Romancing Schliemann

February 14 2015

In the tenth volume of A Study of History (though there were two more to come, almost as afterthoughts), Toynbee is demob-happy. He throws off the scientific scholar’s mask and comes out as an unadulterated romantic. We read about his emotional responses to passages by great and not so great historians and at the sites of historical events. We learn about his heroes. All this is mocked by Trevor-Roper. A long passage about Schliemann, from which I took a fragment in the last post, who overcame all personal difficulties and disadvantages and transformed the study of ancient Greece, is therefore uncritical. I will quote more of it in a future post.

In the present writer’s mind, the heroic exemplar of an invincible curiosity’s response to the challenge of heart-breaking circumstances had always been Heinrich Schliemann (vivebat A.D. 1822-90), ever since a memorable day at Winchester when the writer as a boy had listened spell-bound to his master M. J. Rendall retailing, with zest, the salient episodes of this romantic life in a parenthesis during a session officially allocated to the construing of the Iliad.


[Schliemann], who had spent his fifteenth to his forty-second year (A.D. 1836-63) in accumulating the means, spent his forty-seventh to his sixty-ninth year (A.D. 1868-90) in disinterring from the ground, and retrieving from oblivion, not only Troy, but Ithaca, Mycenae, Orchomenos, and Tiryns as well.

In an Annex, Toynbee, after further examining Schliemann’s international business career, celebrates other businessmen who were also serious scholars: George GroteJames Ford RhodesWalter Leaf. Grote was a banker in Threadneedle Street and wrote a history of Greece which became famous. Rhodes was an American industrialist and historian of the US. Leaf was the chairman of Westminster Bank and the leading Homer exegete of his day. Leaf did much of his work before retiring.

Goethe is Toynbee’s main German hero. But Goethe never visited Greece: he discovered Greek architecture in Sicily and was startled by its simplicity. Toynbee hardly ever mentions Goethe’s

revered plebeian forerunner Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the shoemaker’s son

who first articulated the difference between Greek, Greco-Roman and Roman art, also never visited Greece, and has a claim to have been the founder of modern archaeology. The fashion of going to Greece started with Byron, when Goethe was old.

Toynbee, like less romantic people of his generation, hero-worshipped Schliemann, but Schliemann’s shortcomings were well known when he was writing. Schliemann timeline:

1868. Having made his money, visited Homeric sites in Greece and Asia Minor.

1869. Published first book, Ithaka, der Peloponnes und Troja, in which he argued that Hisarlık, a large man-made mound in Asia Minor, not Pınarbaşı, a short distance south of it, was the site of Troy (as it is still thought to be) and that the graves of the Greek commander Agamemnon and his wife Clytemnestra were not outside the citadel walls at Mycenae but inside them. He wanted to prove that the Iliad and Aeneid reflected historical events.

Married a Greek schoolgirl named Sophia Engastromenos, having divorced his Russian wife, Ekaterina.

1871. Joined the English archaeologist Frank Calvert (whom Britannica confuses with his brother Frederick) at Hisarlık. Schliemann took sole credit for identifying the site even though Charles Maclaren had suggested it as the location of Homeric Troy as early as 1822 and Calvert was the first to dig there.

He and Calvert worked on the eastern half of the site. The Turkish government owned the western half. Schliemann believed that the Homeric Troy must be at the lowest level. 

1873. Uncovered fortifications and the remains of a city (“Troy”) and a treasure of gold jewellery (“Priam’s treasure”). We now know that the level he named the Troy of the Iliad was a thousand years older than Troy.

The treasure even looks anachronistic at this level. Did Schliemann plant it there? His excavations were condemned by later archaeologists as having destroyed the main layers of the real Troy. Even Calvert seems to have had doubts.

“Schliemann may not have discovered the truth, but the publicity stunt worked, making Schliemann and the site famous and igniting the field of Homeric studies in the late 19th century.” (Lauren Stokes, Trojan wars and tourism: a lecture by C. Brian Rose, The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore College, November 23 2005.)

1874. Published Trojanische Alterthümer. His discoveries were received sceptically by many scholars. Others, including Gladstone, and a wide public, accepted his identification.

