On the surface, the story of Heinrich Schliemann reads like a classic tale of career fulfillment. Born in 1822 in what is now Germany, Schliemann was a young boy when he first heard the tales of the Iliad and the Odyssey from his father, a minister. Schliemann would later state that he was eight years old when he first announced that one day he would find the city of Troy, the locale of the Iliad, believed by most scholars of the time to be completely fictional. Not being of the privileged class, though, he could not enter the world of academia directly. First he would have to make his fortune.
Traveling the world, and spending considerable time in Holland, Russia, and California, he learned a dozen languages and reaped hefty profits in banking and trading. By the age of 36, he was wealthy enough to retire and, as he later put it, dedicate himself to the pursuit of Troy. Years of diligent scholarship and elegant deduction led him to the unprecedented conclusion that the city lay buried beneath a Turkish hill known as Hisarlik, and in 1871, he used his substantial fortune to finance excavations there. Within two years, he uncovered the remains of the city, achieving his lifelong goal, rewriting the history books, and revolutionizing the budding field of archaeology.
Who could fail to be moved by this inspiring story of dedication and perseverance? The boy who harbors a dream – who believes he can achieve the impossible – and who devotes his life to it. It’s a shame that, when we dig deeper, we find there is nearly as much myth in this as there is in the Odyssey.
It is true that Schliemann amassed a great personal fortune in his youth, but it is less clear that archaeological aspirations had motivated this. His wife must have played at least a part, for at one point early in their marriage she refused to have sex with him until he made more money. He did so, but much of his business activity was less than reputable. He fled California (with what would be about a quarter-million in modern dollars) when accused by other bankers of bilking them out of gold dust, and then made bundles as a profiteer during the Crimean War and the American Civil War.
Once Schliemann began his amateur archaeology, he had no idea where to look for Troy, until he met an Englishman in Turkey, Frank Calvert, who believed that Hisarlik was the location. He believed it strongly enough to have purchased about half of the land on the hill. After convincing Schliemann of the soundness of his belief, Calvert accepted Schliemann’s offer to finance a dig on Hisarlik, something Calvert himself could not afford. Once Schliemann found artifacts establishing the likelihood of the existence of Troy, however, he refused to give Calvert any credit for the discovery.
Even Schliemann’s treatment of the site itself showed a narrow vision completely at odds with the heroic tale of the groundbreaking archaeologist. Initial digs showed that there were multiple layers of ruins at Hisarlik, as over time new cities had been built over the old. Schliemann, with little scientific justification, jumped to the conclusion that the Troy of the Iliad must have been at the lowest layer, and instructed his diggers to eliminate everything above it – wiping out untold treasures of archaeological information. Ironically, later scientists concluded that the lowest layer was from an even more ancient city – meaning that, in his quest to find Troy, Schliemann had actually managed to destroy it.
He did, however, find a number of ancient and valuable artifacts, including some priceless works in gold. Rather than share these with Calvert, as he had agreed, and with the Turkish government, as he was required by law, Schliemann snuck these objects out of the country and back to Germany, where he could more easily take sole credit for the discoveries. The legal battle over rightful ownership of these objects still continues today.
In short, Schliemann’s story – which seemed so stirring and ennobling when he told it – turns out to be a mash-up of truth and wishful thinking. Is it still a tale of career fulfillment? By the time he died, Schliemann was wealthy, was famous, and had achieved something unique and lasting in his field – three touchstones by which most people would measure success. It may well be that he died thinking he was happy and content.
But it may also be that he died knowing that each of these achievements was tainted by falsehood. His wealth, or at least a substantial portion of it, was amassed by deceit or abuse. His fame was based on a lie and on the willful denigration of the one person most responsible for it. And his archaeological achievements, even when viewed with the more lax standards of the time in mind, were conducted shoddily and dishonestly. No matter how well the rest of the world thought of him at the time, Schliemann knew what ruins lay buried beneath the outer layers of his success.