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.

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