Athens at the height of summer. Visitors are negotiating their way through the crowded Mycenaean room of the National Museum. The name “Schliemann” rustles through the air as the guides halt their groups at strategic points and launch into their mini-lectures on the finds. The tourists gaze in awe at the Mask of Agamemnon and at the vitrines with gold jewelry from the Shaft Graves at Mycenae. And they wonder about the strange, obsessed German archaeologist who found them. Who was this pioneer of Aegean archaeology and why is he still important?
I: Heinrich Schliemann’s veracity is gently challenged by author David Traill; we then go back in time to follow our restless, 19-year-old hero as he sets out for foreign parts.
The last quarter century has not been kind to Schliemann (shown above in a painting by the 19th-century British artist Sydney Hodges, now in the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Berlin). Until about 1972 he was admired as the “Father of Mediterranean Archaeology”; his excavations at Troy and Mycenae had, as he repeatedly claimed, opened up a whole new world for archaeology. Scholars were ready to concede that Schliemann’s fast-paced excavations had destroyed forever a vast amount of information. Sensibly, however, they refrained from faulting him for failing to adopt the more cautious and less destructive methods we now expect of archaeologists. That would have been an anachronism. The importance of the sites he excavated, especially Troy, 032Mycenae and Tiryns, with their close ties to the world of the Homeric heroes, was beyond dispute. The richness of his finds was staggering, his enthusiasm for Homer deeply moving, and his knack for attracting media attention astonishing. His tendency to attribute to Homeric heroes the artifacts he unearthed—Priam’s Treasure, for instance (see “Priam’s Treasure”)—was naive but harmless. The results of his excavations, both in the general picture they presented and in myriad details, were confirmed by the work of later archaeologists. His reputation seemed secure.
Then things began to change. In 1972, William M. Calder III, now Oldfather Professor of Classics at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, published an article charging Schliemann with a somewhat cavalier attitude toward the truth.1 For instance, in the autobiographical introduction to his Ilios, Schliemann claimed that he became an American citizen because he was a resident of California when it was admitted to the Union in 1850. In fact, he did not reach California until 1851 and his citizenship papers show that he did not become a U.S. citizen until 1869. Schliemann also claimed to have chatted for an hour and a half with President Millard Fillmore and his family on February 21, 1851, immediately before a lavish soirée at the White House, to which 800 guests had been invited. But contemporary newspapers show that there was no such soirée at the White House on that date. Since 1972 many more “facts” in his autobiographical writings have been shown to be fiction. At first, Schliemann’s 033defenders clung to the formula that he told lies in his personal life but was always truthful in his archaeological reporting. As more and more discrepancies have emerged in his archaeological writings, however, even that comforting formula has had to be abandoned. Schliemann’s archaeological reports are now being subjected to closer scrutiny than they have received at any time in the past century.
Heinrich Schliemann was born on January 6, 1822, the fifth child of Ernst Schliemann, the Lutheran pastor of Neubukow, near Rostock, in north Germany.2 A year later, the elder Schliemann moved to a more lucrative post in the tiny village of Ankershagen in rural Mecklenburg (see the sidebar to this article), about 65 miles to the southeast. Here Heinrich grew up and, he later claimed, formed his childhood dream of excavating Troy. Whether he ever had any such dream is highly doubtful. Despite the vast amount of biographical material available in the form of letters and diaries, no one has yet produced a document dating earlier than 1868 (when Schliemann was 46) indicating his interest in excavating Troy.
When his pastor-father had an affair with his wife’s maid, the scandal forced his resignation. Now in financial difficulties, Ernst moved young Heinrich from the Gymnasium in the Mecklenburg town of Neustrelitz to the less expensive—and less academically challenging—Realschule. After serving as a grocer’s apprentice from 1836 to 1841, Heinrich took a course in bookkeeping and then looked for a job in Hamburg. Not finding suitable work, the restless 19-year-old decided to emigrate; he set sail in late November for La Guayra, Colombia, but the ship ran aground off the Dutch coast. Schliemann was rescued and taken to Amsterdam.
