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BU writer unearths a treasure

Q&A with Nancy Joaquim, author of Sophia: A Woman’s Search for Troy

Author Nancy Joaquim (CFA'60)

In Sophia: A Woman’s Search for Troy, first published in Germany in 1994 and recently published in English by Montrose Hall, Nancy Joaquim (CFA’60) explores the 19th-century story of Sophia Schliemann and her husband, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, as they discover and excavate the citadels of ancient Troy and Mycenae, illuminating the legend of the Trojan War of Homer’s Iliad. Just 17 when they meet and marry, Sophia soon becomes an industrious ally in her older husband’s obsessive search for Troy, and on the Hill of Hissarlik in Turkey, they unearth the ancient city of the time of Helen of Troy.

Fame plays havoc with their relationship, and the Schliemanns separate. Sophia continues the work, figuring that if there was a Troy, so must there be the Greek citadel across the Aegean Sea from which Agamemnon’s thousand ships had come. On her own, she excavates the Grave Circle of Mycenae. Sophia and Heinrich reunite and their dreams coalesce. “Others would follow in Sophia’s footsteps as Mycenae opened its magnificent lost secrets to the world with additional treasures and signs of ancient life that would only add credibility and precision to the first discoveries made by the beautiful young Greek woman who had gone to Mycenae with a broken heart and left it a legend,” Joaquim writes. “Many official honors would come to her, but none ever compared to the satisfaction her heart knew in having tied Troy to Greece.”

The above review, written by Steve Dykes, appears in the spring issue of Bostonia. 

Tonight, Tuesday, April 4, at 7 p.m., Nancy Joaquim will appear at Barnes & Noble at Boston University, where she will discuss and sign copies of Sophia: A Woman’s Search for Troy.

Below, Joaquim talks about the book with BU Today’s Jessica Ullian.

BU Today: How did you discover Sophia Schliemann?
Joaquim: I was given a magnificent book, full of color plates, of the world’s most beautiful jewelry, and a small black-and-white photograph leaped out at me in the midst of all that vibrant color, the caption under which read, “Sophia Schliemann wearing the jewels of Helen of Troy.”

I had studied the Iliad as a college student with two excellent humanities professors, and for all that, I really regarded the Iliad not as a historical document, but as a figment of a creative poet’s imagination. So how could this lovely young woman be wearing the jewels of a fabled, fabricated creature, Helen of Troy? I just had to know more, and the research began.

What kind of information about her was available?

There’s not too much about her — you must realize that we’re talking in the mid-19th century about women’s roles that were very much suppressed. Women were very much stereotyped to the Victorian profile of home and family, and were very much subordinated to male-dominated roles. In Sophia’s case she had the good fortune to marry a man who insisted that she work at his side.

My major source was a wonderful book that was published in 1891, Schliemann’s Excavations. It was written by Carl Shuckhardt, a colleague of Heinrich Schliemann and an advocate of his work. He was on the site at Troy and at Mycenae, at Tiryns, at Orchomenos, and he documented many aspects of the excavations.

My other major source was the Iliad itself, because the Schliemanns, both Heinrich and Sophia, used the Iliad not only as a historical document but as a reference and their guide to validating the site of the Trojan War, and the site of their excavation there in the northwest corner of Asia Minor.

What was it about this story that appealed to you initially?
I would have to say that what appealed to me most was the leap of faith that is required to connect the Iliad to the actual geographic location that the Schliemanns attached to the site of the Trojan War. One must understand as well that they were genuine trailblazers — at the time they began excavating, archaeology was an infant science, or less.

Did researching this book change your perspective on the Iliad?
It definitely did. I looked at the Iliad as a formidable challenge, and I confronted it again, after not having read it for quite a few years, but then I realized something very important: I had to look at it the way Sophia and Heinrich looked at it. They were as comfortable with it as I would be with a magazine or the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. They were comfortable with the language, with the rhythm of words, with the line and verse, and they interpreted it with a comprehension that I continue to admire to this day.

Do you have any plans for another book?

I planned this as a trilogy — with a 20-year difference in ages between Sophia and Heinrich, at the time of his death she was barely 37. There was still a lot of life ahead; she was a qualified archaeologist, had become an extremely sophisticated woman, had a magnificent home in Athens, and they had a lovely home in Paris. She gave talks before the Royal Geographic Society in London, and was, as a woman, regarded as someone very, very special in a science that was only beginning to burgeon. In a second book, the expanded life that Sophia lives through the end of the 19th century, and into the early part of the 20th century, will be very interesting.

The third book will concentrate on Sophia’s reflections as she concludes her life, living not in the great mansion that Heinrich Schliemann built for her in Athens, but in a lovely rambling house by the sea at Phaleron, where she is close to her children and has many visitors come to her. Her health begins to fail in the late ’20s, and she dies of heart disease in 1932 and is given a state funeral, her coffin draped with the beautiful blue and white flag of Greece. I’m very excited to continue.