Heinrich Schliemann was a complex character, part dreamer and part genius in disguise. Many of his contemporaries regarded him as a utopian, as he traveled around in Turkey equipped with little but a beat-up edition of Homer’s Iliad. Schliemann was determined to discover the site of ancient Troy — and so he did.

For the longest time, the German public used to make light of Schliemann’s achievements, as his biggest rival, the top archaeological expert Ernst Curtius, repeatedly mocked him in a bid to polish his own professional profile. Schliemann was, however, much more appreciated in Britain, where the German researcher has always been celebrated as the man who discovered the ancient city of Troy — a place that up to that point had been shrouded in mystery.

Schliemann went on to invent research methods in the late 19th century that are still in use today. His work helped shape the face of archaeology unlike any other.

A businessman and adventurer

From his early childhood, the world of antiquity always fascinated Schliemann. Yet his career path had initially pointed him in a different direction. Raised alongside eight other siblings in a pastor’s family in the eastern part of the Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Schliemann started out as a tradesman, as his family could not afford to send him to higher education.

He ended up in Amsterdam, where within one year, he learned to speak not only Dutch, but also Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, to be complemented by Russian later on. His extraordinary gift for foreign languages paved the way for a different career prospect: archaeology.

After then moving to Russia, Schliemann became rich dealing with raw materials for the production of ammunition. He used his fortune to study Ancient Greek and Latin in Paris.

In 1868, he went on an educational trip to the Greek island of Ithaka, where he decided to look for the palace of Ulysses. From there, he traveled to the Marmaris Sea to make his way inland and start the quest for Troy. During his entire journey, Homer’s Iliad was Schliemann’s one and only true companion, the one book he considered his indispensable guide to discovering Troy.

Following Homer’s footsteps

The search for the ancient city of Troy had never ceased for over thousands of years. But, in all that time, no one had ever been able to prove that Homer’s saga of the Trojan War had actually occurred — until 1871, when Heinrich Schliemann, then 49 years old, discovered the ruins of the city under the Hisarlik hill in the Troas region in the northwest of present-day Turkey. Schliemann had by no means been the first person to believe that the city described by Homer was hidden under this particular location.

Before Schliemann, the British archaeologist Frank Calvert had already begun excavations in the very same region. The two Troy-obsessed researchers ran into each other by sheer coincidence. Calvert had actually acquired the land around Hisarlik so he could continue with his work, but he lacked the funds to continue with his excavation attempts, which, at that point, had run into a dead end.

Calvert persuaded Schliemann to continue where he had stopped working. After running into a number of initial impasses, Schliemann stubbornly went on with the excavations until in 1872 he hit meter-high ruins belonging to a prehistoric city. Schliemann came to the conclusion that these walls had once formed part of the fortification of Troy.

It had been a difficult journey for both men, as the precise identification of the findings was rendered all the more difficult due to the long history of the city, which had first surfaced in records in 3000 BC.

Errors in classification

Among his most significant discoveries in Troy, Schliemann struck a cache of gold and other artifacts, which he subsequently baptized “the treasure of Priam” in 1873. He smuggled the gold treasure out of the country and gave it to the German government to showcase. But the treasure got lost in the throes of World War II, only to later resurface in Russia, where it is now being kept at the Pushkin Museum.

It later turned out that Schliemann’s claim to the treasure had been wrong all along. His findings did not amount to the treasure of Priam, but were rather a relic from an unknown culture that had flourished 1,250 years before ancient Troy.

This wasn’t the only time that the German explorer had erred: At the Greek archaeological site of Mycenae, where Schliemann carried out excavations from 1874 to 1876, he drew a number of wrong conclusions based on his work. Schliemann wrongfully identified a golden mask as having belonged to the ancient Greek military leader Agamemnon.

Despite his errors and wrong conclusions, the world continued to venerate Heinrich Schliemann as one of the most significant archaeologists of all times.

He died in Naples on December 26, 1890.

This article has been adapted from German.