Heinrich Schliemann & the Truth About Troy, Pt. 2

Heinrich Schliemann & the Truth About Troy, Pt. 2

Heinrich Schliemann—discoverer of  Homer’s Troy, self-taught polyglot, self-made man.

Admirable accomplishments.

But at the end of Part 1, I dropped a rather unsavory tidbit about him.

Once Schliemann amassed his fortune, he abandoned his wife, journeyed to Greece, and married the teenage Sophia so he could have a Greek companion in his search for Troy. I never uncovered his first wife’s fate.

In his memoirs, Schliemann claims to have dined President Millard Fillmore. No record of the meeting exists. He published an “eye witness” account of the 1851 San Francisco fire. He was in Sacramento at the time. And he did a runner after the Rothschild’s agent accused him of shorting gold dust consignments.

Heinrich Schliemann had issues.

Heinrich Schliemann & the Truth About Troy at Debra Eve's LaterBloomer.com
The infamous Schliemann trench bisects 3000 years of history (photo by levork on Flickr)

The Not-So-Straight Story

People lived at Hisarlik—ancient Troy—for over 3000 years. They built on top of each other until Hisarlik became a mountain. It’s mind-boggling. Today, archaeologists identify nine major settlements.

In 1871, Schliemann started excavations there. He instructed laborers to bisect the mound until they hit the earliest habitation level, assuming it would be Homer’s Troy.

He was wrong. Schliemann overshot Homer’s Troy by over 1000 years and destroyed much of it on the way down.

One day in May, 1873, a glint of metal caught his eye. He wrote,

I immediately had “paidos” (lunch break) called.…While the men were eating and resting, I cut out the Treasure with a large knife….It would, however, have been impossible for me to have removed the Treasure without the help of my dear wife, who stood by me ready to pack the things which I cut out in her shawl and to carry them away.

Schliemann later admitted Sophia was in Athens at her father’s funeral when he found the treasure. He smuggled it into Germany, but couldn’t resist taking a publicity shot (above) of Sophia wearing it. Ottoman officials saw the photo, revoked Schliemann’s dig license, and sued him for Turkey’s share of the gold.

Heinrich Schliemann & the Truth About Troy at Debra Eve's LaterBloomer.com
Mask of Agamemnon

In 1876, the Greek government gave Schliemann permission to excavate at Mycenae, about 90 km southwest of Athens. The site was famous, but hadn’t been studied. After his Turkish adventure, the Greek Archaeological Society assigned an agent to monitor him.

Schliemann consulted the Classical texts again. Pausanias the geographer wrote that the Mycenaeans buried their kings “inside the walls.” Most scholars thought he meant the larger walls around the main tomb. Schliemann thought otherwise. He dug inside the city walls near the Lion Gate.

He discovered five rectangular shaft graves. The first contained the remains of nineteen adults and two infants covered in gold.

In the third and fourth graves, Schliemann found five warriors buried with golden death masks. One mask far outshone the others.

“I have looked upon the face of Agamemnon!” he supposedly exclaimed. But again, he miscalculated. The graves were much older.

The Man Behind Agamemnon’s Mask

Controversy still surrounds the Mask of Agamemnon. It doesn’t resemble the other four, which look crude and almost featureless. “Agamemnon” has noble features and a handlebar moustache, popular in 19th c. Europe, but not in ancient Greece.

Heinrich Schliemann & the Truth About Troy at Debra Eve's LaterBloomer.com
Is there a resemblance to the Mask of Agamemnon?

Many archaeologists consider it a fake. The Greek government won’t allow testing. Art historian Kenneth Lapatin, however, thinks it might be a “pastiche.” He points out,

The shaft grave material had to be extracted from the mud, cleaned, and returned to its “original” form. Attitudes towards “restoration” vary with time and place…Might the Mask of Agamemnon have been “restored” to what Schliemann, or perhaps even someone else, thought it should, or wanted it to look like?

A distinct possibility. I’m amazed, in fact, that no one has mentioned the obvious (especially in light of the Da Vinci self-portrait mystery) — except for the slender nose, the Mask of Agamemnon looks like Schliemann.

In truth, much of the evidence against Schliemann is open to interpretation. He divorced his wife and married a younger woman, but his wife had long grown weary of this Homeric obsession. His employed horrid excavation techniques, but archaeology had not yet standardized. He liked to embellish a story.

So did Homer.

No one disagrees that Schliemann was a shrewd businessman, a gifted self-taught linguist, and, in his 40s, the discoverer of Troy. Perhaps, at worst, he was obsessed and impatient.

I love this conclusion from Jason at Alpaca Suitcase:

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.

What Later Bloomers can learn from Heinrich Schliemann:

Some shortcuts aren’t worth it. What is for you won’t go by you.

I’m curious. Do you think the Mask of Agamemnon resembles Schliemann?

15 Responses

  1. Marianne
    | Reply

    Interesting story, Debra. Thanks for sharing.

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, Marianne. Not my normal uplifting story, but one I enjoyed writing nonetheless. In the end, I think Schliemann’s passion outweighed his flaws.

  2. Dave Doolin
    | Reply

    About his methods, I’m sure he wasn’t any better or worse than contemporaries. Certainly, outright grave pillaging has been a time-honored tradition for millenia. It’s only in the last 50 years we have begin to think – and act – differently.

    I am quite sure had the local residents, of any past age, known what was buried there, it would have long, long gone before our admittedly flawed protagonist appeared to put his stamp on history.

    In any case, a great story.

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, Dave. You’re 100% right. I can’t tell how many looted sites I excavated in the day. We went in just hoping to record the location for posterity. Found out that today is Millard Fillmore’s birthday. Yesterday was Schliemann’s. Perhaps the story about them dining together isn’t so outlandish after all. Schliemann’s a total cipher and that’s what I find fascinating about him.

  3. Karen Madgwick
    | Reply

    Hi Debra – great story and I completely agree with you the Mask of Agamemnon does look like Schliemann – and it wouldn´t surprise me that he just chose to give himself a slimmer nose. He even had to embellish the truth about his own face! I always think flawed people are really interesting and sometimes the greatest doesn´t mean the nicest.

    • Debra Eve

      As the art historian I quoted said, ideas about restoration were different back then. Perhaps the restorer did it, thinking it a tribute to Schliemann. Who knows (nose)? 🙂 Thanks for stopping by, Karen.

  4. Elisabeth Storrs
    | Reply

    Thanks for these fascinating posts on Schliemann. I’ve long been intrigued with his story. I was recently in Turkey and was horrified when I finally saw the infamous ‘trench’. However, his tale does add to the allure of the legend. As you mentioned – Homer also loved a good story – and portrayed heroes with flaws such as Achilles. I’m sure he would have loved Schliemann!

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, Elisabeth. Schliemann wasn’t the first to do “trench” archaeology, nor the last. It was a pretty common method before archaeology developed standards. He was certainly an enigma. So envious you went to Turkey! It’s long been one of my dreams.

  5. florence fois
    | Reply

    Both parts of this story are fascinating … to answer your question today … I thought of that immediately. The fact that some men are thought to do great things does not always excuse how they do it. HOwever, he secured is place in history. I would be inclined to put him in category of the “robber barrons” of the late 19th Century and the early part of the 20th Century.

    About the discovery of Troy, who knows that the insatiable curiosity of another would have ignited another search?

    • Debra Eve

      True, Florence. As Elisabeth pointed out below, he was flawed, but Homer probably would have loved him. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Daniela Gitlin
    | Reply

    Recipe for “Greatness”
    1 lack of conscience
    1 obsession
    high energy
    social savvy
    Mix and release into the world. Results vary, based on quality of ingredients.
    Great post!

    • Debra Eve

      It’s funny, Daniela. I had a huge flurry of unsubscribes after I published this. Not quite my normal upbeat fare. Thanks for appreciating his gray areas!

  7. Nora
    | Reply

    I am passionate about Greek mythology and I admire Schliemann who knew how to make his dream true.

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks for stopping by, Nora. That kind of passion definitely drove Schliemann to prove some Greek myths are indeed true!

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