Troy is a crucial site in the history of the classical world. Some time in the 12th or 13th century BC war broke out between the Greeks and the Trojans – Herodotus claims it was a case of rape versus counter-rape – and the Greeks sent an expedition which besieged Troy for 10 years and eventually captured it. The story forms the basis for the Homeric poems, and indeed later for Virgil’s Aeneid. The stories were only recorded 400 years later when they read more as myth than history, but archaeology has shown that in the 13th and 12th centuries, at the end of the Bronze Age, the countries around the east Mediterranean collapsed, a collapse that was the end of the palatial empires and the beginning of a long long dark age from which classical Greece eventually emerged. And Troy, like all the other sites, was destroyed, and it is convenient to believe that this collapse is reflected in the stories of the Trojan War.
However the great sceptical German scholars of the 19th century, who doubted everything, doubted whether Troy ever really existed, but Heinrich Schliemann, a wealthy grocer and tradesman who was considered terribly vulgar by all the scholars, took up the belief that the mound said to be Troy really was Troy and went to dig it up.
He succeeded beyond all expectation, put a crude trench through the mound, and at the bottom found a treasure which he proclaimed to be the treasure of King Priam, the Homeric king of Troy. He was slightly out in his dates, — we now know that the treasure was 1,000 years earlier — but he triumphantly established that Troy was indeed Troy.
Perhaps fortunately for Troy, he went on to dig Mycenae by which time his archaeological techniques were slightly more sophisticated.
But archaeology has shown that Troy has a long, long story. It lies on the other side of the Aegean Sea in what is today the north western corner of Turkey. It lies in a crucial position at the entrance to the Bosporus, the narrow neck of sea that joins the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, thus throughout prehistory it was a crucial site, though whether the occupants should be called pirates or traders depends on one’s point of view.
Troy was subsequently sorted out in the 1930s by the American Carl Blegen who established that there were nine successive cities in the mound, of which the 9th and uppermost was a Roman city catering for Roman tourists, while the Homeric city was Troy 7, and the treasure that Schliemann had discovered belonged to Troy 2, in the early Bronze Age. Subsequently it has been extensively excavated by a German team under Manfred Korfmann and American team under Brian Rose who was Blegen’s successor. They had been concentrating not on the mound that is usually considered to be Troy, but on the very extensive remains on the plain beneath where the extensive Roman town may possibly overlie an earlier town of Homeric date.
But how far can Troy help us in our search for the workings of a palatial kingdom? There are three major problems. Firstly, Schliemann dug a huge trench through the mound which destroyed a slice of the surviving evidence. Every archaeologist messes up on his first excavation: Schliemann excavated on a grand scale and messed up on a grand scale.
Secondly the Romans decided to build a magnificent temple on top of the mound. The more romantic Roman scholars always liked to believe that Rome was founded by the Trojans – Virgil’s Aeneid describes how the hero Aeneas left Troy and eventually arrived in Italy to found Rome, so they wanted to mark this by building a great temple and the foundations of this probably overlaid and destroyed whatever remained of the Homeric period palace.
And in any case Troy was not a typical Bronze Age town. It was perhaps somewhat grander than a mere pirates’ lair and it certainly grew up in a big way, layer after layer. But the Homeric stories have ensured that it has been one of the most extensively excavated and studied of all towns in the Eastern Mediterranean.
29th July 2016