Schliemann Excavates Ancient Troy

The excavation of the legendary city of Troy, the Hissarlik archaeological site in what is now Turkey, began with media hype and questionable archaeological practices, both perpetrated by Heinrich Schliemann.

Summary of Event

The son of a schoolmaster and clergyman in the north German area of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Heinrich Schliemann mythologized much of his own life. Apparently his childhood was harsh and his schooling minimal, which destined him for a career in the trades. He was, however, bright and industrious, was a voracious reader, and had an early flair for languages—he reportedly learned a dozen or so through his years. Schliemann, Heinrich
Troy, ancient
Turkey;ancient Troy
Calvert, Frank
[kw]Schliemann Excavates Ancient Troy (Apr., 1870-1873)
[kw]Excavates Ancient Troy, Schliemann (Apr., 1870-1873)
[kw]Ancient Troy, Schliemann Excavates (Apr., 1870-1873)
[kw]Troy, Schliemann Excavates Ancient (Apr., 1870-1873)
Schliemann, Heinrich
Troy, ancient
Turkey;ancient Troy
Calvert, Frank
[g]Mediterranean;Apr., 1870-1873: Schliemann Excavates Ancient Troy[4430]
[g]Turkey;Apr., 1870-1873: Schliemann Excavates Ancient Troy[4430]
[g]Greece;Apr., 1870-1873: Schliemann Excavates Ancient Troy[4430]
[c]Archaeology;Apr., 1870-1873: Schliemann Excavates Ancient Troy[4430]
[c]Science and technology;Apr., 1870-1873: Schliemann Excavates Ancient Troy[4430]

Schliemann studied business clerking in Amsterdam and at twenty-two years of age joined a major mercantile firm. Sent to St. Petersburg, Russia, by the firm, he became a very successful commodities dealer there. Following family footsteps to California during the gold rush, Schliemann opened a bank there to trade in prospectors’ gold. Back in St. Petersburg, he married a Russian woman, with whom he had three children. During the Crimean War (1853-1856) he profited enormously from dealings in wartime commodities. He made another fortune in cotton and other products during the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865).

Several rounds of international travel and the frequenting of museums stimulated Schliemann’s interest in past cultures. On one tour, he carried off a stone from the Great Wall of China Great Wall of China
China;Great Wall in his fascination with the structure. Sufficiently wealthy to retire from business by the age of forty-one, Schliemann hungered to enter some area of scholarly endeavor. In Paris he pursued some formal studies, making intellectual contacts, reading widely, and developing a taste for antiquities. The science of archaeology was still in its infancy, and Schliemann was drawn to it as much as a collector as for scholarly discovery. Beginning a new tour of Mediterranean lands in early 1868, Schliemann studied archaeological undertakings in Rome and Pompeii. It was the world of early Greece, ancient Greece, though, to which he was attracted.

Like many well-read Europeans of his time, Schliemann was familiar with the ancient Greek epics of Homer Homer . Like a good romantic of his time he was prepared to accept them as factual accounts, even though serious scholars had long rejected them as legends. Identifying himself with Homer’s wandering Odysseus (Ulysses), Schliemann proceeded to the Ionian island of Ithaca, where he made his first primitive venture into some archaeological digging, on what he imagined was the site of Odysseus’s palace.

Hungering for new sites and objects, Schliemann stopped in Athens, Athens where a local scholar suggested the Troad at the Dardanelles, Dardanelles Straits the northwestern corner of Asia Minor, in the heart of the Ottoman Empire (now in Turkey). Schliemann was directed to the hill of Pinarbashi (Bunarbashi), which some antiquarians thought was the site of ancient Troy. He was also advised to consult a local expert, the Englishman Frank Calvert, who was then serving as the U.S. vice-consul for the region. Making his way to Pinarbashi in August, 1868, Schliemann initially avoided Calvert, reconnoitering and then undertaking some ill-defined and fruitless excavations. Only when about to leave did he meet Calvert. Calvert had spent years exploring the area’s topography and sites. First interested in Pinarbashi, he rejected it as the site of Troy, which he now firmly believed was the hill called Hissarlik. He had even purchased a portion of the hill and wanted to excavate it himself but lacked financial means.

