Can myth and reality align? The site of Troy and the search for proof of the Trojan War

Homer’s Iliad, an epic poem set during the legendary Trojan War, has been a source of endless fascination for a diverse range of academic fields throughout history. Generally regarded as one of the oldest and greatest works of European literature, the text has had an indisputably enormous cultural impact. However, attempts to place the events of the poem in history have been rather more challenging; while ancient Greeks, such as the historian Herodotus, generally assumed that the Trojan War had taken place in the distant past, there has been much greater scepticism amongst modern scholars as to the reality of the epic conflict described by Homer.


The Site of Troy

A crucial element in this discourse surrounding the historical likelihood of the Trojan War is the archaeological site of the city of Troy itself – first excavated by Heinrich Schliemann in 1870, it is a valuable source of evidence for the thousands of years during which the area was occupied by various civilisations , and provides some support to the notion that a war did take place. For instance, the layer of the excavated site labelled Troy VI  was partially destroyed with some evidence of fire, and arrow heads, spear tips and sling shots have been found on the site and embedded in the walls of the fortification. This evidence is also dated to c.1250BCE, aligning with Herodotus’ estimation of when the Trojan War took place.


There is even some record of conflict in the area: Hittite tablets make reference to the Hittite empire fighting over ‘Wilusa’, a name that relates to the Greek name for Troy also used by Homer (‘Ilios’/’Ilion’), and mention a ruler called ‘Alaksandu’/Alexandros, an alternative name given for the Trojan prince Paris in the Iliad. Such features of the archaeological site are certainly compelling, and it is tempting to believe that they offer proof for the famous mythical conflict. However, there is no conclusive evidence to provide a strong basis for the reality of the Trojan War; the conflicts described in the Hittite texts were of a much smaller scale, consisting of local unrest and rebellion supported by Mycenaean Greeks against the Hittites rather than the vast 10-year struggle depicted in Homer. Therefore, while the site is a valuable source of archaeological information, it has limited scope in proving the existence of the Troy and great Trojan War envisioned in ancient epics.


Heinrich Schliemann’s Quest for Troy 

The difficulty of finding evidence that links the archaeological site and the city of legend are exemplified by Schliemann’s infamous excavation of the site of Troy, a project that also highlights the risks of conflating myth and history. Schliemann arrived at the site in Turkey in 1868 ‘with Homer in one hand and a spade in the other’ and was convinced by amateur archaeologist Frank Calvert to excavate what he thought would be a promising site. Discovering a collection of silver and gold vases, jewellery, and other precious items in the layer now known as Troy II in 1873,  he quickly began to claim  that it was the treasure of Priam, the king of Troy, and proof that Hisarlik (the Turkish name for the site) was the site of the legendary city. Such conclusions were ultimately ill-founded, as the artefacts have since been dated to more than a thousand years before any probable date for the Trojan War.


Aside from mistakenly identifying these artefacts as proof for the existence of Troy, Schliemann’s desire to uncover a legend would prove reckless and destructive, obstructing subsequent excavations of the site. Employing methods that were ‘savage and brutal’,  even for the standards of 19th century archaeology (according to Jill Rubalcaba and Eric H. Cline), he rushed through excavating the upper layers of the site, assuming that the remains of Priam’s Troy would lie at the bottom. However, in doing so, he actually managed to destroy the layer of the ‘real Troy’ that was dated as contemporary with the Trojan War, causing irreversible damage that is still being addressed to this day by Turkish archaeologists. Ultimately, Schliemann’s single-minded efforts were ineffectual in proving the reality of the Trojan War – while he did uncover significant proportions of the archaeological site, he jumped to false conclusions about the nature of the artefacts they discovered, and his quest to find the Troy of legend severely damaged the site, hindering the efforts of all those who came to excavate after him.


Myth or Reality?

The excavation of the site of Troy and the attempts to link this archaeological evidence with the myths most famously presented by Homer show the great difficulties of the task of aligning traditional narratives with historical reality. Although as of yet no conclusive discoveries exist to prove the occurrence of the Trojan War as it was conceived in the Iliad, the site has nonetheless yielded a rich history that stands ‘apart from the myth of the Trojan War and is important in its own right’.  Thus, while it can perhaps be a futile task to find historical proof of mythological events and places, such projects can nonetheless provide great opportunities for significant discoveries of a different kind.


Featured Image: Sergio Garcia on Unsplash

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