Retracing the Path of Troy's Gold
Lost and Found: the 9,000 Treasures of Troy, Heinrich Schliemann and the Gold That Got Away
By Caroline Moorehead
307 pp., $26.95
Amid the chaos that was Europe at the end of World War II, it was hard to know what had been lost, destroyed, stolen, or merely mislaid. Only gradually did the Allied powers realize that, even as the Nazis had looted their neighbors, Germany had in turn been systematically stripped of its treasures - its paintings, sculptures, and furnishings - by the Soviets. The Allies did their best to return things to their rightful owners and to organize equitable reparation, but much remained hidden - or had it been bombed? Who knew?
Then, as the cold war ended, rumors of hidden treasure - unacknowledged and unseen for nearly 50 years - began to trickle out of Russia, the most intriguing of which involved large amounts of ancient gold.
This gold, a cache to rival, if not supercede, the gold of Tutankamen, went on display earlier this year at Moscow's Pushkin Museum. Before 1945, it had resided in Berlin's Museum of Pre-and-Early History as part of the vast collection of ancient artifacts excavated by Heinrich Schliemann in Turkey and Greece between 1872 and 1888. And this gold is at the center of "Lost and Found: The 9,000 Treasures of Troy," Caroline Moorehead's history of the discover and disappearance of Schliemann's archaeological treasures.
The gold's original discoverer is one of those legendary characters from the last century whose life was so extraordinary, his rise from poverty to untold riches so dramatic, that it is hard to get it all between the covers of a book. But it is with Schliemann's story that Moorehead rightfully begins.
Born in northeastern Germany in 1822, Schliemann was the son of an undistinguished and intemperate schoolmaster turned minister. By the time he was 50, Schliemann had amassed a fortune, mastered seven languages, and traveled throughout Europe, the Middle East, India, China, and the Americas.
For the rest of his life, he devoted all his energy and considerable wealth to archaeological excavation at Hissarlik in Turkey, the probable site of the ancient city of Troy, and at Mycenae and Tiryns in Greece.
Schliemann's earliest archaeological methods were crude, and driven by a desire to find the treasures of ancient Troy as described by Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey. There is no doubt much was lost through his indiscriminate digging.
On the other hand, his discoveries were of such magnitude - pottery, tools, jewelry, gold, armor, mummified warriors, whole cities - that we owe much of our understanding of the ancient world to his work.
Moorehead then traces Schliemann's gold through storage during World War II, to the fall of Berlin and its aftermath, during which time the Soviet troops carried it and a great deal else back to the Soviet Union.
Though she touches only lightly on the Nazis' savage destruction of Russian art and architecture during their brief occupation of that country, she places the subsequent Soviet looting of Berlin within this thoroughly comprehensible framework.
As a biographer, Moorehead is no great stylist; she is often repetitive. But this is more than offset by her understanding of previous eras and her ability to understand her subjects within the context of their own age. Neither is she a classicist, so the text is relatively free of the specialist jargon that might have proved an insuperable barrier to the non-classicist reader.
"Lost and Found: The 9,000 Treasures of Troy," reads like one of those thoroughly enjoyable, far-fetched thrillers about the cold war by Frederick Forsyth or Len Deighton, but it's not. It's fact. And at heart, it raises the difficult issues of war-time looting and reparation, issues that are still very much with us and that we cannot afford to ignore.
*Melissa Bennetts, a freelance writer who specializes in historical and classical fiction, lives in England.