Priam’s Treasure

Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War, a series of six hour-long videos that first aired on BBC2 in 1985, remains very interesting and is a great teaching tool. I enjoy showing episode one, The Age of Heroes, in my upper-level Classical Civilizations course. That title is ambiguous: it refers to Homeric characters like Agamemnon, Achilles, and Hector, and it also refers to the heroes of archaeology who opened up the field of Bronze Age Greece. The biggest name of all, of course, is that of Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890), the self-made German businessman who, deciding that he wanted to do something significant, took up archaeology and excavated Hisarlik, a hill overlooking the Hellespont in northwestern Anatolia, thereby uncovering the ancient city of Troy. This was a remarkable achievement for which he remains justifiably famous, although Wood hints that Schilemann was a self-promoter and perhaps also a “liar.” Schliemann certainly seemed to enjoy remarkable strokes of luck at just the right times. His discovery of a treasure trove at Hisarlik in 1873 (from 25:45 in the video), right as his first season was about to end, is one such. A copper cauldron inside a stone-lined chamber contained “gold, silver and bronze vessels, bronze lance heads, several thousand gold finger rings and earrings, bracelets and necklaces, and two splendid diadems.” An ecstatic Schliemann dubbed it the “Treasure of Priam,” after the king of Troy in Homer’s Iliad (with the diadems being the “Jewels of Helen”), even though he had not yet discerned an archaeological layer that matched up with the traditional date of fall of the city, some time in the Late Bronze Age (c. 1250 BC). It turns out that this treasure was a thousand years too early to be associated with the characters of the Trojan War – and, admits Wood, may even have been planted by Schliemann as a way of attracting further attention! But Wood then interviews Donald Easton of the University Cambridge, who asserts that “despite all the hoo-ha” (contradictory field notes, and the false assertion that Schliemann’s wife Sophie was present at the time of the find), Schliemann did find the “Treasure of Priam” as a single hoard. Furthermore, it may have been dug down into the ground from a later period, i.e. it could very well have been a collection of grave goods deposited in the Late Bronze Age.

Unfortunately, the treasure disappeared from Berlin in 1945, and in the 1980s was unavailable for further tests of its authenticity. Wood implies that it was destroyed by allied bombing during the Second World War – but as it turns out, it wasn’t destroyed, it was liberated by the Red Army and removed to the Soviet Union. It came to public attention in 1993 and is now on display in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Germany has asked for it back, but the Russians refuse to return it, claiming that they’re entitled to everything they stole as compensation for the damage they suffered in the war. (In 1998, in order to justify this policy, the Duma passed the gloriously-named “Federal Law on Cultural Valuables Displaced to the USSR as a Result of the Second World War and Located on the Territory of the Russian Federation.”)

So have any tests been done on it since 1993? Have we discovered something that reveals the whole thing as a hoax, like the Hitler Diaries or the Getty kouros? One Manfred Korfmann of the University of Tübingen has had the chance to examine some of the pieces, and found no evidence that they are fakes. But more details about the discovery of Treasure of Priam are available in David A. Traill’s Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit (1995), and they aren’t particularly savory. Essentially, the Treasure of Priam was not discovered at once – it was bundled together from a number of different discoveries, in order to be smuggled out behind the back of the Ottoman official supervising the excavation! Eventually Schliemann did hand over some of the treasure to the Ottoman government, as he was obliged to do, in return for the right to continue digging at Troy. Traill notes, however, that Schliemann had contracted with a Parisian jeweler to make reproductions of some of the items, which Schliemann was probably hoping to pass off to the Turks.

As you can see, a bit of a charlatan.

But for actual forgeries, we have to turn to the other great hero of Greek archaeology, Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941), who excavated Knossos on Crete (and who is the subject of the second of Wood’s videos, The Legend Under Siege). What Evans uncovered on Crete was so different from was Schliemann uncovered at Troy (and subsequently at Mycenae and other sites on the mainland), that Evans gave the civilization a new name: Minoan, after the legendary Cretan King Minos. Evans seems to have been a man of greater integrity than Schliemann, although just as much of a fantasist: if Schliemann was bent on proving the Iliad true, Evans was keen on imagining a peaceful Bronze Age society, perhaps as an example to the warring Greeks and Turks that he saw around him (this is the thesis of Cathy Gere in her brilliant book Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism [2009]). The forgeries were produced behind Evans’s back by two people in his employ, a father and son both bearing the name Émile Gilliéron. The Gilliérons were in charge of cleaning and as much as possible reconstructing artifacts that the excavators uncovered, but according to Kenneth Lapantin in Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History (2002), the pair did far more than that. Working in their own building and paid by the piece, they constructed any number of Cretan “goddess” figurines from nothing much at all – or at least, according to Lapantin, “the combined evidence of history, style, imagery, technique, and science… suggests that [the sculptures] are modern works.”

Just as Homer’s audience might have felt grateful not to be living in the Bronze Age, so also one feels gratitude that we’re no longer living in the “heroic age” of archaeology….