When German businessman Heinrich Schliemann discovered a cache of ancient artifacts in the place now known as Hisarlik, Turkey, in 1873, he was quick to identify the gold jewelry, silver vases and other precious objects as the treasure of Priam, the legendary king of Troy. An amateur archaeologist with a penchant for embellishment, Schliemann smuggled the trove out of Anatolia and touted it as proof of his claim that Hisarlik and Troy, the besieged city immortalized in Homer’s Iliad, were one and the same.
Schliemann may have correctly identified Troy’s location, but another key aspect of his story—the discovery of Priam’s treasure—failed to hold up under scrutiny. Archaeologists soon realized that the loot predated the Trojan War by some 1,250 years, meaning it belonged to an entirely different civilization than the one featured in Homer’s epic poem.
Assuming that Priam’s kingdom lay at the lowest level of the archaeological site, the adventurer rushed excavation of the upper layers, inadvertently destroying almost all traces of the very city he’d set out to find. As classicist Kenneth Harl jokes in the Great Courses’ Great Ancient Civilizations of Asia Minor series, Schliemann accomplished what the Greeks could not, finally leveling the walls of Troy.
“The Worlds of Schliemann,” a new exhibition organized by Berlin’s Museum of Prehistory and Early History, revisits his life and legacy on the bicentenary of his birth. Split between the James-Simon-Galerie and the Neues Museum, the two-part show explores the early days of Schliemann’s career, before he started practicing archaeology in his 40s, and spotlights some of his most spectacular finds, including funerary goods from royal Mycenaean tombs and fragments of ancient wall paintings.
“He was a tradesman, a self-made man, and a person who used all possibilities of the 19th century,” Matthias Wemhoff, project manager for the exhibition, tells the Art Newspaper’s Andrew Pulver. “He traveled across so much of the world, in a way that was possible for the first time in history. He had no fear. That’s the important characteristic.”
The son of an impoverished minister, the young Schliemann worked at a grocery store before earning a spot as a cabin boy on a Venezuela-bound vessel that shipwrecked off the Dutch coast. Settling in Amsterdam, he found employment as a bookkeeper at a trading firm that later sent him to St. Petersburg, where he used his mastery of several languages, including Russian and Dutch, to establish himself as an entrepreneur.
With business ventures ranging from indigo trading to reselling gold dust to military contracting during the Crimean War, Schliemann made enough money to retire by age 36. From 1858 on, the self-professed archaeology enthusiast dedicated his life to the search for Troy, which he later claimed to have first learned of as either a 7-year-old who saw an illustration of the burning city in a book or a 14-year-old grocer’s apprentice who heard the Iliad recited in ancient Greek.
Homer’s account of the Trojan War, a ten-year clash sparked by Priam’s son Paris’ seduction or abduction of Helen, wife of the Spartan king Menelaus, was first written down around the eighth century B.C.E. Scholars have long debated the veracity of the epic poem but now generally agree that it describes events that occurred in Hisarlik around 1180 B.C.E., toward the end of the Bronze Age.
As Joshua Hammer writes for Smithsonian magazine, historians continue to disagree about Troy’s size, how the conflict started, “whether [the city] was a powerful regional player or a minor backwater, and whether the characters described by Homer were based on real people or were as mythical as the Greek gods.”
Schliemann arrived at Hisarlik in 1868, “with Homer in one hand and a spade in the other, determined to make his name in archaeology,” per a 2019 blog post by British Museum curators Alexandra Villing and Lesley Fitton. There, he encountered Frank Calvert, an amateur archaeologist and English expatriate who had purchased part of a mound in the area in hopes of discovering Troy beneath it. Low on funds, Calvert convinced the wealthy Schliemann to focus his search on the mound; the German entrepreneur began excavations in 1870, without bothering to secure a permit from local authorities.
After his first excavation season failed to yield promising results, Schliemann adopted a new tactic, instructing his team to dig an enormous, 45-foot-deep trench. His methods, note Jill Rubalcaba and Eric H. Cline in Digging for Troy: From Homer to Hisarlik, were “savage and brutal,” even by the standards of the 19th century. The authors add, “He plowed through layers of soil and everything in them without proper record keeping—no mapping of finds, few descriptions of discoveries.” Some 150 years later, Turkish archaeologists are still working to address the damage inflicted by Schliemann’s single-minded quest for Troy.
“Every archaeologist today will warn against using Schliemann as an orientation, because he did not stick to the standards of archaeology at the time,” historian Ernst Baltrusch tells Deutsche Welle’s Sabine Oelze.
Though Schliemann argued that the trove of necklaces, diadems, brooches, weapons and other treasures he unearthed in Hisarlik belonged to Priam, subsequent excavations showed that it actually came from Troy II, a layer dated to around 2400 B.C.E., long before the Trojan War. The ruins of Homer’s Troy, meanwhile, are located several layers up, in the Troy VI level.
When Turkish authorities realized that Schliemann had smuggled the so-called Priam’s Treasure out of the country, they mounted a legal case against him, demanding the return of the looted artifacts and temporarily barring him from returning to the dig site. In the interim, the amateur archaeologist turned his attention to another mythical ruler: Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and brother of Menelaus.
Conducting excavations at Mycenae in 1876, Schliemann discovered a stunning gold funeral mask he believed was buried with Agamemnon. More recent research has refuted this connection, indicating that the mask was created around 300 years after Agamemnon’s lifetime and might even be a modern forgery.
After Schliemann returned some of his finds (“less important pieces [that] he bought back later,” according to Deutsche Welle) and received permission to resume work at Hisarlik, he hired German archaeologist Wilhelm Dörpfeld to help oversee excavations. Dörpfeld had just convinced Schliemann to shift his attention from Troy II to the higher layers when the entrepreneur collapsed on December 25, 1890.
Schliemann died the following day; Dörpfeld, who continued excavations at the request of Schliemann’s widow, ultimately identified nine layers at the site, including one that seemingly bore out the total destruction exacted on the Trojans by the Greeks at the end of the Trojan War.
Some of the 10,000 or so artifacts included in Priam’s Treasure are housed in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. Others ended up in Berlin, only to be seized by the Red Army at the end of World War II and transferred to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow as compensation for the damage inflicted by the Nazis during the war. Per the Art Newspaper, the Museum of Prehistory and Early History had planned to tour its Schliemann exhibition in Russia and reunite some of his various finds but will be unable to do so due to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Speaking with the Guardian’s Naomi Larsson in 2016, Cline, co-author of Digging for Troy, offered an apt summary of the polarizing figure’s legacy. “If you look on excavation maps, there’s a gap in the middle where it says ‘Palace removed by Schliemann,’” Cline said. “He got Priam’s palace and then threw it away. He found Troy, but he also destroyed Troy.”
“The Worlds of Schliemann: His Life. His Discoveries: His Legacy” is on view at the James-Simon-Galerie and the Neues Museum in Berlin through November 6, 2022.