David Traill's new biography of Heinrich Schliemann reveals a fraudulent fanatic who nevertheless made astonishing discoveries

Michael Sheridan
Saturday 10 June 1995 23:02

IN MORE trusting times, a visit to Greece completed the education of any eager teenager who had spent schooldays labouring over dry classical texts. A slow train through Yugo-slavia or an odyssey on the Brindisi ferry preceded that magical moment in the National Museum at Athens when you beheld - carelessly displayed in a dusty glass case - the crinkled features of a long-dead king, imprinted on a thin disc of gold. A small card informed the viewer that Heinrich Schliemann, the German archaeologist, had found this treasure in 1876. In excitement he telegraphed the King of Greece: "I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon," he is supposed to have said.

Mythology, however, proved as powerful in the 19th century as in the dim age of Homer. The Mask of Agamemnon, like so many other of Schliemann's finds, is a controversial object. It may be centuries too early for the period described in the Iliad, or indeed it may be some 25 centuries too late. A fake, in fact.

Schliemann was a fantasist, a businessman turned self-taught archaeologist who seriously distorted the record of his excavations. He may have "salted" his digs with articles purchased in the souks of Smyrna or Constantinople. His letters are full of invented encounters with the great and the good. He falsified his diaries to give credence to his claims. He exploited the discoveries of a loyal British colleague, Frank Calvert, and he bribed workmen to slip precious discoveries out of sight of the government supervisors. He was pompous and perfectly foul to his wife. Apart from that, he was a great man.

David Traill, a teacher of classics at the University of California, has spent more years unearthing the truth about Schliemann's life than Schliemann himself devoted to the discovery of Troy and Mycenae. His book aims to be exhaustive - the researches certainly are - and it sometimes seems as preoccupied with the intricate strata of Schliemann's finances as with the detailed surveys of his sites. It is, however, a marvellous survey of a complex, troublesome career.

Schliemann was born in the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg in 1822 in a family surrounded by domestic scandal. He was an unhappy child. He achieved a mediocre school record and went to work for more than five years in a small grocer's shop. But he possessed a phenomenal memory which he first applied to the mastery of book-keeping and later to the study of languages. He spoke or wrote 22 by the end of his life. Between 1822 and 1867 he had entered a big continental trading house and made a fortune as an entrepreneur. This wealth provided the means to indulge his obsession.

Schliemann was later to claim that it was his childhood dream to find the site of Homer's Troy and that all his efforts were directed to that end. Here he was conveniently rewriting his own life history. It seems more likely that he drifted into archaeology after a conventional Grand Tour through the Aegean. He went through a mid-life crisis of more than conventional drama. He jettisoned his first wife and family in St Petersburg and wrote to a friendly Greek Archbishop asking him to find a suitable bride in Athens. The Archbishop came up with Sophia Engastromenos, a respectable girl 27 years younger than Schliemann. After a courtship inevitably conducted in Homeric prose, they married. Like most of Schliemann's dealings in the south, the marriage was a transaction. None the less, she provided companionship - interspersed with mild hysteria - and two children, christened Agamemnon and Andromache.

While Sophia traipsed at Schliemann's expense around the spas and cures of Mitteleuropa, her husband could not tear himself away from his chosen objective: finding Troy.

The author explains that in the 19th century dispute surrounded the very existence of the Homeric city. Ancient writers located it at Hisarlik in the Troad, near the Dardanelles. When Schliemann started digging at Hisarlik in 1868, most scholars tended to think Troy was actually at another site called Bunarbashi, while some proclaimed the whole Iliad a myth and Troy itself a figment of poetic imagination.

Schliemann fixed upon Hisarlik with enthusiasm. Typically for him, there were furious rows with the Ottoman authorities which drew in the American Consulate, the British Ambassador, the Minister of Public Instruction and sundry local worthies. Much of the preliminary study had been done by Frank Calvert, who encouraged Schliemann, only to fall out with him over money. In the last century Greeks still inhabited the shores of Asia Minor and Schliemann generally recruited Greek workmen to labour in the excavations. As they proceeded through the layers of city upon city, skeletons, ornaments and vessels came to light, some gold, some bronze. By modern standards the digging was clumsy and destructive. Schliemann did not care. He was in search of treasure, and, in 1873, he found it.

