Archaeology: Troy and Heinrich Schliemann

Dig at Troy / Wikimedia Commons

While digs at ancient sites have in general revealed much important information about what-really-happened-in-the-past, archaeology is still a mixture of science and art, with a hefty helping of media relations thrown in. Its usefulness to historians in particular depends on the sensible assessment of the data recovered. Flashy treasure-hunts make for good press but all too often bad history, yet in some ways that’s what modern Mediterranean archaeology grew out of: the dreams of a wealthy German merchant named Heinrich Schliemann who went searching for the Troy of Homeric legend and found a new world of recovered history.

By Dr. Mark Damen / 07.25.2015
Professor of Drama, Ancient History, Latin and Greek Languages
Utah State University

I. Introduction: History and Archaeology

Among the more visible forms of historical research going on today are those relating to archaeology. The glamour of digging for buried treasure, a notion fostered by decades of movies like The Mummy Returns, could not be further from the gritty truth. Archaeology is sweaty, filthy, tedious, back-breaking work—and in the field, an occupation rarely practiced in the vicinity of functioning bathrooms—nor are jewels and treasure the objects uncovered by most archaeologists today. Rather, the micro-analysis of pollen and traces of DNA are the sort of “gold” they seek.

But that’s not the way the general populace sees the field. To most people, archaeology is that rare academic field which holds out the promise of romance, adventure and riches. Nothing encapsulates this view better than Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first Indiana Jones movie. It opens with the hero exploring a cave full of gold and jewel-encrusted statuary and, when he moves something, the whole place falls apart. Anyone with the slightest awareness of archaeology should be horrified. My own reaction, when I first saw the scene, was “That man just destroyed the entire site! And he didn’t even photograph it. He should not get tenure!”

Howard Carter entering Tutankhamun’s Tomb / Wikimedia Commons

Outside of exceptional digs like Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, few archaeological explorations have unearthed golden treasures or the like. Even fewer archaeologists have grown rich off what they’ve found, which comes as little surprise when you think about what they’re actually doing. They’re rooting through other people’s garbage, and how much gold is there likely to be in someone’s trash? More often, the original owners—or someone else if for some reason the owners had to leave their valuables behind—have gone through the site and taken for themselves whatever precious things there may have been. Gold, in particular, has been stolen and recycled so often that it’s possible to say some bit of that ring on your finger, no doubt, saw Babylon once. All in all, everything found in an archaeological site is mostly, by definition, “garbage.” Only to us, it’s not really garbage, but priceless data about what-really-happened-in-the-past.

A good example of this comes from Mesopotamian archaeology. At the bottom of a well in Nimrud, one of the major cities of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (ca. 900-612 BCE), were found a series of sculpted ivories, pieces which wealthy Assyrians used as insets in decorated furniture. Today, ivory is a highly valued commodity—there is an active black market in African ivory—so it might seem puzzling to modern people why such beautiful and intricately carved pieces were discovered so unceremoniously dumped at the bottom of a well.

Nimrud Lioness Attacking a Nubian Around 720 BCE. Wood and ivory. / Wikimedia Commons

But to historians, the answer is obvious. In the seventh century BCE, ivory per se was not considered a valuable commodity as it is today. It was, in fact, used back then much the way plastic is today, to mold figures which were later either dyed or overlaid with precious materials. In the case of the Nimrud ivories, a layer of gold foil originally covered them, as can be seen from the traces of gold still visible on one of these pieces. Thus it seems safe to conclude that the Medes, who looted and sacked the city of Nimrud in the late seventh century BCE, stripped the gold off these ivories and threw what they considered its useless remains down the well. To them, the ivory was “garbage” and that’s why we’ve found it today.

So trash, it turns out, is a relative term. From an archaeologist’s perspective, much like a detective’s, people speak volumes about themselves through what they throw away. No doubt, some day our dumpsites will define us, too, and future archaeologists will probably label our age as something like “Early Plastic IA.” But we know our lives are more than plastic, which highlights the likelihood of distorting history when simple names like “Iron Age” are attached to a period because the material remains of that time, its garbage, encourages a vision of the period based on the things left for us to find.

