Wilhelm Dörpfeld bigraphy, stories - Archaeologists

Wilhelm Dörpfeld : biography

26 December 1853 - 25 April 1940

Wilhelm Dörpfeld (26 December 1853 – 25 April 1940) was a German architect and archaeologist, a pioneer of stratigraphic excavation and precise graphical documentation of archaeological projects. He is famous for his work on Bronze Age sites around the Mediterranean, such as Tiryns and Hisarlik (the site of the legendary city of Troy) where he continued Heinrich Schliemann's excavations. Like Schliemann, Dörpfeld was an advocate of the historical reality of places mentioned in the works of Homer. While the details of his claims regarding locations mentioned in Homer's writings are not considered accurate by later archaeologists, his fundamental idea that they correspond to real places is accepted. Thus, his work greatly contributed not only to scientific techniques and study of these historically significant sites but also renewed public interest in the culture and mythology of ancient Greece.


Wilhelm Dörpfeld was born in Barmen, Wuppertal, in today’s Germany, the son of Christine and Friedrich William Dörpfeld. His father, a convinced Evangelist Christian and a famous pedagogue, tried to bestow deep religious sentiment to his family, so Dörpfeld attended religious schools, where he received basic education in Latin and Greek. He graduated from Barmer High School in 1872, the year after his mother died.

In 1873 Dörpfeld enrolled in architectural studies in Berlin, into the famous Academy of Architecture (Bauakademie). At the same time he started to work for the Bergisch-Maerki industrial company. His father could not finance his studies, and so Dorpfeld’s sister Anna loaned him money. During holiday breaks, Dörpfeld worked for the Rheine railway company, drawing sketches of buildings and different architectural objects. Dörpfeld graduated with honors in 1876.

In 1877, Dörpfeld became an assistant at the excavations of Olympia, Greece, conducted under Richard Bohn, Friedrich Adler, and Ernst Curtius. He later became the technical manager of the project. The group uncovered, among other artifacts, an intact statue of Hermes by Praxiteles. The excavations revived the memory of the ancient Olympic Games and contributed toward the establishment of the modern Olympics, in 1896.

After his return from Olympia, Dörpfeld intended to take his architectural exam and settle down in Berlin. He needed a permanent source of income, as he prepared for the family life. In February 1883 he married Anne Adler, the daughter of his university professor Friedrich Adler. The couple had three children. Around the same time, he met Heinrich Schliemann, who persuaded him to join his archaeological expedition.

In 1882 Dörpfeld joined Schliemann, who was then excavating Troy. The two eventually became good friends and continued their collaboration on other projects as well. They excavated in Tiryns, from 1884 to 1885, and at Troy again from 1888 to 1890. Dörpfeld also excavated at the Acropolis of Athens from 1885 to 1890, where he unearthed the Hekatompedon temple (the pre-Classical Parthenon). He continued excavations at Pergamon (1900–1913, with Alexander Conze), and in the 1931 in the Agora of Athens.

In the year 1886 Dörpfeld founded the German School of Athens, which was later named after him, the Dörpfeld Gymnasium. From 1887 to 1912 he was the director of the German Archaeological Institute at Athens. He published, in 1896, Das griechische Theater, which was the first study of Greek theater construction.

After his retirement in 1912, Dörpfeld engaged in numerous academic debates on different archaeological topics. For example, in the mid-1930s he took part in a celebrated debate with American archaeologist William Bell Dinsmoor on the nature of configuration of the three phases of the Parthenon. At the beginning of the 1920s, he started to lecture at the University of Jena, but was not satisfied with teaching as a profession and returned to Greece.

Dörpfeld died on 25 April 1940 on the island of Lefkada, Greece, where he had a house, believing that the bay of Nidri on the eastern coast of Lefkada was the historical Ithaca, home of Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey.

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