In Amsterdam, he decided to try to find a job as a clerk in one of the large trading houses. Quickly grasping the importance of knowing several languages even to be considered for such a position, he applied himself with extraordinary determination to learn Dutch and to bring his knowledge of English and French up to speed. Soon he also acquired proficiency in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. In 1844 he successfully applied for a position as a clerk with B.H. Schröder & Co.
Seeing that the firm did a lot of business with Russia but had no one who knew Russian, Schliemann determined to learn that language, too. In January 1846 the firm sent him—now only 24 years old—to St. Petersburg to act as their Russian agent.
For the next 20 years, St. Petersburg was Heinrich’s home. I shall leave the description of Schliemann’s St. Petersburg years to my friend Igor Bogdanov, who has examined the Russian papers in the Schliemann Archive of the Gennadius Library, American School of Classical Studies, Athens.
II: In St. Petersburg, Schliemann makes his fortune, mainly in the indigo trade; he travels to California, then returns to Russia and marries the dowdy daughter of a St. Petersburg lawyer—a rocky union from the start.
Schliemann’s life is full of myths. Some of them he invented himself. Others were fabricated by his biographers. Unadorned facts are often dull and lifeless, so Schliemann gave them a romantic coloring.
For me, it is hard to believe that Schliemann wanted to deceive, or even mislead, as to the basic facts. Otherwise, why would he preserve for future biographers the massive archive he left at his death? Schliemann was an inveterate, indefatigable correspondent. He wrote some 40,000 letters during his lifetime, as well as numerous diaries and books. Rightly suspecting that his correspondents would probably not bother to keep his letters (until he became famous), he made a copy of each letter he sent. The bulk of 034this material is now housed in the Gennadius Library in Athens. The archive contains thousands of documents in at least 18 languages (Schliemann had invented his own method for learning languages very quickly).
I was the first person to read the Russian part of the archive. It took me four months to examine the thousands of documents. There is still plenty of work for other enthusiasts. I can read only three European languages, Russian being my mother tongue. To master ancient Greek, Arabic, Swedish and a dozen or so other languages, dead and living, one would have to be another Schliemann. Probably, it will take a dozen people of several nationalities to go through his files.
Schliemann was about 20 when he started to keep his incoming correspondence. He did so religiously, regardless of its importance. He would even save a short note from a chance acquaintance, an invitation to come to tea or a request to borrow a kettle.
The correspondence reveals him to have been a sometimes unrestrained and even violent person. He was frequently unpredictable, especially in his relations with his Russian wife and close friends. But he was also a loving father, who never said no to his children’s requests to go on a trip to the seashore or to buy an aquarium. Above all—and this is the archive’s most characteristic feature—it explains so much about Schliemann’s dealings with others: He was a self-made man who despised carelessness and lack of initiative.
Even before arriving in St. Petersburg, Schliemann made sure he would be well connected there. While he was still in Amsterdam, a highly successful Moscow merchant named Sergey Zhivago came to visit the Schröder firm. Boris Pasternak speaks of this Zhivago in his novel Dr. Zhivago: “There was Zhivago’s factory, Zhivago’s bank, Zhivago’s apartment buildings, a way of tying and pinning one’s tie in the ‘Zhivago manner,’ even a kind of pie called ‘Zhivago pie’.” Sergey Zhivago was not only adept at tying his tie and running his banks; he was also good at sizing up people. During his few days in Amsterdam, he saw in young Schliemann (then only 23) a man of extraordinary ambition, ready and eager for a challenge. Although Zhivago was 28 years older than Schliemann, the two immediately became friends. Zhivago tried to persuade Schliemann to go to Russia, promising him moral and financial support. Schliemann stopped in several places in Germany on the way, including his father’s house near Rostock. The trip took nearly a month.
When he reached St. Petersburg, then the imperial capital of Russia, there was no one to meet him. But that didn’t deter him at all; he went straight to Pochtamtskaya (Post-office) Street and rented a four-room apartment. No doubt, he needed the space for the thousands of letters he expected to receive.