The same holds true of all archaeological work—it’s a danger which comes with any form of “recovered history”—we risk defining a civilization by what we see in its dusty tracks, forgetting those remains were left in the equivalent of an ancient dustbin. Despite the glamour of finding old things, we must remember that archaeology provides only certain avenues into understanding what-really-happened and thus works best in concert with other ways of approaching the past. That is, when archaeological evidence is complemented by external sources such as documentary and other historical data, we can feel certain we have come closer to what-really-happened-in-the-past.

Moreover, in over-reading one type of data and ignoring others, there is the danger of creating new “invented histories.” For, while one approach may appear to offer answers which do not require outside confirmation because they rest on a body of facts so powerful and a picture so compelling that there seems no need to seek external sources or corroboration, nevertheless by looking at only one side of the past we may lose sight of the fuller, broader, more complex and problematical truth of what-really-happened. In other words, when gazing upon an ancient city like Nimrud or Troy and poring over their dazzling remains, we must not forget to ask why we find what we find, or else in piecing the data together we may construct a historical scenario which reflects our preconceptions, our hopes, our world more than that of the ancient peoples who lived there and left what they left behind. Those are the ingredients of invented history.

Such issues have swirled around modern archaeology ever since its inception in the nineteenth century. Its founder himself provides an excellent example of the enormous rewards and pitfalls implicit in the discipline. A German businessman with romantic dreams of finding a lost civilization resplendent in gold and steeped in epic heroism, this man did the world a great service by bringing to the public’s attention the value of exploring the material remains of the past. At the same time, however, he opened up questions which still devil historians today.

II. Heinrich Schliemann

Certainly one of the most sensational news stories of the nineteenth century was the discovery by Heinrich Schliemann of what is now widely assumed to be the site of Troy, the city in and around which The Iliad of Homer takes place. Before Schliemann’s excavations, the modern world had considered Troy for the most part a matter of myth, not reality. With his extraordinary find, Schliemann radically redirected scholarly thinking about the ancient past and, no less controversial himself, the man’s own life and character measure up well to the notoriety of his discovery. That is, Schliemann has turned out to be almost as worthy a subject of history as the subjects he studied: Troy and Homer.

Portrait of a young Heinrich Schliemann / Wikimedia Commons

A genius at learning languages, Schliemann spoke several fluently by an early age, and using those skills along with abundant charisma and a strong drive to succeed, he quickly made a fortune as a merchant. By middle age he could retire in considerable comfort and at that point decided to pursue a dream he later claimed he’d had since childhood, the quest to find Homer’s Troy. Because the world portrayed in Homeric myth seemed so real to Schliemann, he believed it must have actually existed once.

Nor did this dream lack historical credibility. In later classical antiquity, there was a site known as “Troy.” Alexander the Great, for instance, had visited it early in his eastward surge across Asia, and a later Greek geographer Strabo speaks of “Ilion” (the Greek spelling of Ilium) as if it were a real place. So some ancients, at least, believed Troy had once been a real city. Still, critics could counter—and not without some credibility of their own—that the bureau of tourism in ancient Asia Minor might have had something to do with advancing that opinion.

Armed, then, with not much more than a little ancient evidence, loads of money and his copy of The Iliad, Schliemann went to Greece. There he married a woman who could recite Homer from memory, and together they set about searching for the Troy of Homeric legend. Schliemann also had a good idea of where to begin looking. Because, according to Greek myth, the general Agamemnon who led the Greeks against the Trojans had collected his mighty force in Aulis, a site on the eastern shores of Greece, Troy must have lain to the east of Greece. If it had been west, Agamemnon would surely have mustered his forces in western Greece. So, Schliemann looked to the rising sun.

