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Truth and lies: Henrich Schliemann's excavations at Troy | Curator's Corner with Lesley Fitton

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  1. pallas
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    Schliemann was a fascinating person. This account seems very unusually glowing, however, and repeatedly refers to him as "controversial" without giving much explanation as to why. Schliemann was a...

    Schliemann was a fascinating person. This account seems very unusually glowing, however, and repeatedly refers to him as "controversial" without giving much explanation as to why.

    Schliemann was a Way We Live Now-style 'captain of industry', and I don't think such a description of him is even particularly controversial. He appears to have combined a talent for learning languages with a disregard for honesty in order to make a fortune in international trade. His first business on his own was buying and reselling gold in California during the gold rush. There's no proof that the business was a scam, he just suddenly became ill and left the country when others complained that there seemed to be discrepancies in the weights of gold they were buying. Then he went on to a career of commodity market manipulation.

    Parts of his Wikipedia page read like a list of corrections to claims he made about himself. He stated that he became a US citizen when California became a state... he obtained citizenship in 1869. He claimed to have dined with the US President on his way to start his bank in California, clearly. He was in San Francisco during the fire of 1851, and published an eyewitness account... he was actually in Sacramento at the time. He obtained a divorce by pretending to be a resident of Indiana, then, aged 47, married a 17-year-old Greek woman apparently via either newspaper advertisement or by hiring a priest to find him a "black-haired Greek woman in the Homeric spirit". His PhD was dubious. He excavated with dynamite, and many people suggest that he probably destroyed much of Homeric Troy: while it's accurate to say that careful archaeological methods were not well-developed at the time, trained archaeologists didn't do the same amount of damage because they didn't have his resources and zeal.

    Thus, when people are sceptical about many of his scholarly claims and discoveries, that scepticism comes from the fact that essentially everything about him outside of archaeology was dishonest.

    Yet he was undoubtedly truly passionate about ancient Greek history, and was an aggressive publicist, something that academics tend not to be. As Lesley Fitton mentions, he named everything he found, and promoted it extravagantly. He took the jewellery from "Priam's Treasure" and dressed his wife in it for photographs as a publicity stunt. He published absurdly exaggerated stories of adventure in archaeology. Even if he simply took the discoveries of serious scholars and used his resources and marketing to pursue them, he made people care about Troy, and about historical links to Homer. One could argue that, with his aggressive methods, he may have caused considerable damage to the field of Homeric archaeology, but that without his aggressive methods, the field would have never been born.

    His home in Athens is now the Numismatic Museum, but the house has always been more interesting to me than the exhibits it contains, and is definitely worth seeing. He covered the walls in quotations, the floors in murals... the house is a testament to his obsession with ancient Greece.

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