Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.05.49 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.05.49

Stefanie Samida, Die archäologische Entdeckung als Medienereignis. Heinrich Schliemann und seine Ausgrabungen im öffentlichen Diskurs, 1870-1890. Edition Historische Kulturwissenschaften, 3.   Münster:  Waxmann Verlag, 2018.  Pp. 300.  ISBN 9783830937890.  €29,90.  


Reviewed by Barbara Patzek, Universität Duisburg-Essen (barbara.patzek@uni-due.de)

Table of Contents

This study aims to transfer the Schliemann controversy—concerning his unwavering belief in archaeology as proof of Homer’s historicity (“Homergläubigkeit”)—to a new and less contentious level by going back to its sources, i.e., the impression the debate made on contemporary public and academic opinion. Samida claims that this controversy was in essence initiated by Schliemann himself, seeking public acknowledgement through the negotiating powers of the media of his time—the press, museums, and historical societies. Schliemann’s until now mostly unpublished correspondence with editors of various newspapers and journals serves as evidence for his skill in popularization and as support for Samida’s main proposition that the academic recognition of field archaeology, and thus prehistoric archaeology, as a new and practical part of academic historical research, was empowered by Schliemann’s popular archaeology and the intellectual antagonisms it aroused.

The volume is divided into nine chapters, the last offering a critical edition and transcription of Schliemann’s correspondence with German and (some) British publishers, dating from the 1870s and 1880s, and its continuation by Rudolph Virchow after the death of Schliemann in 1890. A collection of short biographies, a list of Schliemann’s articles for the “Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung,” an ample bibliography and list of sources round out this well written and edited and thought-provoking study.

The first chapter introduces media research, a branch of sociology that, until now, has dealt with the formation of popular knowledge in natural sciences by the 20th century media. Generally, this is an enquiry into how the media addressing the non-specialized public transform abstract knowledge into concrete, comprehensible, and simplifying popular language. By this they accentuate the significance of science for society, entice public discourse and, in turn, create a new but communicative boundary between the scientific community and the public. That implies, as Samida underlines—relying on Michael Hagner1—that public discourse has its share in the process of scientific innovation, especially regarding the new and practical sciences of the late 19th century.

The second and third chapters present the historical background to Samida’s proposition that the relatively late academic recognition of prehistoric archaeology in the early 1900s is the result of the growing popularity of field archaeology. Rudolf Virchow and Schliemann are marked out as its pioneers, Virchow for his scientific expertise, his interest in physical anthropology, and his media-awareness, Schliemann for communicating with experts of different fields of human and natural sciences and for his meticulous, mostly photographic, documentation of almost every item he excavated. These traits of objectivity, ignored by most of his critics, are seen as the roots of the historical method that distinguishes field archaeology from its classical counterpart, here understood as art history devoid of historical method. Chapter 3 offers glimpses into the media history of the 19th century, an age known for its scientific progress, an expanding press, and an increasingly literate and information-seeking society. Important German and British papers that reported on Schliemann and archaeology are introduced, ranging from daily newspapers to journals and periodicals, responding to both an intellectual and more general group of readers. The increasing frequency of these reports in the second half of the 19th century serves as proof of the growing interest in archaeological discoveries.

Chapters 4 and 5, together with the correspondence in chapter 9, document and analyze Schliemann’s interactions with the press and his critics. Samida traces how he put his person in the center of highly dramatized excavation reports, borrowing from the first-person diary style of adventure and travel literature. Meant to provide authenticity and induce identification with the hero of the tale, the reports were often enhanced by historical romance about Homer and the monuments and a narrative that, in some cases, went far beyond what really happened. This undoubtedly was savored by his readers, and accordingly, Schliemann tirelessly touted this public appeal to publishers, who often, to his dismay, maintained a certain reserve. Criticism, the correspondence shows, was met with personal enmity and the astounding, frequently reiterated conviction that the sheer visibility of things was evidence of truth. Schliemann went so far as to imply that his critics, envious of his successes, deliberately lied and that the truth would come to light (“Die Wahrheit kommt immer ans Licht” p. 87) since the public would know that common sense at any time outwits academic censure. But, as chapter 5 documents, most of Schliemann’s critics did not question the significance of his discoveries. Instead, they questioned his preconceptions that did not distinguish between myth and history, nor between material culture and history, insisting on the need for clear criteria. Alexander Conze, for example, in his short, still readable, notice on the Trojan excavations from 1874, disapproved of Schliemann’s style but praised him for uncovering a hitherto unknown material culture, which Conze then analyzed by visual criteria, describing stylistic features that allowed comparison with possible contemporary neighbors in Anatolia and the Aegean.2 Noting the arrogant language of this and similar retorts, Samida argues them away as mere products of the borderline the media had created between the public and an academic community that had to defend its authority. This, in my opinion, oversimplifies and politicizes anew the divide between Schliemann and established (classical) archaeology—this time in defense of the outsider. In my reading, Schliemann’s critics simply drew attention to the rule of scientific fact-checking that Schliemann violated by appealing to general—i.e., “visible”—truths that could not be corroborated by reasoning. On the other hand, there is considerable plausibility in Samida’s proposal that Schliemann’s popular imagery inspired innovation in archaeology and its hermeneutics of material culture. But the question still remains as to how these ideas, expressed in everyday practice and observation, finally translated into the general theory of material culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A very short chapter 6 compares Schliemann’s methods of excavating and of publicizing with those of the excavators at Olympia and Pergamon, the two contemporary German excavations that were of national interest and received ample press-coverage. Chapter 7 turns to the vast media attention Schliemann’s sudden death produced, laying the groundwork for his myth. Chapter 8 in summary argues rightly that we should avoid the popular divide between the self-made man and the academic and without doubt include Schliemann in the history of modern science.

This book is strong on media research in describing Schliemann’s deliberate actions to manifest himself as one of the few media stars of the 19th century. The book falls short on convincingly assessing Schliemann’s place in the history of archaeology and his merits in opening archaeology to historical research, which, in my opinion, are due to the author’s intentionally obscuring the different objectives of scientific discourse and public opinion-seeking. Consequently, this book can be read in two ways: either as one further apology for Schliemann’s erratic methods of historical identification and, implicitly, the shortcomings of the debate about excavating Homer’s Troy by seeking public applause instead of academic discourse. Or, it can be recognized as an interesting contribution to the “material turn” in historical scholarship ("Dingwissenschaft").


Notes:


1.   Michael Hagner: Ansichten der Wissenschaftsgeschichte, in: id. (ed.): Ansichten der Wissenschaftsgeschichte, Frankfurt am Main 2001, 8-39.
2.   In: Preußische Jahrbücher 34, 398-403.

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