Heinrich Schliemann was born January 6,1822 in the vicarage of Neubukow, Germany, and died December 26, 1890 in Naples, Italy. Most of his ancestors were vicars, traders, and farmers. His father was a poor and violent vicar, and his mother, who died when he was nine, took care of their nine children. According to Schliemann’s autobiography, when he was given a book on world history for Christmas, he promised his father he would excavate Troy.
Schliemann left school after graduating from junior high school. For several years he worked in a grocery and then as a bookkeeper in Amsterdam. As he had a great interest in languages, and a great talent for learning them, he became fluent in reading and writing a great number of them—estimates differ from eight to sixteen languages. In 1846, Schliemann, who spoke Russian, founded an office for an Amsterdam trading firm in St. Petersburg, and the city was his primary residence until 1864. There he also founded his first trading company in 1847, the same year in which he became a Russian citizen. In 1851/52, Schliemann traveled to California to search for his younger brother, Ludwig. After his return to St. Petersburg, he married Jekaterina Petrowna Lyschina (1826-1896), with whom he had three children. During the Crimean War (1853-1856) his business flourished, and he made an enormous profit; however, during the first worldwide economic crisis, in 1857/58, he suffered heavy losses.
In the following years, he traveled through many countries in Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, and considered giving up business to dedicate himself to other goals—he received great satisfaction from reading Sophocles, Homer, Horace, and Virgil. In 1864, Schliemann and his wife were made hereditary freemen of St. Petersburg, and he also closed down his trading firm—by that time, he was extremely rich. Between 1864 and 1866, he undertook further extensive journeys through Asia and North and Central America, after which he decided to become a resident of Paris. There he stayed until 1870, and studied philology, philosophy, archaeology, and literature. His first book, La Chine et la Japon au Temps Present, was published in 1867. In 1867/68, he visited North America, Italy, Greece, and Turkey. In the meantime, his wife and children remained in St. Petersburg. In 1869, he published his second book, Ithaka, in which he compared various contemporary locations to those mentioned in Homer. The same year, he received his doctorate from the University of Rostock (in absentia), became a citizen of the U.S., divorced, and married a young Greek schoolgirl named Sophia Engastromenos (1852-1932), with whom he had two children.
Schliemann’s history of excavations started in 1870. Without permission, he led an excavation in Hisarlik (Troy) but was driven away after ten days. From 1871 until his death in 1890, his primary residence was Athens. In 1871, his groundbreaking excavations in Troy began. Seventy to eighty Greeks were employed to actually do the digging. In his diary, Schliemann noted that he was the first to ask the question whether there had ever been a Troy, not only theoretically but also practically. In his first book on Troy (Ilios), he refers to his own method as “research by pickax and spade” combined with a love for the ancient classics, in particular, Homer. One could also describe his method as the visualization of myths at authentic locations, a method which does have a long history. What dissatisfied him with respect to archaeology was that it was done slowly and carefully so that little progress was made. Instead of removing one layer after another, he wished to simply dig deeper and deeper. Luckily, after being advised in a letter by the French archaeologist Emile Burnouf, he wrote down the location of his findings. And his findings were immense. By 1873, he had dug up two-thirds of the city and found “Priam’s Treasure.” He also claimed that his findings proved that the Iliad was based on actual events, and his firm belief in the historicity of the Trojan war was the reason behind all his excavations.
He published his findings in 1874 under the title Trojanische Alterthumer. The public showed great interest in his work; however, the reaction of the scientific community was less enthusiastic and rather skeptical. In 1875, he gave presentations in many major European cities, as he was a well-known man by then. As a consequence, he was awarded honorary membership in the Society of Antiquaries of London (1876) , the Deutschen Anthropologischen Gesellschaft (1877) , and the Berliner Gesellschaft fuer Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte (1881). He continued to lead excavations. In 1876, he received permission to dig in Tiryns, Mykene, and Orchomenos. A year later, his book, Mykenae, was published, and his Troy collection was exhibited in London and then transferred to Berlin in 1881. As a consequence of his enormous success, he received further great honors: in 1881, he was made freeman of Berlin, and he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford in 1883.
In 1876, his method for excavations was still to dig without considering the various layers but with his mind solely focused on setting free the monuments of a particular period—a method of which the Greek archeologist supporting him, Panagiotis Stamatakis, was very critical. In Mykene also, Schliemann managed to dig out many precious treasures and interesting sites, which he always connected to stories passed down from ancient times.
After the archaeologist Frank Calvert and the Oriental scholar Archibald Henry Sayce informed Schliemann of their interpretation of the various layers he had excavated, Schliemann attempted to identify the seven layers he had found himself, and he published his reflections in his book Ilios. He concluded that work by stressing that he hoped that his “research by pickax and spade” proved that the events described in Homer’s poems actually did take place. There he also stresses that he never doubted the unity of the Homeric poems and that the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed by one man only.
In the following years, he excavated in Marathon, Tiryns, Orchomenos, Alexandria, and Troy. In 1890 he became deaf and had an ear operation in Halle, after which he left the city, although his physician advised him not to. On December 24,1890, he visited Pompeii; on the 25th he had a breakdown while on the way to visit a doctor. Ten days before his 69th birthday, on December 26, he died in Naples. After his death, his books Bericht über die Ausgrabungen in Troja im Jahre 1890 and Selbstbiographie—Bis zu Seinem Tode Vervollständigt were published. In the following years, the archaeologist Wilhelm Dörpfeld continued to excavate in Troy, financed by Schliemann’s wife, Sophia.
Irrespective of Schliemann’s great findings, many critics doubted that he was a proper archaeologist. However, there were others, like Sayce, who held that Schliemann’s research by spade began a new era for the study of classical antiquity.
- Schliemann, H. (1968). Troy and its remains (P. Smith, Ed.). Manchester, NH: Ayer.
- Schuchhardt, C. (1979). Schliemann’s discoveries of the ancient world (E. Sellers, Trans.). New York: Avenel Books.
- Traill, D. A. (1996). Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and deceit. New York: St. Martin’s Press.