IN MORE trusting times, a visit to Greece completed the education of any eager teenager who had spent schooldays labouring over dry classical texts. A slow train through Yugo-slavia or an odyssey on the Brindisi ferry preceded that magical moment in the National Museum at Athens when you beheld - carelessly displayed in a dusty glass case - the crinkled features of a long-dead king, imprinted on a thin disc of gold. A small card informed the viewer that Heinrich Schliemann, the German archaeologist, had found this treasure in 1876. In excitement he telegraphed the King of Greece: "I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon," he is supposed to have said.
Mythology, however, proved as powerful in the 19th century as in the dim age of Homer. The Mask of Agamemnon, like so many other of Schliemann's finds, is a controversial object. It may be centuries too early for the period described in the Iliad, or indeed it may be some 25 centuries too late. A fake, in fact.
Schliemann was a fantasist, a businessman turned self-taught archaeologist who seriously distorted the record of his excavations. He may have "salted" his digs with articles purchased in the souks of Smyrna or Constantinople. His letters are full of invented encounters with the great and the good. He falsified his diaries to give credence to his claims. He exploited the discoveries of a loyal British colleague, Frank Calvert, and he bribed workmen to slip precious discoveries out of sight of the government supervisors. He was pompous and perfectly foul to his wife. Apart from that, he was a great man.
David Traill, a teacher of classics at the University of California, has spent more years unearthing the truth about Schliemann's life than Schliemann himself devoted to the discovery of Troy and Mycenae. His book aims to be exhaustive - the researches certainly are - and it sometimes seems as preoccupied with the intricate strata of Schliemann's finances as with the detailed surveys of his sites. It is, however, a marvellous survey of a complex, troublesome career.
Schliemann was born in the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg in 1822 in a family surrounded by domestic scandal. He was an unhappy child. He achieved a mediocre school record and went to work for more than five years in a small grocer's shop. But he possessed a phenomenal memory which he first applied to the mastery of book-keeping and later to the study of languages. He spoke or wrote 22 by the end of his life. Between 1822 and 1867 he had entered a big continental trading house and made a fortune as an entrepreneur. This wealth provided the means to indulge his obsession.
Schliemann was later to claim that it was his childhood dream to find the site of Homer's Troy and that all his efforts were directed to that end. Here he was conveniently rewriting his own life history. It seems more likely that he drifted into archaeology after a conventional Grand Tour through the Aegean. He went through a mid-life crisis of more than conventional drama. He jettisoned his first wife and family in St Petersburg and wrote to a friendly Greek Archbishop asking him to find a suitable bride in Athens. The Archbishop came up with Sophia Engastromenos, a respectable girl 27 years younger than Schliemann. After a courtship inevitably conducted in Homeric prose, they married. Like most of Schliemann's dealings in the south, the marriage was a transaction. None the less, she provided companionship - interspersed with mild hysteria - and two children, christened Agamemnon and Andromache.
While Sophia traipsed at Schliemann's expense around the spas and cures of Mitteleuropa, her husband could not tear himself away from his chosen objective: finding Troy.
The author explains that in the 19th century dispute surrounded the very existence of the Homeric city. Ancient writers located it at Hisarlik in the Troad, near the Dardanelles. When Schliemann started digging at Hisarlik in 1868, most scholars tended to think Troy was actually at another site called Bunarbashi, while some proclaimed the whole Iliad a myth and Troy itself a figment of poetic imagination. …