Trojan efforts reap rewards

The Gold of Troy
June 21, 1996

Three years ago, on a visit to Greece, President Yeltsin surprised and delighted his hosts by announcing that the lost hoard of gold known as Priam's Treasure was safely stored in Moscow, and would, in due course, be exhibited in Athens. Their delight was not shared in Berlin, from where the treasure had been seized as spoils of war in 1945, or in Turkey, the country where the hoard had been found and from which it had been illegally exported. The promise of an exhibition in Greece has yet to be kept, but a large part of the treasure is now on display at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow.

The three authors of this beautifully illustrated catalogue are the experts of this museum; they have been assisted in producing this English edition by Donald Easton, whose contributions are repeatedly acknowledged. They also had the benefit of advice from a distinguished band of archaeologists from Germany, the United States, Greece and Turkey. Their help in providing comparable material from elsewhere established beyond doubt that this is genuine prehistoric jewellery and artefacts of the third millennium BC. The catalogue describes 259 items, 165 of them gold, including the famous diadems, black and white pictures of which (adorning the head of Sophia Schliemann) have been widely reproduced.

Here at last we have excellent colour illustrations of all the pieces in this exhibition, and they allow us to grasp the astonishing skill of these early goldsmiths and jewellers. Even if we knew no more about it, this would be a very impressive collection; but there is a fascinating story behind it, only parts of which are told in the accompanying text.

The treasure was found more than a century ago by Heinrich Schliemann, a successful German businessman, who made a fortune in Russia and America. But wealth alone was not enough to satisfy him; he wanted above all to be accepted as a scholar, despite (or because of) his lack of formal education. He claimed knowledge of many languages, including ancient Greek, though in practice his grasp of some seems to have been weak; but his reading of Homer fired his imagination with the desire to prove the truth of Greek legends by finding their material remains. Unable to get permission to dig in Greece, he turned to Troy, the victim of the most famous war in Greek history. If Greek legend declared that their ancestors had captured and sacked an important city near the Dardanelles, there must be some remains still to be found hidden beneath the surface. The science of archaeology was in its infancy, hardly much advanced beyond the tomb-robbing stage. Schliemann must be respected as one of the pioneers of the spade - one hesitates to think what would have happened had he possessed a bulldozer. He had no idea what to look for, or how to record his dig. He was impatient to find something which would establish his reputation as the man who had rediscovered Troy.

Unfortunately the standards of honesty which had served him well enough as a merchant were then applied to a very different kind of business. Recent research, particularly by David Traill in the US, has shown that Schliemann's writings are fatally flawed by the desire to improve on the truth; yet for the best part of a century we have had only his own account of his life. Scholars are always reluctant to suppose that other people's standards are different from their own. But there are so many examples of failure miraculously turning into success that it occurred at last to someone to try to verify the details, and this work has proved that his writings are sometimes other than the truth. So in the crucial matter of the finding of Priam's Treasure, we can prove that at least one important point is fiction, and the remainder is suspect.

As early as 1868 he made his first visit to the region. There had been a small Greek city here, and it was refounded in Roman times; but no one knew the exact location of Priam's city, always assuming he was not a fictitious character. Homer's description of springs had led investigators to a place called Pinarbashi (Turkish for "springhead"); Schliemann duly visited it and decided to dig there. But while waiting for a ship at Chanakkale, he made the acquaintance of the honorary American consul, an Englishman named Frank Calvert. Schliemann had taken out US citizenship, having abandoned his residence (and his first wife) in Russia. Calvert drew his attention to another site in the area called Hisarlik (Turkish for "fortress"), which was so much more promising that he had already bought part of it; and he now told his guest he was welcome to dig there. Later on, however, Schliemann conveniently forgot this and claimed to have been the first to identify the true site of Troy. Vladimir Tolstikov's introduction pays a deserved tribute to Calvert and reassesses his place in the story.

The first season's digging began in October 1871, and two more took place in the following years. The aim was to penetrate to the lowest layers of the hill, on the assumption the site would not have had a long history before the famous siege. This was reasonable enough when so little was known about prehistory. In fact the layers Schliemann uncovered belonged to a far earlier city of the third millennium bc, more than 1,000 years before the Trojan war.

By the end of the third season in May 1873 he had found massive fortification walls and a great gateway; he christened this "the Scaean Gates", but the learned world remained unimpressed. A really striking find was needed to attract attention. Exactly at this point - the Schliemann pattern again - he discovered a treasure. Here was the proof so badly needed; this was Priam's treasure rescued from the palace and abandoned near the wall, where it was covered with burning debris. The romantic details struck a chord, and even men as sober as Mr Gladstone were convinced.

By Schliemann's own account he dismissed the workmen before taking it from the ground, for fear, he said, they might steal it. More likely he had already decided to bilk the Turkish authorities by refusing to hand over the half of his finds to which they were entitled. Then alone, but for the help of his Greek wife, and at no little risk, he dug out the treasure, smuggled it aboard ship, and sent it off to Athens. When it was revealed there, the Turks pursued him in the Greek courts, and the case was only resolved when he paid a large sum in compensation. He eventually presented it to the German nation and it became one of the most famous trophies of Berlin.

As the authors of this book admit, we do not know which pieces came from this find or precisely where it was made. The treasure as later exhibited in Berlin must be from a number of different finds, and we cannot even be sure that they were all from this site. But they are consistent in type, and so far as they can be dated seem to be contemporary. After Schliemann's death the treasure was classified into 19 groups, and we know that the magnificent ceremonial stone axes belong to a later dig in 1890.

One remarkable fact emerges from these photographs. Although they are said to have come from a burnt layer, some of the most delicate pieces show no trace of heat damage. The fine gold leaves in the diadems do not seem to have become stuck together. This suggests that some at least was buried deliberately, for women were often buried with their jewellery. But if it came from burials, this was something Schliemann could not afford to admit, since it could not have belonged to Hecuba or Helen, who survived the sack. It might also have been a hoard hidden in the hope that the owner would be able later to retrieve it. Some items suggest the presence of a goldsmith's workshop, and this is not improbable.

In the chaos of Berlin in 1945 the Red Army seized any valuables they found, and it was feared that they had been destroyed. But there were persistent rumours, denied by the authorities, that they were hidden away in Russia. Only with the collapse of the Soviet Union did they come to light. In view of the appalling record of looting by the Nazis it is hard to criticise the Russians for seeking some compensation. But it is a pity it has taken so long for the existence of the treasure to be acknowledged, and for foreign scholars to be allowed to study it.

John Chadwick is emeritus reader in Greek, University of Cambridge, and an expert on Mycenaean Greek.

The Gold of Troy: Searching for Homer's Fabled City

Author - Irina Antonova, Vladimir Tolstikov and Mikhail Treister
ISBN - 0 500 01717 4
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £39.95
Pages - 239

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