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Dörpfeld, Wilhelm

    Image Credit: Britannica

    Full Name: Dörpfeld, Wilhelm

    Other Names:

    • Wilhelm Dörpfeld

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1853

    Date Died: 1940

    Place Born: Barmen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

    Place Died: Leukas, Ionian Islands, Greece

    Home Country/ies: Germany

    Subject Area(s): ancient, Ancient Greek (culture or style), archaeology, architecture (object genre), and sculpture (visual works)


    Archaeologist; specialist in ancient Greek architecture. Dörpfeld studied at the Academy of Architecture (Bauakademie) in Berlin, 1873-1876, under Friedrich Adler, whose daughter he later married. In 1877 Adler sent Dörpfeld to help excavate the Olympia site in Greece. There, Dörpfeld developed the method of dating ancient archaeological sites based on the strata in which objects were found and the type of building materials. Together with Alexander Conze and Carl Humann, he excavated Pergamon (1878-86) uncovering the city and the great altar, now in the Berlin Museum. Among those impressed with his methodology was the amateur archeologist Heinrich Schliemann, whose own archeological work was criticized for its lack of scholarly procedure. Schliemann convinced Dörpfeld to assist him with his excavation of Troy. Dörpfeld began the Troy site in 1882, identifying the strata from which objects were taken and generally organizing the excavation. He also corrected many of Schliemann’s conclusions, including the shaft burial sites at Mycenae. In 1884 Dörpfeld and Schliemann began excavation of the Tiryns site, which became the first major bronze-age discovery. Again, Dörpfeld prevented Schliemann and his team from destroying precious archaeological remains (in this case, decomposed Greek marble walls which Schliemann had taken for more recent Roman mortar masonry). He met the emerging British scholar Jane Ellen Harrison who accompanied him on his archaeological tours. Beginning in 1886 he excavated the Hekatompedon (the pre-Classical Parthenon) on the Acropolis in Athens. In 1887 Dörpfeld became Director of Athens branch of the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) which he held until 1912. In 1896, Dörpfeld authored Das griechische Theater, the first study of Greek theater construction. After his retirement, the tenacious Dörpfeld spent much time attacking the views of other archaeologists. During the mid-1930s, Dörpfeld took on a celebrated debate regarding the configuration of the three phases of the Parthenon with the American architectural history William Bell Dinsmoor. He died on the island of Leukas where he had a home, the site of what he believed to be Homer’s Ithaca. Dörpfeld was one of the seminal figures in classical archaeology and art history, both loved and despised. His method remains the core work in archeological site analysis. When his dating proved incorrect, as in the case of Level VI at Tiryns, it was only because of lack of subsequent information and then only slightly. Like Schliemann, he spent much of his energies in the romantic pursuit to prove Homer’s Odyssey was based upon real places. Arthur J. Evans termed Dörpfeld “Schliemann’s greatest discovery.” Dörpfeld’s critical attacks against other scholars with whom he disagreed, at times petty, alienated younger scholars. The Berlin scholarly community, consisting of Berlin Archaeological Institute and classical philology professor Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1848-1931) were highly critical of Dörpfeld’s excavations at Leukas and Corfu and the Oxford classicist Percy Gardner characterized Dörpfeld as lacking sober critical judgment. His architectural training blinded him from the importance of many artifacts, such as pottery, for chronology.

    Selected Bibliography

    and Reisch, Emil. Das griechische Theater: Beiträge zur Geschichte des Dionysos-Theaters in Athen und anderer griechischer Theater. Athens: Barth & von Hirst, 1896; “Geschichte der Ausgrabungen von Troja. Die Bauwerke der verschiedenen Schichten,” in Troja und Ilion: Ergebnisse der Ausgrabungen in den vorhistorischen und historischen Schichten von Ilion 1870-1894. 2 vols. Athen: Beck & Barth, 1902 ff.; and Rüter, Heinrich. Homers Odyssee: die Wiederherstellung des ursprünglichen Epos von der Heimkehr des Odysseus nach dem Tageplan, mit Beigaben über homerische Geographie und Kultur. 2 vols. Munich: Buchenau & Reichert, 1925; and Goessler, Peter. Alt-Ithaka: ein Beitrag zur Homer-Frage: Studien und Ausgrabungen aus der Insel Leukas-Ithaka. 2 vols. Munich: R. Uhde, 1927; and Forbat, Fred, and Goessler, Peter. Alt-Olympia: Untersuchungen und Ausgrabungen zur Geschichte des ältesten Heiligtums von Olympia und der älteren griechischen Kunst. 2 vols. Berlin: E. S. Mittler & sohn, 1935; Beiden vorpersischen Tempel unter dem Parthenon des Perikles. vol. 1 of Alt-Athen und seine Agora: Untersuchungen über die Entwicklung der ältesten Burg und Stadt Athen und ihres politischen Mittelpunktes, des Staatsmarktes. Berlin: E. S. Mittler, 1937-1939; “Zum alter von Parthenon I und II.” Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archaologischen Instituts 52 (1937): 14-16; “Zum tempel der Athena, der schutzherrin von Athen.” Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archaologischen Instituts 52 (1937): 220-4; Erechtheion. Berlin: E. S. Mittler & Sohn, 1942. [Parthenon debate] “Der Brand des alten Athena-Tempels und seines Opisthodoms.” American Journal of Archaeology 38 (April 1934): 249-257; reply, continued, “Parthenon I, II und III.” American Journal of Archaeology 39 (October 1935): 497-507; [rejoinder by William Bell Dinsmoor] “The Older Parthenon, Additional Notes.” American Journal of Archaeology 39 (October 1935): 508-509.


    Archäologenbildnisse: Porträts und Kurzbiographien von Klassichen Archäologen deutscher Sprache. Reinhard Lullies, ed. Mainz am Rhein: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1988: 112-113. Suzanne L. Marchand. Down from Olympus: Archaeology and Philhellenism in Germany, 1750-1970. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996: 74; Traill, David A. “Dörpfeld (Doerpfeld) Wilhelm.” Encyclopedia of the History of Classical Archaeology. Nancy Thomson de Grummond, ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996, vol. 1, pp. 372-74; Medwid, Linda M. The Makers of Classical Archaeology: A Reference Work. New York: Humanity Books, 2000 pp. 93-95; [obituaries:] Picard, Charles. “Tribute.” Revue Archeologique 6 no. v part 17 (January 1941): 71-3; “Wilhelm Dörpfeld.” American Journal of Archaeology 44 (July 1940): 360.


    Contributors: Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen


    Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen. "Dörpfeld, Wilhelm." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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