Priam's Treasure

by Michael Bernzweig

Heinrich Schliemann and the Invention of an Ancient Hoard: Priam's Treasure

One of the oldest tales available to humanity is that of the fabled Siege of Troy or the Trojan War, the focus of the Greek epic poet Homer's Iliad and the conflict from which Odysseus is heading home in the Odyssey. As the tale goes, sometime towards the end of the Mycenaean period in Greek history, around 1200 BC, Paris, a prince of the city of Troy, absconded from mainland Greece back to his homeland with Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. Menelaus was furious and enlisted the help of his brother, the king of Mycenae, Agamemnon, to undertake a war against Troy. A pan-Hellenic army thus descended on the city of Troy, featuring the greatest hero of the age, Achilles, and laid siege to Troy for ten years before finally capturing the city through the use of an elaborate ruse using a giant, hollow horse. This the Trojans brought into their city, believing the Greeks had abandoned the siege and left the horse as an offering to the gods. But that night, men emerged from the horse and opened the city gates to the returned Greek army. Troy was destroyed in the following hours, and the Trojan Gold vanished. The story of the siege of Troy had captivated generations of westerners, but the site of the city had never been located by the nineteenth century, and it was with the object of discovering the same that Heinrich Schliemann set out for Turkey in 1870. It was this quest that would result in the discovery of what Schliemann presented as Priam's Treasure.

Schliemann's Quest for Troy

Schliemann was a German archaeologist born in northern Germany in 1822. He had a successful career in business, working in Russia and then the United States in the 1840s and 1850s, and was wealthy enough to retire comfortably by the time he was in his mid-thirties. It was owing to his financial independence that he was able from the 1860s to dedicate himself to his primary interest, which was Ancient Greek history and specifically the Late Bronze Age societies of Mycenae and Troy. Indeed Schliemann's children, with his second wife, Sophie, were even named Andromache and Agamemnon after two central figures from the legends of the siege of Troy. By 1870 Schliemann had arrived on the northwest coast of Turkey at Hissarlik near the modern-day city of Canakkale. In the nineteenth century, many believed that the city of Troy had been sited here on the Turkish side of the Straits of Gallipoli, guarding the entrance against the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara. It was believed that Troy had flourished in this location owing to its control of sea traffic between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean here, and this would seem to have been confirmed by the Romans having later believed that this was the site of Troy and having established the city of Ilium there as a result in the early imperial period. Thus, Schliemann began digging here. He soon discovered what could only be the remains of several cities that had been built on top of each other on the site through successive historical periods. Schliemann's methods were infamously poor, and he destroyed much of the archaeological remains of the other cities in his efforts to find the remains of the Bronze Age Troy. But in the early summer of 1873, after three years of digging, his efforts seemed to have paid off, for Schliemann and his team uncovered a vast cache of artifacts which he soon told the world was the treasure of King Priam of Troy. By the 20th century, the fate of gold had become clear.

The History of the Locations of Priam's Treasure 

Priams treasure is a collection of artifacts that were once part of the royal treasury of the ancient city of Troy I, located in Asia Minor. The treasure was discovered by archaeologists in 1873 and has been on display at various museums around the world ever since. 

The settlement discovered by Heinrich Schliemann in the 1890s, Troy II, was believed to be Homer's Troy of the Iliad and Odyssey. Troy, I and Troy II are distinguished by eras of early historical construction and by the size and nature of their respective artifacts. Later Schliemann's workers discovered a third settlement, Troy VI, which was even larger than Troy II.

The Homeric Troy II would have been a wealthy city of ancient history, as it was said to have been the richest city in Asia Minor. This is supported by the discovery of Priam's treasure, which contains many precious metals and jewels. 

The collection includes items such as swords, Shields, pendants, jewelry, and pottery. Many of the pieces are made of gold and an occasional silver vessel or two, and some are inlaid with precious stone and rock crystal. The treasure is a valuable source of information about the art and culture of the ancient world.

The Movement of Priam's Treasure Throughout History

The siege of Troy was one of the most famous events in ancient history. The city was besieged by the Greeks for ten years before they finally succeeded in breaching the walls with a trojan horse and looted the city. Priam's treasure was probably taken by the Greeks during this time.

German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann and classical archaeologist Frank Calvert discovered the treasure in 1873 at Hissarlik, on the coast of modern Turkey, during an excavation of the site of ancient Troy. The trove was found in a buried chamber beneath the city's walls. It is believed that the Greeks hid the treasure there before they destroyed the city.

The collection was acquired by Berlin's Pergamon Museum in 1874, but during World War II, it was taken from its hidden location under the Berlin Zoo in Nazi Germany by the Soviet Union and divided between Moscow and Leningrad. It is now on display at several Russian museums, one of which is known as the Pushkin State Museum. Additional trojan treasure items from Sheilmann's excavations of Priam's Treasure were revealed to be housed in St Petersburg. The Hermitage museum in St. Petersburg still houses 414 bronze and clay exhibits.

The British Museum has several artifacts from ancient Troy on display, despite losing out on acquiring Priam's treasure. Because international law does not allow for the ownership of fine art noted as stolen goods, the treasure has been the subject of several legal disputes between Turkey, Germany, and Russia.

Priam's treasure is one of the most famous collections of ancient artifacts in the world. It provides a valuable glimpse into the art and culture of the ancient world. The looted art collection on display in Russia has been the subject of much controversy. Later, archaeologists believed that the city of Troy was actually composed of several different settlements, each with its own unique artifacts.

However, it is interesting to note that According to David Traill in Antiquity Journal Volume 57 from 1983, Schliemann's discovery of "Priam's Treasure" was a fraud. According to him, it was not a single find, as Schliemann represents, but a collection derived from different sources.

