The Hero Schliemann
The Dreamer Who Dug for Troy
by Laura Amy Schlitz
I found this delightful biography after Schlitz won this year’s Newbery Medal for her Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Laura Amy Schlitz is a delightful writer, with a real knack for making historical figures real by sketching them with the details of their lives that help us understand who they really were.
In Heinrich Schliemann, she has a fascinating subject. Schliemann was born in 1822 in Germany and has been variously described as a brilliant archaeologist, a liar, a fraud, a treasure-hunter, and an astute, self-taught classical scholar. There’s evidence that he was all of those things.
Schlitz does an excellent job of presenting the contradictions and faults in his life, while at the same time celebrating his remarkable achievements. Schliemann is the man who found Troy. While archaeologists and classical historians were skeptical over whether such a place actually existed, Schliemann took his dog-eared copy of Homer, went to Turkey, and started digging. He found Troy. In the process, he probably clumsily obliterated a great deal of what he was looking for, but almost everyone now admits that he found Troy. He was quick to label the jewels and gold he found as Priam’s Treasure. It probably wasn’t. And Schliemann undoubtedly committed a crime when he smuggled it out of Turkey, but what he found remains remarkable. For many years, Priam’s Treasure was on display at the Pergamon museum in Berlin. It disappeared at the end of World War II, and in 1993 it went on display at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow.
One such find in a lifetime would make an archaeologist famous. But Schliemann moved from Turkey to Greece and began searching for the tomb of Agamemnon – and found it, of course. The site of Mycenae was well-known, but a reference in a classical Greek text to the tombs being within the city walls had been ignored because the space was thought to be too small. Schliemann got permission to dig in the city – and found the tombs. Here’s how Schlitz describes it:
“As Heinrich had hoped, the graves were royal tombs, and they were magnificently rich. Fifteen royal corpses were heaped with gold. The men wore gold death masks and breastplates decorated with sunbursts and rosettes. The women were adorned with gold jewelry. All around the bodies were bronze swords and dagggers inlaid with gold and silver, drinking cups made of precious stones, boxes of gold and sliver and ivory. Once again, Heinrich was half-mad with enthusiasm. “I have found an unparalleled treasure,” he wrote. “All the museums in the world put together do not possess one fifth of it. Unfortunately nothing but the glory is mine.” The tombs of Mycenae were even more spectacular than Priam’s treasure.” The artifacts were exquisite, but that was not all – many of the artifacts matched exactly the descriptions found in Homer’s Iliad. Wine cups, swords, jewels, bracelets, helmets – everything was in keeping with Homer’s Bronze Age world.”
Can you see why I really enjoyed this biography? It works on two levels – as an account of how the historical reality of Homer’s world was confirmed by nineteenth century archeology, AND as an account of a fascinating, bold, entrepreneurial amateur – part huckster, part con-man, but highly intelligent, larger than life and favored by fortune.
The book is a 6.5″ x 9.25″ hardback, 72 pages with black & white illustrations throughout. Reading level is upper elementary / junior high – but high school and adult will find the information quite interesting and the narrative style very engaging.