The Gold of Troy Emerges from the Cold War

By Glasgow, Eric | Contemporary Review, June 1996 | Go to article overview

The Gold of Troy Emerges from the Cold War


Glasgow, Eric, Contemporary Review


The recent announcement that Russia is to mount a lavish Exhibition during this summer of 'Priam's Gold', the art treasures gathered from the site of Ancient Troy, by the German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), is momentous in more ways than one. The Pushkin Museum in Moscow has at last decided to reveal to the world the existence and the scope of the Trojan booty, taken by the Russians, in three sealed boxes, for 'temporary safekeeping', after the fall of Berlin in 1945. It has been rightly stated that since then the 'lost treasures of Troy' have been buried in vaults in the Russian Capital and so as effectively lost to the world as they had been, for so very long, when before the diligent, not to say fanatical, excavations of Schliemann, they lay buried within the rubble of Ancient Troy.

Certainly, it is easy now to count only the 'glittering prizes' of the Schliemann archaeological legacy, while forgetting about the latter's solid and enduring contribution to knowledge: having given at last historical support for what had previously been regarded as largely the fictional narratives of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Schliemann, therefore, revealed by his excavations on the site of Ancient Troy substantive evidence for the continuing historicity of Homer's two great literary epics: the very beginnings, not only of the literature of Ancient Greece, but also that of the European tradition as a whole.

Scholarship, however, has always been very significantly mixed with the story of war and pillage, when it comes to the records of the 'lost treasures of Troy'. The story, after all, began, so long ago, as an embellished account of the Greek expedition, led by Agamemnon of Mycenae, to rescue Helen from the clutches of the Trojans. Hers was the 'face that launched a thousand ships'. War, booty, and retribution accompanied it from the very beginning. It was never a record of peace and tranquillity, but instead one of conflict, battle and strife. Perhaps it is appropriate, therefore, that Schliemann himself should have engineered not only a huge advancement in historical knowledge, regarding the Greek past, but also controversy, dispute, and acrimony.

The Ancient Greeks, according to Homer, went forth from Greece in order to rescue Helen from the Trojan clutches. Doubtless, however, the prospects and the possibilities of material booty, 'Priam's Gold', were also within their thoughts and their expectations. Ironically, perhaps, Schliemann in effect gained for Europe those 'spoils of war' which seemingly had eluded the victorious Greeks when at last Troy, thanks to the episode of the 'Wooden Horse', was captured, burned, and probably looted.

Schliemann was a very extraordinary man: the son of a German pastor, he quickly made a vast fortune by trading in both Holland and Russia. In 1858, at the early age of thirty-six, he decided to retire, in order to devote himself exclusively to the archaeological examination of the Homeric epic. He taught himself Greek in order to be able to read Homer in the originals. He approached the whole matter in a full spirit of Teutonic efficiency and dedication.

There was nothing at all unusual in the nineteenth century for a German to undertake such studious dedications. The practice was almost commonplace in Germany then, applicable to both literature and theology. For previous generations, German scholars had studied the literary aspects of the two great Homeric poems, regarding them, however, mostly as fiction on a massive scale. It was literary genius, rather than historical fact; and the Greek capacity for 'Myth-Making' was the chief attributable factor and ingredient. But Schliemann with extraordinary diligence and fervour determined to reveal the basic historicity of it all.

Archaeology in Europe was largely a development of the nineteenth century. William Gladstone, from his North Wales retreat at Hawarden, examined and applauded the huge impact of archaeology after 1870 chiefly upon his favourite Homeric studies. …

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