The story of Heinrich Schliemann gives away that sense of “adventure novel for teenagers” and restores that passionate not very academic character to archeology, which fuels the curiosity of children in their daydreaming age.
Schliemann was born on the 6th of January 1822 in Neubukow, Germany, from a simple family. His father, a Protestant Minister with a humanistic education, triggered his little child interest about the ancient populations and the extraordinary deeds of the Homeric heroes: he was used to reading tales and ancient legends as well as Homeric poems to the little Heinrich.
In his Autobiography Schliemann explained how, during Christmas 1829 when he was 7 years old, his father gave him a book of illustrated history of the world. In front of the image of Aeneas, running away from the burning city with his old father on his shoulders and holding the little son by his hand, Schliemann was deeply struck.
“was the city of Troy like that?”asked to his father, and he nodded. “and did it all go lost and none of us knows where it was?” asked as well. Once again the father said yes. “When I will be a man I will find it myself, the city of Troy” concluded confidently.
After his mother’s death, his father gave him to his uncle so that he could secure a proper education for him. He attended the school only for a short period though, due to the rising economical issues with his parents.
At the age of 14 he was forced to abandon school and start working as a delivery boy in a grocer’s shop in Furstenberg. Surrounded by herrings, milk and salt for a total of 18 hours a day, the young boy forgot all that he had learnt in that brief time at school, and stopped thinking about all those ancient heroes that had so much fascinated him in the past. The harsh reality had taken over all his childhood dreams up until one day, when in his shop a drunken miller started reciting charming verses, words which were familiar to Schliemann. They were coming from the Iliad. The young boy scraped together a few coins from his pockets and offered them to the man so that he could carry on with his performance.
The legendary Troy had come back to obsess him
Some years later, after the recommendation of a family friend, he found a job first as a doorman then as an errand boy in Amsterdam. It was in that epoque that, in a cold wretched loft, he started learning many foreign languages. He developed a learning method which allowed him to learn, in just 2 years Dutch, Portuguese, Italian, English, French and Russian.
Thanks to his brilliant personality he became merchant and then a successful retailer
In 1846, at the age of 24 he went to Saint Petersburg as an agent of his own business. One year afterwards he had set up his trading house.
Below: archeological site of Troy, the theater from the Roman era. Picture by Carole Raddato shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
In 1850 he sailed off to the US and set aside a generous fortune by lending money to gold diggers. After a trial for fraud, he came back to Saint Petersburg where he married the daughter of a rich lawyer. The Crimean war was for Schliemann huge source of income since it started to give supplies and war materials to the Tsar troops. In those same years, he started learning other languages such as Arabic, ancient Greek and Hebrew.
The 1868 was the year of the turn: he abandoned the business world and focused on his dreams of youth. After the divorce from his first wife he remarried with the Greek Sophia Engastromena from whom he had 2 children, Agamemnon and Andromache. He travelled to China, Japan, Italy and Greece all the way to Turkey, determined to find the legendary city of Troy.
Below: Schliemann with his second wife Sophia
At the time of Schliemann the homeric composition was considered, even by the academic community, as a fantasy, nothing but myths and legends exaggerated by the talent of a great poet. But Schliemann believed that all the stories about the heroes, Achilles, Patroclus, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Aeneas and their loves, the poisons, the blood shed, the glorious deeds of the homeric verses were not made up fables but actual tales of historical characters.
The official archeology back then was indicating as possible site of Troy, if it had really existed, the village of Bunarbashi. In that area in fact there were two springs. In the book XII of the Iliad, at line 147-152 there is:
“…and they reached the two beautiful fountains, they flow
here, the springs of the swirling Scamander:
one flows warm water and smoke around
rises from it, like a burning flame;
the other even in summer flows as much as the hail
or the ice or even the gelid snow. ”
Schliemann tried first of all to verify the presence of such springs and he did not just find 2 but a total of 34. Furthermore, while Homer had mentioned that one of them was with warm water and the other with cold one, Schliemann measured a constant temperature of 17.5 °C in all of them (63.5° F).
Looking at the valley which was unfolding before him from the site in Bunarbashi, he noticed that the coast was at least 3 hours away by foot. That detail was a bit incongruous with what Homer said as in his words, the heros were able to run multiple times from the ships to the city. Basically, during the first day of battle, described from the II to the VII book of Iliad, if Troy was really hidden underneath Bunarbashi, the Achaeans would have made, in 9 hours of battle, at least 84 km (52 miles).
