Ancient History & Civilisation


Schliemann’s third series of excavations failed to reveal any more buried gold. However, they brought to light an ancient castle at Tiryns. Schliemann’s discoveries here, together with what he had already turned up at Mycenæ, and the additional finds made a decade later by Arthur Evans on Crete, made possible the world’s first picture of the prehistoric Minoan culture that once dominated the Mediterranean littoral.

But something must first be said about Schliemann’s situation in his own time. Then as now, the pioneer in any field may find himself in a crossfire between the public and the specialists. Schliemann’s reports were addressed to an audience very different from that to whom Winckelmann sent his communications. The eighteenth-century man of letters wrote for an elite, the chosen few who either owned museum collections or, as members of a court circle, had access to one. This exclusive little world was staggered by the discovery of Pompeii, and thrilled to hear of even a single statue unearthed. But its interest never moved beyond the parquet level of polite æstheticism. Winckelmann’s influence was far-reaching, but only because poets and other writers as self-appointed intermediaries spread it from the rarefied sphere of the cultured aristocrats to all the levels and distances of his time.

Schliemann had no intermediary. He went directly to the nineteenth-century public. He publicized each one of his discoveries, being himself their greatest admirer. His letters went out to all the world; his articles into all the papers. Schliemann would have been a natural user of radio, film, and television had they existed in his time. His finds on the site of ancient Troy created a furore not only within the enclave of the cultured but everywhere. Winckelmann’s descriptions of statues had appealed to æsthetes and connoisseurs. Schliemann’s discoveries of gold electrified an era of industrial empire builders enjoying a wave of prosperity, entrepreneurs who had made their own way and whose natural sympathies and common sense placed them on the side of the “self-made” pioneering layman against the purists of the academic establishment who might turn away from him.

Regarding Schliemann’s newspaper reports of 1873, a museum director wrote a few years afterward: “At the time of these reports great excitement prevailed among scholars and public alike. Everywhere, in the home and on the street, in the post coach and the railway car, the talk was of Troy. People were filled with astonishment and questions.”

If Winckelmann, in the words of Herder, showed us “the mystery of the Greeks from afar,” then Schliemann had now uncovered their prehistory. He had dared to bring archæology out from under the scholar’s oil lamp into the sun of the Hellenic sky, to solve the problem of Troy with his spade. With one step he moved from the guarded precinct of classical philology into the very life of prehistory, incidentally enlarging and enriching an academic discipline with the gift of that life.

The tempo in which this revolution was accomplished, his mounting achievements, Schliemann’s ambiguous image—not quite a businessman, not quite a scholar, and yet such an extraordinary success at both—and the “notoriety-seeking” air of his publications all shocked the world of scholarship, especially the German one. The extent of the disturbance may be gauged by the fact that ninety publications about Troy and Homer were fired off by scholars during the years of Schliemann’s activity. The prime target of their philippics was his dilettantism. In the history of archæological excavations we will encounter, time and again, the academic archæologists who made life miserable for outsiders daring to provide the impetus for a fresh leap into the unknown. Since the attacks on Schliemann were made “on principle,” a few relevant words must be said and cited at this point. First, let a rather disgruntled philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, have the floor:

“Dilettantes, dilettantes!—is what those who pursue a science or an art for love and the delight they take in it, per il loro diletto, are disdainfully called by those who pursue it only for gain, because they delight only in the money that is to be made by it. Their disdain is based upon their vile conviction that no one will devote himself seriously to anything if he is not driven to it by necessity, hunger, or greed. The general public has the same outlook and the same opinion: hence its wholehearted respect for the ‘professionals’ and its distrust of dilettantes. But the truth is that to the dilettante the subject is an end in itself, while to the professional it is only the means to an end. But only the man who cares about something in itself, who loves it and does it con amore, will do it in all seriousness. The highest achievement has always been that of such men, and not of the hacks who serve for pay.”