Although Zhivago was the first person Schliemann informed of his arrival, their business partnership never materialized. They nonetheless remained close friends 035until Zhivago’s death in 1866.
While serving as Schröder’s agent, Schliemann also established his own business as a wholesaler, trading mostly in indigo, herring, paper and whatever else was in demand.
In 1847 Schliemann acquired Russian citizenship. But he did not, as a consequence, take on the traits usually associated with Russians. He never drank vodka. He went to bed early, woke up at dawn, mounted his horse and galloped to the harbor to meet the ships with the goods he had ordered.
If he thought about excavating Troy in these years, he did not write about it. He was concentrating on mercantile Petersburg rather than mythical Troy. He devoted all his time to bookkeeping, writing letters, traveling on business around Russia and Europe, negotiating with merchants and haggling over merchandise.
By 1850 his business was thriving and he had become a wealthy man. Then he suddenly got news that his brother, Ludwig, who had gone to California during the gold rush, had died. Schliemann immediately sailed for America, arriving in 1851. He was soon seized by gold-rush fever himself, so he opened a bank in Sacramento and started to buy gold dust from the miners.
He was engaged in this profitable occupation for about a year, but he never forgot Petersburg. Once the bank was closed in the evening, and the gold dust locked away, he would sit in candlelight and write to a friend in Russia:
I simply cannot describe how much I love Russia and the Russian people; yes, I would gladly give half of my capital to be living again in Petersburg In the midst of hurricanes in the stormy oceans, in the midst of dangers and difficulties, in the midst of physical exercise and other forms of entertainment I think of my beloved Petersburg day and night When I return to Petersburg, I will marry a pretty Russian woman. She may be poor but she must be a Russian and well-bred After that I will never again leave Petersburg for I know that there is no better place on earth.
But something kept him in America. Maybe he liked California, or maybe he liked the work he was doing. Schliemann had the ability to make money anywhere; when it happened, he quickly developed a liking both for the business and the country where he ran it.
Something else seems to have prevented him from returning to his “beloved Petersburg.” Before leaving Russia, he apparently had done something illegal, for he repeatedly asked his Petersburg friends if there were any obstacles to his returning. Ponomarev, a Petersburg merchant, wrote to Schliemann on March 28, 1852: “You can return to Russia whenever you please and nothing will happen to you—I consulted some people who know how things stand on the matter.”
Not long thereafter, Schliemann decided to return. Along the way, he posted a letter to Ponomarev saying he was heading for Petersburg; he also enclosed a letter to a woman named Ekaterina Petrovna Lyzhina—the daughter of one of the most prominent lawyers in St. Petersburg—apparently proposing marriage. Ponomarev forwarded the letter to the young woman and wrote to Schliemann: “As a friend, I must tell you that she now consents to cast her lot with yours—it’s because she knows you are now rich.”
Ekaterina was ready to cast her lot with Schliemann—but he was not ready to marry her! Shortly after he arrived in Petersburg, he proposed to yet another woman. Both women were shocked to learn that he had proposed marriage to two women simultaneously. But he finally decided to marry Ekaterina. A decisive factor, no doubt, was her father’s wealth and prominence.
Heinrich and Ekaterina were married on October 24, 1852 (by the Russian calendar, the date is October 12). The ceremony took place in one of the largest cathedrals in Europe and, of course, the largest in Petersburg—St. Isaac’s. Oddly enough, it was not officially opened and consecrated until 1858, six years after the 036marriage. It then became the “leading cathedral in Imperial Russia.” Opening up a cathedral that was still under construction and had yet to be consecrated—only Providence herself could do that. But, as we have seen, Schliemann was always on good terms with her.
Providence closed her eyes to another minor detail. For a Lutheran Evangelical like Schliemann, getting married in an Orthodox church required special permission from the church hierarchy. Of course, permission could not have been given because the cathedral was still under construction. Because of Schliemann’s indomitable will, the marriage took place.
