Heinrich Schliemann in Search of Troy



Heinrich Schliemann in Search of Troy


The history of European science is rich with extraordinary and phenomenal figures, but there are few individuals as controversial as Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890).

For some people, Schliemann is a quintessential archaeologist who devoted his life to work and his fortune to prove the truth of Homer’s Troy. Others see him as a millionaire obsessed with the desire of fame, who destroyed much of the historical Troy, due to his incompetence and arrogance. Nowadays, the problems posed by the discoveries of the amateur archaeologist puzzle the minds of modern scholars, while remaining the center of media attention.

This paper seeks to analyze Heinrich Schliemann’s way to antiquity, his aims and investigations, and to prove the fact that, despite his damage to the early classical archeology, he has significantly contributed to modern archeology and made outstanding inventions.

Schliemann’s Way to Antiquity

Heinrich Schliemann was born on January 6, 1822 in Neubukow, Mecklenburg-Schwerin. According to the myth, in the early childhood, little Henry has set fantastic goals – to find Homer’s Troy and immortalize his own name. In the autobiographical preface to his book “Ilios”, published in 1880, Schliemann writes that when he was eight years old, his father gave him for Christmas Jerrer’s Universal History which contained engraving of Trojans fleeing from the burning city of Troy. It was when he refused to believe that once great city was vanished without a trace, and announced that one day he would excavate the ruins of Troy (Allen, 1999, p.49).

At the age of 14, Schliemann had to leave school and go to work as a grocer’s apprentice in Furstenburg. In 1841, he went to Hamburg and enlisted as a cabin boy on a ship headed for Columbia. Schliemann made his way to Amsterdam, where he began working as a clerk while improving his handwriting and language skills.

In 1844, Schliemann became a correspondent and a bookkeeper in the firm which had trading links with Russian Empire, where he began to study the Russian language.

In 1851, he traveled to North America where he had set up a bank for gold dust transactions. Expanding his business operations by early 1860s, Schliemann became a millionaire. Schliemann made another fortune on the Russian land during the Crimean War by supplying weapons (Traill, 1995, p.110-113).

Schliemann’s Goals of Investigation

In 1863, Schliemann retired to completely surrender his dream – excavate the Troy, known only through the poems of Homer, the historical accuracy of which was denied by scientists. In order to fill in the gaps in his education, in 1864 he visited the site of Carthage, travelled in China, India, and Japan.

In Paris, he devoted himself to archaeological studies, and in 1868, he firstly visited classical lands, after which he published his book “Ithaca, the Peloponnesus, and Troja” (Traill, 1995, p.6).

At the age of 47, Schliemann started to take up archeology. In June 1868, he joined the Pompeii excavation organized by Guiseppe Fiorelli. Next month he visited Mount Aetos and had his first pit of excavation, which was his first step to archeology and his future investigations.

In August 1869, when Heinrich Schliemann firstly set his foot in the Troad, it is possible to conclude on the basis of his notes that he supported Lechevlier’s Bunarbashi theory. Having examined Hisarlik, he did not notice anything particular, and on his way back to Constantinople he met Calvert. This meeting determined the fate of the Trojan archaeology. Calvert was a connoisseur of antiques and topography of the Troad, and most importantly, had the experience of archaeological excavations. Calvert convinced Schliemann that Hisarlik was an artificial mound with the debris and ruins of palaces (Wood, 1998, p.69).

Having realized the promises of excavations at Hissarlik, Schliemann, with the full support of the Turkish government, began preparations for his first archaeological campaign. At the beginning of the first excavation campaign, which consisted of three seasons over 1871-1873, Schliemann had no experience of archaeological excavations. “His Bible was Homer’s Iliad, his mission to prove beyond doubt that the ruins on the Hisarlik mound were the remains of the mighty citadel of Priam’s Troy” (Allen, 1999, p.35).

Experienced Calvert, who knew how serious was the thickness of cultural layers of the Troy, advised to apply a network of smaller trenches and only then proceed to the full scale excavation (Wood, 1998, p.69).

