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by William H. Benson

April 14, 2011

     Recently, I re-read the story of how Heinrich Schliemann dug up the ancient city of Troy.

     When a child in Germany, Schliemann loved to read Homer’s stories of the Trojan war in the Illiad, and of Odysseus’ wanderings after the war in the Odyssey, or so he claimed he did. He entered into a career in business, and with his intelligence and application, he acquired global business interests: seizing reserves of gold dust in California, and cornering the indigo dye trade across Europe. Believing himself wealthy enough, he retired and headed to northwest Turkey to find the lost city of Troy.

    “In the midst of the bustle of business,” he said, “I had never forgotten Troy, or the agreement I had made with my father to excavate it.”

     The first thing he did on the shores of the Mediterranean was to marry a new wife, a sixteen-year-old Greek girl, whom he had advertized for, and together, beginning in 1871 until 1879, the couple, plus eighty hired laborers, dug into a hill at Hissarlik, some three miles from the Aegean Sea.

     It was said that he arrived with a shovel in one hand and a copy of the Illiad in the other. “He was a man mad about Homer.”

     He dug a trench right through the center of the hill and after about a year, a worker brought to him an artifact that shone like gold. He dismissed the workers that afternoon, claiming it was his birthday, jumped into the trench and carried the precious artifacts away. All together as the digging continued, the trench “revealed an astonishing treasure of some nine thousand objects in gold and silver.” And each artifact he associated with a passage from the Illiad. He claimed he had found Homer’s Troy.

     Few, if any, believed his wild and unsubstantiated claims.

     Actually, his digging produced nine Troy’s, successive cities, each one built atop the other. The bottom he labeled Troy I and the top Troy IX. Schliemann was convinced that the Troy of the Trojan War was Troy II, but scholars pointed out to him that it was a much older city than Homer’s, all the way back to 2500 BCE. Homer had written his epics in about 700 BCE, of a war that had occurred five hundred years before his time, in about 1200 BCE.

     “Scholars agree that the Trojan War is based on a historical core of a Greek expedition against the city of Troy, but few would argue that the poems faithfully represent the actual events of the war.”

     Archaeologists today focus their attentions upon Troy VI or VII as the more likely candidates for the actual Homeric Troy due to the matching up of details within the poems to the artifacts uncovered, but no conclusive proof exists.        

     Heinrich Schliemann’s story begins with war, of Homer’s recount of the Trojan War, of frightening images, of the weapons of war that mutilate human bodies, and of the god Zeus laughing as warriors mutilate their enemies. It makes for gruesome reading. War is all about greed, power, glory, territory, ambition, and yes, even love. Helen’s was supposedly “the face that launched a thousand ships.”

     But Schliemann’s story continues with at least two other themes: first, the power of mythology and the hesitant steps toward professionalism.

     Schliemann was a man caught in the vise-grip of mythology. He allowed his wife to baptize their two children, but at the ceremony he laid a copy of the Illiad upon their heads and “read a hundred hexameters aloud” over them. Homer’s gods and goddess—Zeus and Athena—became the Greek’s religion and then also that of the Romans, believed to be true by generations, for centuries, until the day when Christianity overwhelmed them. No one should ever underestimate the power that the myth can hold over people: it is a rhythm buried deep within humanity’s psyche, so entrenched it is.

     Schliemann’s search for artifacts—stones, walls, gates, copper kettles, vases of pottery, shards, arrowheads, swords, crowns, gold necklaces, and skeletons—was his feeble attempt to reconstruct history, to determine what truly happened at Troy and when, and then to equate it to a literary document. Yes, he behaved like a bull stampeding in a china closet, and his statements were less than factual or reliable, but his attempt at Hissarlik was one of the first archaeological digs, ever.

     History is all about paying attention to detail, recording written documents, preserving artifacts, reflecting upon the whole body of knowledge, formulating hypotheses, and either proving them true or discrediting them. It demands a strict commitment to hard evidence.

     Literature is another field of human endeavor with its characters, plots, settings, themes, emotions, voices, and to match a literary work to points in history is to invite difficulties. Homer may have telescoped a series of wars between the Greeks and the Trojans into a single one. What was his intent? How much of what he wrote was historically accurate? The questions continue.

     So again, we start with war and end up with professionalism. It takes a certain kind to make a war, but afterwords, in order to make sense of that senseless act, of those unrestrained passions that kill and maim, we have to invite in the poets, the writers, the historians, and yes, the archaeologists: a man, his wife, a shovel, a book, a dream.