Schliemann’s discovery of Troy & Mycenae

The idea that the hill of Hisarlik was Troy goes back to Edward Clarke and Frank Calvert (although most contemporaries believed Troy to be located at another site). But the site will forever be associated with the German, Heinrich Schliemann. Professional archaeology was only just emerging and he had done just about everything else before embarking on what he claimed had been an obsession since childhood.

Schliemann (1822 – 1890)
By Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Schliemann was an unusual character who taught himself a staggering 18 languages [and he believed he could teach himself a new one in as little as six weeks]. He wrote a paper for the University of Rostock entirely in Ancient Greek and was awarded a PhD in absentia by the institution. Like Evans, he was a pioneer but he was also someone who did a great deal of damage.

Furthermore, he seems always to have been a bit of a fantasist: meals with American Presidents which he did not attend, the witnessing of the 1851 San Francisco fire, lies about his residency to get a divorce from his first wife, Ekaterina Petrovna Lyschin. He had also managed to become very rich trading gold in California, cornering the market for indigo dye and as a military contractor during the Crimean War. Aged only 36, he retired. And from this point onward his entire focus would be on the archaeology of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Thinking that because the Troy of the War was very ancient, it must be deep, Schliemann cut a vast trench through the hillside at Hisarlik, thereby destroying much of the many periods of history Troy had to offer. It may even be the case that in this heavy-handed ‘archaeology’ he wiped out Troy’s archives. He and Frank Calvert, the English archaeologist, fell out over this technique – even if only temporarily. It was enough of a gap for Calvert to draw attention to a gap of his own – the thousand years between what Schliemann was about to find and the potential historicity of the Trojan War.

Schliemann’s second wife was a Greek girl, Sophia Engastromenos. He had advertised for her in a Greek newspaper and she was thirty years younger than him.

Whilst excavating the small site he incorrectly mistook for the Troy of the War, he uncovered what he called, ‘the jewels of Helen’ and had Sophia photographed wearing them. They were actually between 1000 and 1200 years too early. [For me, the popular accusation that he had them faked – Schliemann eve admitted concocting the story about he and Sophia being left alone there and Sophia carrying the gold in her shawl – is a little undermined by the fact that archaeological experts can date them and Schliemann had nothing at all to copy. So, where are the c. 2,400 year BC jewels now? They were taken from the Pergamon Museum in Berlin in 1945 by the Red Army and are now in Russia, in the Pushkin Museum – although for years their whereabouts was largely unknown. It is ironic that, even since their recovery, they have been a continual source of international dispute.]

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is sophia_schliemann_treasure.jpg
Sophia wearing the ‘Jewels of Helen’ (1873)

The Korfmann excavations in 1988 and subsequent magnetometer surveys have revealed a far more complete picture of Troy. The lower town – which Schliemann never found – was protected by two ditches. We now know that in the thirteenth century the city was large enough to house at least 7,000 people, possibly 10,000. A fair amount of Mycenaean pottery has been found – perhaps imported or perhaps having belonged to a Greek population? The citadel had ‘jutting walls’ just as Homer had said.

For everything Schliemann found at Troy, it was a disappointment to him. He put a brave face on it in front of his contemporaries. But what he had found was not Homer’s city – and he knew it.

He might even have been forgotten… but for Mycenae. Although he misinterpreted what he found there, the idea that Mycenaean culture was a fabrication disappeared overnight. Bronze Age Achaea had been a great culture and it was as ‘rich in gold’ just as Homer had said.

By Bibi Saint-Pol – Own work. Data from and, Public Domain,
Schliemann had missed Troy VI altogether. Excavation of that would be left to the American, Carl Blegen.
But note something else: Troy VI is well-fortified but is reliant on older structures on the northern side.

The Turkish Government of the time planned to sue Schliemann for a share of the treasure at Troy. With this threat hanging over him, he and Calvert smuggled the treasure out of the country. Schliemann may have had a Plan B – having the works copied in Paris and fobbing the Turks off with that!

By 1876 Schliemann had moved on to the Achaean side of the Aegean and was busy at Mycenae. The room in which he stayed at the oldest hotel in the village, La Belle Helene, still has his room proudly labelled. But he is far from alone there. For many stayed there: Agatha Christie [when she was married to Max Mellowan, the archaeologist responsible for the resumption of excavations at Nimrud], Satre, Debussy, a significant chunk of the Bloomsbury Group as well as some of the most senior characters of German Nazism.

La Belle Helene – hang out for Schliemann, Dorpfeld, Agatha Christie, the Frys, Goebbels and me
© Simon J Kyte

Upon discovering the shaft graves, he supposedly cabled the King of Greece, telling him that he had gazed upon the face of Agamemnon. Actually, it is yet another fabrication on Schliemann’s part. And far from everyone was convinced anyway – and, indeed, they were right to recognise this was not Agamemnon. This was something from several centuries earlier – but it was impressive whatever. Some believed that this was not a culture which could have produced such an object. They claimed this must be some invader-culture, Things have come slightly full circle in strontium analysis. It seems that either the males ate nothing locally-grown and ate only imported goods (which is possible) or they had grown up somewhere else. Perhaps we can put that finding in the context of Hughes’ comments about there being no direct male inheritance: Menalaus needed to marry Helen to be King of Sparta.

The so-called ‘Mask of Agamemnon’, Athens Archaeological Museum c 1900 BC – 1500 BC
C Simon J Kyte

Schliemann was involved in the early excavations of nearby Tiryns too – both on his own and then, later, with Wilhelm Dorpfeld. Tiryns was first settled in Neolithic times (between the seventh and fourth millennia BC) with the full chronology revealed by the excavations under Klaus Killian. But the peak of architectural achievement was in the late Bronze Age when the city was heavily fortified by Cyclopean walls and the floor of the megaron was decorated with octopi and dolphins. But even before this, in the early Bronze Age, flooding had been avoided by diverting the River Manesis some five kilometres away.

Cyclopean walls © Simon J Kyte

Whilst there are a considerable number of fortified Mycenaean settlements, the truly great citadels are those of Mycenae, Tiryns and Midea, together with Gla in Boeotia. For me, the third most powerful centre of the Argolid, Midea, is perhaps the most evocative, thanks to the sparsity of visitors. The acropolis 268 metres a.s.l. gives it an unhindered view of the plain and the Gulf of Argos. It is also believed to be connected with the royal cemetery at Dendra some 3 km away – where the Dendra Panoply was found.

Away from the tourists on a damp autumn day – the citadel of Midea
© Simon J Kyte

Perhaps Carl Blagen was correct when he suggested that criticisms of Schliemann were only in comparison with modern archaeological techniques. But the ‘fantasist’ does hang over some of his discoveries. Even the authenticity of the so-called ‘Mask of Agamemnon’ has been called into question. Some say he had time alone to plant it and he had been a trader in gold (and Calder has even suggested that a member of Sophia’s family was a goldsmith – and implies that he was involved in some fashion). Nothing quite like it has been found either at Mycenae or elsewhere. The other shaft masks are very different in style. If it is a fake, it has fooled nearly everyone for a very long time. I am not in a position to comment but Lapatin has argued that it may be a ‘pastiche’ with a particular problem with the upturned sections of the moustache. This is, by the way, the only indication that men of the period wore moustaches.

On Christmas Day in 1890 in Naples, having failed to take medical advice about an ear infection, Heinrich Schliemann collapsed and died of cholesteatoma. But it was a new decade and an English archaeologist, Arthur Evans – now almost as controversial as Schliemann – was about to make remarkable discoveries on the island of Crete.



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