When he proposed to resume work in February, the Turkish government revoked his permission to dig and sued him for a share of the treasure. Collaborating with Calvert, Schliemann smuggled it out of Turkey. He defended this as an attempt to protect the items from corrupt officials. 

After much haggling the Turkish authorities agreed to drop their claim in return for a large cash sum. It was eventually presented to the German nation and housed in a museum in Berlin. It disappeared in 1945 and reappeared in 1993 in Moscow.

1874-76. Dug first at the site of the Treasury of Minyas at Orchomenus in Boeotia, and found little. Published Troja und seine Ruinen (1875) and began excavation at Mycenae in the Peloponnese. Here, in 1876, he discovered gold, silver, bronze and ivory objects. He believed he had found the tombs of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. His greatest trophy, the Mask of Agamemnon, is now known, once again, to be several centuries older.

Some have said that Schliemann salted his digs with artefacts from elsewhere. He could even have had the mask manufactured on the general model of the other Mycenaean masks and found an opportunity to place it in the excavation.

On this and more, see John Chadwick, review of David Traill, Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit, Times Higher Education Supplement, June 12 1995, a hatchet-job on his methods and character.

“The Greek authorities have wisely refused to allow [the objects] to be tested; who would want to risk killing a golden goose that attracts the tourists in their thousands? [Has anyone “tested” the treasure in Moscow?] […] [His diaries] frequently disagree with the details given in his books, and show signs of having been tampered with at crucial points. There are too many instances of his improving stories in the telling, or even appropriating to himself events that happened to someone else, for us to be able to accept his word, at least where he could obtain an advantage by the deception. The morals of the market place were imported into the world of scientific scholarship.”

In 1876 he received permission to resume excavations at Hisarlık, but he did not reopen the site until 1878.

1878-79. Published Mykenae. After an unsuccessful excavation on the Ionian island of Ithaca (mentioned in the Odyssey) in 1878, resumed work at Hisarlık. In the following year was joined there by Emile Burnouf and Rudolf Virchow.

1882-83. Third excavation at Troy.

1884. Excavated fortified site of Tiryns, near Mycenae, with Wilhelm Dörpfeld.

1888-90 (his death). Fourth excavation at Troy, with Dörpfeld.

Schliemann thought that there must have existed a civilisation earlier than Mycenaean Hisarlık, and he guessed that it might be in Crete. He had hoped to work there. In the event, the discovery of Minoan Crete was left to Sir Arthur Evans ten years after Schliemann’s death.

(The Mycenaean Greeks controlled the Aegean after the fall, c 1400 BC, of the pre-Greek Minoan civilization – script: Linear A, undeciphered – and built fortified citadels and large palaces. They spoke a form of Greek; script: Linear B, deciphered. Their culture in its last phase is portrayed in the Homeric poems. Their power declined during widespread upheavals at the end of the Mediterranean Bronze Age, around 1100 BC.

When I first learned about Troy, I was bothered by the fact that the Trojans seemed as Greek as the Greeks. In fact, they probably spoke another Indo-European language, widely used in Anatolia, called Luwian, though there are no Trojan inscriptions. It is clear from the Iliad that they had a close relationship with the Greeks on their west. They had a similar relationship with the Hittites on the east.)

Schliemann died in Naples. His corpse was transported to the First Cemetery of Athens and interred in an elaborate mausoleum designed by Ernst Ziller. His palace in Athens, the Iliou Melathron (Ιλίου Μέλαθρον, Palace of Ilium), is now the Numismatic Museum.

Through his books and dispatches to The Times, the Daily Telegraph and other papers, he became the first populariser of archaeology (an equivalent, perhaps, of William Howard Russell as the first war correspondent). He inspired scholars as well as the public. When he died, John Myres said that it seemed that “the spring had gone out of the year”.

When he began excavating, no corpus of accepted practice existed for archaeological fieldwork. He was a pioneer, like Flinders Petrie and Augustus Pitt-Rivers. Stratigraphy had been observed and understood in Danish peat bogs, the Jutland barrows, and prehistoric Swiss lake dwellings, but Hisarlık was the first large dry-land man-made mound ever dug. It is not surprising that Schliemann was puzzled by what he found, but, eventually, with the help of Dörpfeld, he was able to untangle the stratigraphy and admitted his initial mistakes. He did well for someone starting to dig in the 1870s, yet is criticised by those who are excavating similar mounds more than a century later.

