He stands there in person in a fur-trimmed winter coat, with a top hat and a dark mustache, and speaks. But that voice! It is Katharina Thalbach, who has slipped into the strange clothes for the life-size video, and who recites with her unmistakable voice what Heinrich Schliemann wrote retrospectively about the stations of his life, six times during the course of the exhibition.
Schliemann, the excavator of Troy, is a figure of national memory, long revered as the undeniable hero of archaeology. And thoroughly knocked off his pedestal as a braggart who wasn’t always precise about the truth and incidentally owes his successes to the knowledge of others, which he passed off as his own. Moreover, as far as archaeological practice is concerned, he has destroyed as much with his impetuosity as he has unearthed himself, an amateur with just a lot of money.
Now his 200th birthday passed in January and gives reason to celebrate a “Schliemann year”. At least in Berlin: The Museum for Prehistory and Early History of the State Museums is staging the exhibition “Schliemann’s Worlds” in the James Simon Gallery and the New Museum until November, which aims to highlight Schliemann’s achievements as well as his person. The title already indicates that no one-dimensional commemoration is being held here. But not a dry-academic one either, but one that immediately presents the extraordinary life of its hero.
In the lower hall of the James-Simon-Galerie as well as in three rooms on the ground floor of the New Museum, a scaffolding construction made of simple water pipes is built, covered with textiles, on which pictures and texts are printed – in such a way that they catch the eye. This exhibition aims to bring its subject closer to the visitor, and the difficult subject of archaeological research is transformed into that voyage of discovery that Schliemann has undertaken several times, in fact always.
It starts with the shipwreck off the North Sea island of Texel, which Schliemann suffered as a 19-year-old when he made his way to South America. He later told the story of his rescue in different, increasingly dramatic versions. None were true. But what is already clear at the beginning of the tour is Schliemann’s imagination, which expressed itself as a swindle, but later provided the guiding star of his research. For without the fantasy of taking Homer’s poetry at face value, he could never have set out on the arduous quest for Troy.
But until then it is a long road, which leads from Amsterdam, where the young man almost walks, via St. Petersburg, where he founded a trading office at the age of 25, initially to the gold rush in California. Like King Midas, everything he touches turns to gold, i.e. to ever-increasing wealth. Objects such as a stack of suitcases or a Russian sled illustrate Schliemann’s life.
Made an honorary citizen in St. Petersburg, after extensive travels through Asia and America he goes to Paris, where he fits in perfectly with the real estate boom under Napoleon III. arrives – and turns money into even more money. Only now does the slumbering love of antiquity awaken and find its guidance in the Homeric epics.
The visitor now has to walk from the James Simon Gallery across the courtyard to the New Museum with the second part of the exhibition, a trick that will hopefully survive even the rainy days. The vaulted halls on the ground floor of the New Museum deal with Troy, Mycenae and Tiryns, and finally Schliemann’s late years in Athens. It comes suddenly, but true to life. “Sometime towards the end of the 1850s and beginning of the 1860s,” says the catalog somewhat perplexed, “Schliemann reoriented himself and went from being a merchant to a discoverer.”
And the visitor to the exhibition as well: in the mood for Katharina Thalbach’s recitations of the self-made man Schliemann, who is also a successful author, one immediately wants to admire the “Treasure of Priam”. But you have to make do with potsherds for the time being. The exhibition is now teeming with shards, inconspicuous pieces from the rubble of thousands of years. There is a method to this: to show that archaeology, and that means the acquisition of reliable knowledge about earlier times, depends on the determination of the origin and dating of even the most inconspicuous finds.
Schliemann found the pot of gold by accident. He marketed it endlessly, with a keen sense of his era, basking in its discoveries. He staged his second, young wife Sophia, an Athenian, with the jewelry hanging around her for a photograph and created an icon that carried his fame all over the world. Hence the naming after “Priam” and the undeterred claim to have found Troy in its remains, as described by Homer.
“His belief in Homer was ridiculed by public opinion and by philological and archaeological science,” the catalog reads – but it was precisely this that formed “the prerequisite for his success”. In addition, the self-made discoverer followed the ancient travel writer Pausanias, who left behind exact descriptions of Greek antiquity. And Schliemann met – by chance, as so often – the Englishman Frank Calvert. He owed him the decisive reference to the settlement hill Hissarlik, in which the supposed Troy was hidden, which was later suppressed.
Schliemann found the gold treasure on May 31, 1873, and the Ottoman Empire allowed him to keep it. He later bequeathed it to the German Reich. It is not possible for the Berlin museums to show him; the treasure has been in Moscow since 1945, and the replicas shown in the exhibition are correctly referred to as “looted art” instead of the previously customary, veiling reference “relocated due to the war”.
But the treasure does not come from Priam anyway, it was created in the 3rd millennium BC and is therefore more than a thousand years older than Troy. After all, Schliemann was the first to excavate a prehistoric settlement mound.
Schliemann made his second sensational find in the Bronze Age city of Mycenae in the east of the Greek Peloponnese peninsula, which he enlisted with the help of Pausanias to investigate. The city with the famous Lion’s Gate lay half sunken; but he found the shaft graves and their rich gold objects, including a mug with a handle that could be borrowed from Athens together with numerous ornamented gold discs. There, where Schliemann had duly delivered his excavation finds. Near Mycenae is the castle of Tiryns, another excavation by Schliemann, from which comes the delicate statuette of a Phoenician god, as well as a fragment of a mural depicting a bull.
The exhibition thus culminates in its final chapter, Schliemann’s late years with his wife Sophia in the private palace in Athens built to his meticulous specifications. The furniture in his study, preserved in a Greek museum, together with photographs from the magnificent ballroom in Berlin, give an idea of the social appearance of the autodidact, who was later decorated with the academic honors he had hoped for.
Matthias Wemhoff, the agile director of the Museum of Prehistory and Protohistory and driving force behind the exhibition, closes his essay in the wonderful catalog with a quote from the poet Hesiod. “But the immortal gods put the sweat before merit,” it says, and: “Then he moves easily, as difficult as it was at first.”
Heinrich Schliemann’s life cannot be described more beautifully than with these words. Even if he is, as can be read elsewhere in the catalogue, “to this day (…) a highly controversial figure”, his achievements in this exhibition come to light more clearly than ever before.