For thousands of years, humanity has been fascinated by the story of the Trojan War. According to the Iliad and the Odyssey, the war was a 10-year conflict that began when the Trojan prince Paris abducted Helen, the wife of the Spartan king Menelaus. Homer’s epic poems recount the wartime exploits of legendary figures like Achilles, Odysseus, and Agamemnon, among many others. The war famously ended when the Greeks snuck into the city by hiding in the Trojan Horse and then destroyed Troy from within.
The Iliad and the Odyssey are traditionally dated to around the eighth century BCE, and ever since then, people have gone in search of the site of the legendary war. Beginning in antiquity, people in the Greek and Roman world traveled to an area in northwest Turkey known as the “Troad”, which they associated with Homer’s Troy, to pay their respects to the heroes that were ancient even to them. Still, over time, as empires rose and fell, the site of Troy was lost and the Trojan War was seen as more myth than history.
By the 19th century, people across Europe were enthralled by Ancient Greece, and the existence of Troy was hotly debated in intellectual circles. Some continued to believe that Homer’s works were pure fiction, while others argued that they were based on some level of historic truth. One of those believers was a wealthy German businessman named Heinrich Schliemann. According to his autobiography, he had been obsessed with ancient Greece and Homer’s poems since he was a child, and in the mid-19th century, he began to dedicate his time and wealth to finding Troy and proving that the Trojan War was a real historical event.
Schliemann entered the world of archaeology in 1868 when he toured around various excavation sites in the Mediterranean. In August of that year, he went to dinner at the home of Frank Calvert, a member of the British diplomatic corps in Turkey. An amateur archaeologist himself, Calvert was convinced the ruins of Troy were buried in a hill near his property known as Hisarlik. However, he had not been able to secure funding for a full excavation, as most scholars at the time believed that the site of Troy was at Pinarbasi, a different hilltop nearby. Calvert showed Schliemann a collection of artifacts he had found at Hisarlik and convinced him to fund a dig.
In 1870, Schliemann returned to Turkey ready to prove the existence of Troy. Working under a permit obtained by Calvert and using Calvert’s crew, he uncovered evidence of nine cities, each built on top of the other. Archaeologists today label the respective layers of these cities as Troy I through Troy IX, with Troy I being the oldest settlement. Schliemann figured that Homer’s Troy was one of the oldest settlements, and began digging down into the hill.
He wanted to reach his target quickly, so he blasted a large trench through the center of the hill using dynamite. By 1873, he reached the layer now known as Troy II, where he found a cache of gold and silver artifacts and jewelry and the ruins of a fortified wall. Schliemann quickly alerted the media: Homer’s Troy had been found. The discovery became a sensation as Schliemann described finding what he called “Priam’s treasure” and “the jewels of Helen”.
But Schliemann’s supposed breakthrough discovery would prove to be a bit more complicated. Later archaeological work would prove that Troy II was inhabited about 1000 years too early to be the Troy featured in the Iliad. Scholars usually date the Trojan War—or whatever its historical equivalent may be—to the Late Bronze Age, sometime between 1750 and 1180 BCE. At Hisarlik, this time period corresponds to the Troy VI and Troy VII layers, which Schliemann and his team had blasted through with dynamite.
Although Schliemann appeared confident to the media, he had private concerns. Letters to the curator of the Greek and Roman Department at the British Museum reveal that Schliemann knew there were issues with his assertion that he’d found Homeric Troy. The city of Troy II was far too small to have withstood 10 years of siege, the pottery was surprisingly primitive, and—most concerning of all—he could not find evidence of any links between the civilization at Troy II and the Greeks. In fact, the earliest evidence ever found of interaction between the Mycenean Greeks and the Trojans dates to the Late Bronze Age.
Today, Heinrich Schliemann has a complicated legacy. Scholars agree that the site at Hisarlik is indeed the historical Troy, and there very well may have been a war there that left the city devastated—though whether or not that war was anywhere near the scale of Homer’s Trojan War is another issue. But it is difficult to excuse Schliemann’s actions during his excavations. Archaeology as a science was in its early stages at the time, and there were no set standards for how to properly excavate a site. Even so, Schliemann’s usage of dynamite displaced and destroyed countless artifacts and other valuable sources of information.
Schliemann’s critics are also quick to mention that he knowingly lied about his findings, associating the artifacts with Homeric names like Priam and Helen in the press while privately doubting their connection to the poems. He continued this practice for the rest of his archaeological career, famously dubbing a gold funerary mask he uncovered at Mycenae the “Mask of Agamemnon”. Ultimately, the story of Heinrich Schliemann is both a fascinating moment in the history of archaeology and a cautionary tale of irresponsible conduct in the field.