Troy, treasure and the truth
The famous 19th century archeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered the ancient city of Troy, unearthing the spectacular Priam's Treasure now on exhibit (in Moscow's Pushkin Museum) for the first time in 50 years. He also excavated Mycenae, retrieving the famous Mask of Agamemnon. Yet the peripatetic and prolific researcher, it turns out, was almost as adventurous in stretching the truth as he was in his global travels.
After years of believing wholeheartedly in the archeologist's writings and discoveries, scholars in the 1970s and 1980s began questioning Schliemann's credibility. Among those who have researched his life and work is UC Davis classicist David Traill, whose book Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit (St. Martin's Press) has recently been published.
In his biography of Schliemann, Traill uses diaries and letters to examine the archeologist's life year by year. He concludes that, in many instances, Schliemann's accounts of his personal life and his work are untrue. He suggests that Schliemann was a pathological liar.
Traill's biography of Schliemann is the UC Davis professor's third book on the archeologist. It is a comprehensive biography, aimed at a general audience.
While Traill believes Schliemann took many liberties with the truth, he finds that "the greatness of his achievements and their enduring significance are beyond dispute." Among the valuable accomplishments that Traill credits to Schliemann are:
* Demonstrating that Greek civilization had begun about 1,000 years earlier than previous scholars had thought.
* Filling museums in Athens, Constantinople and Berlin with marvelous finds of gold, silver, bronze and pottery.
* Establishing that Homer's Troy was on the mound of Hisarlik, not at Bunarbashi as previously believed.
At the same time, Traill argues that "the comforting formula that he told lies in his private life but not in his archeology is no longer tenable.... We need to be skeptical at all times, but especially when it comes to the most dramatic finds."
A good example of Schliemann's disregard for the truth in his archeological reporting, Traill says, is the archeologist's account of the May 1873 discovery of numerous gold items, known as Priam's Treasure, dating back to the reign of King Priam of Troy. Schliemann reported that his wife, Sophia, was with him at the time of discovery. But she was not. He initially reported that he found the treasure in a room of the so-called Priam's Palace, but all plans actually place the find outside the city wall. Finally, several of the pieces that appear in photographs of Priam's Treasure also appear in photos taken in 1872 of previous finds.
Traill's own interest in Schliemann's work--and idiosyncrasies--began 20 years ago close to home.
"The thing that struck me first was that one of his lies had to do with a stay in Sacramento. Schliemann, who was a banker, was buying gold dust during the Gold Rush. He wrote in his diary that he became ill and had to leave Sacramento for San Jose, where he stayed a month," Traill said. "Yet we also have his correspondence from the same time, which showed he had stayed working and writing daily letters in Sacramento and hadn't gone to San Jose."
In researching Schliemann, Traill has spent many hours reviewing masses of correspondence. Schliemann knew about 15 languages and wrote frequently in six or seven of them. Some 70,000 letters from him still exist. The Schliemann letters and diaries are archived in Athens at the American School of Classical Studies' Gennadius Library. Traill was able to microfilm many of the documents, so that he could study them in California.
Now that Traill has published his biography of Schliemann--to extensive reviews and stories in the New York Times and in Time and Newsweek magazines, among others--he says it's time to move on to a project in medieval Latin. But he admits, "I'll probably be drawn back to Schliemann as the reaction to the book continues to come in."
Above image: The mausoleum of archeologist Heinrich Schliemann is an expression of his character and life's work, says UC Davis classicist David Traill. The tomb, built in the form of a small Greek temple, depicts on its north frieze Schliemann and his wife, Sophia, at an excavation with workers. The tomb is located in Athens, Greece.