History held other clues, too. According to Homer, Troy was a very wealthy city, which meant it almost certainly occupied a strategically important location. In the northwestern corner of Asia Minor is the Hellespont, straits separating Turkey and Greece. Not only did sources in later antiquity assert that this was the general locale of Homer’s Troy, but the Hellespont is also a likely site for a powerful and prosperous city in prehistory. Control of a strait allows a city to tax the trade ships that pass through it—many cities in antiquity grew rich off tariffs of that sort—and knowing from Homer that Troy lay near a coast, Schliemann started looking at the area around the Hellespont for a likely place to dig. It didn’t take him long to see how right his instincts were.

III. Schliemann and Troy

Troy / Wikimedia Commons

After a brief false start in another place, Schliemann heard from a less well-funded explorer who also happened to be in the area hunting for Troy that a promising-looking mound lay in a plain near the Turkish village of Hissarlik. It’s important to note that Schliemann had many possible dig sites in front of him. The Near East is littered with tells, mounds which were once ancient settlements and cities. So, Schliemann might have dug in many places, but he decided to work at the mound that lay near Hissarlik.

Walls of Troy / Wikimedia Commons

Almost upon first digging into it, it was clear that the site he was uncovering had been an important city in antiquity. For one, this mound had many levels which meant the city had been rebuilt several times but, more important to Schliemann, it had large walls just as Homer describes those around Troy. The German archaeologist captured the ears and hearts of many of his contemporaries when he announced across Europe that he had found Homer’s Troy.

Schliemann’s discovery of this city and his claim that it was the Troy of Greek legend brought with it many important implications. First and foremost was that Homeric epic was not merely myth, not just a story but history. This opened a new door to the past. After all, if Homer’s Troy could be real, why not Abraham’s Ur or Moses’ Goshen? In the years following Schliemann’s announcement, more than one religious organization began funding digs in the Near East, and whatever truths might lie behind the tales of the past became the subject of dinner-table conversations across the western world. The popularization of classical archaeology was under way.

Sophia Schliemann, Heinrich’s wife, wearing what he believed to be the treasure of Priam / Wikimedia Commons

Soon thereafter Schliemann again took center stage when he proclaimed he’d found a trove of jewels and gold buried in a chest. These, he supposed, were the riches of Troy hurriedly buried in the panic of the Greek siege. Dubbing them Priam’s Treasure, he told a remarkable tale of how he’d uncovered and secured them, that after he’d dug the pieces up he had his wife hide the treasure in her clothing and in this way she sneaked it past the overseers assigned to ensure no native antiquities were smuggled out of Turkey. Clearly, Schliemann saw this as a victory for archaeology and science, not the pillage of an eastern culture by greedy westerners as many see it today.

But problems lay ahead for Schliemann and his dig at “Troy.” It was quickly apparent there was something odd about Priam’s Treasure. For one, the artistic styles of the various pieces constituting the collection covered a wide range of dates, an unusually broad spectrum of types for a single find, leaving the impression of “treasures” rather than one coherent hoard. Furthermore, Schliemann reported finding it in a location which he could not have known at the time dated it several centuries prior to the age when Homer’s Troy would have fallen if such an event actually happened (ca. 1180 BCE). All this made it seem unlikely that Priam’s Treasure was a single find which had ever belonged to anyone named “Priam.”

Levels of Troy / Wikimedia Commons

And, in general, things didn’t go Schliemann’s way on other fronts. For instance, the cultural zenith of this site—that is, the level with the richest deposits and largest population—also belonged to an age long before Agamemnon could have led the Greek siege. Instead, the Troy that properly dated to Homer’s city, a level which archaeologists have termed Troy VIIA, turned out to be a shabby resettlement of a once great city. Worse yet, it wasn’t clear how Troy VIIA had met its end. It might have been destroyed by siege but, if so, there wasn’t a comprehensive “burn layer” capping it, evidence of a cataclysmic conflagration, the way Troy falls in Greek myth. If Homeric legend were at all historical, there ought to have been evidence of some massive fire and mayhem, but there wasn’t. True, other earlier “Troys” had clearly fallen prey to violence, but not Troy VIIA.