He then went to analyse the verses of the book where they describe the terrible fight between Achilles and Hector; it’s written that this latter ran away from his follower and turned “around the fort of Priam three times”. Schliemann tried then to follow the route around that which was supposed to be the fort, but the hill was so steep that he eventually had to climb down on all fours. Climbing it up for three times with “rapid feet” seemed rather unlikely.
Last but not least the ruins and fragments of terracotta that the side was supposed to abundantly have were lacking.
Below: reconstruction of ancient Troy. Picture by Carole Raddato shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
It all seemed to suggest that the theory of Bunarbashi being the city wasn’t correct. 2 hours away heading towards North though, not too far from the coast, the city of Hissarlik would rise up. When Schliemann was on top of that hill he understood that that was it, the right place. Here the settlement of Hector and Achilles was not that unbelievable any longer, as they would have made 15 km by running around the city wall for three times.
He did not find any spring but as Frank Calvert previously commented, another person who had imagined Hissarlik as possible place for Troy, in that volcanic area, springs of warm water would appear and vanish rapidly. Therefore that detail, fundamental to reject Bunarbashi, it was now completely irrelevant.
Schliemann was sure that Troy would lay down there. In April 1870 the excavation program began and in 1871 a hundred of workers had gathered around his project.
He carried on his plan with obsessive excitement, overcoming any type of obstacle, from the malarial fevers, the unreliability of his workers, the lack of drinkable water to the open hostility of the academic world, which wouldn’t miss a chance to make fun of him and his venture.
Below: scale model of Troy VII. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
He started to demolish the walls of a later era, he found more and more objects and terracottas, showing the richness of the city. Under the wall of New Troy he found another layer, under which he found another, and another and so on. Layer over layers inhabited in the most diverse eras.
In a year time he discovered 7 stratified cities one above the other and subsequently he found 2 further ones. The oldest part was prehistoric, 2nd and 3rd layers there were traces of a fire and remains of heavy bastions and a massive door: the Palace of Priam and the Scea Door. It was all true.
Troy was history under everyone’s noses
The news spread all over the world, leaving the official archeology speechless.
Below: inner view of Troy how it was supposed to look. Picture by Carole Raddato shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
After having digged 250,000 m² (2,700,000 ft²) of soil, Schliemann was more than satisfied and thought he had found all it had to be found. On the last day of excavation, before a temporary break, was set up for the 15th of June 1873 but, just the day before, the unimaginable happened. 28 feet deep (almost 10 m), along the perimeter of that which was supposed to be the Palace of Priam, Schliemann and wife were as usual supervising the work when something drew his attention. He quickly dismissed the workers, that he did not trust much, and asked his wife to fetch her shawl. He started to excavate frantically to bring back to the surface something which was stuck under some rocks which were suspiciously leaning towards his head and that were increasingly less firm.
Below: the different layers of the city. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Wrapped around the shawl of his wife, Schliemann had placed golden cups, silver vases and precious diadems. It was the gold of Priam, one of the most powerful Kings of the ancient times, buried there since 3,000 years before, under the ruins of 7 gone Kingdoms. Schliemann collected the treasure and took it out of Turkey without permission. For that reason the Ottoman government revoked his concession of excavation, they asked to return the stolen artifacts and imprisoned the officer in charge to guard the excavations.
Below: picture of some of the stolen artifacts from Turkey
Schliemann sent back part of the treasure to the Ottoman government in exchange to have his permission to continue with the excavations back. The part that remained to him was bought in 1880 by the Imperial Museum of Berlin and exhibited to the Pergamon Museum, which then were taken by the Red Army and probably sold to the black market. some objects reappeared in 1993 to the Museum of Pushkin in Moscow, where part of it still is based, and the other is kept in the Hermitage of Saint Petersburg.
Below: picture of wife Sophie with some jewels of Troy on
Only after the death of Schliemann it was demonstrated that Troy was not in the 2nd or 3rd layer but instead in the 6th one from down up. Furthermore what he had found was not the treasure of Priam but the one of a King of 1000 years before. Anyway the fairytale of Schliemann and the glorious city of Troy was given back to history due to himself only.
Below: some remains of Troy. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons