Tue May 18, 4:09 PM ET - By Josh Fischman, U.S. News & World Report -- Legendary Troy, perched on a hilltop in what's now northwestern Turkey, draws thousands of visitors every year. And their overwhelming reaction is disappointment. "Most tourists get there and say, 'This is it?' " says Eric Cline, an archaeologist at George Washington University. The place of which Homer sang--a rich city with "lofty gates" and "fine towers," temples to Apollo and to Athena, the palace of King Priam with a grand throne room and 50 marble chambers, a land in which thousands of warriors defended the beautiful Helen against an invading Greek force--looks like a rude ruin on a dusty hill.
a fort with big walls, but they encircle an area only about 200 yards across.
Around it are some scattered stones. Says Andrew Sherratt, an archaeologist
at Oxford University: "It seems like pretty small beer."
Visitors aren't the only ones who feel let down. The small size and relative
poverty of the ruins on this mound, called Hissarlik, have led many
archaeologists and historians to doubt this was the place of the heroic battles of The
Iliad; Frank Kolb, from the University of Tubingen, Germany, has described the
site as "a miserable little settlement."
But Troy is getting bigger. Much bigger. Recent excavations have unearthed an
extensive town outside the citadel walls, dated to around 1300 B.C.--the
approximate time when Homer's Trojan War is supposed to have occurred. "The town
makes Troy about 15 times larger than previously thought," reports Manfred
Korfmann, the University of Tubingen archaeologist directing the dig, in the
current issue of Archaeology . That would raise the Trojan population size, too,
from several hundred to perhaps 10,000--enough to form a sizable army.
work has also unearthed fortifications, imported pottery, swords, and a seal
that reveals trading ties to far-flung cities. "Clearly, Troy at this time was
incredibly wealthy, incredibly strong," says Brian Rose of the University of
Cincinnati, who has also excavated at the site.
More and more, Troy is looking
like something worth fighting for and a place worthy of an epic poem--as well
as a full-blown film epic like Troy, the Hollywood historical spectacular that
opened last week starring Brad Pitt, Peter O'Toole, a very large wooden horse,
and the obligatory cast of thousands.
Just who was doing the fighting in reality, and why, has to be understood
against the backdrop of the Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age, from 1600
to 1200 B.C. This was a world where villages were starting to come together and
join forces as regional states, and that meant some jockeying for control
over land and resources. One of the first to rise to prominence was Mycenae, a
city in southern Greece, across the Aegean Sea from Troy--and the legendary seat
of King Agamemnon.
Launching ships. Mycenae, according to Homer, was where the trouble with the
Trojans started. Agamemnon's brother, Menelaus, was married to the famous
But Paris of Troy, egged on by some meddlesome gods, kidnapped Helen and
brought her home. Agamemnon, to help his brother, rounded up Odysseus, Achilles,
a few other accomplished warriors, and a thousand ships, and set sail in
At Troy, however, they were stymied for 10 years by the army of Paris's
father, King Priam, and the stout walls of the city. Then the Greeks faked a
retreat, leaving behind a troop of commandos hidden in a big wooden horse. The
Trojans took the horse into the city, the commandos came out at night and
opened the city gates, and the Greeks returned to sack the place.
Heinrich Schliemann, the wealthy amateur German archaeologist who made the
first serious excavations at Troy, arrived at Mycenae about 3,100 years after
these battles supposedly took place. In 1876, Schliemann began cutting a trench
just inside the so-called Lion's Gate and found five large, rectangular
They were graves, holding bodies that were, literally, covered in gold.
Goblets, swords, breastplates, crowns, and jewelry were everywhere, and the faces
were shielded by gold masks. Legend has it that Schliemann held up one of
these masks and then wrote to the king of Greece, saying, "I have gazed upon the
face of Agamemnon." Unfortunately, Schliemann was wrong: The excavated finds
predated the Trojan War by hundreds of years--dates verified by later
(This wasn't the first time Schliemann's enthusiasm leapt ahead of his
science. At Troy, he uncovered a cache of jewels, draped them over his own
wife, Sophie, and pronounced them to be the "Jewels of Helen." Once again,
however, he had his dates wrong.)
Agamemnon remains, so far as anyone knows, a fictional character. But Mycenae
and its wealth, uncovered by Schliemann, were quite real. Starting about 1600
B.C., the palace-state was a major player in Mediterranean culture and
politics. And it was just one part of a larger civilization. Other, similar sites
ranged across Greece, including Pylos, Argos, and Tyrins.
At all of these
places, residents began acquiring wealth and using it to build power bases, says
Jack Davis, an archaeologist at the University of Cincinnati. "The palaces are
all really big," says Davis. "And they are filled with specialized rooms. There
were rooms for food storage, rooms for ceramics, chariot repair shops, and
archive rooms with records written on stone tablets. Many of the walls were
plastered, and some had frescoes."
Gold and silver. This consolidation of power probably came about because the
Mycenaeans controlled sources of precious metals and were able to use them to
start trading networks.