From the start it was a disaster. Schliemann was not an easy man to deal with, far less to live with. The couple quarreled shortly after the wedding and soon both concluded that they had no interests in common. In an early letter, Ekaterina wrote: “From the first days of our marriage I saw that I was dealing with an egoist of a kind I have never known before; nor have I seen in you a trace of tact Unfortunately, we are two creatures, you and I, who, seemingly, will never understand each other. I realized this when we first met, and in the last minute of my life I shall no doubt think the same.”
Schliemann started to learn ancient Greek in 1856. His wife could not understand his passion for languages. In a letter dated April 21, 1856, she wrote to him: “You are probably now on the way to Rostov, and, for nothing better to do, learning Greek.”
His learning ancient Greek is the first indication, after almost ten years of business in Russia, that he had started to devote time to things of no practical value.
In 1859 Schliemann set foot on Greek soil for the first time. On his return to Petersburg, he first saw his second child, Natalia, who was born while he was away. His son, Sergey, had been born in 1855; his other daughter, Nadezhda, would arrive two years later, in 1861.
Schliemann was not the only one who traveled. So did Ekaterina. She would stay away from Russia for months, and Schliemann insisted that she spend the better part of a year “taking the waters” in Italy, France or Belgium. They wrote letters to one another even when they were both in Petersburg, for sometimes he would stay the night in his office. One day, in 1858, she sent a servant with a note inviting him for a walk the next day: “Please,” she insisted, “don’t bring Homer with you.”
Was Schliemann already reading Homer in Greek? It’s doubtful. His commercial activities left him little time; by 1856 he was busy supplying the Russian army with rifles, gunpowder and saltpeter for the Crimean War, which lasted from 1854 until 1856. He delivered tons of his favorite commodity, indigo, which was in great demand by the textile tycoons. He went to commercial fairs and wrote thousands of letters—nearly all of them for business. He added up his profits himself. Huge account books, written in his own hand, are in the Gennadius library. I studied them and came to the conclusion that the man who filled these bulky volumes with endless calculations must have worked day and night keeping up his accounts.
Perhaps I am too skeptical. Perhaps he did read Homer. But I do not think that he did it in pursuit of a childhood dream. He read other books as well. His son Sergey mentions in one of his letters that Schliemann had a huge library in his Petersburg apartment. It contained several thousand volumes. He left them all to 037Sergey when he departed from Russia for good. Schliemann was an admirer of Pushkin’s works and other Russian classics, but it is very doubtful that he was an avid reader while in Russia—he simply did not have the time.
In the nearly 200 letters from Ekaterina to Heinrich that I have edited, there is no other indication that Schliemann was an admirer of Homer. He was surrounded by merchants, living in a world far removed from Greek poetry and myths. In all of Schliemann’s correspondence that I have examined from the years 1846 to 1864, Hermes, the god of commerce, is the hero, not Homer. Schliemann was busy accumulating his fortune. But that may also be regarded as a necessary first step towards the implementation of his dream.
In April 1864, Schliemann became an “honorary citizen of Petersburg.” He later confessed to his wife that he had simply bribed an official to get the honor. With money to burn, he soon set out on a trip around the world, which lasted two years. He went to Italy, Greece, Syria and Petra. He spent considerable time in Egypt, where he learned Arabic. Then on to Tunisia, back to Egypt and from there to India, Singapore, Indonesia, China, Japan, California, Mexico and Cuba. By January 1866, he had settled in Paris.
During a brief trip back to Petersburg in 1866, the now 44-year-old millionaire begged Ekaterina to live with him in Paris. He also backed up his pleas with a threat: He would get an American divorce if she refused. But refuse she did. Deeply disappointed and fearful that he was on the verge of losing not only his wife but also his children, he had a nervous breakdown, which he called a fever. At that time in Russia there was a miraculous cure for disappointment, disillusionment and just plain jumpiness. It was kumys, fermented mare’s milk. This had to be consumed non-stop for a few days or weeks, depending on the doctor’s prescription and the patient’s powers of endurance. Those who survived the treatment were regarded as cured.