Nor would evidence of a siege necessarily constitute definitive proof this was Homer’s Troy anyway, since virtually all cities of any standing in Asia Minor were attacked at some point during the second millennium BCE. It was a time of great turmoil and upheaval throughout the ancient world, and other civilizations in Asia Minor, like the once mighty Hittites, had collapsed and disappeared around the same time as Troy was said to have fallen. All in all, if Schliemann’s site was indeed Homer’s Troy, many of the archaeological pieces didn’t harmonize well with the literary evidence, on the surface at least.

IV. Schliemann and Mycenaean Civilization

The Lion Gate at Mycenae / Wikimedia Commons

But Schliemann was a businessman who knew how to keep his eye on the big picture and not obsess over details. When confronted with the anomalies of his Troy, he simply turned his attention from Asia Minor to mainland Greece and started excavating a new site. There he found even greater fortune and fame. Among the ruins of Mycenae, the legendary home of Agamemnon in the northeastern Peloponnese (the southern part of Greece), the German archaeologist uncovered another lost civilization. This extraordinary instinct for where to dig was, without doubt, his greatest gift and for which he is deservedly called the Father of Mediterranean Archaeology.

Grave Circle at Mycenae / Wikimedia Commons

At Mycenae, Schliemann again unearthed the remains of a thriving, second-millennium culture now known as Mycenean Civilization. Among the many rewards for his efforts there, a fortress and several rich tombs were discovered. Particularly, in the Grave Circle where the Myceneans had entombed their rulers, Schliemann brought to light a series of gold death masks which had been used to cover the faces of dead princes. When Schliemann found a particularly handsome death mask, he wired back to his colleagues in Europe, “I have looked on the face of Agamemnon.” Thus, this discovery came to be known as the “Mask of Agamemnon” and has turned into one of the most famous archaeological artifacts ever brought to light, gracing more books on Greek archaeology than perhaps any other single find.

What Schliemann believed to be the Mask of Agamemnon / Wikimedia Commons

But what did Schliemann really find? Certainly, his “Troy” was an important city in the prehistory of Asia Minor. Nor can it be doubted that he uncovered a Greek civilization which thrived during the latter half of the second millennium BCE. Nevertheless, the question remains: Is this the Troy of legend? Is this Mycenae the home of Homer’s Agamemnon? And even if they are, to what extent does any of this confirm the historicity of Homer, namely, Homeric epic as a record of what-really-happened? One thing’s for certain: there’s nothing’s simple or straightforward about any of this, nothing like the way archaeological evidence is often seen in the popular mind as compelling and incontrovertible proof of what-really-happened-in-the-past.

Besides, if Homer and his poetic predecessors were making up the story of Troy, none of this makes much of an impact on the central question at hand: are Homer’s epics an account of actual past events? In other words, Schliemann’s dream of proving that Homer’s saga constitutes a record of a real military campaign which took place in the second millennium BCE, his discovery of Priam’s Treasure and the grandiose claim to have “looked on the face of Agamemnon,” all of it has little hope of historical validation if Homer and his audience saw The Iliad and The Odyssey as essentially works of beautiful but fantastical fiction.

And how could they not? People in Homer’s day had no access to the sort of historical records on which we today depend, especially regarding the period when Agamemnon supposedly led the Greeks to Troy. That’s because a long dark age of unrest and illiteracy (1100-800 BCE) separated Homer’s audiences from Achilles and Odysseus and the world embodied in Homeric myth. Also, we now know Homer was an oral poet, a bard whose epics were composed on the spot for performance. Thus essentially an entertainer, possibly blind, recounting events which happened centuries before his lifetime, is there any real chance that Homer preserves an accurate picture of the past, anything like history in the modern sense of the word? It’s impossible to answer that question with any certainty, making it wiser on the whole to doubt than believe the assertion.

