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The multimillionaire who discovered Troy

Sabine Oelze
October 11, 2021

With a copy of Homer's "Iliad," the archaelogist went searching for years for the remains of Troy, long thought merely legendary. He began with the excavation 150 years ago.

Heinrich Schliemann's diary, shows sketches of his discoveries
Schliemann's diary contains sketches of his discoveriesImage: picture-alliance/Heritage-Images

Heinrich Schliemann was a complex character, part dreamer and part genius in disguise. Many of his contemporaries regarded him as somewhat of a fantasist, as he traveled around in Turkey equipped with little but a beat-up edition of Homer's Iliad. Schliemann was determined to discover the site of ancient Troy — and so he is believed by many to have done.

For the longest time, the German public used to make light of Schliemann's achievements. His biggest rival, the top archaeological expert Ernst Curtius, for one, repeatedly mocked him in a bid to polish his own professional profile. Schliemann was, however, much more appreciated in Britain, where the German researcher has always been celebrated as the man who discovered the location of a place that up to that point had been shrouded in mystery.

In the late 19th century, Schliemann went on to invent research methods that are still in use today. His work helped shape the face of archaeology unlike any other.

A businessman and adventurer

From his early childhood, the world of antiquity always fascinated Schliemann. Yet his career path had initially pointed him in a different direction. Raised alongside eight other siblings in a pastor's family in the eastern part of the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Schliemann started out as a tradesman, as his family could not afford to send him to higher education.

He ended up in Amsterdam, where within one year, he learned to speak not only Dutch but also Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, to be complemented by Russian later on. His extraordinary gift for foreign languages paved the way for a different career prospect: archaeology.

After then moving to Russia, Schliemann became rich dealing with raw materials for the production of ammunition. He used his fortune to study Ancient Greek and Latin in Paris.

In 1868, he went on a trip to the Greek island of Ithaka, where he decided to look for the palace of Ulysses. From there, he traveled to the Marmaris Sea to make his way inland and start the quest for Troy. During his entire journey, Homer's Iliad was Schliemann's one and only true companion — the one book he considered his indispensable guide to discovering Troy.

Following Homer's footsteps

The search for the ancient city of Troy had never ceased over thousands of years. But in all that time, no one had ever been able to prove that the city described in Homer's saga had really existed — until 1871, when Heinrich Schliemann, then 49 years old, discovered the ruins of what is now presumed to be the city under the Hisarlik hill in the Troas region in the northwest of present-day Turkey.

Schlieman was, however, by no means been the first person to believe that the city was hidden under this particular location. Before Schliemann, the British archaeologist Frank Calvert had already begun excavations in the very same region. The two Troy-obsessed researchers ran into each other by sheer coincidence. Calvert had actually acquired the land around Hisarlik so he could continue with his work, but he lacked the funds to continue with his excavation attempts, which, at that point, had come to a dead end.

Calvert persuaded Schliemann to continue where he himself had stopped working. After running into a number of initial impasses, Schliemann stubbornly went on with the excavations until in 1872 he hit meter-high (just over 3-foot-high) ruins belonging to a prehistoric city. Schliemann came to the conclusion that these walls had once formed part of the fortifications of Troy.

It had been a difficult journey for both men, as the precise identification of the findings was rendered all the more difficult by the long history of the city, which had first surfaced in records in 3000 BC.

Errors in classification

Among his most significant discoveries in Troy, Schliemann struck a cache of gold and other artifacts, which he subsequently baptized "Priam's Treasure" — Priam having been the legendary king of Troy mentioned in Homer's work — in 1873. But when the Ottomans got wind of it, the Turkish government sued Schliemann in a Greek court and demanded that half of the findings be given to Turkey.

Only a few pieces were left with him after the trial ended, and he was also asked to pay a fine of 10,000 gold francs. He offered the treasures to the Louvre in Paris and the Eremitage in St. Petersberg, with little success. Finally, he gifted it to the Germans and was named honorary member of the Berlin Society for Anthropology, Ethnology and Prehistory. 

It later turned out that Schliemann's claim to the treasure had been wrong all along. His findings were not the treasure of Priam, but were, rather, a relic from an unknown culture that had flourished 1,250 years before the ancient Troy of Homer's saga.

This wasn't the only time that the German explorer erred: At the Greek archaeological site of Mycenae, where Schliemann carried out excavations from 1874 to 1876, he drew a number of wrong conclusions based on his work. Among other things, Schliemann wrongfully identified a golden mask as having belonged to the ancient Greek military leader Agamemnon.

Despite his errors and wrong conclusions, the world has continued to consider Heinrich Schliemann as one of the most significant archaeologists of all time.

He died in Naples, Italy, on December 26, 1890.

This article has been adapted from German.