Schliemann decided to have a go at it. On July 11, 1866, Schliemann left his wife and children in their country house near St. Petersburg and sailed down the Volga River, accompanied by his devoted servant Vasily. He usually kept a diary while traveling, written in the language of the country he was traveling in, and so on this trip he kept his diary in Russian.
When I started to read this diary, my first reaction was to wonder what had happened to Schliemann’s command of the Russian language. The 1866 diary is full of clumsy phrases. Sometimes he forgets a word and just leaves a blank space. His grammar limps. It is not so much a diary as a merchant’s report. He notes distances, depths, weights and so forth—but his thoughts seem far away, in Petersburg. On July 15, he arrived at a kumys-therapy clinic. Then the real torture began!
The first day he drank three glasses of the stuff, the next day eight, then ten, then 16, then 18 and a half, then 27. Where were the people from the Guinness book of records? He then fell ill with a fever again! When he came to a few days later, he decided to leave. He was feeling much better. After all, he had not drunk a glass of kumys for some time. The last Russian entry in this diary, dated August 23, has him sitting on the deck of a ship heading west. He’s dining and enjoying a glass—of wine. He’s on his way back to Paris (where David Traill awaits him).
III: Three months after getting an American divorce from his Russian wife, Schliemann takes a Greek bride, Sophia; he now begins his second life, as an archaeologist, excavating at Mycenae and Troy.
Although Schliemann would return to St. Petersburg to try once more to persuade Ekaterina to join him in Paris, his 20-year sojourn in his “beloved Petersburg” was over.
In Paris he was now frequenting learned societies and literary salons and meeting many of the leading French intellectuals.
In early 1868 he set out on a trip to Italy, Greece, Troy and Constantinople. In Ithaca he excavated for two days at the top of Mt. Aetos, then reckoned to be the site of Odysseus’s palace. He also spent about five hours at Mycenae, going over the site carefully. He then set out for the Troad, in search of Homer’s Troy.
Though many scholars at the time held that Troy was a mere figment of Homer’s imagination, most of those who thought Troy was a real place located it at the village of Pinarbasi, about 5 miles from Hisarlik at the south end of the plain of Troy. A persuasive case had been made in the late 18th century that Troy had stretched from Pinarbasi to the summit of
There was also the ancient evidence of the Greek historian and geographer Strabo (c. 64 B.C.–21 A.D.). Citing the testimony of apparently well-informed local writers, Strabo maintained that Homer’s Troy had not been located at the Ilion of his day (on the mound of Hisarlik) but some 30 stades (roughly 4 miles) from there.
Excavations carried out at Balli Dagü in 1864 by Johann von Hahn revealed a fortified citadel at the summit, but nothing was found dating earlier than about 400 B.C.a Von Hahn nonetheless concluded that Homer had
In Athens, Schliemann had met Ernst 038Ziller, a member of von Hahn’s team. Ziller seems to have inspired Schliemann to try his own hand at excavating Troy. Schliemann spent ten days in the Troad. He excavated for two days at
Schliemann resolved to return and excavate Hisarlik. Back in Paris, he wrote an account of this trip to Greece and the Troad and published it in French and German under the title Ithaca, the Peloponnese and Troy. In the spring of 1869, he successfully submitted it as a doctoral dissertation to the University of Rostock.
In January 1869 Schliemann went back to St. Petersburg to make one last desperate attempt at reconciliation with Ekaterina. There were angry words, tears and recriminations. But Ekaterina would not budge. Embittered by this failure, he sailed to New York in the spring. He gained American citizenship papers by bribing someone to swear that he had been a resident of the United States for the preceding five years. He then went to Indianapolis and bribed someone there to swear that he had been a resident of that state for the preceding year. With the help of this false testimony, along with doctored translations of his wife’s letters, Schliemann obtained his divorce.
