Ancient History & Civilisation

7/SCHLIEMANN (IV): MYCENÆ, TIRYNS, AND CRETE

In 1876, at the age of fifty-four, Schliemann first drove a spade into the ground at Mycenæ, and in 1878–9, with Virchow’s assistance, he dug for the second time at Troy. In 1880, at Orchomenos, Homer’s third “golden” city, he uncovered the Treasury of Minyas. In 1882, with Dörpfeld, he dug for the third time in the Troad, and two years after this began his excavations in Tiryns.

Once more the familiar pattern unfolded: the masonry of the citadel at Tiryns, laid open to view, showed that a conflagration had calcined the stones and turned the clay that bound them to brick. The archæologists held these walls to be medieval remains, and Greek guides told Schliemann that there was nothing special to be seen at Tiryns.

Schliemann preferred to rely on his ancient Greeks. He began to dig with such zeal that he destroyed the caraway plantings of a peasant at Kophinion and had to pay 275 francs in damages.

Tiryns was the reputed birthplace of Heracles. Its Cyclopean walls were considered a marvel by the ancients and ranked by Pausanias with the pyramids of Egypt. Proetus, legendary King of Tiryns, was said to have sent for seven Cyclops to build him those walls. They were later copied elsewhere, particularly in Mycenæ, so that Euripides called all of Argolis “the Cyclopean land.”

Schliemann kept digging and discovered the foundation walls of a palace that exceeded in grandeur anything of its kind found so far, giving one an awe-inspiring sense of the prehistoric people that built it and the kings who dwelt in it.

Gradually there appeared the outlines of a citadel crowning the limestone crag. The walls were built of huge, hammer-dressed stone blocks, some as much as 10 feet long by 3 feet 3 inches or 3 feet 6 inches wide. On the outer, lower levels, where there were chiefly housekeeping rooms, storerooms, stables and the like, the wall was 28 to 32 feet thick, but in the upper part where the ruler lived its thickness reached nearly 43 feet and rose to a height of 63 feet or more. What a splendid sight this interior must have been when it was swarming with armed warriors! Nothing had been known, up to this time, of the plan of such a Homeric palace; nothing had been left of the royal home of Menelaus, Odysseus, or the other rulers; even the remains of Troy, Priam’s citadel, gave no idea of the plan.

Here for the first time the spade brought to light the outlines of a true Homeric palace, with pillared walls and chambers, the men’s court with the altar, the stately megaron with porch and antechamber, and even the bathroom—its floor a single block of limestone weighing about 44,000 pounds—where Homer’s heroes had bathed and anointed themselves. Thanks to Schliemann’s spade the scenes familiar from the Odyssey, such as that of the wily hero’s homecoming, the carousals of Penelope’s suitors, the blood bath in the great hall, were endowed with a new physical reality.

But there was something even more interesting—the character of the pottery and wall paintings. Schliemann immediately recognized the similarity of the pottery, the vases, and the jars to those he had found in Mycenæ, and pointed to their relation to those found by other archæologists at Asine, Nauplia Eleusis, and the islands, most notably Crete. In the ruins of Mycenæ he had found an ostrich egg (at first, to be sure, he mistook it for an alabaster vase), which pointed to Egypt. Here he found also vases displaying the so-called “geometric pattern,” which had allegedly been brought by the Phœnicians to the court of Thotmes III as early as 1600 B.C.

So he set out to establish in detail that he had discovered traces of a cultural complex of Asiatic or African origin, a culture, indeed, which had spread over the whole east coast of Greece, which embraced most of the islands, but which probably had a cultural focus in Crete. We now call this culture Minoan-Mycenæan. Schliemann had found the first traces of it. Its actual discovery was to await another.

All the chambers of the palace were whitewashed. All the walls were decorated with frieze paintings, usually bordered with a blue and yellow band that probably encircled the room at eye level, dividing the walls into two parts horizontally.

One of these frescoes was exceptionally striking. Upon a blue ground it showed a powerful red-spotted bull in mid-career, with an upraised whiplash tail, and a perfectly circular eye suggesting his ferocity. Upon this bull a man was poised in a dancer’s leap, one hand clutching the bull’s horn.

In Schliemann’s book on Tiryns he cites a Dr. Fabricius: “… one might think that the man on the bull’s back is meant as a bare-back rider or bull tamer, showing his virtuosity by vaulting upon the beast’s back in mid-career, like the horse-tamer of that well-known incident in the Iliad leaping from back to back of four horses wildly racing along side by side.” This explanation, to which Schliemann apparently had nothing to add at the time, was incomplete. If Schliemann had only yielded to a persistent wish to visit Crete, he would have found there confirmation of a great many of his ideas relating to this fresco, and would have been able to add the crowning touch to his life’s work.

Schliemann’s plan to dig on Crete, specifically at Knossos, occupied his mind until the end of his life. Where there was so much rubble, he felt, much might be found. A year before his death he wrote: “I should like to conclude my career with one great piece of work: the excavation of the ancient, prehistoric royal palace at Knossos, on Crete, which I believe I discovered three years ago.”

But too many obstacles were put in his way. He had managed to obtain permission from the Governor of Crete, but the owner of the site was opposed to any “poking around,” and demanded the absurd price of 100,000 francs for the property. Schliemann dickered with him and finally got the price down to 40,000 francs. But when he returned from a trip to close the deal he found that the area had been measured out differently from the original stipulations, leaving him with only 888 olive trees instead of the expected 2,500. He then withdrew his offer. For once, Schliemann’s business sense damped his archæological ardor. He had poured a fortune into his searches—yet, because of 1,612 olive trees, he gave up the chance to find the key to prehistoric riddles his own discoveries had posed but were still far from answering.

In 1890, death took the spade from his hand and buried the great excavator himself.

Schliemann had planned to be home with his wife and children for Christmas. He was tormented by an ear ailment. But, preoccupied with new plans, he did no more than consult some obscure physicians on his way through Italy. They apparently reassured him. But on Christmas Day he collapsed on the Piazza della Santa Carità in Naples and, while retaining consciousness, lost his power of speech. Sympathetic bystanders took the millionaire to a hospital, but were turned away. At the police station, his next stop, they found in his pocket the address of a doctor, who was duly fetched. He identified the patient and ordered a carriage to move him. The curious stared at the broken man lying on the ground in his simple attire, looking rather poor to them, and someone asked the doctor whom he expected to pay for the carriage. “Why,” cried the doctor, “he is a rich man!” and reaching into the invalid’s pocket, drew out a pouch full of gold.

Through the long night Heinrich Schliemann struggled for his life, never losing consciousness. Then he died.

When his body was brought to Athens, the King and the Crown Prince of Greece, the diplomatic representatives of foreign powers, the Greek minister of state, and the heads of all the Greek scientific institutes came to pay their respects at the bier. A bust of Homer looked down on this ardent lover of all things Greek, who had enriched the knowledge of Hellenic antiquity by a thousand years. Beside the coffin stood his wife and his two children.

They were called Andromache and Agamemnon.

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