Was There a Trojan War?

Roundup: Talking About History

Manfred Korfmann, in Archaeology Magazine (May 2004):

Recorded sometime in the eighth century b.c., the Iliad represents the culmination of several centuries of oral epic poetry that wove a complex story of the relationship between mortals and gods. This narrative takes place against the bloody backdrop of the ten-year-long Greek siege of the city alternatively called Ilios or Troy, a war launched over the abduction of the beautiful Greek queen Helen by the Trojan prince Paris.

The ancient Greeks and Romans generally believed in the historicity of the Trojan War, and even Alexander the Great paid homage at what they believed was the site of the great battle. But eventually Troy was forgotten except for the Iliad, and it wasn’t until the late nineteenth century, when Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations at the site of Hisarlik in northwestern Turkey raised the possibility that Troy was rediscovered, that scholars would consider the battle between Greeks and Trojans to be more than Homeric fantasy. Some scholars, however, still cast doubt on the notion of a historical Trojan War, stressing that our belief in its existence is based ultimately on the creation of Homer, who was a poet, not a historian.

Manfred Korfmann, director of excavations at Hisarlik/Troy since 1988, is the first to admit that his team is not at the site to dig for evidence of the fabled event. But evidence in favor of a historical Trojan War appears to grow with each year, and comes not only from archaeologists but from specialists across academia. In an Archaeology exclusive, Troy’s chief excavator, with contributions from world-renowned specialists in the fields of Homeric and Hittite studies, explains why it’s time for doubters to change their minds about the Western world’s most famous—and mythic—battle.

Despite assumptions to the contrary, archaeological work of the new Troy project has not been performed for the purpose of understanding Homer’s Iliad or the Trojan War. For the past sixteen years, more than 350 scholars, scientists, and technicians from nearly twenty countries have been collaborating on the excavations at the site in northwestern Turkey that began as an Early Bronze Age citadel in the third millennium b.c. and ended as a Byzantine settlement before being abandoned in a.d. 1350. However, as current director of the excavations, I am continually asked if Homer’s Trojan War really happened.

The size of Troy

Troy appears to have been destroyed around 1180 b.c. (this date corresponds to the end of our excavation of levels Troy VIi or VIIa), probably by a war the city lost. There is evidence of a conflagration, some skeletons, and heaps of sling bullets. People who have successfully defended their city would have gathered their sling bullets and put them away for another event, but a victorious conqueror would have done nothing with them. But this does not mean that the conflict was the war—even though ancient tradition usually places it around this time. After a transitional period of a few decades, a new population from the eastern Balkans or the northwestern Black Sea region evidently settled in the ruins of what was probably a much weakened city.

The main argument against associating these ruins with the great city described in the Iliad has been that Troy in the Late Bronze Age was a wholly insignificant town and not a place worth fighting over. Our new excavations and the progress of research in southeastern Europe has changed such views regarding Troy considerably.

It appears that this city was, by the standards of this region at that time, very large indeed, and most certainly of supraregional importance in controlling access from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea and from Asia Minor to southeast Europe and vice versa. Its citadel was unparalleled in the wider region and, as far as hitherto known, unmatched anywhere in southeastern Europe. Troy was also evidently attacked repeatedly and had to defend itself again and again, as indicated by repairs undertaken to the citadel’s fortifications and efforts to enlarge and strengthen them.

A spectacular result of the new excavations has been the verification of the existence of a lower settlement from the seventeenth to the early twelfth centuries b.c. (Troy levels VI/VIIa) outside and south and east of the citadel. As magnetometer surveys and seven excavations undertaken since 1993 have shown, this lower city was surrounded at least in the thirteenth century by an impressive U-shaped fortification ditch, approximately eleven and a half feet wide and six and a half feet deep, hewn into the limestone bedrock. Conclusions about the existence and quality of buildings within the confines of the ditch have been drawn on the basis of several trial trenches and excavations, some of them covering a very large surface area. The layout of the city was confirmed by an intensive and systematic pottery survey in 2003. We have also discovered a cemetery outside the ditch to the south. The most recent excavations have determined that Troy, which now covers about seventy-five acres, is about fifteen times larger than previously thought....

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