Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), although born almost 200 years ago, seems very much a man of our times.
A troubled childhood and some aimless manual labour as a young man, eventually saw Schliemann join an import/export company in 1844, who sent him to Russia in 1846 to work in St. Petersburg. Later, inspired by his late brother, he travelled to the goldfields of California in 1851 to seek his fortune.
Here he was successful but also proved to be something of a fantasist, inserting himself Zelig-like into the great events of the day and inventing meetings with remarkable men such as the President of the United States. More importantly he displayed a somewhat loose relationship with probity and honesty and eventually returned to Russia where he made two huge fortunes, the first in indigo, the second supplying the Russian government with the constituents of ammunition for the Crimean War.
Thus financially set up he was able to devote himself to his childhood dream of finding and excavating the great sites of Homer in the Aegean – Troy, Tiryns, and Mycenae. As an archaeologist he did achieve great things although he probably destroyed as much as he found due to his crude excavating techniques. He was also not above faking evidence of what he found, and looted huge quantities of artefacts from sites in Turkey.
Nevertheless he became the most famous archaeologist not only of his time but also into the early years of twentieth century, until Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun caused such a sensation. Schliemann has left us with a vast body of work documenting his achievements, and the books themselves mirrored Schliemann’s fame, their production growing ever more extravagant with no expense spared.
Troy and its Remains, 1875, was his breakthrough title in which he announced his early discoveries at Troy. With its liberal use of illustration it set the style for Schliemann’s future publications. Schliemann’s fame was only just beginning and it is a bit scarcer than his later books.
After his excavations at Troy and the court case brought against him by the Turkish government for looting, Schliemann was banned from Turkey.
He thus turned his attention to Mycenae and the discovery there of the Mask of Agamemnon, led to huge public interest. This led to the publication of Mycenae; A narrative of researches and discoveries, published in 1878.
Schliemann was able to return to Troy in 1878, and in 1880 produced Ilios: The city and country of the Trojans. This was again lavishly illustrated but only in monochrome and shows Schliemann looking for academic renown rather than public adulation with contributions by other archaeologists and the whole being thoroughly indexed. As well as his excavations from 1878-79, it also included further results from his earlier dig.
In 1886 Schliemann produced what is probably his finest book – Tiryns. The Prehistoric Palace of the Kings of Tiryns.
Again it is a most beautiful example of high Victorian book production but allied with what Schliemann authority, Professor Curtis Runnels, calls ‘Its clear descriptions, cautious evaluation of evidence, attention to detail, and ample illustration of artifacts and features make this book of lasting scientific value and the starting place for the ongoing study of the site of Tiryns and research into the Mycenaean world.’
It is as though the showman and chancer extraordinaire had finally become a serious figure.