Troy: Hollywood fact or fiction?

DID TROY really exiats? and if so was there a Trojan War as depicted in Troy? It would appear that Heinrich Schliemann (1822-90) found, at Hisarlik, in northwest Turkey, what is believed to be Troy (in fact, he had considerable help from one Frank Calvert – but that’s another story). From archaeological evidence, whether Homer’s Trojan War ever happened is not so clear.  To gain any idea it is useful to compare archaeological evidence from known areas and then see whether it links in with the literature of the Iliad – composed by Homer in the 8th century BC of a war that may have taken place in the 13th century BC at Troy.



Mycenaean comparisons

According to Homer, the Greek (aka Achaean) expedition against King Priam of Troy was led by Agamemnon, king of Mycenae (but you know all that if you have been reading my previous blogs). Homer tells us Agamemnon was a man of great wealth, the lord of deep-golden Mykenai and led a powerful navy of 100 ships – a larger force than all others.  Although there is no archaeological evidence of the existence of Agamemnon, we know the city of Mycenae existed around 1600 – 1100 BC and that it was a city of great wealth – this was realised from excavations of finds of gold in the burial chambers (a previous blog – I can’t keep saying this) and the evidence (pottery) of industry (oil merchants) in the foundations of surrounding buildings.


Map of the Aegean with Troy (Troia) and Mycenae

Some buildings in the city were substantially two-storied with interconnecting drainage.  The site itself indicates a ruling and military class – massive fortifications on a hill top overlooking a rich agricultural plain and the town of Argolis.  All these factors picture a city of the aristocracy and the prosperous. Excavations also showed that the city and its civilisation were destroyed (by fire) in around 1230 BC.  So, if Agamemnon of Mycenae was going to invade Troy it had to be before this date.  The city was later rebuilt to last until around 1100 BC and producing a different style of pottery, but not as the city it once was (so we are not very interested in it – well, I’m not).

When Schliemann excavated Mycenae, he found many treasures in the shaft graves adjacent to the great Lion Gate entrance (see prev …. no, I’m not going to say it).  He was overwhelmed with the finds, particularly the gold masks, one of which he believed to be of Agamemnon.  The problem was the dating.  The shaft graves, in which Schliemann found the treasures, were constructed in 1600 BC, some four hundred and fifty years before 1250 BC, the considered date of the fall of Troy – a detail Schliemann overlooked (but you know that from previous …. no, no, I’m not going to say it).  However, the artwork and design of the masks and jewellery made it clear that the Mycenaean civilisation was highly sophisticated (and ‘deep-golden’ or ‘rich in gold’ as another translation has it).

There are some connections in Homer with Mycenaean artefacts, particularly with the Iliad and armour  For example Odysseus “put over his head a helmet fashioned of leather … and on the outer side the white teeth of a tusk-shining boar were close sewn one after the other …” (Iliad 10.261) – the very kind of helmet found at Dendra, near Mycenae (see pic below).  Also, “Now Aias came near, carrying like a wall shield of bronze and sevenfold ox-hide” (Iliad 7.219) – a Mycenaean shield (see the body shields engraved in the dagger at Grave Circle A – pic below). Unfortunately, not all the references in the Iliad follow archaeological patterns and there are discrepancies. There is reference to “locking spear by spear, shield by shield, so buckler leaned on buckler, helmet on helmet, man against man … so dense were they formed on each other …” (Iliad 13.131), which infers the operation of the phalanx, but it was not used by the Greeks until around the 9th century BC.  Homer refers to types of armour of various periods and iron of his own period, as if comparing the Mycenaean culture with his own.


Dendra armour (c 1400 BC)


Dagger from Grave Circle A (c 1600 BC) at Mycenae showing ‘wall shields’ covering whole body 

The finding of the Linear B tablets at Mycenae (and at Pylos and Knossos) by Sir Arthur Evans (and interpreted by Michael Ventris as Greek in 1952) was both encouraging and discouraging.  They indicate a developing culture with a written language within Mycenaean Greece during the period leading up to Homer’s siege of Troy.  However, they relate to administration of ‘royal’ palaces and make no mention of Homer’s royal heroes by name, which limits their value to prove the existence of Homer’s Trojan War but they do refer to Mycenaean forays into Aegean (Lesbos) which puts them in situ.


Following the discovering of Troy, nine main settlements (I-IX) have been excavated over the years. Troy VI and VIIA bear a certain resemblance to Mycenae – Troy VI is high and wealthy, Troy VIIa is heavily fortified.  How do we know the dates of these cities?  Styles of Late Helladic IIIA pottery (1400 -1300 BC) and Late Helladic IIIB pottery (1300 -1200 BC) have been found by Carl Blegen, in Troy VI.  So although this ‘Mycenaean’ style pottery was made in Troy, Troy VI has a definite link with Mycenae.  This style disappeared from Troy around 1250 BC, the believed date of its destruction.  In Troy VIIb, a completely new style of pottery, alien to Mycenae, was found.  This originated from across the Dardanelles in the 12th century BC and possibly suggests new people at Troy.  So, if Homer’s Troy existed, it was prior to this period.


 Plan of citadels of Troy (grey is Troy I; yellow is Troy II; red is Troy VI)

However, Blegen was convinced that Troy VI was destroyed by an earthquake, as the walls had shifted, and Troy VIIa by fire (although he accepted that there had been a fire at Troy VI at some stage) and, therefore Troy VIIa was Homer’s Troy.  But Donald Easton has suggested that, although there was an earthquake, it possibly destroyed Troy VIIa and Blegen simply misinterpreted the signs of the wall movements.  Unfortunately, he refused to confirm that Troy VI was the city destroyed by the Greeks, commenting, “it simply gives us a nice opportunity for belief” (I just love that!).