Professor Wilhelm Dörpfeld, Schliemann’s collaborator, adviser, and friend, one of the few specialists that Germany placed at his side, wrote as late as 1932: “Yet he never did understand the scorn and derision with which several scholars, German philologists in particular, accompanied his work in Troy and Ithaca. I also found this derision, which a number of great scholars later on vouchsafed to my own excavations at Homeric sites as well, always regrettable and not only unjustified, but really quite unscientific.”

The professional’s mistrust of the successful outsider is the mediocrity’s mistrust of the genius. The man of ordered life looks down his nose at the rover of untrodden, uninsured pathways who, in the words of Martin Luther, “has banked on nothing in this world.” And the mediocrities are in the majority and, usually, on the seats of power.

No matter how far back we go in the history of science, it seems that an extraordinary number of great discoveries were made by dilettantes, amateurs, outsiders—the self-taught who were driven by an obsessive idea, unequipped with the brakes of professional training and the blinkers worn by the specialists, so that they were able to leap over the hurdles set up by academic tradition.

Otto von Guericke, the greatest German physicist of the seventeenth century, was a jurist by profesion. Denis Papin, eighteenth-century pioneer in the development of the steam engine, was a medical man. Benjamin Franklin, son of a soapmaker, without even a secondary education, not to mention university training, became not only a great statesman but a scientist of note. Luigi Galvani, the discoverer of electricity, was another medical man who owed his discovery, as Wilhelm Ostwald shows in his history of electrochemistry, precisely to the deficiencies of his knowledge in the field in which he made it. Joseph von Fraunhofer, the author of distinguished works on the spectrum, could not read or write before he was fourteen years of age. Michael Faraday was the son of a smith, a bookbinder’s apprentice, and almost completely self-educated. Julius Robert Mayer, who discovered the law of the conservation of energy, was a physician, not a physicist. Another physician, Hermann L. F. von Helmholtz, published his first work on the same subject at the age of twenty-six. Georges, Comte de Buffon, a mathematician and physicist, published his most significant work in the field of geology. The man who built the first electric telegraph was a professor of anatomy, Thomas Sömmering. Samuel Morse was a painter, as was Louis Daguerre; yet the first created the alphabet for the telegraph, the second invented photography. The fanatics who created the dirigible, Ferdinand Count Zeppelin, Gross, and Parseval, were military officers without a trace of technical training. The list is endless. If these men and their work were excised from the development of the sciences, the entire structure would collapse. Yet they all, in their time, had to endure the scorn and derision of the experts.

Archæology, with its auxiliary sciences, has its own list of such amateurs. William Jones, the first man to turn out good translations from the Sanskrit, was not an Orientalist but a high justiciary in Bengal. Grotefend, the first decipherer of cuneiform, was a classical philologist; his successor, Rawlinson, a military officer and political leader. A medical doctor, Thomas Young, took the first steps on the long road toward the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphics. The man who completed this work, Champollion, was a history professor. Humann, the excavator of Pergamon, was a railway engineer.

No one would wish to contest the value of what is achieved by professionals as such. Yet, if it is results that count in the end, providing the means to that end remain unexceptionable, is not our special gratitude due to the “outsiders”?

Schliemann, it is true, made some serious blunders in the course of his early digs. He tore down ancient structures that should have been preserved; he destroyed walls that might have yielded some important clues. But Eduard Meyer, the great German historian, has this to say: “Schliemann’s unmethodical way of going directly to the original floor of his site turned out to be most fruitful for science. A more systematic type of excavation would hardly have penetrated to the older strata within that hill, and thus would have left undiscovered what we now consider the true Trojan culture.”

It was of course unfortunate that almost all of his earliest interpretations and datings were in error. But when Columbus discovered America he thought he had reached the Indies—yet his error does not seem to have lessened the value of his actual accomplishment.

And there is no doubt that in the interval between the time he attacked the mound of Hissarlik like a child smashing at a toy with a hammer and the time he excavated at Mycenæ and Tiryns, Schliemann had grown immensely in archæological stature. Both Dörpfeld and Evans attest to this.

