Heinrich Schliemann

From Phantis
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Portrait of Heinrich Schliemann.

Heinrich Schliemann (January 6, 1822December 26, 1890) was a German classical archaeologist, an advocate of the historical reality of places mentioned in the works of Homer, and an important excavator of Mycenaean sites, such as Troy, Mycenae and Tiryns.


Heinrich was born at Neubukow, in Mecklenburg-Schwerin, to Ernst Schliemann, a poor Protestant minister, and Luise Therese Sophie. He was one of a large family. In 1831, when he was 9, his mother died. There is no question that this was a traumatic event for him. Later in life he seemed attracted to women named Sophie.

He went to live with his uncle, Friederich Schliemann, perhaps because of an educational opportunity. He enrolled in the Gymnasium at Neustrelitz at age 11. His attendance was paid for by his father.

He was at the Gymnasium for at least a year. Later he claimed that, as a boy, his interest in history was encouraged by his father, who, he said, had schooled him in the tales of The Iliad and The Odyssey and had given him a copy of Ludwig Jerrer's Illustrated History of the World for Christmas, 1829. Schliemann also later claimed that at the age of eight he declared he would one day excavate the city of Troy.

It is unknown whether his childhood interest in and connection with the classics continued during his time at the Gymnasium, but it is likely that he would have been further exposed to Homer. It may be that he had just enough of a classical education to endow him with a yearning for it when it was snatched from him; he was transfered to the vocational school, or Realschule, after his father was accused of embezzling church funds, and had to quit the vocational school in 1836, when his father had no funds to pay for it.

This established the fundamental character of his later life. He wanted to return to the educated life, to reacquire all the things of which he was deprived in childhood. In his archaeological career, there was always a dichotomy between the educated professionals and Schliemann. Heinrich developed a certain tendency to pose as something he was not. Moreover, the experiences of his father gave him a sympathy to means that were not always legal or aboveboard.

After leaving Realschule, Heinrich became a grocer's apprentice at age fourteen, for Herr Holtz's grocery in Furstenburg. He labored in the grocery for five years, reading voraciously whenever he had a spare moment. In 1841 Schliemann fled to Hamburg and became a cabin boy on the Dorothea, a steamer bound for Venezuela. After twelve days at sea the ship foundered in a gale, and the survivors washed up on the shores of Holland.

Career as a businessman

After his shipwreck, Schliemann seems to have undergone a brief period of being footloose in Amsterdam and Hamburg, at age 19. This circumstance came to an end with his employment, in 1842, at the commodities firm of F. C. Quien and Son. (Some say this was in Amsterdam; others say Prussia.) He became a messenger, office attendant and then book-keeper there. As messenger, he would stamp bills of exchange and cash them.

On March 1, 1844, he changed jobs, going to work for B. H. Shröder & Co., an import/export firm. There he evidenced such judgement and talent for the work that they sent him as a general agent in 1846 to St. Petersburg, where the markets were favorable. He represented a number of companies. He prospered there, but how well is not known. In view of his later experiences with his first wife, he probably did not become rich at that time. He did learn Russian and Greek, employing a system that he used his entire life to learn languages -- Schliemann wrote his diary in the language of whatever country he happened to be in.

Schliemann had a gift for languages and by the end of his life he was conversant in English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Italian, Greek, Latin, Russian, Arabic and Turkish as well as his native German. Schliemann's ability with languages was an important part of his career as a businessman in the importing trade. How well he actually knew those languages is another question, but he seemed reasonably at home in many nations.

In 1850 Heinrich learned of the death of his brother, Ludwig, who had become wealthy as a speculator in the California gold fields. Taking the cue, Schliemann went to California in early 1851 and started a bank in Sacramento. The bank bought and resold over a million dollars in gold dust in just six months. The prospectors could mine or pan for the gold, but they had no way to sell it except to middle men such as Schliemann, who made quick fortunes on it.

Later Heinrich claimed to have acquired United States citizenship when California was made a state. According to his memoirs, before arriving in California he had dined in Washington with President Millard Filmore and family. He also published an account of the San Francisco fire of 1851.

He wasn't in the United States long. On April 7, 1852, he sold his business rather suddenly (due to fever, he said) and returned to Russia. There he attempted to live the life of a gentleman, which brought him into contact with Ekaterina Lyschin, the niece of one of his wealthy friends. Previously he had learned that his childhood sweetheart, Minna, had married. He was now 30.

Heinrich and Ekaterina were married on October 12, 1852. The marriage was troubled from the start. Ekaterina wanted him to be richer than he was and witheld conjugal rights until he made a move in that direction, which he did. The canny Schliemann cornered the market in indigo and then went into the indigo business, turning a good round profit. This move won him Ekaterina's intimacy and they had a son, Sergey. Two other children followed.

