000 years too old to belong to the Homeric city.

The treasure was smuggled out of Turkey, and after much haggling the Turkish authorities agreed to drop their claim to it in return for a substantial sum. It was eventually presented to the German nation, housed in a museum in Berlin, disappeared in 1945 and reappeared in 1993 in Moscow. There seems little doubt that it was a conflation of several finds, probably from one or more tombs, and perhaps including objects from elsewhere.

But however acquired, once revealed in Athens the treasure was hailed as Priam's, abandoned on the wall and buried in debris at the moment of the Greek sack. Schliemann's reputation was made, and it was further enhanced by his discovery at Mycenae in 1876 of the first grave circle containing three extraordinarily rich deposits, including the famous Mask of Agamemnon. Here too, although the dig was much better supervised, there was scope for fraud, and it has been claimed that some at least of the finds were fakes planted in the dig. The Greek authorities have wisely refused to allow them to be tested; who would want to risk killing a golden goose that attracts the tourists in their thousands?

There can be no doubt that Schliemann was a liar, not merely in his books and publications, but even in his private diaries. They frequently disagree with the details given in his books, and show signs of having been tampered with at crucial points. There are too many instances of his improving stories in the telling, or even appropriating to himself events that happened to someone else, for us to be able to accept his word, at least where he could obtain an advantage by the deception. The morals of the market place were imported into the world of scientific scholarship.

Small wonder that he was generally much disliked as a person. But with such important finds at his disposal, he found society only too ready to accept him as a hero. He was able to buy honours, even an honorary degree at Oxford, by offering to present his finds; and his final gift to the German people was only concluded after long negotiations. It might have come to the Louvre or the British Museum, if a suitable recompense had been offered. His mercenary approach is neatly revealed by a letter to the secretary of the Athenaeum in London, asking to be recommended for election and making clear that "your kind efforts for me shall be remunerated". He was offended to receive a dusty answer.

Nor was his private life any happier. He had two wives, with both of whom he frequently quarrelled. The first he married in Russia, and had three children by her. But once he had adopted his peripatetic way of life, she refused to accompany him, so he obtained a divorce by perjuring himself in an American court, noting at the same time in his diary his repugnance for such practices. His second wife was Greek, chosen it would seem for her willingness to be his obedient servant. When she too rebelled against his unfeeling treatment, he could write her cutting letters, though he always attempted to become reconciled, but on his own terms.

He had very few friends, and those he had were either put under obligation by financial arrangements or were lost to him by insensitive treatment. He died a lonely man in a hotel in Naples of complications following an ear operation, probably through being too impatient to accept his doctors' advice. But his fame has been preserved, especially in Greece, where the house he built in central Athens is now being restored as a museum.

It is high time a more balanced judgement was made, and Traill's book will do much to put this very complex character in proper perspective.

John Chadwick is the author of The Mycenaean World.

Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit

Author - David A. Traill
ISBN - 0 7195 5082 3
Publisher - John Murray
Price - £19.99
Pages - 365

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs