Heinrich Schliemann


Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), German archaeologist who excavated, with spectacular success, Troy, Mycenae, and other ancient Aegean cities associated with the heroes of Greek mythology. His extraordinary life, vividly recounted in his memoirs, has captivated countless readers.



Schliemann was born and raised in Mecklenburg-Schwerin, northern Germany, the son of a country pastor. In 1836, at the age of 14, Schliemann became a grocer’s apprentice. In 1841 he set sail to make his fortune in South America but was shipwrecked off the Dutch coast. He made his way to Amsterdam, where he showed a remarkable aptitude for learning languages and was taken on as a clerk by B. H. Schroeder, a major trading company. Teaching himself Russian, he became Schroeder’s agent in Saint Petersburg, Russia. While there, he also started his own business, dealing in commodities such as tea, cotton, and indigo on the Saint Petersburg Exchange. He quickly became very rich.

In 1851 he traveled to California, where his brother had died of typhoid fever, opened a bank in Sacramento, and bought gold dust from miners. Returning to Saint Petersburg in 1852, he married Ekaterina Lyshin, a lawyer’s daughter with whom he had three children. By the mid-1850s Schliemann had become disenchanted with business and regretted his lack of a liberal education. He started learning Latin and ancient Greek.

In 1856 and 1857 Schliemann visited Italy, Jerusalem, Petra, Athens, and Egypt. In 1864 and 1865 he journeyed to Egypt, India, China, Japan, California, Nicaragua, the eastern United States, and Cuba. Upon his return to Europe he settled in Paris, where he bought rental property, enrolled in courses at the Sorbonne, and began attending the meetings of learned societies.



During travels in Italy in 1868 he saw ongoing professional excavations in Rome and Pompeii and an amateur dig on the island of Capri. These experiences seem to have inspired him to hire workmen to dig for him later on his trip, on the Greek island of Ithaca and in the Troad (an area in northwestern Turkey thought to contain ancient Troy). As he was leaving the Troad, Frank Calvert, a British expatriate living on the Dardanelles, persuaded him that a large mound called Hisarlık was the true site of Troy. Schliemann had just been digging at Bunarbashi, the site favored by most scholars, without success. Schliemann vowed to return.

In 1869 Schliemann authored a book, Ithaque, le Peloponnèse et Troie (Ithaca, the Peloponnese and Troy), on his travels in Greece and the Troad; the book gained him a doctorate from the University of Rostock in Germany. The same year, he divorced his Russian wife and married Sophia Engastromenos, the niece of a Greek archbishop, in Athens. In Paris, Sophia became homesick and gravely ill; so they returned to Athens and made their home there. This marriage, stormy but lasting, produced two children: Andromache and Agamemnon.

In 1870 Schliemann, working without a permit from the Turkish government, dug two small trial trenches through the mound of Hisarlık. He returned the next year to begin his first legal campaign of excavation at Troy (1871-1873), driving a massive north-south trench through the mound. He identified nine occupation layers, believing that the second-oldest (Troy II) was the legendary city described by the ancient Greek poet Homer. It was in this layer that he found, in the closing days of the campaign, a rich hoard, comprising 9 vessels of gold and silver; 3 headbands, 60 earrings, and 8,750 beads, all of gold; 6 talents (large slabs) of silver; and some 40 weapons and tools of bronze. He called the hoard “Priam’s Treasure” after King Priam of Troy. Later, when ridiculed for making such an attribution, he backed away from it.

In 1876 he excavated Mycenae in Greece. His reports of the excavation of the shaft graves there were published in detail in the Times of London and caused an international sensation. The finds in gold and silver were far more spectacular both in quantity and quality than those of Troy. Schliemann became a world celebrity. He also excavated at the ancient Greek cities of Orkhomenós (1881 and 1886), Tiryns (1884-1885) and Marathon (1884). He died in Naples, Italy, in 1890 on his way home to Athens.

There were a number of persistent critics of Schliemann’s work during his lifetime. Some alleged that his reports were misleading, even untruthful, and that his finds had been fraudulently enhanced. To silence his critics, Schliemann returned repeatedly to Troy (1878-1879, 1882, and 1890) to continue excavating. Two conferences held at Troy (1889 and 1890) vindicated Schliemann against his detractors. However, his latest excavations made it clear that Troy II was far too early to be Homeric Troy—a fact that he never explicitly admitted.



Schliemann certainly did open up, as he claimed, a new world for archaeology. At Mycenae he revealed, to universal astonishment, a civilization of remarkable wealth and sophistication that was a thousand years older than the Athens of the Greek philosopher Socrates. Subsequent excavation has confirmed the general accuracy of Schliemann’s reports, both in the overall picture they present and in countless details.

However, it is also clear that Schliemann made up stories about his past and lied in some descriptions of his discoveries. His claim that from childhood he had loved Homeric legends and dreamed of finding Troy seems to be a fabrication. At Troy, Sophia did not help him excavate “Priam’s Treasure,” as he claims. She was in Athens at the time. Moreover, that treasure is not a single find, as Schliemann reports, but a composite of many finds made over a period of months. How far the rest of his archaeological work is similarly contaminated with distortions is debated and awaits further investigation.


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