Troy VI tower and east entrance to right

 Looking at Troy VIIa, it is very similar to Troy VI in build – as a fortification – with houses illustrating continuation of sturdy masonry in period of rebuilding.  In fact, it has been suggested that Troy VIIa is just another rebuilding of Troy VI. It does have ear-marks of siege about it – closely packed houses (unlike Troy VI), incorporating storage pithoi (large containers) let into floor for, perhaps, a special need for storage – even to the extent of restricting space within the building.  Was it preparing for siege?  Blegen believed so and this was another reason for his conclusion that Troy VIIa was Homer’s city of the Trojan War.  However, this preparation for siege at Troy VIIa may have be in defence against some other intruder (perhaps the later Sea People, as referred to by the Egyptians).

One problem with this, is that the whole of Troy VIIa is divided up into small enclosures and there is no Royal Palace, as there was (probably) in Troy VI.  This sounds rather like the King (if that is what he was) and his family are no longer in residence at Troy VIIa.



What Troy VI and its lower city may have looked like in the 13th century BC (270,00 sq m)

The next problem is dating.  Late Helladic IIIC pottery has since been found at Troy VIIa, which means it must have been in existence after 1190 BC which is too late for Homer’s War (the date of Homer’s War at 1250 BC is based on the fall of Mycenae shortly afterward in 1230 BC).  In this respect, Troy VIIa is unlikely to be Homer’s Troy which makes Troy VI favourite for Priam’s city. We also rely (not necessarily reliably) on the 5th century BC historian, Herodotus, and his dating of Homer and his Trojan War – the former, 400 years before his own time, and the latter, 800 years before his own time (but where he gets these dates from is anyone’s guess).

In addition, there have been excavations at Besik Bay, an inlet to the south of Troy, by Professor Korfmann (who, until his death, was working on the lower town at Troy VI).  This produced Mycenaean pottery and cremated bodies of the period around the Trojan War.  The cremations support Homer’s references, otherwise considered inconsistent with the believed Mycenaean practice of burial.  The Greeks may well have cremated their warriors to prevent the bodies being exhumed and despoiled by the Trojans.  The site is near to where the beach would have been in the 13th century BC, and close enough to Troy for a Greek encampment.  It is, of course, mere speculation and Korfmann is cautious about linking Homer and archaeology.  However, it does allow the imagination to wander.  He said, “I am sure, in the 13th century [BC] there several wars around and about the city of Troy but which one was Homer’s War, we will never know”.


Besik Bay – harbour controlled by Troy but where Mycenaean/Achaean fleet may have beached for the siege of Troy

So, what d’yer reckon?

It is clear that a large fortified city existed at Hisarlik in or around 1250 BC, at the time of Homer’s Trojan War, but because of its location at the entrance of the Dardanelles, it had control of a trade route to and from the Black Sea, and so such a fortification would not be particularly unusual. It would also be a very profitable city having such control and open to ‘take-over’ by wealth-seeking powers (of which Mycenae would have been one – having already taken over Minoan Crete in 1450 BC). Schliemann discovered its wealth in Troy II of 2500-2300 BC (click here for the Treasures of Troy) – too early for Homer’s Troy). However, there was, certainly, in existence in the 13th century BC, the wealth that Homer refers but whether it belonged to Homer’s heroes is unknown and will never be known unless something of reference to them appears in future excavations.

Archaeology shows that, if there was a Trojan War, Mycenae and the other cities named in the Iliad were, in the 13th century BC, large and strong enough to invade Troy.  However, there is very little in either Trojan or Mycenaean archaeology – or writing (Hittite texts and Linear B respectively) – to support the existence of Homer’s heroes or Homer’s Trojan War (the Hittites texts do stretch the imagination a bit – but that’s another story). Nor any mention of Helen ‘of Troy’ (well, of Sparta actually, being the wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta, until Paris, Prince of Troy, got his hands on her – if we are to believe Homer of course). All we can say is that Troy and a wealthy and powerful Mycenae existed and must have had its own warrior heroes.

So there you have it …. or not.


Next week: Travels in Turkey – going south from Troy, down the west coast of Turkey, to Ephesus, is the House of the Virgin Mary – not alot o’ people know that ……

Artemus Smith’s Notebooks

I continue my research of the notebooks of Dr Artemus Smith, archaeologist of great courage, determination and fiction. Here is another extract:

I have made a sensational discovery that the Ancient Greeks played golf some two thousand years before us. The reference to the game comes from some further work of Homer (c750BC but writing of the time of the Trojan War, c1250BC) that I fortuitously came upon in Alexandria. My translation of a passage is as follows:

And aged Chryses, priest of Phoibos Apollo,
did forsake prayer to his lord of the silver bow
and in secrecy went forth to play golf.
His first shot he smote strongly,
for it was blameless and he holed in one.
Such a stroke was from the hand of Zeus, gatherer of clouds.
Far striking Apollo spoke in anger to mighty Zeus,
‘Father Zeus, indeed I have done favour among mortals,
but why honour so this unworthy wretch
who steals away in secret to play golf
and avoids loyal duty of prayer to the gods?’
And in reply spoke Zeus, son of Kronos,
shaking his head with dark smile,
‘It is not with honour that I guided his ball,
but in frustration I have stricken him deep,
for in such secrecy of his play
to whom shall he dare boast of this great shot?’

Art Smth


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