Despite all these problems, however, most archaeologists still refer to the site near Hissarlik as “Troy”—and, of course, the general public follows suit—and a good many historians today speak of the Trojan War as something historical. Whatever its validity, Schliemann’s vision of Troy as a real place and Homer as a historian of sorts shows one thing for certain: histories will linger around, even when they entail serious contradictions and face grave challenges, if for some reason people want to believe them. So, no matter how much of it is invented, an important aspect of this historical “inquiry” concerns not the reality but the attraction of Homer’s Troy.

V. Who Was Schliemann?

More than changing the general perception of Troy as pure myth into a reflection of history, Schliemann has become a legend of sorts himself, and deservedly so. Call his Troy Homer’s or not, this “Father of Mediterranean Archaeology” accomplished many important things. Because of his work, for instance, the world realized the value of unearthing ancient sites in a systematic fashion. Ironically, for all he played up to the press and glamorized the treasures he found, Schliemann popularized archaeology as something more than digging for gold. More important yet, his induction of a generation of students into scientific archaeology led the academic community to stress meticulous and thorough record-keeping at sites, along with the careful analysis of all finds. His disciples would go on to seed programs in archaeology worldwide.

Portrait of Heinrich Schliemann / Wikimedia Commons

Indeed, Schliemann’s records both of the excavations he conducted and of his business and personal affairs were so comprehensive it wasn’t until recently that scholars began to comb through them. It didn’t help that, as a master of language, Schliemann wrote them in quite a few different tongues. There probably aren’t ten people alive today who have the sort of linguistic aptitude he did—along with the command he had of certain languages—so there are few people who can actually read everything he left behind. Therefore, to sift through all of Schliemann’s writings requires a collective effort, arguably out of proportion to the rewards it might deliver. Thus, for a long time his voluminous archive simply wasn’t read.

But over the last few decades classical scholars have been exploring Schliemann’s diaries, with very interesting results. While much of what he recorded was light-hearted, some mere practice exercises at various foreign languages—these entries as such were probably never intended for public consumption—all the same they reveal disturbing tendencies in Schliemann’s character. For example, he writes of meeting people whom he could never have met, such as the American President Millard Fillmore. At another point in his diaries, Schliemann details his involvement in a devastating fire in San Francisco; at the same time, however, his own carefully documented itinerary proves he missed this event by several days.

And more directly incumbent on archaeology, his diaries also contradict the story he told of his wife’s assistance in smuggling “Priam’s Treasure” out of Turkey. They show, without doubt, it couldn’t have happened the way he said it did, because she wasn’t even with him at Troy when “Priam’s Treasure” was dug up. His own records even cast doubt over his tale of hearing the Trojan saga at his father’s knee, instilling in him the lifelong dream of discovering the city. At least, there is no mention of such aspirations until a convenient moment much later in his life, after he had unearthed “Troy.”

It’s not clear how important all this really is. In the end, it comes down to whether one chooses to label Schliemann an inveterate liar or a hopeless romantic, and whether or not his penchant for refracting the truth affected in any significant way his work as an archaeologist. Even without his diaries and accounts, few would say Schliemann was not a man possessed of strong imagination—pioneers usually are—the issue is, did the fantasies well-evidenced in his writings pervade his scientific work as well as his personal life?

Unfortunately, there is some evidence it did. For instance, it has been suggested more than once that “Priam’s Treasure” seems to be a collection of artifacts belonging to different periods, as we noted above, leading many to suspect that Schliemann gathered them from various graves and sites in and around Troy and later concocted a more newsworthy story of their discovery. His tale, replete with hidden treasure, female guile and bumbling Turkish guards, makes for a fairly theatrical script, in fact, almost the same plot as Mozart’s opera The Abduction from the Seraglio.