Troy in the Modern Mediterranean Region

Schliemann was given a crash course by the Englishman on what Hissarlik represented. Calvert recognized that this wealthy enthusiast had the means to do what he himself could not afford to do, while Schliemann recognized a golden opportunity at hand. In proposing a partnership with Schliemann, however, Calvert not only shared his dream but sacrificed it to an opportunist whose character he did not understand.

While Schliemann spent months in correspondence and securing permissions from local Turkish authorities, he began consolidating his standing. He published a book exaggerating his work on Ithaca but staking his claims as a serious archaeologist. With that he secured an honorary doctorate from the University of Rostock, thus acquiring instant scholarly stature that Calvert, the gentleman-antiquarian, lacked. Moreover, in a quick trip to the United States, Schliemann gained U.S. citizenship, which he used deviously to obtain a divorce from the Russian wife who had refused to follow him in his adventures. Thus freed to extend his philhellenism, the forty-seven-year-old Schliemann found himself a new Greek bride, seventeen-year-old Sophia Engastromenos from Athens.

In April, 1870, Schliemann began serious excavations at Hissarlik. From the start, he engaged in constant duplicity, breaking agreements with Calvert, and practicing forms of digging that would be considered vandalism by twenty-first century archaeological standards. Ignoring Calvert’s advice, he had large trenches dug that created a huge north-south gash across the hill. The successive campaign years turned up numerous finds that reinforced the hill’s identification with Troy. However, Schliemann was quite unprepared for the complex layering of strata in his quest to identify the Troy of Homer’s King Priam. Further conflicts developed over Schliemann’s cheating Calvert out of his share of treasures, and there was even a rupture between them when Calvert argued in print against reckless interpretations of the site that Schliemann was circulating with his self-serving publicity.

The climax of Schliemann’s excavations came on May 31, 1873, when he came upon a body of copper and gold objects, including jewelry. He called this trove “Priam’s treasure,” reporting that he had recovered it with the help of his wife. In fact, Sophia was in Athens at the time of the discovery. Some critics have speculated that the so-called treasure was never actually found and that it was actually made up of objects Schliemann had purchased on the black market and placed on the site for discovery. Defying his contract with the Turkish government, Schliemann smuggled these objects to Athens Athens , to install them in his home there for exhibition and photography. A picture of his wife bedecked in the so-called “Helen’s jewels” was circulated worldwide at the peak of Schliemann’s self-promotion. The objects eventually found their way to Berlin, from which they were later carried off into obscurity by the Russians after World War II. In 1993, they were found to be preserved at Moscow’s Pushkin Museum.

Schliemann faced fury and long legal actions from Constantinople, and only after a financial settlement was he allowed further access to Troy. In 1874, he published his excavation reports. The book, Troja und seine Ruinen (Troy and Its Remains: A Narrative of Researches and Discoveries Made on the Site of Ilium and in the Trojan Plain, 1875), consolidated his fame as the discoverer of Homer’s Troy and, in the process, buried any credit due Calvert. Indeed, in his autobiographical writings, Schliemann even appropriated from Calvert the story that he had nourished since childhood the determination to find and reveal Homer’s Troy.

On the basis of his sensational work at Troy, Schliemann was allowed to conduct excavations in Greece Greece, ancient at Mycenae in 1876, where he cleared the grave circle and discovered its famous burial masks. In 1878-1879, amid uneasy reconciliation with Calvert, Schliemann pursued new excavations at Troy. He also ventured some further “Homeric” explorations at Ithaca (1878), Orchomenos (1881), and Tiryns (1884-1885), while continuing his prolific outpouring of writings and publications. A celebrity of worldwide standing, and now one of the great men of Greece, he built himself and Sophia a grand mansion (still standing) in downtown Athens.

