Schliemann’s Controversy

Schliemann has been praised and given recognition for shining new light on ancient Greek civilization, and is often heralded as a father of archaeology.  However, some of his claims, as we have seen, have been questionable and even disproved with modern evidence. Many of his critics have gone as far as to refer to him as a con and a fraud and suggested that his excavations were simply hoaxes that he fabricated for the sake of gaining fame.

homeric troy

Perhaps one of Schliemann’s greatest faults was also the greatest fuel for his archaeological effort. His unwavering belief in a Homeric Troy, and an epic Greek Bronze Age. He stuck to this belief ever since he was a young child, and in his older age, he wrote an autobiographical piece where he distinctly recalled the conversation he had with his father, in which he was determined that there must be some ruins of Troy left to find. Schliemann wrote this about fifty years later, much to the surprise of his peers, who found it hard to believe that one could recall a memory like that after so long. (Payne) Now, while scholars are in agreement that Troy existed, the actual size of the city, and the details of events in the Trojan War are often debated, and it is agreed that much of what Homer wrote in The Iliad is based in fantasy.  There is no concrete evidence that some of the major characters presented in Homer’s poetry, such as Helen or Achilles, even existed, or that the war itself was on such a grand scale as Homer describes. Homer was writing about the Trojan war hundreds of years after it occurred, and there are some obvious fantastical nuances of his work. This makes Homer a questionable source overall when examining ancient Greek history. Homer’s work may be useful for looking into the heroic values and social entertainment of his time, but he simply isn’t reliable enough to link his writings to archaeological evidence. However, Finding archaeological evidence for a Homeric Greece seemed to be what Schliemann wanted the most, even if that meant exaggerating his findings, or even falsifying them.

Schliemann, in a word, was a man of the people, and a bit of a show boat. This often lead to self-aggrandizing, and very selfish behavior. In the case of his decision to excavate Hisarlik, for example;  Frank Calvert, an English archaeologist of the time, advised Schliemann to dig there. Calvert, himself, had dug there previously, but had no luck in the discovery of a great Troy. However, despite Calvert’s suggestion leading to this great find, it is known that Schliemann gave no credit whatsoever to Calvert for the discovery. Schliemann’s act of approaching this dig site was unbecoming of an archaeologist, to say the least. The Turkish government, toward the end of the dig, ended up rescinding his permission to excavate at Hisarlik and also sued him for a share of “Priam’s Treasure” because he had started his work before he was given approval. The conduction of the dig was very careless. Greek archaeologists such as Panagiotis Stamatakis, accused him of destroying other ancient artifacts by his hasty method of excavation in order to find what he wanted; evidence of a Homeric Troy. These methods of approach and selfish acts give a strong base for skepticism, and when it came down to the actual discovery of this treasure, a large and impressive collection of items such as jewelry, pottery, and weapons, it was immediately inundated with questions and doubts.


Photograph of Priam’s Treasure


In Schliemann’s diary, where he initially wrote of his findings, his account is sketchy and incomplete and he was found to have misidentified several artifacts. Specifically, his accounts of the location and dates of his discoveries are vague and he often contradicted himself. One of the biggest pieces of evidence against Schliemann is that the land where he dug is not where Troy is actually believed to be (Easton). Hisarlik, the site that Schliemann and Calvert dug at, contained nine ancient cities built on top of each other, all surrounded by a high wall. Schliemann started his excavation at the second city, however; modern day archaeologists have concluded that the sixth and seventh cities are the closest candidates for what the city of Troy would have been. It has also been proven that the artifacts found were from a time period much earlier than what Schliemann had stated.  The jewels that Schliemann claimed had once belonged to Helen were estimated to have actually been 1000 years older than his estimates. This evidence leads some archaeologists to believe that Schliemann’s findings are actually a part of what is known as Troy II (Lovgren), and not Homeric Troy.

