Heinrich Schliemann

Heinrich Schliemann was a German archaeologist who explored sites connected with the writings of Homer, including Troy, Mycenae, and Ithaca, and made some extraordinary finds even if they weren't always what he thought they were.

Heinrich SchliemannHeinrich Schliemann

German-born archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) devoted his life to pursuing the treasures hidden in the Greek earth. If at times he let his theories override the evidence, he was still a great enthusiast who discovered many of Greece's finest ancient treasures - even if they were not always exactly what he believed them to be.

Schliemann was an intriguing man. After making his business fortune partly as a military contractor in Germany, Holland, and Russia during the Crimean War, he became a US citizen while living in California in the 1850s. He then moved to Greece at the age of 46 to devote the rest of his life to archaeology. 

Heinrich Schliemann and Homer

More specifically, he had been fascinated since childhood with the works of Homer, and their mingling of myth and history. Did such places as Troy and the Palace of Odysseus really exist? Schliemann resolved to find out, even though his formal education had ended at the age of 14.

Heinrich Schliemann at Troy

He began by looking for Troy, scene of Homer's Iliad. In 1870 he began digging at Hisarlik, close to the Turkish Aegean coast, which he had identified as the probable location of the city. He found evidence of several cities having existed on the site, and declared that the second earliest of them, where there were traces of burning, was Homer's Troy.

Hisarlik in TurkeyHisarlik

It is now known that if, in fact, Troy was located there, it was one of the later levels that Schliemann had already dug through and destroyed in the process of excavation. Whatever the truth of the find - it has never been established for sure, and probably never can be - Schliemann certainly uncovered an important historical site.

Mycenae

In 1874 he moved from Troy to explore at Mycenae. He was seeking the tombs of the ancient Mycenaean kings and was determined to find the tomb of Agamemnon, to prove that this character actually existed. Schliemann uncovered a stunning golden burial mask and confidently announced to the King of Greece in a famous telegram: 'I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon.' 

Mycenae Golden MaskThe Golden Mask, but not Agamemnon

Later dating established that it could not have been Agamemnon, even if the king had been a historical rather than legendary character. It was dated from the 16th century BC, so was too old to be that particular king. Schliemann never let the opinions or evidence of experts divert him from his own strongly-held views.

Beehive Tomb at MycenaeBeehive Tomb at Mycenae

Heinrich Schliemann and Ithaca

It was inevitable that Schliemann would move on to Ithaca, to look for historical evidence of the existence of Odysseus and his palace, and other sites described in Homer's Odyssey. It was equally inevitable that he would find something that he would identify as those sites, but again there is still no absolute proof that he was right.

IthacaIthaca

He did further important work at Tiryns, near Mycenae, and had also hoped to excavate at Knossos on Crete, another location mentioned by Homer, but he could not agree to the price being asked for access to the land.

Despite his great knowledge and enthusiasm, Schliemann was perceived by other archaeologists as an amateur and an upstart. Nevertheless it cannot be denied that he uncovered large and significant sites that other archaeologists had missed.

Other history-related pages

  • Homer and the Odyssey

    Did Homer write The Odyssey and The Iliad, and what is known about the life of this famous Greek writer, when did he live, where was he born, and was he blind?

  • A History of Athens

    A History of Athens from the first people to live on the Acropolis through the Golden Age of Pericles and Alexander the Great to the military junta.

  • Greek Architecture

    This beginner's guide to Greek architecture explains how to tell your Ionic from your Doric columns, and what to look for in temples and Byzantine churches.

  • Battle of Crete

    The Battle of Crete during World War 2 inspired several books and took place with an airborne invasion over Maleme on the north coast of the island.

  • Alexander the Great

    Alexander the Great was the son of Philip II of Macedonia and gave Greece the greatest empire it has ever known.

  • The Royal Tombs and Archaeological Site of Vergina in Macedonia

    The archaeological site of Vergina in Macedonia is famous for the royal tombs which were the burial place of King Philip II, father of Alexander the Great.

  • The Greek Gods

    The home of the Greek Gods was the top of Mount Olympus, and among the better-known Gods and Goddesses in the Greek pantheon were Zeus, Poseidon and Aphrodite.

  • Sir Arthur Evans, archaeologist at Knossos on Crete

    Sir Arthur Evans is the archaeologist famous for the excavations he made at the royal palace of Knossos on Crete.

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