Meanwhile, the perplexities of Troy continued to draw Schliemann. With Calvert’s collaboration, he undertook new explorations of the area in 1882. He continued his involvement with the site, attending an international conference held there in 1889 to clarify the identity of Hissarlik. His plans for further investigations in 1890 were cut short by his death during a visit to Naples. Schliemann’s remains were brought to Athens Athens and buried in a grandiose neoclassical mausoleum on a hilltop in the city’s main cemetery.


The tangled explications of the various layers of Hissarlik’s settlements were resumed by Schliemann’s assistant, architect Wilhelm Dörpfeld, and they continue into the twenty-first century, albeit on a more scientific scale. Schliemann had demonstrated that the stories of a Trojan War corresponded to tangible evidence, and that Hissarlik was the site of the ancient Troy, but his brutal excavation techniques ironically destroyed much of what remained of the Trojan city.

Acclaimed as the founder of archaeology, Schliemann awakened a broad public to this new science. His methods, however, now evoke horror, and his shameful suppression of Calvert’s role is now evident.

Further Reading

  • Allen, Susan Heuck. Finding the Walls of Troy: Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliemann at Hisarlik. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. The fullest account of the pivotal relationship between Schliemann and Calvert.
  • Blegen, Carl W. Troy and the Trojans. Ancient Peoples and Places 33. New York: Praeger, 1963. Analysis of the site and its history by one of the leading twentieth century excavators.
  • Calder, William M., III, and David A. Traill, eds. Myth, Scandal, and History: The Heinrich Schliemann Controversy. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1986. Collection of scholarly essays that evaluate Schliemann’s career, achievements, and image.
  • Deuel, Leo. Memoirs of Heinrich Schliemann. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Thorough analysis of Schliemann’s life, with generous selections from his own works, letters, and diaries. Balanced, with careful criticism and analytical sections, full notes, and a bibliography.
  • Ludwig, Emil. Schliemann: The Story of a Gold-Seeker. Translated by D. F. Tait. Boston: Little, Brown, 1931. One of the few biographies of Schliemann in English, and the first to raise some critical questions about his methods and intentions.
  • Moorehead, Caroline. The Lost Treasures of Troy. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1994. A history of the materials that Schliemann uncovered at Troy, describing how his finds were handled from their excavation through the early 1990’s.
  • Runnels, Curtis. The Archaeology of Heinrich Schliemann: An Annotated Bibliographic Handlist. Boston: Archaeological Institute of America, 2002. An eighty-one-page reference source for works related to Schliemann and his work, archaeology, and the city of Troy. Includes a map.
  • Schliemann, Heinrich. Troy and Its Remains: A Narrative of Researches and Discoveries Made on the Site of Ilium, and in the Trojan Plain. Edited by Philip Smith. New York: Arno Press, 1976. A translated edition of the archaeologist’s excavation reports of Troy, originally published in 1874. Includes bibliographic footnotes and an index.
  • Stone, Irving. The Greek Treasure: A Biographical Novel of Heinrich and Sophia Schliemann. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975. Best-selling novel about Schliemann’s archaeological work that is most useful for providing vivid images of his digs and contemporary Greek culture.
  • Traill, David A. Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. The most thorough myth-busting biography of Schliemann.
  • Wood, Michael. In Search of the Trojan War. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Based upon a BBC television series. A very readable survey of Troy’s lure and its attraction to archaeologists.

Elgin Ships Parthenon Marbles to England

Burckhardt Discovers Egypt’s Abu Simbel

Exploration of Arabia

Layard Explores and Excavates Assyrian Ruins

Stephens Begins Uncovering Mayan Antiquities

Burton Enters Mecca in Disguise

Evans Discovers Crete’s Minoan Civilization

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i><br />

Sir Richard Francis Burton; Sir Arthur Evans; Heinrich Schliemann. Schliemann, Heinrich
Troy, ancient
Turkey;ancient Troy
Calvert, Frank