The search for the ancient lost city of Troy

The search for the lost city of Troy

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The search for the ancient lost city of Troy

The name Troy refers both to a place in legend and a real-life archaeological site. In legend, Troy is a city that was besieged for 10 years and eventually conquered by a Greek army led by King Agamemnon. The reason for this “Trojan War” was, according to Homer’s “Iliad,” the abduction of Helen, a queen from Sparta. This abduction was done by Paris, the son of Troy’s King Priam. Throughout the “Iliad” the gods constantly intervene in support of characters on both sides of the conflict.

Troy also refers to a real ancient city located on the northwest coast of Turkey which, since antiquity, has been identified by many as being the Troy discussed in the legend. Whether the Trojan War actually took place, and whether the site in northwest Turkey is the same Troy, is a matter of debate. The modern-day Turkish name for the site is Hisarlik. 

The idea that the city was Troy goes back at least 2,700 years when the ancient Greeks were colonizing the west coast of Turkey. In the 19th century, the idea again came to popular attention when a German businessman and early archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, conducted a series of excavations at Hisarlik and discovered treasures he claimed to be from King Priam.

The ruins of what is believed to be ‘Troy VI’ in Hisarlik, Turkey.

Troy the legend

The Trojan War is thought to have taken place near the end of the Bronze Age. That is around or before 1200 B.C. It took place around the time that a civilization that we call Mycenaean flourished in Greece. They built great palaces and developed a system of writing. 

The earliest accounts of this war come from Homer, who lived around the eighth century B.C., several centuries after the events took place. They do not appear to have been written down until even later, likely during the sixth century B.C. when a tyrant named Peisistratus ruled Athens.

Homer’s “Iliad” is set in the 10th year of the siege against Troy and tells of a series of events that appear to have taken place over a few weeks. The story makes clear that the siege had taken its toll on the Greek force sent to recover Helen. The “timbers of our ships have rotted away and the cables are broken and far away are our wives and our young children,” the poem reads (translation by Richmond Lattimore). 

The war had essentially become a stalemate with the Greeks unable to take the city and the Trojans unable to drive them back into the sea. We “sons of the Achaians [Greeks] outnumber the Trojans — those who live in the city; but there are companions from other cities in their numbers, wielders of the spear to help them,” the “Iliad” reads. 

A number of key events happen in the poem, including a duel between Menelaos or Menelaus), the king of Sparta and husband of Helen, against Paris. The winner is supposed to receive Helen as a prize, ending the war. However, the gods intervene to break up the duel before it is finished and the war continues. 

Another important duel occurs nears the end of the poem between Achilleus (or Achilles) and a great Trojan warrior named Hektor (or Hector). The Trojan knows that he’s no match for the Greek warrior and initially runs three laps around Troy, with Achilleus chasing him. Finally, the gods force him to face the Greek warrior and he is in turn killed. 

Contrary to popular belief, the “Iliad” does not end with the destruction of Troy but with a temporary truce after which the fighting presumably continues. Another Homeric work called the “Odyssey” is set after the destruction of the city and features the Greek hero Odysseus trying to get home. That poem briefly references how the Greeks took Troy using the famous “Trojan Horse,” a gift concealing warriors within. 

“What a thing was this, too, which that mighty man wrought and endured in the carven horse, wherein all we chiefs of the Argives were sitting, bearing to the Trojans death and fate!” reads part of the poem (Translation by A.T. Murray through Perseus Digital Library). 

The city’s origin

The site of Hisarlik, in northwest Turkey, has been identified as being Troy since ancient times. Archaeological research shows that it was inhabited for almost 4,000 years starting around 3000 B.C. After one city was destroyed, a new city would be built on top of it, creating a human-made mound called a “tell.”

“There is no one single Troy; there are at least 10, lying in layers on top of each other,” writes University of Amsterdam researcher Gert Jan van Wijngaarden in a chapter of the book “Troy: City, Homer and Turkey”. 

Van Wijngaarden notes that archaeologists have to dig deep to find remains of the first settlement and from what they can tell it was a “small city surrounded by a defensive wall of unworked stone.” Outside the largest gate was a stone with an image of a face, perhaps a deity welcoming visitors to the new city. 

Troy took off in the period after 2550 B.C. The city “was considerably enlarged and furnished with a massive defensive wall made of cut blocks of stone and rectangular clay bricks,” van Wijngaarden writes. He notes that on the settlement’s citadel were houses of the “megaron” type, which contained “an elongated room with a hearth and open forecourt.”

