January 6 – Happy Birthday, Heinrich Schliemann

Posted on January 6, 2014

I'm going to excavate Troy when I grow up!”

As an adult, Heinrich Schliemann says that he made this declaration (or something like it, and in the German language) when he was just 8 years old. His father had given him an illustrated book called Ludwig Jerrer's Illustrated History of the World for Christmas, and he had also filled his son's ears with Homer's epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. These grand tales were accepted as fiction by scholars during Schliemann's time, so when he grew up it was going to be very hard to fulfill that promise. After all, Troy was a myth, right?

Born on this date in 1822, Schliemann's family was too poor to pay for a university education. He left school at age 14 and did a variety of jobs, including working as a grocer, cabin boy on a steamer ship, messenger, office attendant, bookkeeper, and more.

One thing that Schliemann was really good at was learning languages. He worked in Germany, the Netherlands, Russia, and California just as it was joining the United States. And he learned other languages as he worked in the import/export business. He once said that it took him only six weeks to learn a language, and whatever country he was in, he wrote his diary in that nation's language! He eventually could talk to people in English, French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Polish, Italian, Greek, Latin, Russian, Arabic, Turkish, and of course German.

Schliemann made his first
million before he was 30.
It turned out that Schliemann was also good at making money! Aside from the money he made as an importer, he made a fortune starting and running a bank during California's Gold Rush, he made another one by cornering the market on indigo dye, and he made yet another fortune cornering the market in the materials needed to make ammunition, during the Crimean War. Eventually, the now-rich Schliemann was able to travel to Turkey and fulfill that early promise, digging up artifacts and excavating walls in a place that he claimed—and most scholars now agree—was once Troy.
This is Schliemann's second
wife wearing the jewels he claimed
to be Priam's treasure.

From what I've read about him, it looks like Schliemann couldn't be trusted—he sometimes lied and cheated. (I guess we cannot really trust his statements about what he said when he was 8 years old, and how long it took him to learn a language!)

Despite his flaws, Schliemann did do us a service by directing the general public's interest to the possibility that ancient stories could have some historical reality. As a pioneer in archeology, he did some really bad things (such as using dynamite in his desire to quickly get to the layer of dirt he was interested in, thereby destroying some artifacts and walls), but he did win interest from both scholars and the general public for the new field.

Learn more about Schliemann and Troy with this three-part video.

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