Having a family to support moved Schliemann to tend to business even though he still had his first fortune. He found a way to make yet another quick fortune as a military contractor in the Crimean War, 1854-1856. He cornered the market in saltpeter, brimstone and lead, constituents of ammunition, which he resold to the Russian government.

By 1858, Schliemann was as wealthy as ever a man could wish. The poor minister's son had overcome poverty in his own life. He refused to haunt the halls of trade and speculation. He was not a professional businessman, and was no longer interested in speculation.

Some say he retired at 36, which would have been in 1858; others say 1863, at age 41. In his memoirs he claimed that he wished to dedicate himself to the pursuit of Troy, but this claim, along with many others, is unlikely to be true.

Life as a classical archaeologist

Sophia Schliemann (née Engastromenos) wearing treasures recovered at Hisarlik.

It is not certain by what path Schliemann really did arrive at either archaeology or Troy. He travelled a great deal, seeking out ways to link his name to famous cultural and historical icons. One of his most famous exploits was disguising himself as a Bedouin tribesman to gain access to forbidden areas of Mecca.

His first interest of a classical nature seems to have been the location of Troy. The city's very existence was then in dispute. Perhaps his attention was attracted by the first excavations at Santorini in 1862 by Ferdinand Fouqué. This possibility argues for an early retirement date, as he was already an international traveller by then. On the other hand, he may have been inspired by Frank Calvert, whom he met on his first visit to the Hisarlik site in 1868.

Somewhere in his many travels and adventures he lost Ekaterina. She was not interested in adventure and had remained in Russia. Schliemann claimed to have utilised the divorce laws of Indiana in 1850, after becoming a citizen, in order to divorce Ekaterina in absentia. This story established more of a distance between his first and second wives.

Based on the work of a British archaeologist, Frank Calvert, who had been excavating the site in Turkey for over 20 years, Schliemann decided that Hissarlik was the site of Troy. In 1868 - a busy year for Schliemann - he visited sites in the Greek world, published Ithaka, der Peloponnes und Troja in which he advocated for Hissarlik as the site of Troy, and submitted a dissertation in ancient Greek proposing the same thesis to the University of Rostock. He later claimed to have received a degree from Rostock by that submission.

In 1868, regardless of his previous interests and adventures, or the paths by which he arrived at that year, Schliemann's course was set. He would take over Calvert's excavations on the eastern half of the Hissarlik site, which was on Calvert's property. The Turkish government owned the western half. Calvert became Schliemann's collaborator and partner.

Schliemann brought dedication, enthusiasm, conviction and a not inconsiderable fortune to the work. Excavations cannot be made without funds, and are vain without publication of the results. Schliemann was able to provide both. Consequently, he dominated the field of Mycenaean archaeology in his lifetime and despite his many faults still commands the loyalty of classical archaeologists, perhaps deservedly so.

Schliemann knew he would need an "insider" collaborator versed in Greek culture of the times. As he had just divested himself of Ekaterina (1868), he was in a position to advertise for a wife, which he did, in the Athens newspaper. His friend, the Archbishop of Athens, suggested a relative of his, the seventeen-year-old Sophia Engastromenos. As she fit the qualifications, he married her almost at once (1869). They later had two children, Andromache and Agamemnon Schliemann; he reluctantly allowed them to be baptised, but only solemnized the ceremony by placing a copy of The Iliad on the children's heads and reciting a hundred hexameters.

By 1871 Schliemann was ready to go to work at Troy. Thinking that Homeric Troy must be in the lowest level, he dug hastily through the upper levels, reaching fortifications that he took to be his target. In 1872 he and Calvert fell out over this method. Schliemann flew into a fury when Calvert published an article stating that the Trojan War period was missing from the record, probably meaning that Schliemann had destroyed it.

As if to exonerate his views, a cache of gold suddenly appeared in 1873, which Heinrich dubbed "Priam's Treasure." According to him, he saw the gold glinting in the dirt and dismissed the workmen so that he and Sophie could personally excavate it and remove it in Sophie's shawl. Sophie wore one item, "the Jewels of Helen", for the public. He published his findings in Trojanische Altertümer, 1874.

The so-called 'Mask of Agamemnon', discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in 1876 at Mycenae.

This publicity stunt backfired when the Turkish government revoked his permission to dig and sued him for a share of the gold. Collaborating with Calvert, he had smuggled the treasure out of Turkey, which did not endear him to the Turkish authorities. This was not the first time Calvert and Schliemann had smuggled antiquities. This sort of behavior contributed toward bad relations with other nations, which extended into the future.

Meanwhile Heinrich published Troja und seine Ruinen in 1875 and excavated the Treasury of Minyas at Orchomenos. In 1876 he began excavating at Mycenae. Discovering the Shaft Graves with their skeletons and more regal gold, such as the Mask of Agamemnon, the irrepressible Heinrich cabled the king of Greece. The results were published in Mykena, 1878.

