He made a fortune in the California gold rush and dined with the President. He traveled the world extensively and was conversant in 13 languages. He increased his wealth by cornering the Russian market for indigo in the 1860’s. Based on his reading of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, he found the ruins of Troy and the site of the Trojan War. Based on those same readings, he later uncovered copious treasure at the ancient Greek city of Mycenae and personally unearthed the gold “Death Mask of Agamemnon.” German-born Heinrich Schliemann accomplished a lot in his colorful and eventful life but he had his share of detractors.
To be primarily responsible for the unearthing of a World Heritage Site is pretty special and to have two attached to your name is almost unprecedented. Both Troy and Mycenae were key city-states in the Trojan War and both ruins are on UNESCO’s list. (Jean-Louis Burckhardt stumbled upon two World Heritage Sites: Abu Simbel in Egypt and Petra in Jordan - see earlier blog entry here) Schliemann was born in Germany in 1822 and had a pretty uneventful childhood. His luck changed in 1850 when he left for California to become a buyer and seller of gold dust. While in the U.S. he made a fortune and in his memoirs he claimed to have dinner with then-President Millard Fillmore. His doubters say that the Presidential records don’t show any such meeting and neither do the newspapers. They also say that he left California abruptly under a cloud of suspicion.
He left California in 1852 and arrived in Russia and married Ekaterina Lyschin and began to invest in the Russian indigo market which he was able to control, thereby increasing his already considerable wealth. He expanded his fortune further as an ammunition component contractor to the Russians during the Crimean War. After three children with Ekaterina, he divorced her and married Sophie Engastromenos. In 1868, based on his reading of the Iliad and the ongoing work of a British archaeologist Joseph Calvert, Schliemann decided that the Hisarlik site in Turkey was the site of Ancient Troy. He worked with Calvert to begin excavations and over two separate campaigns uncovered much of the Troy written about by Homer as well as other cities built both over and under it. No one doubts his role in unearthing ancient Troy (or his language fluency, for that matter) but detractors point out that he absconded with many artifacts and one account details that some of the treasures were found adorning the garden at his home. He was constantly battling Greek and Turkish authorities over possession of the historical artifacts that he was finding. Perhaps the biggest knock on Schliemann was that his archaeological methods left much to be desired. When we toured the Troy site a few weeks ago, I overheard a tour guide take pains to point out a large chunk of the site allegedly dug out by Schliemann and said, “Unfortunately, we have lost everything here because of Schliemann’s ‘amateurish’ methods.” At ancient Mycenae, the site was well known but Schliemann found 19 graves and a treasure trove of gold and silver objects, including the aforementioned Death Mask. Skeptics think that he may have manipulated both the mask and the location of the find to suit his theories about Mycenae.
Despite Schliemann’s methods there is now little doubt that the sites of Troy and Mycenae, as depicted in Homer’s books, are real places and not imaginary settings for historical epic poems. He was not the most ethical or professional archaeologist but he may have been the luckiest. Say what you will about him, but before Heinrich Schliemann the Trojan War was just a nice piece of fiction about some dudes fighting over a pretty girl.