To the south, on the island of Crete, a group called
the Minoans had developed elaborate gold and silver craftworks. What they
didn't have was the raw gold and silver; the mainland people did, and that was the
start of a mutually beneficial exchange. The Minoans were also trading
elsewhere, with Cyprus and Egypt, and the Mycenaeans became plugged into this network.
There was one problem: Expanding spheres of influence, inevitably, bump into
other expanding powers.
The Mycenaeans, as they stretched eastward, ran into
the empire of the Hittites, a civilization that dominated much of what is now
called Turkey. From their capital, Bogazkoy, the Hittites controlled vast trade
routes stretching east to Asia, south toward Egypt and Assyria, and north to
the Black Sea. In time, some of these routes began moving goods west to the
Mediterranean. And there, Hittite records show, they started knocking heads with
a people whom they called the Ahhiyawa. Tablets found in the ruins of Hittite
palaces speak of battles and reconciliations with these people along Turkey's
western coast and into the Aegean. Today most scholars think the Ahhiyawa
were none other than the Mycenaeans.
Here, archaeological records start to recall the Homeric legends. One of
those Mycenaean clashes, sometime prior to 1300 B.C., was over an area in
northwestern Turkey that the Hittite texts call Wilussa. The Hittites took some pains
to maintain good relations with Wilussa because it was a regional power,
capable of raising armies and in a position to control key shipping lanes.
the land of Wilussa has seceded from the land of the Hattusa [as the Hittites
called themselves], close ties of friendship were maintained . . . with the
kings of the land," wrote a Hittite king to the ruler of Wilussa in a treaty.
So here is a bone of contention between the Mycenaeans and their rivals,
sitting approximately where Troy sits today. This history sounds more specifically
Homeric, says Joachim Latacz, a classics scholar from the University of Basel,
when one considers Homer's name for Troy in The Iliad was "Ilios." Bronze Age
Greeks would have pronounced it "Wilios." And that's just too close to Wilussa
for coincidence. Add to that a Bronze Age seal, inscribed in a Hittite
language, found in Troy, and "it's likely, though not completely certain," says
Rose, "that Troy was Wilussa."
Forts and slingshots. The new size of Troy adds to that likelihood. Korfmann,
among others, had been troubled by the skimpy area covered by Troy's citadel.
He performed a geomagnetic scan that revealed a strange line: It snaked
around the citadel, about 400 yards away. Digging down, archaeologists found a deep
ditch, several yards across. Behind the ditch the diggers found postholes dug
into the bedrock, of the type to support a palisade. The complex appears to
be a fortification, designed to stop things like onrushing chariots.
There are other signs of hostilities.
The archaeologists have found piles of
rounded stones used as ammunition for slingshots. "This is what defenders in a
siege would have used. It's just what we find at Masada, for instance, the
site of another famous siege, " says Cline. "That they are piled up means the
people are under attack."
The town that the archaeologists have unearthed between the outer barrier and
the fortress walls is no country hamlet. "It covers a broad area, extending
out from the citadel for about 400 yards," says Rose.
"The houses tend to have
stone foundations, mud brick walls, and timber roofs. We can even see the
remains of Bronze Age kitchens, including cooking vessels and table wares." Since
the houses are in tight groups, yet the groups are scattered around, it's
likely there were more houses in between that haven't been found or were
destroyed. It would be odd to build little clumps of houses at various places between
the citadel and the outer wall, says Cline, so it makes more sense to see these
groupings as remnants of a denser town. "This is really a neighborhood of
many homes," he says. "Together with the citadel and the ditch, it's a city, no
doubt about it."
And like any complex settlement, this city had dwellers of different social
status, including aristocracy. The archaeologists have found a burial of a man
"who seems to have died on the operating table," says Rose. "There were signs
that his brain was swelling and they tried to relieve it with trephination."
This was an ancient medical technique, in which holes were cut into the skull
to relieve pressure. It was, obviously, a risky procedure, and not attempted on
just anyone. "You don't trephinate commoners. So this was a member of some
elite," says Rose.
It is an intriguing story, yet it leaves troubling loose ends. One of them is
that Troy is actually nine cities, one built on top of the other, and the one
with the ditch and sling stones--Troy 6--looks as if it was destroyed not by
a siege but by an earthquake. There are shattered bricks everywhere and houses
shifted on foundations. It's the next Troy--7A--that has evidence of burned
houses and other signs of attack. But that city isn't as big as Troy 6. So
neither really fits Homer's war. And of course no one has found a Trojan horse.
(There is a rather odd-looking beast that's been erected in front of the site,
mainly to show tourists that they're in the right place.)
Rose isn't surprised by the unruly ending.
"There were many wars that
occurred at Troy or around it, from 2000 B.C. through the Battle of Gallipoli in
1915," he says. " The Iliad speaks of one war between Greeks and Trojans that
lasted 10 years. It is conceivable there were a number of battles in the Late
Bronze Age and that some lasted for a long time due to the sophisticated defenses
of the city. When The Iliad was composed, several centuries later, all these
elements could have been compressed into one war against one opponent." It's
not a neat, poetic conclusion, but that's usually what happens when you dig in
the dirt for the truth: Things end up being a little messy.
The Real Trojan War