Did he, a victim of what Eliza Marian Butler called “the tyranny of Greece over Germany”, get carried away? Was he a con-man? He was certainly learned and spoke and read many languages. His record-keeping was suspect. He seems to have twisted a few things. For Toynbee, his net contributions to knowledge, the fields which he opened up, were so large, and his career was so romantic, that his defects could be overlooked. But GP Gooch had been able to give this account of him in History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century, Longmans, Green and Co, 1913:

“After Thirlwall and Grote [above], Duncker and Curtius, it might seem as if there was only room for monographs; but during the last quarter of the century the discoveries of Schliemann [footnote: See Schuchhardt, Schliemann’s Excavations, 1891.] revolutionised the treatment of early Greek history. At seven he read of the burning of Troy and longed to visit the site, declaring that the fortifications could not have wholly vanished. At ten he wrote a Latin essay on the Trojan war. His father’s poverty compelled him to begin earning his living at fourteen, and it was not till the age of thirty-four that he began to learn Greek. At forty-one he had become a rich man and retired from business. In 1870 he began the excavation of Hissarlik, and in 1874 published his ‘Trojan Antiquities.’ The learned world laughed at his naïve identifications of the objects and buildings described in the Iliad, and he confused the different strata superimposed upon one another. None the less his discoveries aroused world-wide interest, while his shortcomings were only known to scholars. Hindered in his work at Troy by the Turkish Government he transferred his attention to Mycenae, where he discovered the graves of the kings filled with gold and other ornaments. In a telegram to the King of the Hellenes he announced that he had found Agamemnon and his household; but more careful study revealed the fact that the treasure did not belong to a single period and that the number and sex of the persons did not agree with the legend. It was, however, of minor importance whether the body of Agamemnon or of other kings had been found; for he had revealed a vanished civilisation. He next discovered at Orchomenos the so-called Treasury of Minyas, and, after a further visit to Troy in company with Dörpfeld, laid bare the fortress-city of Tiryns, the neighbour of Mycenae.

“When Schliemann died in 1890 he had filled the world with his fame. In twenty years he had unearthed three cities, had revealed Mycenaean civilisation, and had given an incalculable impetus to archaeological research. Yet he was almost pathetically incompetent to interpret the marvellous treasures he had brought to light. He was filled with a romantic attachment to Greece. He married a Greek lady, and called his son Agamemnon and his daughter Andromache. But he possessed neither the training nor the qualities required for the task of scientific excavation. He treated Homer as the historian no less than the poet of the Trojan wars. He held the Mycenaeans to be Homer’s Achaeans, and it was left to others to point out that the civilisation of Mycenae was pre-Homeric, and to Dörpfeld to prove that the city of Hector and Achilles was the sixth, not the second. Schliemann was a pioneer, a conquistador, [footnote: Salomon Reichnach.] and much of his work has had to be done again by Dörpfeld. Like Cesnola, who spent years burrowing in the sites of Cyprus, his sumptuous volumes are of little value for the purposes of exact scholarship. If he revealed the romantic possibilities of excavation, his errors emphasised the need of professional training.”

Heinrich Schliemann


A Study of History, Vol X, OUP, 1954

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

5 Responses to “Romancing Schliemann”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Toynbee does admit that some passages in Schliemann’s autobiographical note in Ilios contradict statements he had made earlier, but says that he does not quote from them.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Example of Schliemann’s fantasising outside the field of archaeology (the first instance here is not an example):

    “According to his memoirs, before arriving in California he dined in Washington with President Millard Fillmore and his family, but Eric Cline says that he didn’t attend but simply read about it [read about what?] in the papers. He also published what he said was an eyewitness account of the San Francisco fire of 1851 which he said was in June although it took place in May. At the time he was actually in Sacramento and used the report of the fire in the Sacramento Daily Journal to write his report.” (Wikipedia)

  3. davidderrick Says:

    Can proper dating “tests” be done on metal?

  4. […] Romancing Schliemann (old post). […]

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