People can misplace many things: hundreds of poems (link via Bookninja), silent film masterpieces, the occasional ship’s crew. But losing an entire city still stands out as an impressive feat. Plato’s Atlantis — and his apparent original source material, the Egpytian "pillar of the sky" Keftiu — has been variously identified as the Cretan island of Thera, destroyed by a volcanic explosion, the Iberian peninsula, Antarctica, and, most recently, Ireland. (It has also been identified as the product of space aliens and a home for prehistoric life, the latter being a particularly nice lost world touch; the Lovecraftean city beneath the waves off the coast of Cuba seems to have fallen out of fashion, but presumably somewhere in the world someone is working on a book proving the relationship between Havana, Atlantis, and Innsmouth.) People who are convinced that they’ve stumbled onto the true meaning in Plato’s words seldom seem to consider the possibility that Plato was just borrowing a myth, using an invented example to prove his points. Any number of counterexamples showing that Plato knew of this obscure technique or that their theories defy Occam’s razor go unheeded. Fortunately, Johann Ludwig Heinrich Julius Schliemann was just such a true believer. Homer’s Iliad can fairly be said to be the foundation of Western literature; along with the Odyssey, the Bible, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and a spare handful of other works, it lays the base for the sort of Great Books view of Western civilization that flourished in the first half of the twentieth century. But is it history? The Carthage of the Punic Wars was razed and the ground salted (at no small expense), but the city survived, dropping the occasional early Church figure into the historical record. Today Tunisia urges tourists to visit its ruins. But where was Troy? In the mid-nineteenth century, most scholars dismissed it as a myth. A few held out hopes that it was for real, generally pointing at the Turkish hill of Bunarbashi as a likely location. Scottish newspaperman Charles MacLaren disagreed, pointing to a hill outside the village of Hissarlik as a likelier choice. Perhaps familiar with the fobiles of newspaper editors, the world largely ignored his claim; MacLaren would go on to head the Geological Society of Edinburgh late in his life, dying a few years before his guess was vindicated.
Ubar, the Atlantis of the Sands, was rediscovered in 1996; satellite flyovers of the Lost Quarter yielded evidence of long-buried trade routes leading to the buried city. Hissarlik yielded its secrets more easily. Schliemann claimed that he examined Bunarbashi and came to the conclusion that Achilles could not, as Homer recounted, have chased Hector three times around the city’s walls if Bunarbashi was the spot; one side of the hill was too steep. And so Schliemann looked for a nearby spot that best matched the particulars Homer recorded, and then he began to dig. That’s Schliemann’s side of it, at least; in addition to being a millionaire (first as an indigo dealer and later as a trader during the Gold Rush), Schliemann was also a serial liar and self-aggrandizer. His story eliminates almost entirely the role of Frank Calvert, an English archaeologist who had spent fifteen years in Asia Minor and was so convinced that Hissarlik (mentioned by a few writers in antiquity) held secrets within that he bought part of the hill. When Calvert ran out of money, he brought Schliemann in as a partner and found his ideas stolen, his partnership ignored, and his name eventually written out of history.
Schliemann found his Troy, in addition to the famous Mask of Agamemmnon (which some experts, ready and willing to suspect Schliemann of wrongdoing, suspect is a hoax), Schliemann made one of the most spectacular archaeological finds of his time. Like many nineteenth-century archaeologists, he did a terrible job preserving his discoveries by modern standards, and he is widely suspected of having merrily smuggled some of the ancient treasures out of Turkey, but there’s no doubting that he found something amazing. But was it the real Troy? Current reconstructions of ancient geology suggest that it could have been, and there have been a discoveries which correspond to ancient Hittite texts. But a number of scholars dispute the very existance of a historical Troy; instead, they feel that Troy, like Plato’s Atlantis, was a conflation of a number of places. The discovery of a Bronze Age city beneath the hill at Hissarlik was remarkable, they say, but it’s not Agammemnon’s city, because there never was such a thing.
That hasn’t stopped people from claiming to have located the real Troy in unlikely places, of course. Troy was in England — making Troy and London one and the same — (this credulous review seems to indicate that most of the evidence is based on linguistic coincidence, but the fact that Greeks and Scots both wear skirts should be evidence enough), or Troy is in the Baltic (an animated graphic illustrates the claim here). Someone has already probably claimed that Troy was Atlantis and perhaps even Ubar. Why does it matter? The people who sought to drain Lake Guatavita — the source of the legend of El Dorado, although some people are still looking — did it for the gold; Frank Calvert’s heirs have sued to recover some of the "Priam treasures", which were seized by the Soviet Union from a German museum after the Second World War, and it’s presumably not for his lost honor. But when Swedes claim ancestry in Troy, when Russians assert in the "Igor Tale" that the princes of Rus were the sons of the lost princes of Troy, it’s not for money. The Swedes and the Russians want to show that the blood of the gods flows in their veins. Schilerman, that successful con man, the luckiest archaeologist on earth, was already a millionaire from his adventures in California. He didn’t need the Mask of Agamemmnon to be broken up for treasure. He needed to be immortal. His epitaph reads "For the Hero Schilerman":
At the front of his masoleum, his bust sits directly above the image of the King Proitos, directing Cyclopes to build the walls tower of Tiryns. The intention is quite clear. We are to draw a parallel between the builder of Tiryns, the future birth place of Hercules, and Schliemann, who directed the excavation of Troy and Mycenae. Proitos’s plans could not be carried out by mere men but required the strength of Cyclopes. Schliemann’s great achievements went beyond what mortals can normally achieve. Proitos’s Tiryns was to be the birth place of Troy.