By September, he was in Athens. In less than three weeks he wooed and wedded Sophia Engastromenos, the 17-year-old niece of Theokletos Vimpos, a Greek prelate he had met in Russia. Though Sophia was to prove a fiercely loyal wife, she had a mind of her own and a sharp tongue. The marriage, which produced two children, Andromache and Agamemnon, seemed to work better when, as often, they were apart.
After a brief honeymoon in Italy, the couple returned to Paris, which Schliemann now regarded as his home. The divorce from Ekaterina, however, was not recognized under Russian law. Adopting a new citizenship without first giving up his Russian citizenship and marrying another woman without having properly divorced his first wife constituted crimes under Russian law. The punishment prescribed for each crime was three years of exile in Siberia. Under these circumstances, he could hardly return to Russia—and never did.
To make matters worse, his new Greek wife was desperately unhappy in Paris. She soon became ill with homesickness. In February 1870 they returned to Athens. Schliemann planned a trip to Turkey in April, but to his great annoyance Sophia 039refused to accompany him. He had already asked Calvert to apply on his behalf for permission to excavate at Hisarlik, though no permit had yet been obtained. In April, without the requisite government permit to excavate or even the owners’ consent, Schliemann started digging at Hisarlik. He did not find much and after about ten days was forced to stop. But he was determined to return. Thus began Schliemann’s love affair with Troy, a love that remained with him the rest of his life.
His three seasons of legal excavation at Troy (1871–1873) culminated in the discovery of “Priam’s Treasure” (see “Priam’s Treasure”). After the ensuing legal battle with the Turks, Schliemann spent the summer and fall of 1875 traveling around Europe, visiting museums with significant prehistoric collections. It was an extraordinary program of self-education.
In the fall of 1876 he excavated Mycenae. The astonishingly rich finds that emerged from the site’s Shaft Graves proved that Greek civilization had already reached a remarkable level of sophistication by about 1550 B.C. This was more than a thousand years before Socrates lived, far earlier than anyone had previously dreamed.
Schliemann’s most important other excavations were at Tiryns (1884–1885) and Orchomenos (1880–1881, 1886). He had further campaigns at Troy in 1878, 1879 and 1882. In 1881 he gave his Trojan collection to the German people in perpetuity and was made an honorary citizen of Berlin.
In 1890 he excavated at Troy once again. Pain in his ears had troubled him occasionally throughout his life and it became particularly acute in the spring of 1890. He was advised to have an operation. In November he went to Halle, to the clinic of the best ear surgeon in Germany. He was planning to resume excavations at Troy the following spring. But Schliemann left the hospital before he had fully recovered; he died in Naples in December 1890 of complications arising from the operation.
Throughout his life, Schliemann was a controversial figure. Still, by the time of his death, he was regarded as the grand old man of archaeology. In the 20th century, his reputation among archaeologists grew as his findings at Troy and Mycenae were confirmed by later excavations at these and other sites.
More recently, however, his penchant for untruthfulness and fraudulent behavior have seriously compromised his reputation. The issue is no longer, Was Priam’s Treasure Priam’s? No, it wasn’t; that was solved long ago. Today we are asking, Was Priam’s Treasure really a single find, as Schliemann claimed, or was it cobbled together from a number of smaller finds? Similar questions are also being asked about the Shaft Grave finds. Did Schliemann enhance his discoveries with finds from elsewhere or even with finds he had bought from local villagers, who had long been conducting clandestine excavations in and around Mycenae?
Archaeologists and others once accepted Schliemann’s account of his excavations as reliable. But that attitude was a bit too optimistic. A more robust skepticism is, alas, required.
Athens at the height of summer. Visitors are negotiating their way through the crowded Mycenaean room of the National Museum. The name “Schliemann” rustles through the air as the guides halt their groups at strategic points and launch into their mini-lectures on the finds. The tourists gaze in awe at the Mask of Agamemnon and at the vitrines with gold jewelry from the Shaft Graves at Mycenae. And they wonder about the strange, obsessed German archaeologist who found them. Who was this pioneer of Aegean archaeology and why is he still important? I: Heinrich Schliemann’s veracity is gently challenged […]