Although he had received permission to excavate in 1876, Schliemann did not reopen the dig at Troy until 1878-1879, after another excavation in Ithaca designed to locate the actual sites of the Odysseus story. This was his second excavation at Troy. Emile Burnouf and Rudolph Virchow joined him in 1879. There was a third excavation, 1882-1883, an excavation of Tiryns in 1884 with Wilhelm Dörpfeld, and a fourth at Troy, 1888-1890, with Dörpfeld, who taught him to stratigraphize. By then, much of the site had been lost to unscientific digging.

Decline and death

On August 1, 1890, Schliemann returned to Athens, and in November traveled to Halle for an operation on his chronically infected ears. The doctors dubbed the operation a success, but his inner ear became painfully inflamed. Ignoring his doctors' advice, he left the hospital and traveled to Leipzig, Berlin, and Paris. From Paris, he planned to return to Athens in time for Christmas, but his ears became even worse. Too sick to make the boat ride from Naples to Greece, Schliemann remained in Naples, but managed to make a journey to the ruins of Pompeii. On Christmas day he collapsed in Naples and died in a hotel room on December 26, 1890. His corpse was then transported by friends to Athens. It was then interred into a mausoleum, a temple erected in ancient Greek style.

The dark side of Schliemann

Schliemann's career began before archaeology developed as a professional field, and so, by present standards, the field technique of Schliemann's work leaves a lot to be desired. Indeed, further excavation of the Troy site by others has indicated that the level he named the Troy of the Iliad was not that; in fact, all of the materials given Homeric names by Schliemann are considered of a pseudo- nature, although they retain the names. His excavations were even condemned by the archaeologists of his time as having destroyed the main layers of the real Troy. They were forgetting that, before Schliemann, not many people even believed in a real Troy.

One of the main problems of his work is that King Priam's Treasure was putatively found in the Troy II level, of the primitive Early Bronze Age, long before Priam's city of Troy VI or Troy VIIa in the prosperous and elaborate Mycenaean Age. Moreover, the finds were unique. These unique and elaborate gold artifacts do not appear to belong to the Early Bronze Age.

In the 1960s, Dr. William Niederland, a psychoanalyst, conducted a psychobiography of Schliemann, to account for his unconscious motives. Niederland read thousands of Schliemann's letters and found that he hated his father and blamed him for his mother's death, as evidenced by vituperative letters to his sisters. This view seems to contradict the loving image Heinrich gave and calls the entire childhood dedication to Homer into question. Nothing in the early letters to indicate that he was even interested in Troy or classical archaeology.

Niederland concluded that Schliemann's preoccupation (as he saw it) with graves and the dead reflected grief over the loss of his mother, for which he blamed his father, and his efforts at resurrecting the Homeric dead represent a restoration of his mother. Whether this sort of evaluation is valid is debateable. It hardly falls into the category of science.

In 1972, Professor William Calder of the University of Colorado, speaking at a commemoration of Schliemann's birthday, revealed that he had uncovered several untruths. Other investigators followed, such as Professor David Traill of the University of California.

Schliemann claimed in his memoirs to have dined with President Millard Fillmore in the White House in 1850. However newspapers of the day make no mention of such a meeting, and it seems unlikely that the president of the United States would have a desire to hob-nob with a poor immigrant. Schliemann left California hastily in order to escape from his business partner, whom he had cheated. In the frontier society of the gold rush, cheating was punishable by lynching.

Nor did Schliemann become a U.S. citizen in 1850 as he claimed. He was granted citizenship in New York city in 1868 on the basis of his false claim that he had been a long-time resident. He did divorce Ekaterina from Indiana, but in 1868, an obvious hasty move to clear the way for Sophia.

He never received any degree from the University of Rostock, which rejected his application and thesis.

Schliemann's worst offense, by academic standards, is that he may have fabricated Priam's Treasure, or at least combined several disparate finds. His servant, Yannakis, testified that he found some of it in a tomb some distance away, and that it contained no gold. Later it developed that he hired a goldsmith to manufacture some artifacts in Mycenaean style, and planted them at the site. Others were collected from other places on the site. Though Sophia was in Athens visiting her family at the time, it is possible she colluded with him on the secret, as he claimed she helped him and she didn't deny it.


  • Boorstin, Daniel. The Discoverers, 1983
  • Durant, Will. The Life of Greece, 1939
  • Silberman, Neil Asher, Between Past and Present: Archaeology, Ideology, and Nationalism in the Modern Middle East, Doubleday, New York, 1990 (Copyright 1989), ISBN 0-385-41610-5
  • Wood, Michael, In Search of the Trojan War, New American Library, 1987 (Copyright 1985), ISBN 0-452-25960-6


  • La Chine et le Japon au temps présent. Paris: Librairie centrale 1867.
  • Ithaka, der Peloponnes und Troja, 1868
  • Trojanische Altertümer, 1874
  • Troja und seine Ruinen, 1875
  • Mykena, 1878

External links