Schliemann's life: history, theft, war and gold

July 07, 1996|By John R. Alden | John R. Alden,special to the sun

"Lost and Found: The 9,000 Treasures of Troy," by Caroline Moorehead.Viking. $24.95.

"The Gold of Troy: Searching for Homer's Fabled City," by Vladimir Tolstikov and Mikhail Treister. Abrams. 239 pages. $60. Archaeologists are often likened to detectives, but few tales of mystery and imagination can match the story of Heinrich Schliemann. As much shamus as scholar, Schliemann was a 19th century entrepreneur who spent the first half of his life getting rich and the second half trying to prove that the Trojan War described by Homer in the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" was real. In the course of his efforts, Schliemann uncovered two sets of ancient treasure, gained world wide fame, and suffered more professional abuse than any archaeologist before or since.

Caroline Moorehead's elegant biographical study does not compare her subject to a character out of Poe, Spillane or the movies. Her style is to give the facts. In vivid, graceful and engaging prose, she relates the events of Schliemann's life, describes his excavations at the Bronze Age sites of Troy and Mycenae, and tells how one of his most important discoveries, a collection of gold from Troy, found its way from that ancient mound in Asia Minor to a recently opened exhibition in Moscow.

Moorehead's disciplined approach merits notice because much about Schliemann's life remains controversial. So do the events through which the Trojan gold ended up in Moscow's Pushkin Museum, from the basement of which, after half a century in hiding, it has recently emerged. Fortunately, Schliemann was an obsessive diarist and paper-saver, and both German and Soviet officials kept records of what they had and how they had gotten it. The tale Moorehead mines from these records, combining biography, social history, theft, war and gold, is enthralling.

"Heinrich Schliemann," the author observes, "was a strange man." Self-educated, he taught himself 22 languages, traveled around the world, and wrote at least seven major books. He began life as a grocer's apprentice and when he died in 1890, age 68, he had acquired one fortune, two families, 29 academic degrees and "a museum wing bearing his name and filled with his finds in Berlin."

During those years Schliemann had visited Japan and the Great Wall of China, been in California during the gold rush, and spirited what he called "King Priam's Treasure" out of Turkey rather than share it with the country whose soil he was digging in. He lived through an era of revolutionary scientific and social change and helped move Homer's epic poetry from literature into the realm of history. He achieved great things.

Yet he also exaggerated habitually and filled even his diary with untruths. This behavior, even more than his arrogance and sloppy excavation techniques, was what earned the man and his work such harsh professional criticism.

The only weakness in Moorehead's fascinating account is that it doesn't show what Schliemann's gold actually looked like or say at any length what modern archaeologists think about it. Fortunately, "The Gold of Troy" - the catalog produced for the Moscow exhibition - illustrates the material in spectacular detail and discusses it thoroughly. Readers of "Lost and Found" who want to dig deeper will find this second volume, although technical, an excellent place to start.

John R. Alden is an archaeologist currently working in the Andes. wrote his dissertation on Protoliterate Iran and has done fieldwork in Iran, Jordan and Oman.

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