Nevertheless, like Winckelmann harassed by “despotic” Prussia, Schliemann found a painful lack of appreciation in his own country. Despite the evidence of his excavations, there for all the world to see, a scholar named Forchhammer published, as late as 1888, a second edition of his Erklärung der Ilias (The Iliad Explained), an unfortunate attempt to see the Trojan war as a poetic metaphor for the conflicting tides of the sea and the rivers, the fogs and rains in the Trojan plain. Schliemann always fought back. When a certain Major Boetticher, a querulous fool and a vociferous antagonist of Schliemann’s, accused him of having deliberately destroyed the remnants of ancient walls that might have contradicted Schliemann’s hypothesis, the latter invited the man to Hissarlik at his own expense. Experts present at the ensuing encounter confirmed the views of Schliemann and Dörpfeld. The Major took a careful look around, assumed a grim expression, went home and declared that the “so-called Troy” was no more than a vast ancient crematory. Thereupon Schliemann invited an international roster of scholars to his hill for a fourth dig in 1890. He put up wooden cabins on the hills surrounding the Scamandros Valley to house fourteen scholars who came from England, America, France, Germany (Virchow among them). They too, overwhelmed by the evidence, confirmed all that Schliemann and Dörpfeld had said.

Schliemann ended up with collections of incalculable value. His testament provided that they should go to the national museum of that country “which I most love and esteem.” He offered them first to the Greek government, then to the French. To a Russian baron in St. Petersburg he wrote in 1876: “A few years ago, when I was asked the price of my Trojan collection, I set it at 80,000 pounds sterling. But since I have spent twenty years of my life in St. Petersburg, all my sympathies are with Russia, and I sincerely desire my collections to go there, I am asking only £50,000 from the Russian government and would be prepared, if necessary, to go as low as £40,000 …”

His real, most openly expressed love, however, belonged to England, where he had found the greatest response, where the columns of The Times had always been open to him when none of the German publications were, and where even the Prime Minister, Gladstone, had written a foreword for his book on Mycenæ, as the famous A. H. Sayce of Oxford had done previously for Schliemann’s work on Troy.

That the collections at last went to Berlin nevertheless, “to be owned and held there in perpetuity and in their entirety” is again due—and how ironically!—to a man who was an archæological dilettante, the great physician Virchow, who succeeded in having Schliemann made an honorary member of the Anthropological Society and finally an honorary citizen of Berlin, together with Bismarck and Moltke.

Schliemann had once been forced to hide and guard his treasures, like a thief, from the grasp of officialdom. After many detours, important pieces from his Trojan collection finally landed in the Berlin prehistorical museum. There they lay for decades, surviving one great war. Even after the bombs of the second great war had fallen, parts of the collections remained unharmed and were taken to places of security. The “Golden Treasure of Priam” went first to the Prussian State Bank for safekeeping, then into the air raid shelter at the Berlin Zoo. Both these places were demolished. Most of the ceramics went to Schönebeck on the Elbe, to Petruschen Palace near Breslau, and to Lebus Palace in East Germany.

Of Schönebeck, nothing remains. Nothing has been heard from Petruschen—the area is now under Polish sovereignty. Lebus Castle was plundered at the war’s end, and later the East German government ordered the ruin pulled down. Subsequently word leaked to Berlin that there were still some ceramics to be rescued at Lebus. When a woman scholar managed to get permission to see Lebus she found the local authorities uncooperative. She then bought fifty pounds of candies and with these bribed the children to bring her any pottery they could find. Even though the children quickly learned to smash those pots that were yet unbroken, so as to increase their take in candies by bringing the shards separately, a few undamaged things did come to light—from the homes of local rustics who had been putting to their own uses the pots and plates and pitchers off which the ancient Trojans and the royal race of the Atrides had dined and drunk.

And then she learned something far worse than this. The survivors of the German defeat at Lebus had no inkling what those boxes full of clay vessels were worth. When new life began to stir in the village, and there was to be a wedding, for example, the young men went off to the castle, loaded a wheelbarrow full of urns and amphoræ, the irreplaceable finds of Heinrich Schliemann, and with joyful shouts and yells smashed them upon the bridal pair’s threshold for luck!

In this way parts of ancient Troy were once again destroyed in 1945, and the remnants once again collected with the aid of half a hundredweight of sweets.

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