“I Have Looked Upon the Face of Agamemnon…”

Or so Heinrich Schliemann famously uttered in a telegraph to the King of Greece after unearthing a gold death mask at his excavations in Mycenae. Last week, I went to a talk at the Indiana State Library about this famous “father of modern archaeology.”  Why did they have a talk about Schliemann here?  Well, it turns out he actually lived in Indianapolis(!) for about a year, mostly in 1869, just a couple of years before he made his greatest discovery – the location of the ancient city of Troy.  Yes, Troy as in The Trojan War, as in The Iliad, and – unfortunately – as in the Brad Pitt movie of the same name (in that version, it seems the Trojan War lasted just ‘a couple of weeks.’) I grew up knowing about The Iliad and The Odyssey (admittedly from yet a couple more issues of “Classics Illustrated” comic books, but who cares) and even minored in Classics in college, “validating”(?)  a lifelong interest in the ancient world and its history.

 

It seems Schliemann (already a very wealthy man at the time) was in Indiana because he had been told it was “an easy state to get a divorce in” by his contacts in New York.  At the time he was married to his first wife, a Russian woman who did not share any of his interest in the classics and archaeology, and would also refuse to allow their three children to accompany him on any of his travels.  This was intolerable to Schliemann and he was working hard to get out of this marriage (after the divorce, he remarried Sophia Engastromenos, with whom he had two more children (Agamemnon & Andromache!); when they were baptized,  he ” solemnized the ceremony by placing a copy of the Iliad on the children’s heads and reciting one hundred hexameters.” to quote Wikipedia’s version of a story I have heard before.)  She is pictured below wearing part of “Priam’s Treasure” from the site of Troy.  I saw a woman at lunch today with some elaborately gaudy gold-looking jewelry that reminded me I need to post this. Seriously.

 

Schliemann briefly owned a business here in Indianapolis and lived at the time on the near west side, somewhere within the current location of the IUPUI campus.  It is unclear exactly where, but I wonder how close – on my visits and perambulations on the campus –  I have come to trodding upon the ground that this historically famous figure lived.  Mark Vopela,  who gave the talk on Schliemann, thought – and I agree – that some kind of marker on the site would be appropriate, but so far nothing.

 

(above Heinrich Schliemann) I learned that the ‘breakthrough’ that Schliemann was responsible for was in making the scholarly community believe that many of the ‘mythical’ or legendary tales were based in fact, not myth.  If Troy was a real place, what else might be?  His archaeological technique was crude at best.  In fact, he may have been better described as a treasure hunter, but that was the way of the times, I suppose.  After sneaking many of the treasures unearthed at Troy out of Turkey without permission, he was forbidden to re-enter that country, after which he began an excavation in Greece at the site of Mycenae, the accepted center of Greek power at the time of the Trojan War.  It was here that he discovered the Gold mask that he proclaimed to be Agamemnon, although serious scholars think it unlikely that  is the case.  Below is the famous “Lions Gate” at Mycenae.

 

I also learned that, upon his death, many of the treasures he ‘stole’ from these sites were moved to Germany, only to be stolen again by the Russians at the end of World War II.  Subsequent efforts by the international community to convince Russian authorities to release them, or at least put them on display for public edification, have met with little result, with Russia considering them ‘the spoils of war.’  Sadly, the gold mask is part of this treasure, the whereabouts of which remains unknown to the outside world at this point.

I posted a few weeks ago about my discovery of the Indiana State Library. This talk was given in the “Indiana Authors Room”, which is quite impressive in itself, featuring only books by Indiana Authors (naturally), but it is a splendid room.  You should check it out – and the rest of the library if you’re ever in downtown Indianapolis.

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