Heinrich Schliemann: Discoverer of Troy

There are two kinds of people in this world – the ones that stay in the bubble of “reason” and the ones that get in the trenches. Reason is a vital tool, but it can be used to justify anything, and too often, those who rely on it and pride themselves on it become dogmatic. This dogma disguised as “reason” can prevent the world from developing and new discoveries from being made. To break through it, imaginative men have needed to force the issue through their stints in the trenches outside the bubble – the world of experience. Such a man was Heinrich Schliemann,

Heinrich Schliemann was one of those contradictory figures whose enigma adds to his charisma even after death. One of the most notable people of the 19th century, he not only discovered a new world that had been lost, he had to do so through a sort of daring by defying many of the “experts” who he had put so much faith in. He was a man that craved scholarly respectability and he risked much of it to prove that Homer had given an accurate account of a historical Trojan War.

There was furious debate over the subject, and Heinrich Schliemann had his quirks, but his basic idea – that the city of Troy was an actual settlement in the Bronze Age which had contact with Bronze Age Greeks – has proven true. As a result, he’s remembered in the way his heroes would want to be, while his critics at the time have been forgotten.

Heinrich Schliemann is perhaps one of the most contradictory figures in history. He was undoubtedly a genius. He was also a noted liar and thief. He destroyed much of the city he hoped to uncover, but is still inextricably linked with it.

Over 120 years after his death, we still aren’t entirely sure how to assess him, but we’re still talking about him, and his achievements still stand the test of time.

Heinrich and Sophie Schliemann Troy
Reciting the Iliad to his wife, Sophie, at the site. We now know that things like this never happened.

The Romantic Enigma

He began his journey, or so he said, as an eight-year-old boy. According to him, his father gave him an illustration of the fall of Troy and from there, he was so entranced that it became his lifelong ambition to prove that the illustration reflected real events. It sounds warm and fuzzy, but he pursued a completely different course for over 40 years of his life. The first thing we ever hear about Troy from him is in the 1860s, when he was middle aged.

Before that, Heinrich Schliemann made his millions in business, and it’s notable that he was just as much an adventurer on that front as he would later be in archaeology. He made a pretty penny in the California gold rush. His ventures also took him into the Crimean War. Having secured his fortune, he tried to pursue a scholarly aspiration, enrolled at a university in Paris, and entered the field of archaeology, then a brand new discipline. It was there where he began to immerse himself in the ongoing search for Troy.

The notion of the historicity of Homer was long debated, with many doubting that Troy even existed, much less the Trojan War. It was into this debate that Heinrich Schliemann stepped, though he had the groundwork laid for him by a man whose name has sadly been mostly forgotten – Frank Calvert.

An Englishman who had lived in the region for some time, Frank Calvert found what he thought the likeliest candidate for Homer’s Troy on a hill called Hisarlik, where a Greco-Roman town of New Ilium had once stood. Tradition in those times placed the Troy of the Trojan War below the town of New Ilium, but modern scholars had dismissed this theory. However, after making a preliminary excavation of the site, Frank Calvert saw some positive results. It was deeply stratified, proving that people of many epochs had lived there.

This exciting development was bittersweet, as Frank Calvert didn’t have the money to undergo a thorough excavation. That was where the wealthy Heinrich Schliemann came in, and he was to have a decisive effect on the enterprise. For one, he would get the glory, but more importantly, the excavations took on a different character under the wealthy German than they had under the Englishman.

While Calvert advised his colleague to dig carefully around the heavily stratified site, Heinrich Schliemann attacked it full-force, exploding it with dynamite and creating two huge trenches that are visible to this day.

Schliemann Trench Troy
Schliemann’s trench today.

Schliemann’s digs were controversial even at the time, but the spirit of the age saw a longing to reconnect with the lost past. In the face of the industrial revolution, many people felt a loss of vitality – they thought things had become too automated and sterilized.

Heinrich Schliemann would have us believe that he was just such a romantic, though his life’s story leaves enough open to debate that we can’t be sure. We know the romantic story he told about his arrival at the site of Troy and his imagining the armies fighting there, for example, is fake. Perhaps that’s the point, though. He wanted to present a certain image in line with the times. Again, he craved respectability.

It’s in this context, and with the science of archaeology in its infancy, that we might forgive Schliemann’s excessive enthusiasm for digging up the site. We now know that he destroyed much of the evidence from the period of the Late Bronze Age that he was looking for. Heinrich Schliemann believed that anything from the time of the Trojan War had to be deep into the stratified site, beneath the ruins of the architecture he was destroying, which he thought came from the later, Classical Greek period.

Was Schliemann’s Troy Homer’s Troy?

At the end of his dig, Heinrich Scliemann had discovered what he claimed was Homer’s Troy – but there was a problem. It was a primitive settlement that amounted to little more than a hole in the ground – far from the city we hear about in the Iliad, even accounting for poetic embellishment. While he stuck by his findings in public, privately, Schliemann’s doubts grew.

Aside from the settlement being paltry in size, he had found no signs of sophisticated manufacture that would suggest a civilization akin to Homer’s Trojans. The famous discovery of “Priam’s Treasure” in 1873 dazzled the world and made Schliemann’s name even more famous, but even that didn’t solve the problem.

Heinrich Schliemann discoverer of Troy

Heinrich Schliemann went to Greece in the ensuing years and thankfully had the talented architect Wilhelm Dorpfeld with him, who kept some of his…enthusiasm for excavation in check. The two of them discovered the material culture of Bronze Age Greece, including the stunning find of the Mask of Agamemnon and other treasures at Mycenae.

Unfortunately, none of what Heinrich Schliemann found in Greece matched with what he found at Troy. The material cultures were completely different, suggesting that the two civilizations either couldn’t have occurred in the same epoch, or were otherwise ignorant of one another.

Undaunted, he went back to Troy one more time in the 1890s. There, with Dorpfeld’s assistance, he uncovered the shocking truth – layers of the site of Hisarlik above Schliemann’s Troy contained Mycenaen pottery fragments, proving contact with Greece at the time of the Trojan War. He had destroyed much of these same layers in his first expedition to the site. In other words, he had destroyed much of the evidence he was looking for in the first place, reportedly including “Priam’s Palace.”

This must have been a dismaying reveal to him. 20 years of his life – all for this!

Schliemann’s Legacy

Despite the setbacks, and the stretching of the truth, and the naivety, and the primitive archaeological work, Heinrich Schliemann was vindicated in his central claim – that Homer’s Troy was based on a real city, and his account of history was largely accurate. This central claim would be strengthened further through the 20th and 21st centuries. The “experts,” whose approval he craved so badly, were wrong. His actions outside their scholarly bubble proved them such.

Where most people dismissed the entire thing as a fable, he had the vision to think differently, regardless of his ultimate motives. His vision, willingness to move beyond convention, and determination to make a mark in a new field in middle age are the things that make people immortal. It’s never too late to get started on a journey like his, either. He has become much like the heroes he (supposedly) loved reading about as a child.

Follow Schliemann’s example and dazzling things might await you, too. Get started today by reading Stumped, a book about another man who flouted convention.