"Priam's Treasure" was Schlie- mann's greatest discovery at Troy. Lost to Soviet plunderers at the end of the Second World War, it is soon to be put on display again in a Russian museum. It consists of astonishing finds uncovered near a wall of the city, conveniently described by Schliemann, without the least evidence, as the palace of Priam, doomed King of Troy. Visitors will doubtless flock to see these mythical treasures. But, as Traill shows all too well, Schliemann's evidence is suspect, his findings doctored and his account of their discovery implausible.

Schliemann had already tampered with the facts surrounding the discovery of a female skeleton. He wrote a report conveying a vivid image - that this was a Trojan woman trapped with her jewellery in her collapsing house as fire consumed the city. Unfortunately such conclusions owed more to the novels of Bulwer Lytton than to sober scholarship, and Traill reconstructs the fraud like a forensic scientist giving evidence for the prosecution. The skeleton was found on a different date and in another place from those given by Schliemann. Her beads and oval ring were found separately. The finds were attributed to the wrong level of the city. An eager Schliemann had creatively combined evidence from three finds to present a dramatic, but imaginary, scenario.

So it was with "Priam's Treasure". Schliemann said he discovered the treasure together with his wife - but the record shows that Sophia was languishing in Athens on that day. It was odd that his descriptions of the gold and silver items in the treasure seem neither to be contemporaneous or accurate. Perhaps he concealed the existence of these rich objects the better to smuggle them from the Troad to Athens. Perhaps this find, too, was "salted" with purchases made from antiquaries.

None the less, Schliemann's account of his excavations at Hisarlik and his remarkable discoveries transformed his reputation. Frank Calvert, who owned part of the site, protested that Schliemann's fanaticism induced him "to suppress or pervert every fact brought to light that could not be reconciled with the Iliad". But even so, a triumphant Schliemann went on to follow Homer's Agamemnon back to his citadel at Mycenae.

The excavations at Mycenae were accompanied by familiar scenes of drama and recrimination. There were arguments over his methods, his character and his disregard of scholarship. Again he acted on instinct, followed the words of the ancients as if they were gospel and struck lucky. The writer Pausanias had visited Mycenae in the second century AD, while compiling what is probably the first travel guide to Greece. He was shown underground treasuries and the tombs where Agamemnon and his retinue were buried after they were murdered by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. This bloody cycle was familiar from the classical plays and playwrights, but Schliemann interpreted tradition as truth. In defiance of the contemporary wisdom, he began excavating the strange shaft graves that surrounded the Cyclopean walls of Agamemnon's city. The results were stunning.

He found jewellery, drinking cups, swords, spearheads, skeletons and mummified bodies "covered with masses of gold". The bodies had been laid to rest with their faces covered by the famous death masks. If not Agamemnon and his suite, they were surely the masters of ancient Mycenae. Traill is a big enough scholar to grant Schliemann his historical due, for the attribution of the finds is ultimately of less significance than their symbolism to Greece and the modern world.

Here the Victorians saw men and women pulled into the Greek sunlight after thousands of years, god-kings placed in the earth in remote an- tiquity, long before Aristotle, Caesar and Christ walked the earth. Schlie- mann had proved the existence of an archaic Greek civilisation a millennium before Socrates. He had revised Aegean scholarship and rekindled the heroic myths for a drab industrial age. The classical idea of ancient Greece began to be doubted. Thus Schliemann also helped the late Romantics - and philosophers like Nietzsche - to discern behind the facade of fifth- century Athenian reason a mysterious, vast, irrational, Dionysian, bloodstained world. The unearthed legacy of Agamemnon and Atreus was not a revelation, but a long-buried curse.

! 'Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit' by David Traill is published by John Murray at pounds 19.99.

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