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Heinrich Schliemann: The Man Who Found and Lost Troy

Heinrich Schliemann was called the world's luckiest archaeologist - but does he deserve his reputation?

J. Sydney Willis Hodges, Heinrich Schliemann, oil on canvas, 1877, © Berlin State Museum, Museum of Prehistory and Early History

At the age of seven, Heinrich Schliemann became so fascinated by the myth of Troy that he decided he would find it. Forty years later, in 1871, he did just that, discovering the real-life site of Homer’s lost city. Remarkably, he repeated the feat just five years later, discovering the lost treasures of Mycenae in 1876. A hundred and fifty years later, these two finds are still considered the greatest discoveries from the Bronze Age.

Discoveries of this magnitude are usually enough to cement your reputation as a celebrated archaeologist. Instead, Schliemann found himself rejected by the classical German archaeologists of his day. “They were probably a bit jealous,” says Prof. Dr. Matthias Wemhoff, the director of Berlin’s state Museum of Prehistory and Early History. “They could not accept that a self-made man, who did not belong to their archaeological group, would have the money to dig where he wanted and act independently.”

Mycenaean-type pottery vessels, Troy VI–VII (Turkey), Late Bronze Age, 1700–1180 BC. BC, © State Museum Berlin, Museum of Prehistory and Early History / Claudia Plamp

Before he turned to archaeology, Schliemann, who worked his way up from a poor upbringing in Mecklenburg in the north of Germany, set up a successful export business in Russia and the US. By the age of 36, he was wealthy enough to retire and dedicate himself fully to the pursuit of Troy. He has been called the luckiest archaeologist to ever have lived. Hisarlik, in modern Turkey – the site he’d chosen on the advice of the British archaeologist Frank Calvert – turned out to be the site of nine major settlements, one of which was Troy.

In his eagerness, Schliemann had dug through and destroyed rich layers of Bronze Age Troy

But the problem was: this was not the the Troy he’d imagined. In his eagerness, Schliemann had dug through and destroyed rich layers of Bronze Age Troy (c. 1700-1200 BC) until he got deep enough to reach what is now called Troy II – a city that originated more than a thousand years earlier than the Troy of Homer’s Iliad. Errors like these have ensured that Schliemann’s mixed reputation continues to this day. “He did not know any better,” says Wemhoff. “He started in prehistory, where you just dig down to the bottom. He wasn’t so well informed about stratigraphy, the science of layers.”

Excavation team in Troy, 1890s, © bpk

This January marked the 200th anniversary of Heinrich Schliemann’s birth. To commemorate him, the James-Simon-Galerie and Neues Museum will be showing 700 discoveries and objects in the exhibition Schliemann’s Worlds. “He was not an easy person, and he had a lot of sides,” Wemhoff reflects. “But we want to show that it is not right to damn him – we want to show that he really was an explorer, someone who discovered the pre-history of the Mediterranean world.”

  • James-Simon-Galerie, Museuminsel From May 13