Heinrich Schliemann and the Discovery of Troy

Did Heinrich Schliemann Really Steal Credit for the Discovery of Troy?

Heinrich Schliemann, Excavator of Troy, 1877
Dr Heinrich Schliemann, German Homeric Archeologist, 1877.Artist: Lock & Whitfield. Print Collector / Hulton Archive / 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.

That story, said Schliemann, awoke in him a hunger to search for the archaeological proof of the existence of Troy andTiryns 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, is that most of this is romantic baloney.

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. 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 reams 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 Guiseppi 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 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. In 1865, Calvert had excavated trenches into Hisarlik and found enough evidence to convince himself that he had found the correct site. Calvert recognized that Schliemann had the money and chutzpah to get the additional funding and permits to dig at Hisarlik. Calvert spilt 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.


Allen SH. 1995. "Finding the Walls of Troy": Frank Calvert, Excavator. American Journal of Archaeology 99(3):379-407.

Allen SH. 1998. A Personal Sacrifice in the Interest of Science: Calvert, Schliemann, and the Troy Treasures. The Classical World 91(5):345-354.

Maurer K. 2009. Archeology as Spectacle: Heinrich Schliemann's Media of Excavation. German Studies Review 32(2):303-317.

Traill DA. 1995. Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit. New York: St. Martin's Press.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Heinrich Schliemann and the Discovery of Troy." ThoughtCo, Feb. 25, 2017, thoughtco.com/heinrich-schliemann-and-discovery-of-troy-169529. Hirst, K. Kris. (2017, February 25). Heinrich Schliemann and the Discovery of Troy. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/heinrich-schliemann-and-discovery-of-troy-169529 Hirst, K. Kris. "Heinrich Schliemann and the Discovery of Troy." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/heinrich-schliemann-and-discovery-of-troy-169529 (accessed May 27, 2018).