Troy's treasures make their way to the British Museum - 150 years late

Anita Singh
The exhibition will feature The Wounded Achilles on loan from Chatsworth House - British Museum

When the British Museum was offered newly excavated treasures from Troy, unearthed by an eccentric German millionaire, it declined to show them due to “lack of space”.

Nearly 150 years later, the museum has had a change of heart. Heinrich Schliemann’s discoveries will be at the heart of a blockbuster exhibition, Troy: Myth and Reality, which opens in November.

It will be the first major Troy exhibition in the UK since 1877, when Schliemann - aggrieved that the British Museum had turned down his offer - showed them instead at the South Kensington Museum, which later became the V&A. From there they went to a museum in Berlin.

“The British Museum turned him down for lack of space. One hundred and fifty years later, we are making up for this. It has been a long wait for his finds to come to London again,” said Alexandra Villing, co-curator of the exhibition.

Schliemann excavated the site in north-east Turkey now presumed to be the site of Troy, from the 1870s onwards.

His dig was not without its blunders - he uncovered nine layers, representing different eras, but used dynamite to blast through them and in the process probably destroyed much of Bronze Age Troy. He misidentified some of his finds as being older than they actually were. But he had a knack for self-promotion, and his work made him famous.

The site had actually been identified earlier by a British diplomat, Frank Calvert, who tried in vain to get British Museum funding for an excavation. But Schliemann took over, ploughing his own money into the dig and claiming the credit. He told admirers that his love for Troy had its roots in his teenage job at a grocer’s shop, where he heard a drunk customer reciting Homer’s Iliad.

“The story of the Trojan War had eternal appeal but the city of Troy itself became forgotten. Many thought of was a figment of Homer’s imagination. But some travellers and adventurers continued to search for it,” Villing said.

“It was Calvert who got Schliemann involved, but it is Schliemann’s name that is known because he ran the excavation. He was a self-made millionaire who travelled the world and was the kind of person who always needs a new challenge.

“Schliemann was an accomplished promoter of himself and his discovery.”

His finds, including pottery and silver vessels, bronze weapons and stone sculptures, will be loaned from the Berlin Museums for the first time.

The exhibition will explore the stories of Troy that have endured for more than 3,000 years, from the Iliad and the Odyssey to the Hollywood film starring Brad Pitt as Achilles and Diane Kruger as Helen.

Objects on display will include a stunning marble sculpture, The Wounded Achilles, on loan from Chatsworth House.

Sir Richard Lambert, chairman of the British Museum, said of the exhibition: “I’m afraid there’s no Brad Pitt, but even more beautiful is the Wounded Achilles.”

The exhibition will have a contemporary element, including voices from two charities, Crisis and Waterloo Uncovered, “to highlight how the experiences of characters in the story resonate with displaced people and soldiers today”.

The role of Helen will also be re-examined through an art work, Judgment of Paris (after Rubens) - Dark Helen, in which artist Eleanor Antin gives a voice to a woman who, in Homer’s story, was used as a bribe and abducted by Paris.