Heinrich Schliemann, a self-made millionaire with a lifelong belief in the historical accuracy of the Greek classics, discovered ancient Troy, the site of the battles fought in Homer’s Iliad.
Born in 1822 in Mecklenburg, Germany, Schliemann was introduced to the Iliad and the Odyssey by his father, a Protestant minister. As a boy Heinrich would listen to the story of the siege of Troy, brought about by the Trojan prince Paris’s abduction of Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta.
It is common knowledge that the Homeric epics are based on myth and legend, having been composed, perhaps, by a number of poets over a span of time, not by a single individual. To Schliemann, however, the poems’ description of the Trojan War was historical fact, and the young Heinrich dreamed of discovering Troy.
The dream was slow to materialize. At the age of 14 Schliemann was apprenticed to a grocer, which prevented completion of his formal education. He lost this position at the age of 19 as a result of illness and boarded a ship bound for Venezuela. The ship was wrecked in the North Sea, but Schliemann survived.
He became a clerk in Amsterdam and began to educate himself by learning a number of languages, including English, French, and Dutch. His knowledge allowed him to get a job with an Amsterdam-based company of indigo merchants that traded with Russia. After being sent to Russia by his employers, Schliemann set himself up in 1846 in St. Petersburg as a wholesale indigo merchant and began to make his fortune. In 1850 he went to California during the gold rush and formed a banking agency in Sacramento, increasing his wealth.
Two years later he returned to St. Petersburg, married, and profited from dealing in war materiel during the Crimean War. He then acquired a knowledge of Latin and Arabic during a tour of the Mideast, and later learned modern and classical Greek. “In the midst of the bustle of business,” he said, “I never forgot Troy. I loved money indeed, but solely as a means of realizing this real idea of my life.” In 1863 Schliemann retired from business and settled in Paris to study archaeology. Five years later he set out for a tour of ancient Greece and began his search for Homer’s Troy, with its “wide streets” and “lofty towers.”
Other explorers had looked for Troy at Bunarbashi, a village situated on a plain in northeast Turkey, but their excavations had yielded nothing. Schliemann visited Bunarbashi, but did not find one cold and one hot spring, which were said by Homer to mark the city of Troy. Instead, he found 40 cold springs.
Schliemann traveled around the plain until he spotted a hill called Hissarlik, located three miles to the south of the Dardanelles. This location would make it easy for the Greeks to travel back and forth from their coastal camp to Troy several times a day, as described in the Iliad, whereas Bunarbashi was eight miles from the coast, making swift forays difficult. There were no springs at Hissarlik, but these, Schliemann believed, could have dried up over time. Also, the circumference of the mound at Hissarlik was small enough for Achilles to have chased Hector around it three times, as the Iliad said.
Believing that he had found Troy, Schliemann left Turkey to take care of personal matters. His marriage was failing, and he obtained a divorce in Indianapolis. Returning to Hissarlik in 1870, Schliemann dug a trial trench into a corner of the mound and found a massive stone wall 16 feet below the surface.
He applied to the Turkish government for a permit to excavate, and while he waited for the permit he remarried, this time to Sophia Engastromenos, a 17-year-old Greek woman who would later take part in all aspects of Schliemann’s excavations. The permit arrived in September of 1871, and on October 11 the digging began. Schliemann hired 80 laborers to cut a trench 33 feet into the mound, tearing through any obstacles, including walls and foundations, that they encountered along the way. The digging was halted after six weeks because of the weather, and was resumed the following March.
During the next season a labor force of over 100 worked to uncover layers of the mound; they hit bedrock at a depth of 45 feet. Schliemann assumed that King Priam’s city lay at the base of the mound, and by 1873 he had recognized seven cities of Troy, built one on top of the other. He found that the earliest city was too small and primitive to be the Troy of the Iliad, and he concluded (wrongly) that the third city from the base was Homer’s Troy. This level contained burned masonry and scattered gold, silver, and copper artifacts. Schliemann decided that this was the city that had been destroyed by the Achaeans at the end of the Trojan war.
One morning Schliemann spotted gold in loose earth not yet examined by any of his workers. He sent all the workers home that day and dug out by hand a number of gold pendants and earrings, pieces of ivory, and chains and brooches.
Convinced he had found the treasure of the king of Troy, Schliemann said, “Apparently someone in Priam’s family had hastily packed away the treasure in boxes. Then, on the walls, this person met his death.” Schliemann, like everyone else at the time, was not aware of the actual dates of the Homeric epics. He was looking, simply, for the city that was, according to the Iliad, sacked by the armies led by King Agamemnon. Today it is believed that the treasure Schliemann found actually dated from the 22nd century B.C., not from the 8th century B.C., when the Iliad and Odyssey were given their final form, or from the 13th century B.C., when the events in the epics probably took place.
According to the terms of his permit, Schliemann was required to give half of his findings to the Turkish government. Instead, he smuggled the gold artifacts out of Turkey and into Greece. Then he wrote an article for a German newspaper in which he admitted to the smuggling. The Turkish government sued, and Schliemann ended up paying a fine and donation totaling $10,000 in 1875.
In 1876 Schliemann turned his attention from Hissarlik to Mycenae, at the north corner of the plain of Argos in Greece, which he believed was the burial ground of Agamemnon. At Mycenae, Schliemann uncovered five graves containing the largest archaeological treasure found before the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1921. What Schliemann did not know at the time was that he had found the remains of a Mycenaean civilization that had thrived during the 16th century B.C., and that Agamemnon, if he indeed existed, would have lived perhaps at the end of the 13th century B.C.
In 1878 Schliemann resumed excavations at Hissarlik, aided by the German scholar Rudolf Virchow. In addition to giving expert advice, Virchow persuaded Schliemann to give the gold artifacts, then stored in Greece, to Berlin.
Unfortunately most of this treasure vanished during the Second World War. In later seasons, from 1882 to 1890, the architect Wilhelm Dorpfeld joined Virchow and Schliemann at the Troy excavation. By 1890 two more levels had been added to the seven initially identified by Schliemann. Today it is thought that cities I to VII existed during the Bronze Age, around 3000 B.C., city VIII in the Geometric period (700 B.C.), and city IX (Ilium) in Hellenistic and Roman times. And it is believed that the Trojan War was but a chapter in Mycenaean expansion, part of an effort to gain control over an area of strategic importance.
Schliemann never realized his last project. He planned to excavate the palace of King Minos at Knossos on the island of Crete, where Theseus, according to legend, traveled to slay the Minotaur. But before Schliemann could obtain a permit to dig on Crete he died suddenly in Italy, in 1890, at the age of 68. He was by then an international celebrity.
The excavations at Troy were carried on by Dorpfeld until 1894, then resumed from 1932 to 1938 by a group from the University of Cincinnati led by Carl William Blegen. Dorpfeld found that the sixth city, not the third city, was the largest and best built, and he thought it had been destroyed by an invading army.
Blegen, however, found that the sixth city had been leveled by an earthquake, and that the seventh city had been destroyed by fire. The fire, Blegen discovered, was accompanied by violence, as evidenced by the damaged bones at the site. Also, the inhabitants of the seventh city had stored away much food, as if preparing for a siege.
Blegen concluded that the seventh city was the one described in the Iliad as King Priam’s Troy, the one sacked by the Achaeans, and his conclusion is accepted as accurate today.