Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit
Lost and Found: The 9,000 Treasures of Troy: Heinrich Schliemann and the Gold That Got Away
The Gold of Troy: Searching for Homer’s Fabled City Museum of Fine Arts/Abrams
According to Heinrich Schliemann’s keenest detractors, his life was not merely stranger than fiction; it was fiction. But the facts accepted even by those who most strongly suspect his honesty make an amazing story. Born in poverty in 1822, the son of a dissolute and lecherous Lutheran pastor in the eastern German town of Neubukow, he made himself immensely rich through the indigo trade in Russia, dealing in gold in California, and profiteering during the Crimean War. He was shipwrecked off the Dutch coast, and was lucky to escape with his life; he almost perished from starvation in Panama. He was a phenomenal traveler: he knew Jerusalem, Havana, Tokyo, Hong Kong, St. Petersburg, Petra, Odessa, Acapulco, and visited the principal capitals of Europe almost every year. As a linguist he was even more astonishing: he knew fifteen languages well, and others partially: his diaries were written in ten different languages (he commonly wrote in the language of the country he was in at the time); he used ancient Greek as a living tongue, and knew large quantities of the Koran and classical literature by heart, in the original.
Even his method of courtship was exceptional. His first marriage, to a Russian, having failed, he resolved to find a second wife. A Greek would be best, he decided, and so he wrote to an archbishop of his acquaintance, asking him to look out for suitable candidates. Photographs should be sent, he said: as a good reader of faces, he was confident that he could judge a person’s character from her picture. Having picked out a girl of sixteen, thirty years younger than himself, he went to Athens to interview her. After putting the appropriate questions (he asked her when the Emperor Hadrian had visited Athens, and required her to recite some lines of Homer), he proposed and (since he was very rich) was accepted. Nineteen days after their first meeting, they were married. And throughout the marriage, though it was an unconventional and sometimes turbulent one, they remained in their way deeply devoted.
Had Schliemann died just after his second wedding, at the age of forty-seven, he would have lived a remarkable life and shown extraordinary capacities, but no one today would know his name. However, in middle life he made another decision: he would become an archaeologist and uncover Homer’s Troy. As the world knows, he succeeded even beyond his dreams: as the excavator of Troy and Mycenae he became and has remained the most famous of all archaeologistsâ€”or in David A. Traill’s more equivocal phrase, “the emblematic archaeologist of all time.” But though he has always been celebrated, he is now freshly in the news again for two quite separate reasons: the exhibition of “Priam’s treasure” mounted this year in Moscow, and the accusation that he misrepresented and perhaps even faked some of his finds.
The three books under review are concerned with one or both of these issues. The Gold of Troy is the superbly illustrated and presented catalog of the Moscow exhibition. Traill’s book is a scholarly biography, detailed and meticulously researched and annotated. His publishers have achieved a great deal of notice for it by stressing its indictments of Schliemann’s integrity, but although this has done Traill a service in one sense, in another it underestimates him. The book is a complete biography of Schliemann, covering all parts of his life with equal thoroughness and making its charges with caution; though one would scarcely guess it from the dust jacket, his most sensational accusation (of which more later) is made very tentatively.
Caroline Moorehead’s biography lacks Traill’s weight of research and scholarly apparatus, but it is a fine work of its own kind; she is more kindly disposed towards her subject, and inclined to regard his egotism and ingratitude, stigmatized by Traill, as lovable foibles. Around her narrative of his life, as prelude and coda, she has wrapped the story of the disappearance of “Priam’s treasure” at the end of the Second World War and its recent rediscovery, together with a general account of the Nazis’ looting and destruction of art treasures throughout Europe and the Russians’ revenge; this is all told with vividness and verve.
The exhibition of Priam’s treasure has stirred controversy because of the dispute over where it rightfully belongs; four nations lay claim to it. Schliemann gave his Trojan finds to Germany and they remained in Berlin until 1945, when, in the words of the director of the Pushkin Museum, in her introduction to The Gold of Troy, “saving them from possible mishaps, the Director of the Museum of Ancient History in Berlin handed the treasures over to the Soviet military.” That is put with the delicacy of a Chinese mandarin, but as Moorehead’s dashing account reveals, it is more or less the truth. The objects were taken to Moscow and vanished from view, until the persistence of two Russian art historians finally brought them to light again.
