The Trojan's flaw

Heinrich Schliemann was the inspired archaeologist who discovered the real Troy. He was also a liar, a cheat and a fraud. Godfrey Hodgson praises a new biography; Treasure and Deceit: Schliemann of Troy by David Traill John Murray, pounds 19. 99
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The Independent Culture
In the middle of the 19th century, when the British Prime Minister was a Homeric scholar and knowledge of classical antiquity was the badge of an educated man, it would have been astonishing to learn that the Iliad was based on historical fact, and even more surprising to imagine that Priam's city might be found and laid bare by the archaeologist's spade. By 1870, says David Traill, "probably about half of the scholars who had thought seriously about the problem would have said that Homer's Troy was a figment of his poetic imagination".

Twenty years later, the world had been convinced, in Traill's words, "that Homeric Troy had once existed, that the second stratum at Hisarlik" - a few miles inland from the Dardanelles - "held the ruins of that city, and that the Homeric poems contained at least a kernel of truth."

To convert the world to that belief was the achievement of Heinrich Schliemann, a Thatcherite hero 100 years before Thatcher. A poor boy from the poorest corner of north Germany, brought up in the Nonconformist virtues of thrift and hard work, Schliemann started out as a grocer's assistant and worked his way up. He accumulated a huge fortune as a trader in Russia and California and later invested it in Cuban railroads and in real estate in Paris, Berlin, Indianapolis and Athens. When he died, he left 16.5 million gold francs, the equivalent, perhaps, of pounds 50 million in today's money.

He was helped - and this is perhaps less in line with Thatcherite beliefs - by a passionate interest in European history and by his phenomenal ability to learn languages: he wrote and spoke at least nine fluently, including ancient and modern Greek and Arabic, and could manage at least eight more.

Nor was Troy all. He also successfully excavated the ancient citadels at Mycenae and Tiryns in the Peloponnese. He brought to light the fabulous treasure from the shaft graves at Mycenae, including the so-called "mask of Agamemnon". He revolutionized our understanding of a crucial episode in the origins of European civilization, the link between Crete, which in turn was in contact with the civilizations of Egypt and the Phoenician Levant, and archaic Greece.

By the end of his life, he had become one of the heroes of the 19th century, an age of hero worship. Crowned heads and academies vied with one another to decorate him. In Athens he built a marble palace, later used as the chamber of the Greek supreme court, to house the remnant of his collections that was not displayed in the great museums of Berlin, Paris and Constantinople, after he and London had rejected one another.

To account for his interest in Troy and for his triumphs, Schliemann constructed his own myth. Like tycoons in our time, he devoted endless energy to manipulating newspapers, publishers and scholars. He said he had dreamed of excavating Troy when, as a boy in Mecklenburg, he played with his childhood sweetheart, Minna.

David Traill, a Scots scholar who teaches in California, demolishes that and many other details of the Schliemann myth. He demonstrates that Schliemann showed no sign of interest in Troy until after he had toured the previously accepted candidate for its site, a few miles from Hisarlik, and in fact, until he had been shown Hisarlik by Frank Calvert, a British amateur archaeologist with whom he later quarrelled bitterly.

Traill's assault on Schliemann's carefully projected image goes further than that. He has unearthed the fact that Schliemann's father, a Lutheran pastor, was evicted from his parish for keeping a mistress, and he suggests that the son inherited his father's womanizing habits. Maids often left the Schliemann household after a few hours.

More seriously, Traill raises insistent doubts about the integrity of Schliemann's archaeology. He establishes beyond reasonable doubt that he was a sloppy excavator, even by the relatively relaxed standards of his day, frequently misreporting where objects were found. He suggests that Schliemann deliberately faked his discoveries. Sometimes he spirited valuable objects away to avoid sharing them with the Turkish authorities, as he was supposed to do under the terms of his permission to dig. Systematically, he rewarded workmen for bringing finds to him so that they could be hidden from the supervisors, Turkish at Troy, Greek at Mycenae. And Traill strongly suspects that Schliemann actually mixed bought and even forged objects with his discoveries to make them more spectacular.

In his summary, Traill strikes a fair balance between Schliemann's appalling human failings and his titanic achievement. He was quarrelsome, paranoid, manipulative and up to every kind of sharp practice, even if he was generous and devoted to his Greek second wife, despite their quarrels. On the other hand, he did have the phenomenal qualities of will and intellect it took to unearth Troy and Mycenae and to revolutionize our understanding of the past.

Traill, though, puts far more emphasis on the day to day pettiness, the chicanery, the cheating, fraud and sheer compulsive lying. He might have made more of the fact that, even if Schliemann was often wrong and often dishonest in covering up his mistakes, his critics - including some of the most respected scholars in Europe, such as the great Richard Jebb of Glasgow and Cambridge - were often wildly more wrong. Many reputable scholars continued in the face of all the evidence to insist that Schliemann's discoveries were from the Roman or even the Byzantine period, and others asserted that the treasures of Mycenae had been brought down from southern Russia during the barbarian invasions two millennia later.

The other great weakness of Traill's account is that he never satisfactorily explains what scholars think now, and therefore how much of Schliemann's inspired guesswork has turned out to be correct. Nevertheless, this is an absorbing book, not only as a biography of a man who was important because of his undeniable achievements, but also as a case study in the precarious balance between talent and sanity.