But it’s hard to assess this fairly now, because later in life Schliemann donated “Priam’s Treasure” to the Berlin Museum where it stayed until 1945. In the chaos of the siege of Berlin at the end of World War II, Schliemann’s Trojan treasure simply disappeared. The assumption was it had fallen into the hands of black-market art dealers and either was in a private collection somewhere—if so, it couldn’t be put on public display without being confiscated by international authorities—or had been melted down because it couldn’t be resold as such. In any case, without the treasure itself, there was no way to analyze and date it conclusively.

But in 1994, all that changed. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russian authorities acknowledged that “Priam’s Treasure” had for fifty years been housed in their land—some of it was in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and some in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg—Russian soldiers during World War II had, in fact, seized and smuggled it out of Germany. Now the hostage of several claims originating in at least three different countries (Germany, Russia and Turkey), the Trojan hoard is back in the public eye. Hopefully, answers about its nature and origin will one day be forthcoming.

But other controversies continue to swirl around Schliemann and his legacy to archaeology. The most sensational of these surrounds the so-called “Mask of Agamemnon.” Though it’s not clear that the particular one now called the “Mask of Agamemnon” is the same that Schliemann first referred to by that name, he later allowed the famous bearded mask to bear that designation. It is far and away the most presentable of the masks Schliemann discovered in Mycenae, lacking the bulging eyes and puffed cheeks that make several of the others look by modern standards ridiculous. In fact, the “Mask of Agamemnon” is particularly modern in its appearance, including a handle-bar moustache, something highly unusual in ancient art. More than one art historian has noted it looks remarkably like Schliemann himself, or perhaps Schliemann’s idol, King Ludwig of Bavaria.

A known mask forgery / Wikimedia Commons

VI. Conclusion: Archaeology and History

One of the most common misconceptions about Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is that Darwin claimed we evolved from chimpanzees. / Wikimedia Commons

In the end, the lesson here has less to do with archaeology than human nature and history in general. Schliemann, a master of ancient languages, was also a master of modern media, particularly newspapers and the popular press which he played as well as any Hollywood agent ever has. It’s also important to bear in mind the world before whom his drama unfolded. It was an age in which people believed Charles Darwin was telling them they were related to monkeys, whereas Schliemann pitched his discoveries as offering “scientific” validation of a romantic, mythological past, if not biblical, a history much more palatable to them than some sort of simian ancestry.

Thus, the same populace who reveled in lush, pseudo-historical operas like Verdi’s Aida, Bellini’s Norma and Wagner’s Ring Cycle crowded eagerly around the archaeologist’s tent for a glimpse of historical Homer. Nor did its merchant promoter fail to keep himself in the public eye but looked eagerily into the “face of Agamemnon” and caught an image that was as much his own as any of his cultural ancestors’. To a world fractured along ideological lines, this well-crafted reflection presented more than just a past which people at the time could agree was worth sharing but common ground where science and myth collaborated, and as such it did a great deal of good for its day. For Agamemnon’s day—if there ever was an Agamemnon’s day—the benefits are less clear.

Painting of Schliemann reciting The Iliad to his wife on the mound of Troy / Wikimedia Commons

So, despite inconsistencies in the data and the bourgeois showmanship of its leading man, the very things this same age made such a show of deploring in Herodotus, Schliemann and his dream of Troy overwhelmed, for the most part, his contemporaries’ educated skepticism and has continued to live in the hearts of their scholarly descendants. The entrepreneur and romantic served evidence—and to many, proof—that Western Civilization rests on a glorious, civilized, Homeric foundation, that we are the heirs of legend. If on the other side of the argument many doubt that today, it’s probably all for the best. Still, to Schliemann’s sense of history, no matter what amount is invented, we owe much of modern archaeology, which is without doubt the single most consequential contribution of our day to the understanding of what-really-happened-in-the-past. The dirty data covered by time and uncovered by archaeology are the greatest historical story of our age.