Heinrich Schliemann and the Discovery of Troy

Why Didn't Frank Calvert Get Credit for Hisarlik's Identification?

Dr. Heinrich Schliemann's Excavations in the Acropolis of Mycenae
Dr. Heinrich Schliemann's Excavations in the Acropolis of Mycenae. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

According to widely published legend, the finder of the true site of Troy was Heinrich Schliemann, adventurer, speaker of 15 languages, world traveler, and gifted amateur archaeologist. In his memoirs and books, Schliemann claimed that when he was eight, his father took him on his knee and told him the story of the Iliad, the forbidden love between Helen, wife of the King of Sparta, and Paris, son of Priam of Troy, and how their elopement resulted in a war that destroyed a Late Bronze Age civilization.

Did Heinrich Schliemann Really Find Troy?

  • Schliemann did, in fact, excavate at a site that turned out to be the historic Troy; but he got his information about the site from an expert, Frank Calvert, and failed to credit him. 
  • Schliemann's voluminous notes are full of grandiose lies and manipulations about everything that occurred in his life, in part to make his public think he was a truly remarkable man. 
  • With a keen facility in numerous languages and a wide-ranging memory and hunger and respect for scholarly knowledge, Schliemann, in fact, was a truly remarkable man! But for some reason, he needed to inflate his role and importance in the world. 

That story, said Schliemann, awoke in him a hunger to search for the archaeological proof of the existence of Troy and Tiryns and Mycenae. In fact, he was so hungry that he went into business to make his fortune so he could afford the search. And after much consideration and study and investigation, on his own, he found the original site of Troy, at Hisarlik, a tell in Turkey.

Romantic Baloney

The reality, according to David Traill's 1995 biography, Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit, and bolstered by Susan Heuck Allen's 1999 work Finding the Walls of Troy: Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliemann, is that most of this is romantic baloney, manufactured by Schliemann for the sake of his own image, ego, and public persona.  

Schliemann was a brilliant, gregarious, enormously talented, and extremely restless con man, who nevertheless changed the course of archaeology. His focused interest in the sites and events of the Iliad created widespread belief in their physical reality—and in so doing, made many people search for the real pieces of the world's ancient writings. It could be argued that he was among the earliest and most successful of public archaeologists

During Schliemann's peripatetic travels around the world (he visited the Netherlands, Russia, England, France, Mexico, America, Greece, Egypt, Italy, India, Singapore, Hong Kong, China, Japan, all before he was 45), he took trips to ancient monuments, stopped at universities to take classes and attend lectures in comparative literature and language, wrote thousands of pages of diaries and travelogues, and made friends and enemies all over the world. How he afforded such traveling may be attributed to either his business acumen or his penchant for fraud; probably a bit of both.

Schliemann and Archaeology

The fact is, Schliemann did not take up archaeology or serious investigations for Troy until 1868, at the age of 46. There is no doubt that before that Schliemann had been interested in archaeology, particularly the history of the Trojan War, but it had always been subsidiary to his interest in languages and literature. But in June of 1868, Schliemann spent three days at the excavations at Pompeii directed by the archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli.

The next month, he visited Mount Aetos, considered then the site of the palace of Odysseus, and there Schliemann dug his first excavation pit. In that pit, or perhaps purchased locally, Schliemann obtained either 5 or 20 small vases containing cremated remains. The fuzziness is a deliberate obfuscation on Schliemann's part, not the first nor the last time that Schliemann would fudge the details in his diaries, or their published form.

Three Candidates for Troy

At the time that Schliemann's interest was stirred by archaeology and Homer, there were three candidates for the location of Homer's Troy. The popular choice of the day was Bunarbashi (also spelled Pinarbasi) and the accompanying acropolis of Balli-Dagh; Hisarlik was favored by the ancient writers and a small minority of scholars; and Alexandria Troas, since determined to be too recent to be Homeric Troy, was a distant third.

Schliemann excavated at Bunarbashi during the summer of 1868 and visited other sites in Turkey including Hisarlik, apparently unaware of the standing of Hisarlik until at the end of the summer he dropped in on the archaeologist Frank Calvert. Calvert, a member of the British diplomatic corps in Turkey and part-time archaeologist, was among the decided minority among scholars; he believed that Hisarlik was the site of Homeric Troy, but had had difficulty convincing the British Museum to support his excavations.

Calvert and Schliemann

In 1865, Calvert had excavated trenches into Hisarlik and found enough evidence to convince himself that he had found the correct site. In August of 1868, Calvert invited Schliemann to dinner and to see his collection, and at that dinner, he recognized that Schliemann had the money and chutzpah to get the additional funding and permits to dig at Hisarlik that Calvert could not. Calvert spilled his guts to Schliemann about what he had found, beginning a partnership he would soon learn to regret.

Schliemann returned to Paris in the fall of 1868 and spent six months becoming an expert on Troy and Mycenae, writing a book of his recent travels, and writing numerous letters to Calvert, asking him where he thought the best place to dig might be, and what sort of equipment he might need to excavate at Hisarlik. In 1870 Schliemann began excavations at Hisarlik, under the permit Frank Calvert had obtained for him, and with members of Calvert's crew. But never, in any of Schliemann's writings, did he ever admit that Calvert did anything more than agree with Schliemann's theories of the location of Homer's Troy, born that day when his father sat him on his knee.

Uncovering Schliemann 

Schliemann's version of events—that he alone had identified Troy's locaiton—stood intact for decades after his death in 1890. Ironically, the celebration of Schliemann's 150th birthday in 1972 touched off a critical examination of his life and discoveries. There had been other murmurs of irregularities in his voluminous diaries—novelist Emil Ludwig's meticulously researched Schliemann: The Story of a Gold Seeker in 1948, for example—but they had been scorned by Schliemann's family and the scholarly community. But when at the 1972 meetings American classicist William M. Calder III announced that he had found discrepancies in his autobiography, others began to dig a little deeper.

Just how many self-aggrandizing lies and manipulations are in the Schliemann diaries has been the focus of much discussion throughout the turn of the 21st century, between Schliemann detractors and (somewhat grudging) champions. One defender is Stefanie A.H. Kennell, who from 2000–2003 was an archivist fellow for the Schliemann papers at the Gennadius Library of the American School of Classical Studies. Kennell argues that Schliemann was not simply a liar and a con man, but rather an "extraordinarily talented yet flawed man." Classicist Donald F. Easton, also a supporter, described his writings as a "characteristic blend of one-third dissimulation, one-third arrogant rhetoric, and one-third obsequiousness," and Schliemann as "a flawed human being, sometimes confused, sometimes mistaken, dishonest... who, despite his faults... [left] a lasting legacy of information and enthusiasm." 

One thing is crystal clear about the debate over Schliemann's qualities: now the efforts and scholarship of Frank Calvert, who did, in fact, know that Hisalik was Troy, who conducted scholarly investigations there five years before Schliemann, and who, perhaps foolishly, turned over his excavations to Schliemann, does today due credit for the first serious discovery of Troy. 

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