A Distinguished Operator Seriously in Need of a Tame Scholar

John Ray

  • Finding the Walls of Troy: Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliemann at Hisarlik by Susan Heuck Allen
    California, 409 pp, £27.50, March 1999, ISBN 0 520 20868 4

Archaeologists come in shapes and sizes. Some are more theoretical than others, some are interested in written records and put their faith in them, others distrust texts and despise them. There is a tendency for archaeologists to get priggish about their findings, in many cases in inverse proportion to the glamour of the things they are digging up. Some thump the table about the importance of their coprolites or disintegrating fish bones, and as a result those whose work involves finding solid gold coffins or whole pyramids can be made to feel guilty. Some publish their findings promptly, accepting the risk that they will need to recant some of their opinions, others save everything for retirement, so courting the danger that they will never appear at all.

There is one distinction which stands apart from these, however. It is not academic, but it goes to the heart of the subject. Some archaeologists are lucky, and others are not. This distinction has something to do with fortune, but in essence it is an extension of the archaeologist’s personality. A lucky archaeologist selects a site, asks what it is likely to contain and where, and digs up what he is looking for. In doing so he may cut corners, and he may get things completely wrong at first, but he will end up finding what he wants. To disagree with such an operator is taken as a sign of inferior intelligence, and probably jealousy as well. He is likely to be short on self-doubt, perhaps even on self-knowledge, and he will tend to regard assistants, or even collaborators, as insignificant means to a necessary end. A good example of a lucky archaeologist was Sir Mortimer Wheeler. His talents and self-confidence got him to the top, as did his ability to see to the heart of a problem, but to some of his quieter colleagues he never shook off the alternative name of Flash Alf.

Heinrich Schliemann is the extreme case of a lucky archaeologist. If he earned himself a nickname it has not been preserved, but most of the ingredients of the winning formula were in place early in his career. He came from poverty, and grew up in a new and insecure Germany, where the academic élite was one of the most exclusive in the world. He made two fortunes, one in St Petersburg, the other in profiteering out of the American Civil War. He also did well out of the Crimean War. In each case, he cornered things when they were in short supply and sold them to people who had no choice but to buy. He learnt how to sue before the other man sued him, and how to move on before the questions turned awkward. His ambiguous relationship with his native country is shown by his adoption of US citizenship, but this did not prevent him leaving most of his priceless collection of antiquities ‘to the German people’. If others were economical with the truth, Schliemann knew how to be avaricious about it, and he could doctor spin far beyond the point where honest men get vertigo.

At some point he acquired an interest in heroic Greece, and knowledge of heroic Greece was one of the features that distinguished the 19th-century gentleman. He projected this interest back into his boyhood, thereby staking his claim to be a man of destiny. There is something very Wagnerian about Schliemann. Anything that was unromantic could simply be written out of the record. When he found the treasure of Priam somewhere in the ruins of Troy, he was accompanied by his foreman, a man named Yannakis. Obviously, such a grubby character could have no place in destiny’s great sweep: he would clash with the scenery. In the official version, he is replaced by Schliemann’s second wife, a glamorous Greek named Sophia. She was not even in Turkey at the time, but she made a far better likeness to Helen of Troy than any foreman. Schliemann’s monument in the First Cemetery at Athens adds the most Wagnerian touch of all. His statue, a volume of Homer in its hand, looks out from a classical temple atop a podium. Accompanied only by Sophia, he supervises the excavation of a resurrected Troy. The sides of the temple are adorned with reliefs from the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as other traditions that Homer didn’t get round to mentioning. Schliemann had no difficulty convincing himself that he had found Priam’s palace among the bewildering walls of Troy, and in the shaft graves at Mycenae had he not gazed on the face of Agamemnon?

Schliemann was a lucky archaeologist, all right. He was also a con-man. Normally, if you want to be a good con-man it helps if you are likeable. However, as Susan Heuck Allen’s detailed account makes clear, for most of the time Schliemann managed to bypass this requirement. On the other hand, he was capable of acts of generosity. Possibly these were genuine, and he may well have been more cordial in the flesh than he appears on the page, but it is also likely that his instincts told him that one of the most effective ways of manipulating people is to keep them guessing.

One of the people Schliemann manipulated was Frank Calvert, who was clearly not a lucky archaeologist. He had talent, particularly when it came to identifying unpromising piles of ruins in the landscape of Gallipoli and the Troad, and putting ancient names to them. His practical experience of mining gave him considerable knowledge of geology, something which was unusual in archaeology then and is still rare now. Later, he was able to extend this knowledge to fossil remains. His contribution to the archaeology of Troy and the Troad was impressive, as Finding the Walls of Troy devotedly makes clear. He was a good scholar, and not merely by the standards of his day. But he had two strikes against him: one was his situation in life, the other was his personality.

The Calvert family was English, but was almost part of the Trojan landscape. (Frank had been educated in Malta, where it is impressive to read that the public library, at the end of the 18th century, contained sixty thousand volumes.) In 1847 an elder brother, Frederick Calvert, was granted the title of British consul at the Dardanelles. In addition to this diplomatic or quasi-diplomatic role, he was also granted trading privileges, although these came as an alternative to being paid a proper stipend. The family were based in the town of Çanakkale, where they were able to amass noticeable wealth, from agriculture and mineral rights as well as day-to-day commerce. Frank Calvert was an active member of this family firm, which limited his opportunities for research. The family was prosperous, but Frank on his own did not have the resources to carry out full-scale excavations, unlike the millionaire Schliemann.

