7 December: Heinrich Schleiman

Heinrich Schliemann in his maturity

Name: Heinrich Schliemann

Tagline: A German businessman and archaeologist, who was certain the Illiad was based on reality.

Claim to Fame: Think Achilles and Odysseus wiped out Troy? Nope – it was this guy.

Heinrich Schliemann was a controversial figure, even in his own time. He was a passionate archaeologist, but his methods were destructive, and he probably put too much emphasis on gold and too little on potsherds.

Schliemann started out in business, however. He was apparently a polyglot, who claimed he could master a language in six weeks. By the end of his life he could converse in more than ten languages.

That came in immensely handy in his life in business. At 22, he was employed by a company in Amsterdam, who sent him to St. Petersburg. When his brother died in California in 1850, he went there, and started a bank. He quickly made a lot of money trading gold dust, but a controversy emerged around him, so he moved back to Russia. There, he made several very successful business deals – including cornering the market for sulphur, saltpetre and lead right as the Russian army needed ammunition for the Crimean War.

Thus it came about that he could retire at the tender age of 36, and devote his time to his passion: archaeology. Specifically, finding the location of historic Troy.

Schliemann spent some time trying to find the right location, before ultimately settling on a location in Turkey. Along the way, he earned a PhD from the University of Rostock for a thesis he submitted on the topology of Ithaca. The thesis was supposedly partly translated from another author, partly rewritten from poetic descriptions by the same author.

Schliemann began work in 1871. Now, most people think of people with bent backs wielding spoons and brushes when they think of Archaeologists at work. But not Schliemann. His favourite tool was a stick of dynamite.

See, he figured that the Troy of the Illiad was the deepest layer. And he was anxious to get to the good stuff. And so he blew his way through nine layers of previous settlements – down to something that predates historic Troy by around four hundred years, and through the actual remains of historic Troy, making it impossible for later generations to study them.

Schliemann’s wife, Sophia, wearing “The Jewels of Helen”.

Once there, Schliemann knew what he was interested in: gold! And he did, in fact, discover several golden treasures, calling it “Priam’s Treasure”, though it was much too old to have been connected with Troy. He claimed that he had sent his men away when he found it, and that he and his wife had excavated it themselves. Only problem? She was far away in Athens at the time.

Speaking of wives, Schliemann had two. His first was a Russian woman whom he married when he was in Russia the second time, and with whom he had three children. The marriage was not a happy one, however, and when Heinrich moved to Paris, his wife refused to move with him. So he moved to Indiana for three months, and gained a divorce there by lying about his intention to stay there.

Later on, in Greece, he was looking for a new wife, and was introduced to the 17 year old Sophia, whom the 47 year old Schliemann decided to marry. They had two children, whom Schliemann named Andromache and Agamemnon. He was indeed possessed by the Illiad.

Heinrich Schliemann is something of a tragic figure. His obsession with Troy and his strong beliefs in his own rightness caused him to destroy the thing he loved, and has caused him to be reviled in modern archaeology.

His obstinacy also brought him to his death. In November, 1890, he developed a terrible ear infection, and received an operation. But instead of following his doctor’s orders, he travelled on, eventually collapsing on Christmas day, and dying on the 26th of December.

How I would use him: Schlieman is equally at home as a villain in a pulpy, Indiana Jones story, or in a Lovecraft story. He is so focused on digging up treasures (that belong in a museum) that he is likely to dig up something weird and foul.

Ironically, he could also be a figure out of a Greek tragedy. He is oblivious to his own failings, making him exacerbate the issues.

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