That decision had catastrophic consequences: in three major campaigns the remains of buildings from different periods and valuable materials were destroyed. Among irretrievably lost were the settlements of Troy VI and Troy VII. Ironically, in his search for the proof of the Trojan War, Schliemann destroyed the levels that could provide it.

This resulted in the fact that scientists and the public divided into two groups: the supporters and admirers of Schliemann, on the one hand, and the critics, on the other hand.

Critique to Schliemann’s Methods

Some critics of Schliemann blamed him for inaccurate dates and historical errors. It has been noted that sometimes he ascribed his discoveries to notable events from “Iliad” without actual considering factors, such as the likely dates, the level of involved technology, or the stratum where they were discovered. For example, at Mycenae, he, on no evidence, decided that a golden death-mask which he found in an ancient grave belonged to Agamemnon. Nowadays, it is obvious to scientists that it was much older than that. In his letter to the Greek King he wrote, “This day I looked on the face of Agamemnon” (Traill, 1986, p.45). However, in 19th century the science of archeology was not as advanced as it is today. Moreover, he was a pioneer in his work; that is why his actions were justifiable.

One more thing Schliemann is blamed for by scientists is the way he conducted his excavations. His extreme passion to find Troy eventually led to a tragedy; as a matter of fact, Schliemann destroyed Troy as an archeological monument. That is why today, scientists have to restore the picture by studying what had been left after the excavations of Schliemann.

When Schliemann started to work with an archaeologist and anthropologist William Dorpfeld, he had to change his entire attitude and recognize his mistake. Dorpfeld was the one who suggested that the layer where they found the Priam’s Treasure was older than the time of the Trojan War. Schliemann had to admit that Dorpfeld was right.  In subsequent years, he has proven his loyalty to this hypothesis. However, an attempt to convince scientists that the events of Homer’s Troy are not a myth, but a fact in history, has failed. It is unquestionable that he made amazing discoveries, but they had nothing in common with the fact he was trying to prove.

Meanwhile, Schliemann’s book, once called by Wood (1998, p.88) “the most important contribution to archaeological science that has been published this century”, lacked the necessary information about the spots found, context, and depth that are so important in the scientific method. Moreover, his detailed background descriptions were different from the once found in his private diaries. Such contradictions in the text of Schliemann and the scandal that broke out shortly after the discovery of the treasures because Schliemann failed to share precious objects with the Turkish government resulted in his critical reputation in the scientific community.

Schliemann’s Contribution to Modern Archeology

It is evident that a great deal of effort and money spent by Schliemann in the first three years and the later years with participation of Professor Rudolf Virchow and William Dorpfeld were not in vain. He not only did discover in the depth of Hisarlik remains settlements of Aegean and Anatolian civilizations dating from the Bronze Age, but he also found materials precious in academic and artistic sense. The discovery of Priam’s Treasure, which was published in 1874, caused a sensation in the scientific world.

Nowadays, while discussing the merits and misconceptions of Heinrich Schliemann, one should not forget that he in his research had almost no predecessors. Easton (1998) argues that virtually all the major excavation of the second half of the 19th century, in the process of which modern methods of field research were developed, were held after Schliemann’s first major excavation, that is after 1873. There is no doubt that the excavation conducted by Heinrich Schliemann served as a catalyst for accelerating the development of archaeology as a science.

However, not only the discovery of Troy made him a famous archeologist.  He also explored Mycenae and Tiryns, and made other crucial investigations.


Despite the fact that Heinrich Schliemann is very often reproached by archaeologists and scientists for destroying many artifacts of a great value during his excavations, one cannot but admit that his boundless intelligent mind was the reason for these immense discoveries. His complete and full dedication to this goal and the fact that he spent a lot of his own money make him an outstanding scientist of the 19th century. Moreover, considering the less developed methods of research and backward time, it is quite unfair to reproach Heinrich Schliemann with his fails. Although he was a pioneer in his research, Heinrich Schliemann has achieved one of the greatest discoveries in the history of archeology.

One can admit that Heinrich Schliemann is a symbol of unwavering dedication and commitment who discovered a whole culture, a whole epoch in the history of ancient Greece, the existence of which was unknown to historians over the centuries.

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