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Priam suspect – myths about ancient Troy collide with reality at the British Museum

15 January 2020

In the 1870s, after his unearthing of the city of Troy, Heinrich Schliemann came to London to advertise his ‘results won by the spade’. The once and future prime minister William Gladstone, a Homeric scholar himself, was an ardent supporter of Schliemann and the two engaged in a lengthy correspondence about the chronology of Troy. But even his patronage was not enough to persuade the British Museum to exhibit and buy Schliemann’s Trojan treasures. Instead, they were put on show in the Victoria and Albert Museum, where they remained until the collection was transferred to Berlin in 1880. A century and a half after this first attempt to snag its interest, the British Museum has organised a major exhibition devoted to Troy in which the figure of Schliemann and some of his finds take centre stage.

The story of Schliemann’s ‘discovery’ of Troy is riddled with paradoxes. Archaeology emerged as a new science in the 19th century. Its high status and popular appeal derived from its claim to establish direct and physical contact with the ‘reality’ of the past. Finds from excavations in Palestine, Egypt and the classical lands were called upon to support passages in the scriptures and validate events and places previously attested only in literature. But Schliemann, perhaps the most famous archaeologist of all time, was neither a scholar nor trained in the practice of archaeology: he was a self-made businessman who had dreamed as a schoolboy of proving the historical basis of the stories told in Homer and Virgil. The current exhibition draws its title and grounding theme from this contrast between myth and reality. Presenting Schliemann in the middle section of the exhibition, the curators quote from his autobiography, in which he recounts being fascinated by an illustration in Georg Ludwig Jerrer’s Universal History for Children (1819), which depicted Aeneas carrying his father on his back as he escaped from the ruins of Troy: ‘Father,’ declared Schliemann, ‘if such walls once existed, they cannot possibly have been completely destroyed: vast ruins of them still remain, but they are hidden away beneath ages of dust.’ His father disagreed. Finally, he concludes, ‘we both agreed that I should one day excavate Troy.’

Heinrich Schliemann’s photograph of Priam’s Treasure, published in ‘Atlas Trojanischer Alterthümer’ (Atlas of Trojan Antiquities) in 1874.

Heinrich Schliemann’s photograph of Priam’s Treasure, published in ‘Atlas Trojanischer Alterthümer’ (Atlas of Trojan Antiquities) in 1874

The exhibition deftly juxtaposes this (self-)mythology with the ‘reality’ of the long search for the historical Troy. In fact, the section devoted to Schliemann’s archaeological finds in the modern Turkish town of Hissarlik is the smallest and in some ways least spectacular part of the exhibition. When Schliemann’s important and most controversial find, ‘Priam’s Treasure’, was originally displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum it was met with disappointment. Even his glitziest objects could not compare with the splendour and mystique of the finds being brought back from Egypt at the time. Visitors to the British Museum are also likely to be disappointed, all the more so since Priam’s Treasure is not here, having been removed by the Red Army to Moscow in 1945. The ‘Jewels of Helen’, worn by Schliemann’s wife Sophia in a famous photo, are here represented by 1980s replicas. Instead, Schliemann’s discoveries are exemplified by a series of evocative tripods and double-handed drinking cups. The Schliemann section is framed on the one hand by an account of scholarly antecedents to his excavations and on the other by the later scientific digs that have distinguished the different archaeological strata in Hissarlik, referred to as Troy I–IX.

So much for ‘reality’; but it is the myths that fired Schliemann’s childhood imagination which rightly dominate this atmospheric and beautiful exhibition. The exhibition has three parts: the first devoted to the ancient artistic representation of Troy, the second to Schliemann and the archaeology of Troy, and the third to the legacy of Troy in Western art. The first two sections are tightly organised; the third is rather sprawling, but there are some highlights even here, such as Cranach the Elder’s Judgement of Paris, which appears to make us voyeurs along with the horse who witnesses this fateful scene. On entering, you are plunged into darkness, and the curators seem intent on confronting the horrors and tragedy rather than the heroics of war. ‘Sing, Goddess, of the wrath of Achilles…’ The opening line of Homer’s Iliad stands illustrated by a monumental canvas by Cy Twombly, Vengeance of Achilles (1962), which depicts a spear drenched in crimson blood; the spear takes the form of a letter: A for Achilles. Nothing could better exemplify the brute savagery of the Homeric male ego. While these first exhibits speak to the ‘universal’ themes of the Trojan War, the next room looks at the ancient storytellers who made the myth of Troy famous.

The Judgement of Paris (c. 1530–35), Lucas Cranach the Elder. Royal Collection Trust. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The Judgement of Paris (c. 1530–35), Lucas Cranach the Elder. Royal Collection Trust. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The stars of the show are a series of stunning red-figure and black-figure vases illustrating episodes from Homer’s epics. There is a cup which displays a helmeted warrior in full armour on one side, while the other side depicts a wife and child reaching out to the departed soldier, recalling the devastating scene of Hector’s encounter with his wife Andromache in the Iliad – women as objects and subjects of desire and loss are powerfully represented throughout the exhibition. Another famous vase shows Achilles and Ajax playing a game of draughts in their armour. The scene, which speaks of the humdrum boredom of war more than its pyrotechnics, is taken up in a lithograph by the New Zealand artist Marian Maguire in the context of her exploration of the Maori resistance to the settlers.

But it is two metal cups, one Etruscan, one Roman, which really bring out the complexity of the ancient epics’ depiction of the Trojan War. The Etruscan container illustrates Achilles’ vow ‘to cut the throats of a dozen sons of Troy’ to avenge the death of Patroclus. This scene of human sacrifice goes against all the norms of Greek practice and is rarely depicted in art. Next to it the curators have placed a silver Roman goblet which shows Priam begging Achilles to return the body of his son Hector. Achilles, recalling his own father, agrees to give back Hector’s corpse, in an episode that became the prototype for discussions about the commonality of human suffering.

It is this ability of the ancient storytellers both to confront the savagery of war and also identify with its victims that has made the Trojan myth exert such a powerful fascination over the centuries. Strange to think that the British Museum decided to retell this story just as another classicist prime minister came into office – this time, one whose ancestors came from Turkey, the land of the Trojans.

Black-figure amphora (c. 530–520 BC), attributed to the Lysippides Painter, Greek, Attic. The British Museum, London. Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum, London

Black-figure amphora (c. 530–520 BC), attributed to the Lysippides Painter, Greek, Attic. Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum, London

‘Troy: Myth and Reality’ is at the British Museum, London until 8 March.

From the January 2020 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.