The Troad in the first part of the 19th century was one of those places on the map that were part of the British Empire in all but name, and at one point a proposal was made to turn it into a joint Anglo-German colony, but the Crimean War, and increasing Ottoman defensiveness against European encroachment, put paid to the idea. The Calverts were on the fringes of the British establishment, and they could continue to prosper only as long as they remained in the Near East. But this also meant that they came under suspicion for having lived in the Levant too long. They were never quite gentlemen. The same is true of Schliemann, but Schliemann was hungrier than Calvert could ever be. One hankered after the establishment; the other was prepared to blast his way into it.

The difference between the two men is brought out by the Crimean War. As consuls, the Calverts were caught up in requisitioning and billeting, often at the receiving end of nebulous promises from the authorities about when, or whether, they would be repaid for their efforts. In such a situation, grey areas proliferate, and the rules of business within the Ottoman sphere were certainly different from those maintained on paper, back in Britain. At one point, Frederick Calvert saw a chance to make profits which were almost certainly legitimate in his own eyes, but could be represented as insider dealing by those who had a grudge against the family or had no idea about the conditions prevailing in the Near East. Though later exonerated, he never recovered from his trial for fraud in 1868. As the author shows, it was probably rumour about this which had earlier led to the British Museum turning down his brother’s request to sponsor his excavations at Troy. The Calverts remained under a cloud for years, and there is little doubt that Schliemann knew this, and used it to his advantage. In the same circumstances, he would have sued a couple of governments, blackmailed a third and sold his story to the tabloids. Calvert’s conscience and concern for accuracy crippled his confidence. He would never be a gentleman, and he would never be in a position to dig up Troy, even though his family owned half the ruins, and he himself was sure that he knew where Troy was. He needed a reliable business partner, and Schliemann needed a tame scholar. The latter got what he wanted.

Calvert may not have been an English gentleman, but he was determined to behave like one, and he was sure that Schliemann would repay in kind. Schliemann, contrary to the impression given by his later publications (which successfully combined fictional autobiography with excavation reports) had next to no idea where Troy was. No matter: Calvert told him. It was under the mound of Hisarlik, rather than at Pinar-bashi or anywhere else. Schliemann’s ignorance may not have worried him as much as we are led to believe in Finding the Walls of Troy, since he had the money and the willpower to blast a trench through any mound that took his fancy. Calvert, to him, would have been an amiable, if rather studious, doormat who would not mind being written out of the cast any more than Yannakis the foreman, if the plot demanded it. A token tribute in the final report should settle things easily enough. Swindling Calvert out of antiquities, appropriating what nowadays would be called his intellectual property, digging on Turkish land without waiting for the permit to come through, and smuggling Priam’s treasure out of Ottoman territory into Greece could be justified as contributions to world civilisation, not to mention the reputation of Schliemann as born-again Homeric warrior and hero of the Rhine.

Calvert was also an unlucky archaeologist in that he was handicapped by a concern for the truth. Where Schliemann dashed out books, Calvert laboured over brief communications. Since he could not prove where Troy was, he had not published his reasoning. He had made trial explorations at Hisarlik, which were immediately subsumed into Schliemann’s epic trenches. Whenever a wall came into view, the Wagnerian would announce to a waiting world that he had found Homer’s Troy. Calvert had the unglamorous task of pointing out that the wall in question had to be Hellenistic or Classical, rather than Homeric. Eventually, Calvert felt the need to argue in a newspaper article that there was an embarrassing gap of a thousand years between Troy II, which had become Schliemann’s latest candidate for the home of Priam, and any layer which could be considered contemporary with Homer and his poems. Calvert had used the newly discovered stratigraphic evidence from Mesopotamia to reach this brilliant conclusion, but to Schliemann it was as if he had conspired to murder Siegfried. Calvert was not alone. Several archaeologists had doubts about Schliemann’s methods, and the German archaeological establishment remained sceptical about their former countryman; but this did not matter much. Schliemann was a lucky excavator, in that he had the kind of personality which forces luck out of circumstances which more objective observers would do anything to stay away from.

Britain at the time had a Homeric scholar for a prime minister, and Schliemann was fêted there, as well as festooned with academic honours. The German intelligentsia was more perceptive, perhaps feeling that the showman in him was more at home on the other side of the Atlantic. The Berlin Museum, however, keen to overtake Paris and London as a cultural resource, snapped up the offer of Priam’s treasure. Calvert was ignored in England, but again the Germans recognised his value, at least to the extent of translating some of his articles and publishing them. Priam’s treasure stayed in Berlin until 1945, when it disappeared into Russia. It is now the subject of at least three rival ownership claims: the kind of intractable and murky situation in which Schliemann himself would have thrived. Frank Calvert’s collection is now the nucleus of the impressive museum in Çanakkale, but his name does not appear there.

Susan Heuck Allen has recognised the injustice in all this, and her book is a necessary correction to the modern history of Troy. Calvert’s quiet voice has been drowned out by Schliemann and his massive orchestra, and it is good to see him rehabilitated, though even then it is difficult to deny Schliemann some say in greatness. He put life into Troy and its archaeology in a way that Calvert, his intellectual superior, could not have done. Perhaps the parallel with Wagner is not such a bad one. Wagner’s personality was obnoxious. His operas, or at least the Ring cycle, deal with aspects of the world which are corrupt, flawed, vainglorious, sick or tacky. His music makes us face up to emotions within ourselves which we would rather not know we had, and for this reason we may be reluctant to admit that he is great. But we end up doing so, and the same applies to the man under the monument in Athens. The stern lesson of Finding the Walls of Troy is that you do not have to be likeable to achieve greatness.