The story of Priam's treasure is a long and complicated one, fraught with controversy. But despite its murky past, the collection remains an important part of our understanding of the ancient world. For information on Priam's Treasure, Wikimedia Commons has a collection of images related to the museum's treasure display.

Priam and his Treasure

In Greek mythology, Priam was the King of Troy at the time of the famous ten-year siege of the city and the father of Hector, the stalwart commander of the deference of the city, and Paris, whose decision to bring Helen to the city caused the war in the first place. He is most famous for the scene towards the end of Homer's Iliad in which he sneaks into the camp of the Greek

army to confront Achilles after he had killed Hector in combat. Priam's mission was to have Achilles return Hector's body to him for a proper burial. Priam was later killed in the fall of the city of Troy, but because he was the king at the time of the siege, it was believed that any major treasure trove which Schliemann might stumble across could be assigned to the Trojan king. Who else, after all, would have been the possessor of such a giant hoard if it were discovered in the supposed ruins of the city?

The Hoard

The hoard itself consisted of thousands of items of varying value. Much of this was made up of gold rings and small items such as buttons. Others were weapons such as axe heads, lance heads, and daggers and which were generally made of copper. Some few weapons were crafted out of silver. Among the most valuable and unusual of the items was a silver vase containing two gold diadems, a type of crown or head-dress, while gold cups and goblets were also discovered. A highly unusual piece was a cup made out of electrum, a mixture of gold, silver, and copper. Thus, the pieces contained in the hoard were exceptionally valuable when considered collectively. However, there is an issue with what Schliemann found. Many scholars and historians have since come to believe that these objects had nothing to do with the city of Troy and, in fact, dated to a completely different time period.

Priam's Treasure: An Elaborate Myth

There are several problems with the treasure Schliemann found and the attribution of it to the period of the Trojan War around 1200 BC and thus to King Priam. Perhaps the most obvious problem with dating the hoard to the siege of Troy and thus assigning its ownership to King Priam is the materials from which the objects are made. There are a great many objects made of copper here, but few bronze items. Bronze was available as early as the fourth millennium BC, but the peak of the Bronze Age occurred in the second millennium BC, and it would be incongruous if this were a hoard connected with Troy that there would not be many bronze items contained in it. This was soon noted by contemporaries. But what was more damning still was that in the years ahead, it was determined that in digging at the site, a hole which came to be known as 'Schliemann's Trench,' the German amateur archaeologist had actually dug through the layer which contained the Late Bronze Age settlement there and had arrived at a level which dated to about 2200 BC.

Consequently, Schliemann had actually discovered artifacts from a city that had been at the site a thousand years before the presumed time of the Siege of Troy. And to get to this site, he had substantially destroyed the level, which dated to about 1200 BC. Thus, the so-called treasure of King Priam was actually a trove of goods from the late third millennium BC.

In addition, it is generally believed that some of the objects were not even recovered from the trench but were possibly fabricated entirely by Schliemann, notably the gold diadem which was famously photographed on Heinrich's wife, Sophie Schliemann, in the aftermath of the 'discovery.' This would explain why Schliemann had dismissed most of his crew from the site when the discovery was initially made and why he later invented a story about Sophie's role in the discovery. This was patently false, and his wife was in Athens at the time. Consequently, what we are left with is a vast array of objects, some dating to a completely different time period than the Greece of Mycenae and Troy and some of which were possibly not even recovered in any fashion during the excavation.

Priam's Treasure was subsequently smuggled out of the region by Schliemann when the government of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Turkey at the time, attempted to seek compensation for his taking of it from Turkish land. In the end, he did agree to relinquish a portion of it to the government in Istanbul, and as a result, a small part of the 'Treasure' is today to be seen in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. The bulk of the Treasure, though, had a more colorful subsequent history. It was acquired by the Royal Museums of Berlin in 1881 and stayed in the German capital for over sixty years, but when the Russians conquered the city in 1945, the trove was subsequently sent to Moscow. It remains there, most likely at the Pushkin Museum today. For decades the Soviet government denied it held the fraudulent treasure, but today the post-Cold War Russian state affirms that it is keeping Priam's Treasure as compensation for the destruction done to Russia by the Germans during the Second World War. For a short time, the artifacts were on display in the Kunstgewerbe Museum between 1882 and 1885 before being transferred to the then-new Ethnological Museum.

The Aftermath

Schliemann conducted extensive excavations elsewhere in the Greek world in the following years, notably at Mycenae in the Peloponnese of mainland Greece. Here Schliemann discovered the so-called Mask of Agamemnon in a burial shaft. This is a gold death mask, but its attribution to Agamemnon was again spurious and modern studies indicate it dates to about 1600 BC, some four hundred years before Agamemnon's supposed time. He went on to conduct further excavations at Troy and on the island of Ithaca (Odysseus's homeland), but died in Italy of a chronic ear infection in 1890 before he could employ his dubious archaeological methods on the ash and volcanic rock-covered Roman city of Pompeii.

The story of Priam's Treasure and Schliemann's discovery of it in the ruins of the city of Troy in the 1870s is one of the most contentious episodes in modern archaeology. There is no denying that Schliemann discovered a city in northwest Turkey, which was likely the site of the ancient city of Troy. Moreover, he uncovered a rich seam of treasure and artifacts here. But Schliemann's methods were dubious. In damaging much of the site of Troy (including the actual Late Bronze Age city) in his quest for the Homeric city, he engaged in activity that was unforgivable by modern archaeological standards, and his designation of the artifacts he found as 'Priam's Treasure' was fantastical and completely inaccurate. Thus, Priam's Treasure was, in fact, an alternative Bronze Age trove, one which is nevertheless considerably important even without such a fantastical etymology as Schliemann tried to impose on it.

Copyright 2021 Detector Electronics Corp. - Revised September 2022