Heinrich Schliemann is arguably the greatest rouge in archaeological history. He was a classical eccentric whose obsession with proving the Battle of Troy in Homer’s Iliad led him to repeated lies and deceptions, fakes and grand theft and in his death, to his self-glorification as an archaeological demi-god somehow coequal with the gods of classical Greece.
As with many peculiar personalities Schliemann was a dazzling genius. Born to a Protestant Minister in Neu Buckow, Germany, in 1822, he was educated privately then went on to teach himself six European languages. In addition to his native German he fluently spoke Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, English and was desperate to acquire the ability to converse in classical Greek.
His father’s disgrace in the church after accusations of embezzling church funds and further financial difficulty, forced a young Heinrich into many early employment roles. He travelled extensively visiting Russia, India, China, Japan and countries in North, Central and South America.
The Meaning of Life
Schliemann’s entrance to archaeology was in the main driven by his fixation of Classical heroes. His close relationship with his cousin, Sophie, caused him tormented grief at her death forcing him to reassess his purpose in life. Settling on Homer’s Odyssey as his guide, Schliemann resolved to find answers to his nagging questions on Ithaca, the Greek island that Odysseus had ruled.
Greed for Treasure
In 1868 he travelled to Greece to begin his archaeological pledge. From here on, Schliemann’s life reeked of trickery, greed, deception and delusion. On Ithaca he quickly located a small horde of artefacts and claimed that it was the Palace of Odysseus. Later he displayed a relief of Apollo, the sun god, riding four horses along with much valuable treasure. Schliemann, who had given assurances to the Turkish government that they would receive half of all artefacts recovered, aided by a companion began to smuggle the treasures out of the country and to the garden of his own home.
A short while after this, he located another cache of golden treasures beside the Scaean Gates. With no intention of parting with them to any other, he dismissed the excavation staff and assisted by his wife, he unearthed golden cups, silver goblets, daggers, lances, shields and pottery. The secret treasure, thought by Schliemann to be King Priam’s gold, was deliberately divided up among his European friends throughout Greece, after he smuggled them out from under the nose of the authorities.
The Angry Turks
His repeated lies and falsification of dates caused a fuming Ottoman government to demand their immediate return. Schliemann refused and used the booty as a levering tool, offering the treasures to the Greeks if they would permit him to excavate at Mycenae. Eventually, he got his way and he continued excavating alongside workers from the Greek Archaeological Society.
Schliemann was in constant conflict with foreign powers. By 1878, during his excavations at Hissarlik, his reputation was too well known for him to be left unregulated. There, he uncovered a great wealth of gold items including earrings, rings, bracelets and beads. Under constant vigil, Schliemann only received one third of the takings. The rest was held by the Turkish Museum at Constantinople.
Schliemann’s greed for classical treasures was not confined to stealing only from the Turks. It appears that even his friends were not immune to his thefts. His diaries show a substantial find called Treasure L, which was marked as being located on Frank Calvert’s site. However, his digging colleague never saw these treasures and an international dispute still continues.
Schliemann’s archaeological techniques were typical of the period. Without care or consideration for the underlying archaeological record he simply bulldozed his way through each layer of the cities he excavated. His destructive methods clearly destroyed much of the Troy that he had set out to so earnestly prove.
Schliemann’s unconventionalism was not confined to his archaeological pursuits. To gain a wife he wrote to a friend in Greece asking him to locate for him a well-educated, Greek woman, who was beautiful, dark-haired poor, and shared a great interest in Homer. His obliging friend found such a one and Heinrich married her in 1869.
To further outwork his classical fantasies he built a home in Greece, furnished it in the classical period and insisted that all his staff speak only classical Greek. Like his heroes in Troy, he wanted to become famous and be forever remembered. He built an enormous mausoleum on a hill in Athens where he was determined to be laid to rest when the time came. The inscription that he had made at its entrance reads “For the Hero, Schliemann”. To the front is a huge bust of himself along with an image of King Proitos and Cyclopes.
In Death as in Life
The stubborn Schliemann, ignoring medical advice, refused to remain in hospital after an ear operation and instead travelled through Europe. The pain persisted and he eventually collapsed and died in his hotel room in Naples on Boxing Day 1890. He was buried in his great mausoleum, in a cemetery in Athens, Greece. Heinrich Schliemann has immortalised himself into archaeological history through his colourful, yet unethical antics and his extravagant life is matched by his final resting place.