Heinrich Schliemann

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Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1889) was born at Neubukow, in Mecklenburg-Schwerin, to Ernst Schliemann, a poor Protestant minister, and Luise Therese Sophie. He was one of a large family. In 1831, when he was 9, his mother died.

Schliemann was largely self-educated. He had to leave school at the age of 14 to earn a living. He continued studying on his own, however, showing an exceptional ability to master foreign languages. Soon he began to exploit his remarkable aptitude for business dealings, which enabled him to amass a large fortune early in life and to retire at the age of 41. From then on, he devoted himself to archaeology. It is not certain by what path Schliemann really did arrive at either archaeology or Egypt. He travelled a great deal, seeking out ways to link his name to famous cultural and historical icons. One of his most famous exploits was disguising himself as a Bedouin tribesman to gain access to forbidden areas of Mecca.

At the time, this was still a relatively new field. The hieroglyphics had only been decyphered in living memory and much remained unknown about that ancient land. He managed to win the sponsorship of the Khedive and did a series of elaborate digs in the Valley of the Kings and elsewhere. In 1869 he made the most astounding discovery of all--an elaborate and huge system of tombs that in the end were identified as built for the sons of Rameses II or "The Great." This Pharoah was assumed to have been the Pharoah of the Exodus in the Bible, the Torah and in the Koran. Not only was this a major scientific find, it was heralded as a discovery of truly momentous implications for three of the world's foremost religions. So important was this disocovery that the Egyptian government interfered, in effect extorting huge sums from the businessman who hoped to recover what he lost by the finding of treasure-hordes within the tomb. Somewhere. They never materialized, and by 1881 Schliemann found himself no longer welcome in Egypt. Digs in the Valley of the Kings remained a matter of elaborate protocols and little actual results for much of the next century, until the discovery of King Tutankhamon's tomb in 1978, which revitalized the field. In 1990 a genuine second dig of the Rameses tombs began in earnest and continues to this day. They have since been found to be far larger than originally thought.

Schliemann meanwhile decided to devout his endeavors and failing health to discovering the sites of Homer's Illiad--specifically, Troy. He organized the expedition (largely on the basis of the prestige from his Egyptian work) and funded it with the help of a partner named Wilhelm Dörpfeld (1853-1940). The digs began in a remote part of the Ottoman Empire, but Schliemann died before the really major discoveries were made by Dörpfeld--the remains of several cities in many layers, one of which seemed to match Homer's description of Troy. Unfortunately, crude archeological techniques of the time destroyed much evidence, especially the city that is now considered the most likely candidate.

But Schliemann was buried with high honors in his native Mecklenburg-Schwerin, and among those attending the funeral were the monarchs of Prussia, Xliponia and the Khedive of Egypt. Perhaps appropriately, his tomb was designed to look like the Sphynx.