The Gold of Troy and Other Myths

Mycenae, by Heinrich SchliemannLeonard Cottrell was a journalist and author whose popularizing books (he also made radio and television programmes) were very widely read in the 1950s and 60s. Some of the books are still in print today, and the out-of-print ones can easily be found on Amazon and Abe Books. His subject-matter was the archaeology and history of the ancient world, and probably his most famous titles are The Bull of Minos (1953) and The Lion Gate (1963) which recount the discovery of the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations of preclassical Greece. His writing, while factually accurate in terms of what was known at the time, always emphasized the personal and the romantic. It would be interesting to know how many Mediterranean archaeologists had their interest kindled originally by Cottrell’s writing.The ‘heroes’ of these two books – Sir Arthur Evans and Heinrich Schliemann respectively – both became world-famous as a result of their discoveries, and the story of Schliemann especially has all the ingredients of a classic rags-to-riches tale. (Evans was the son of an extremely wealthy businessman and well-regarded antiquarian and numismatist.) Schliemann was his own best publicist, and his written accounts of his early life may need to be taken with a pinch of salt. For example, his lifelong devotion to the poems of Homer was inspired by hearing the Odyssey recited either (a) by a university student or (b) by a drunk (presumably an educated man fallen on hard times) who, when given money to buy beer and when sufficiently inebriated, would pour forth the Homeric cadences.

Forced by family circumstances (his father, a Protestant pastor, was apparently embezzling church funds) to leave formal education at the age of 14, Heinrich worked in a grocery store for five years, and then became a cabin boy; was shipwrecked on his first voyage on the coast of the Netherlands and became a clerk in Amsterdam. Aged 22, he was taken on by an import/export firm where he made sufficient impression to be promoted to manager of its St Petersburg branch. He flourished in Russia, then went to California, where he opened a bank in Sacramento, dealing in gold dust. California joined the Union in 1850, and Schliemann as a consequence became a US citizen. After a couple of years, and very much richer, he returned to Russia, where he married and made another fortune, first cornering the market in indigo dye (just before the first synthetic dyes began to erode its value), and then acting as a supplier to the Russian military in the Crimean War.  Retiring from business as a multi-millionaire about the age of 40, he was determined to devote himself to archaeological excavation, with the aim of demonstrating that his beloved Homer had been reciting history, not myth. His first goal was to discover the site of Troy. In 1871 he began digging at the mound of Hissarlik (already identified by Frank Calvert, whose family owned part of the land, as a possible site), and the rest, as they say, is History – or, as they also say, Self-Aggrandising Myth.

Schliemann has been criticized with various degrees of venom ever since for his crude excavation methods, his failure to understand the significance of stratigraphy, his duplicity, his suppression of crucial facts and his tendency to fabricate his accounts in the interest of creating a good story. But who could resist the man who arrayed his beautiful young Greek wife Sophia in the ‘Treasures of King Priam’ (his first, Russian, wife had been divorced by him using the state divorce laws of Indiana); who claimed at Mycenae, ‘I have looked upon the face of Agamemnon’; and who named his half-Greek children after that mythical king and after Andromache, the wife/widow of Hector the Trojan (his three half-Russian children having been abandoned with their mother)?

It is undoubtedly the case that many of Schliemann’s deductions from his excavations – especially the chronological ones – are plain wrong, and that his excavation techniques – basically, dig straight down until you find the walls of Troy and/or treasure – were unsophisticated and outdated even in his own day. But the man’s energy and drive are undoubted, and his willingness to devote himself, and his money, to an idea which was regarded as completely quixotic by most of the academic elite of Europe, has to be admired.

We are reissuing a number of Schliemann’s own publications: Ilios, Troy and Its Remains, Tiryns, and Mycenae, in English; and Ithaka, der Peloponnes und Troja, Trojanische Alterthümer, Orchomenos, Bericht über die Ausgrabungen in Troja im Jahre 1890, and Tiryns in German. Read him and see what you think!


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