Germany claims that it is the rightful owner, and that the treasures should be restored to it, just as in the 1950s the Soviet Union returned 750 pictures to Dresden and the Pergamum Altar to East Berlin (at that time, of course, both cities were part of the Communist German Democratic Republic). The Russian response is, to quote the Pushkin Museum’s director again, that “it is too easy, as certain accounts and reports in the press have done, to overlook the complicated and difficult problems.” What this seems to mean is that any return of the Trojan treasures should be part of a larger package providing that Germany return its own loot to Russia. The trouble is that Germany probably has no loot to return; the Nazis, out of sheer malice, did as much as they could to destroy Russian culture, with all too great success, and that damage is irreparable. One suspects that the real Russian argument cannot be articulated openly: Germans wiped out an enormous quantity of buildings in the USSR, including palaces and churches with works of art, and it is only fair that they should lose something to Russia by way of reparation. That point of view may excite sympathy in some quarters, but since the Russians hold other art captured during the war, and negotiations are taking place with Germany, it has to be expressed with diplomatic opacity.
The issue is further complicated by the fact that the Germans’ own claim is under challenge from another direction. When Schliemann got his license to excavate at Troy from the Ottoman authorities, it was under conditions that provided for the finds to be divided between Turkey and himself. He cheated the authorities, smuggling to Athens objects which under the terms of the license should have gone to Turkey. Eventually, he settled the matter by paying a fine, in exchange for which the Turkish government agreed to make no further claim. Later, when he returned to Troy for another campaign of digging, his license again required him to share his finds with Turkey, and again he smuggled out artifacts in breach of his agreement; this time the Turkish authorities were powerless either to recover the goods or to exact a payment.
So it seems Turkey has a simple claim on some at least of the Trojan treasure, and perhaps a moral claim on more. Or should a statute of limitations apply, since the treasure has been out of Turkey for over a century? On the other hand, it had been out of Turkey for much less than a hundred years when it left Berlin. If the Russians are “holding it in safekeeping,” as they say, whom are they holding it in safekeeping for? Meanwhile, Greece has also put in a claim, presumably on the principle that there is little to be lost in sticking ten dollars on a horse when the odds are a hundred to one against.
The spirit of irony hovers over these disputes with a wry pleasure; for the Trojan treasure is both less and more interesting than the fuss might suggest. It excites the lust for possession essentially for two reasons: because of the gold, and because of Homer. However, the treasure lover is likely to be disappointed by these finds: they cannot compare with Schliemann’s own discoveries at Mycenae, let alone with Tutankhamen’s tomb, either aesthetically or as a display of wealth. There are two spectacular artifacts: a golden vessel shaped like a sauceboat and a diadem with pendants, which Schliemann’s wife is shown wearing in a famous photograph. Otherwise the objects are mostly small, and curious rather than beautiful. Whatever his shortcomings in terms of modern scientific archaeology, Schliemann himself was not primarily a treasure hunter. Homer was his inspiration, and his goal was to uncover the world about which Homer had sung. He recognized that the Iliad was a work of the imagination, but he supposed that the basic story of a Greek host led by Agamemnon besieging and capturing Troy, the city of King Priam, was historically true.
Here the irony is twofold. The site of Troy is extremely complex; on it a series of settlements, destructions, and rebuildings took place over a very long period of time. “Priam’s treasure” comes from Troy II, which is now dated to the middle of the third millennium BC and is thus a thousand years or more older than anything which could be called Homer’s Troy. If there is any historicity in the Homeric story, we should presumably be looking to Troy VIIa, which was destroyed by fire sometime around 1200 BC. There is some evidence that at the end of his life Schliemann had come to realize that he had misdated the Trojan treasure. The first irony is that while the correct dating wipes out any possibility of a connection with Homer, it makes the finds much more rare and remarkable. We are left with a tantalizing enigma: who were these people who had so highly developed a civilization close to the northern Aegean at so early a date?
The further irony is that the historicity of the Troy story is itself such a will -o’-the-wisp. At first glance, we might suppose that the issue was straightforward: either there was (in some form) a Trojan War or there was not, and if there was, we should be able to ask whether each item in the storyâ€”person, place, or eventâ€”was or was not historical. In principle there should be answers to such questions (we might think), even though in practice those answers might not be attainable. But the issue is actually more slippery: insofar as there is historical reality behind the Homeric poems, it is likely not to be a single reality but an amalgam of different times, events, and cultures.
Scholars have been led to this conclusion by the study of other, later heroic traditions. The Song of Roland is an instructive case. When Charlemagne was returning from a campaign against the Moors in Spain, the rear of his army was ambushed at Roncevaux and massacred by Christian Basques. In the poem this incident becomes an immense battle against a vast Saracen host, a struggle of Christendom against the infidel. Some of the Saracen chiefs have Germanic or Byzantine names. The historical episode dates from the eighth century, but the figures in the poem display the cultural characteristics of the twelfth. We can visit Roncevaux today, as we can visit Troy; but if we are asked, “Is this where Roland confronted the Saracens?” we might be reluctant to answer either yes or no.