The faultiness and inconsistencies of Schliemann’s records did not help the legitimacy of the findings, but these circumstances could, in fact, simply be Schliemann’s misinformed opinion. Being fueled once again by his desire to find evidence of Homeric Troy. In other words, it can’t be said that Schliemann deliberately lied about the accounts of his findings, but they can be considered questionable. However, it is irrefutable that Schliemann blatantly lied about other certain aspects of the discovery. For instance, he originally stated his wife was present when he discovered the treasure, but that was found to be false. He admitted that it was a lie, but excused it by saying that he only wrote it in his diary so that his wife would feel more involved in the discovery. Schliemann rashly proclaiming his findings to be that of King Priam brings up further questions. When Schliemann claimed it to be, “Priam’s Treasure”, it wasn’t a claim based in logic, but rather one based in emotion. Schliemann wanted there to be proof of Homeric Troy, so, no matter what he found, he would have somehow linked it to those epic stories so as to support his belief in those legends. These lies and misinformation may seem like small transgressions, but nothing about archaeological discoveries can be skewed even in the slightest, lest the accuracy and legitimacy of the findings be called into question.

Many modern historians believe what Schliemann found in his Hisarlik excavation was only actually a few small bronze artifacts, combined with other items of different ages and styles that were found at other sites. It is thought that he combined findings from these sites for the purpose of announcing it and showing off his work, as he was wont to do. Another gray area that opens to questioning is the fact that Schliemann began his career by drawing everything he found, giving possible room for his bias. However, in 1872, his findings were photographed, and in 1873, they were drawn by a third-party artist. Out of all the items supposedly found at Priam’s Treasure, none of them are found recorded in his early documentation. This may be inconsequential, given Schliemann’s poor skill for documentation and hasty nature, but the very fact that the point can be made leaves a large red flag on Schliemann’s history and is very alarming.


Mycenae site


Looking into his excavations in Mycenae in 1876, the motif of Schliemann’s overzealous and exaggerated findings seem to precede him once again. He discovered two circles of shaft graves containing many valuable objects, namely the series of golden funeral masks. It should be mentioned that all of the most significant finds of the site were supposedly discovered personally by Schliemann. Another nod to his knack for self-aggrandizing.   When sharing his findings with the public, Schliemann once again over exaggerated, claiming that he had found the grave site of the great king Agamemnon. He had no solid proof, other than his own inspection and speculation of one of the masks he had discovered. There was no grave-marker indicating it was the final resting place of Agamemnon, and even though the mask and body were found with a wealth of coins and other artifacts, that does not mean that Schliemann’s claim was justified. As in his claim that he had found “Priam’s Treasure”, this claim, too, was based in emotion.


Other artifacts found at Mycenae


Inconsistencies in the artistic design of these masks raised particular interest, in the fact that they didn’t seem to have come from the same time or dig site. There seems to be three distinct styles of mask: two-dimensional masks with no smiles or facial hair, three-dimensional masks with more of a bowl-like structure and wearing smiles, and the third design was that of the supposed, “Mask of Agamemnon” that Schliemann found. Some of the most notable differences of this mask of Agamemnon were that it had facial hair, and the ears were cut out separately from the mask, making them stand out more. The differences in these masks gives a foothold against Schliemann that states that these findings were falsified. Schliemann was known to have allegedly smuggled treasure outside of Hisarlik, so it could be suggested that he could have smuggled the mask into Mycenae, or even added characteristics to another mask he previously discovered.

Schliemann’s rash claims, careless handling of archaeological evidence, and overall shady inconsistencies drew much scrutiny from his peers, who accused his findings of being hoaxes, and to be set up. According to the opinion of William M. Calder III, Schliemann enjoyed fabricating his work. Calder, an award-winning author and classics professor, was one of the first to question the truthfulness of Schliemann. He is quoted as saying that he has learned to doubt anything said by Schliemann unless there is independent confirmation. (Harrington)

Outside of Schliemann’s archaeological career, he had a history of being untruthful. Originally a businessman, he was known to make dishonest monetary transactions and was found to have lied to the U.S. government in order to be granted citizenship and a divorce. He also made other claims that were obviously false: such as he met President Millard Fillmore even though there is no possible way he could have, and claiming to have witnessed an earthquake in San Francisco although it is known that he was not there.

William Niederland created a modern psychoanalytic profile for Schliemann and determined that he had elements of possible psychopathy in his makeup. This is a very interesting evaluation because it would explain his extreme passion that border-lined desperation in his search for proof of an epic ancient Greece, and his seemingly compulsive lying.

Leave a Reply