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Pyrrhic Research

By Daniel Hubbard | December 2, 2012

Heinrich Schliemann is not a name that rolls off the English speaking tongue and his name probably doesn’t appear among your ancestors but I think that he has some interesting things to say about the genealogical research we do. Heinrich did research as well, though not genealogical. Even so, he started with oral history, exactly what family historians tend to use at the beginning. We need to talk with relatives to see what stories they might remember. Any relative could have heard something that no one else alive remembers. Nevertheless, the older relatives are often the best ones for older stories. They remember things that were never passed on to younger generations. Heinrich did the equivalent of starting with a very old relative, a very old relative indeed.

The Next Step

If we don’t focus on his type of research but instead on the methodology, Heinrich’s next step was to rush. That is not a word one wants associated with research. Sure, it is possible to work quickly, efficiently and thoroughly. The problem with rushing is that it means leaving off that last word, “thoroughly.”

Heinrich had an idea that most of his colleagues did not believe. Perhaps that made him extra determined to get an answer quickly. He did get an answer in short order but did he get the right answer? Well, yes and no. He did the equivalent of connecting his genealogy to the right family but in the wrong way and even to a very wrong generation. He is even suspected of faking some of his finds in order to heighten his reputation.

He managed to become famous. He still is famous. His reputation, on the other hand is hardly what it once was.

He is the man who discovered Troy.

The Mad Rush

Heinrich’s oral history was not an interview with grandma. It was the Iliad, the epic poem by Homer. Though perhaps less important to you personally than the bombshell that grandma dropped the last time you talked to her, the Iliad is, shall we say, quite a nice bit of oral history. Most scholars of the day thought that it was only a story. A magnificent story to be sure, but not one based on history, oral or written. A few suspected otherwise and Heinrich was one of them. He grew up hearing stories from the Iliad read to him by his father and he knew the poem like few others. Not only was he in the small minority of people who thought that Troy could be found, he thought that it was somewhere other than where most of that minority believed that it was. He thought he had found a better match to the description in the oral history. He was right. Then things started to go wrong.

In 1871 he started digging with a small crew. They dug test shafts to see what might lie below the surface. They found not one ruined city but eleven, piled one on top of the other. Which was the city the Greeks had destroyed? Well, it was a long time ago, so he started with the lowest, meaning oldest, level. (Are your alarm bells ringing yet?) The first Troy seemed to have ended with an earthquake, not a war. What about the next level up? That city had burned. The Greeks had burned Troy, therefore, level two was the Troy of the Trojan War.

The deep and wide trench Heinrich Schliemann cut through the ruins of Troy in his haste to get to what he thought he was after. Instead he dug straight through the Troy of Homer. (photo by levork, from Flikr)

The next year Schliemann hired a larger crew and began to excavate in earnest. He was not interested in the uppermost layers, so his crew simply dug straight through them. No examination, no cataloging, just digging. An enormous trench was dug across the hill down to level two. Unfortunately, level two later proved to be one thousand years too old to be the Troy of his beloved Iliad. What they had done was to obliterate a good portion of every layer above, including the layer known asĀ  VIIa, the layer that actually was the city that had fallen to the Greeks. Layer after layer destroyed, including the layer of the Iliad in a mad rush to get to the wrong place. His discovery became a Pyrrhic victory.

Digging Straight Through Troy

Family historians are subject to the same temptation to charge toward “the solution” as fast as possible, disregarding evidence along the way. We may not disregard evidence by smashing through it with shovels and pick axes. In our case it will survive a researcher’s lack of attention but that won’t make the results of the research any better. The technique that Schliemann should have used, carefully working back in time step by step, is the same technique that we should use. It may take time. It may make you think that there has to be a faster way but a mad rush to a preconceived notion is only the way to get a quick answer. It isn’t they way to get the right answer. Don’t find yourself “digging straight through Troy.”

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