Field of Dreams: Schliemann’s Excavation of Troy

Harry Hudson

150 years ago Heinrich Schliemann was undertaking the first excavation of Troy, the lost heartland of Greek epic poetry – or, at least, the place he was out to prove was Troy. Schliemann’s own research, together with the hunch of fellow amateur enthusiast and British expat Frank Calvert, had identified Hisarlik, a site overlooking the Dardanelles in modern-day Turkey, as being the place. Most historians now agree that Hisarlik is as likely a spot as any, but in 1870 it was at best an educated punt.

There had been a growing interest in rediscovering the site of Homer’s most famous city over the course of the couple of hundred years before Schliemann took up the cause. The rise of the ‘gentleman traveller’ in particular – rich young men of the 18th and early 19th centuries who could afford to travel around Greece and Italy off the back of inherited fortunes – had fed an increasing fascination in the capitals of Europe about Troy’s potential location.

The site of ancient Troy: Hisarlik in Çanakkale, Turkey.

Calvert was actually going against the grain when he suggested the site of Hisarlik. Received opinion at the time was that a small village about three miles south from there was the true location. Calvert’s own research had led him to Hisarlik, however, and his conviction that he really was on to something was enough to convince Schliemann to provide the financial heft needed to make real progress with the excavation.

Schliemann’s was an extraordinary life, yet from a zenith of international celebrity on the European lecture tour in the 1880s (Prime Minister Gladstone even wrote the preface for one of his books), he has sunk to relative obscurity in our own time.

Born in 1822 on the north German coast to an inconsequential Lutheran minister and a mother who died when he was nine, Schliemann became a greengrocer’s apprentice at 14, a cabin-boy on a Venezuela-bound steamer at 19 – soon to be ship-wrecked in the Netherlands – and a general agent in St Petersburg at 22. He became rich in the Californian gold-rush of the early 1850s, returned to Europe under a cloud amidst rumours of fraud, and then cashed in from the Crimean War through arms-dealing. He retired at the age of 36, bored with business and sufficiently wealthy to put his dubiously earned doubloons into his real passion: antiquity, and in particular the search for legendary Troy.

A man on a mission: the younger Schliemann.

He made his first trip to Greece in 1868, which set his mind whirring. Following both a PhD in which he argued that he had definitively identified the site of Priam’s doomed city, and his fortuitous meeting with Calvert, he sent in the spades two years later. The Ottoman authorities were not forewarned: when Schliemann’s secret attempts to buy the land for himself came to light, he was compelled to obtain an official permit.

By modern standards, Schliemann’s archaeological methods were crude in the extreme. Winches, crowbars and battering rams were all used in his efforts to uncover Troy. It must be remembered that at this stage in its nascent development archaeology was not yet the rigorous, scientific discipline that it is today: the concept of making painstaking, toothbrush-sized progress on hands and knees was still foreign to most practitioners, and those who were starting to develop something approaching the modern archaeological method were very much the exceptions. Schliemann, however, certainly did not share the patience of a Pitt Rivers or a Flinders Petrie, and had eyes only for the specific objective of his excavations.

The real casualties of this approach were the other Troys which lay buried above and below the particular Homeric Troy he sought: subsequent research showed that the site had been inhabited since at least the first half of the third millennium BC, with each of the nine or more successive manifestations of Troy simply being built on top of the last. Much of what he discovered which did not directly pertain to the Homeric Troy of his dreams was considered irrelevant and simply chucked away.

The multi-layered ruins of the ‘Schliemann Trench’.

Worse still, later research revealed that the greatest tragedy of his crude descent through the layers was that he had inadvertently sliced right through the Homeric-period Troy he was seeking (i.e. the late-second-millennium BC Troy VI or VII) and had dug down to a much earlier Troy, namely the Troy II of the mid-third millennium BC.

What he found at the level of this Troy II was certainly impressive, however. With his characteristic eye for catching the public’s imagination, he named the horde of largely copper, silver and gold artifacts ‘Priam’s Treasure’, and even did a photo-shoot of his wife modelling a gold diadem and some other jewellery which made up the most spectacular pieces of the find. (Ever the self-publicist, he referred to these as ‘Helen’s Jewels’.) Nevertheless, none of these actually proved the existence of the city of the Iliadic heroes from which he claimed they originated.

Sophia Schliemann ~ Helen of Troy.

Schliemann himself went on to excavate Bronze-Age Mycenae on the Peloponnese, where his most famous discovery – the so-called ‘Mask of Agamemnon’ – added to his own special talent for self-publicity, bringing him international fame: his mansion in Athens became a honey-pot for the great and the good of late-19th century European society. His burial, following his death in 1890, was suitably magnificent, and his towering grave in Athens stands testament not only to his enduring self-aggrandisement but also to his genuine love of all things Greek.

Schliemann’s mansion in 1900 (now the Numismatic Museum of Athens), and his tomb in modern times (First Cemetery of Athens)

Excavations at Hisarlik continue to this day, and the site is now also a considerable tourist attraction. Schliemann’s actions there were destructive, and he was often self-serving and duplicitous. He later had to admit that he had made up a lot about the circumstances in which he had claimed to have found Priam’s treasure. For instance, far from Schliemann’s wife having reverently carried the artifacts away from the site in her own shawl (a tale Schliemann often repeated to anyone who would listen), she hadn’t even been present at the excavation on the day of discovery – which fell, fortuitously enough, on one of the last days of scheduled digging. Indeed, few figures from the field of archaeology have attracted the sort of posthumous vitriol that has come Schliemann’s way. The title of David Traill’s landmark study (1995) of the man and his methods tells its own story – Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit.

However, for all his faults, Schliemann stimulated interest in a pre-Classical Greece which had previously been considered inherently inferior to its Classical descendent, and he gave archaeology an international platform from which it has continued to grow and develop. Though his name may now be widely forgotten, archaeology in many ways still stands in his shadow, 150 years on. Most professions have their rock-stars, their big names who transcend the field and are known to a far wider audience. Such figures are often controversial, and often arouse particular animus among members of the profession itself, with tacit jealousy not infrequently fanning the flames of their detractors’ ire. Schliemann fits squarely into this tradition, and whether he should be praised or condemned remains a matter of fierce debate.

And as for Priam’s treasure itself? That’s now in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow – but that’s a story for another day.

Harry Hudson studied Classics (with Prelims) at Pembroke College, Cambridge. He now teaches at a state secondary school in London.

Further reading:

Schliemann published the results of his researches in Troy and its Remains (1875). Hisarlik (Troy) is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the complex history of its ancient occupants is told here and here.