The name Troy refers both to a place in legend and a real-life archaeological site. In legend, Troy is a city that was besieged for 10 years and eventually conquered by a Greek army led by King Agamemnon. The reason for this “Trojan War” was, according to Homer’s “Iliad,” the abduction of Helen, a queen from Sparta. This abduction was done by Paris, the son of Troy’s King Priam. Throughout the “Iliad” the gods constantly intervene in support of characters on both sides of the conflict.

Troy also refers to a real ancient city located on the northwest coast of Turkey which, since antiquity, has been identified by many as being the Troy discussed in the legend. Whether the Trojan War actually took place, and whether the site in northwest Turkey is the same Troy, is a matter of debate. The modern-day Turkish name for the site is Hisarlik. 

The idea that the city was Troy goes back at least 2,700 years, when the ancient Greeks were colonizing the west coast of Turkey. In the 19th century, the idea again came to popular attention when a German businessman and early archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, conducted a series of excavations at Hisarlik and discovered treasures he claimed to be from King Priam.

A stone block with Greek writing sits at the ruins of Troy, Turkey.

The search for Troy

The search for Troy became a major preoccupation for travellers, topographers, writers and scholars in the 18th and early 19th centuries when ancient Greece and its myths captivated public imagination in Europe. But it was not a simple matter and became a subject of heated debate. The division lay between ‘realist’ thinkers, who believed the story of Troy must be based on some historical truth and opponents who claimed it was simply dreamed up in Homer’s poetic imagination and would never be found.

Aerial view of the site of Troy
Silver coin minted in Ilium.

The Troad was mapped and explored and the prevalent theory of the ‘realists’ was that a hill called ‘Pinarbaşı’ had been the site of Troy, but they couldn’t find any evidence. In what should have been a breakthrough, a traveller named Edward Clarke visited a different hill, named ‘Hissarlik,’ in 1801 and identified it as the site of Ilion. He based this on the evidence of coins and inscriptions he found there. However only later in the 19th century would it dawn that Hissarlik was the site not just of Ilion, but also of legendary Troy, which was underneath the Classical remains.

Troy found

Frank Calvert lived in the Troad and owned land next to the mound of Hissarlik. An amateur but skilled archaeologist, he was convinced that there would be a good place to dig. So when Schliemann visited in 1868, with Homer in one hand and a spade in the other, determined to make his name in archaeology, Calvert found him easy to persuade. Calvert helped Schliemann, but it would be Schliemann’s name that became world famous, as the pioneer of archaeology who discovered and revealed the site of ancient Troy.

William Simpson (1823–1899), Excavations at Hissarlik. Watercolour, 1877.
William Simpson (1823–1899), Excavations at Hissarlik. Watercolour, 1877.

Huge publicity surrounded Schliemann’s finds. He announced to the world that in what is now called Troy II he had found the city of mythical King Priam and the Troy of the Trojan War. It was here that he discovered silver and gold vessels and jewellery, which he named ‘Priam’s treasure’ and which he believed included ‘the jewels of Helen’. His interpretation that the finds were evidence of the Trojan War was questioned at the time and, perhaps sadly for romantics everywhere, it is no longer accepted.

Later archaeological work at both Troy and on the Greek mainland, particularly at the site of Mycenae (one of the most important settlements of Bronze Age Greece), makes it clear that any feasible background for the story of the war must have been at least a thousand years later than the Troy that Schliemann claimed as ‘Priam’s Troy.’ Only then was Mycenaean Greece in contact with Troy, and powerful enough for the story to make sense. But of course, Homer was a poet and not a historian. It remains immensely difficult to link the Iliad specifically to the archaeology of Troy.

Schliemann’s excavations, between 1870 and 1890, marked the beginning of intensive archaeological exploration at Troy, by various international teams, that continues today, with current research led by Turkish archaeologists. Understanding of the site, its development over time and its place in the ancient world continue to grow. From an archaeological perspective, there is a rich history to be uncovered that stands quite apart from the myth of the Trojan War and is important in its own right. Yet the myth and the site remain inextricably linked. Few visitors can look out from the walls of ‘windy Troy’ across the Trojan plain without thinking of the massed Greek armies waiting to attack, or the women of Troy watching helplessly as the battle rages below.  


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