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Schliemann spent part of his fortune on discovering Troy

Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology, Historical articles, History, Literature, War on Tuesday, 30 April 2013

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This edited article about Troy originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 237 published on 30 July 1966.

Trojan house, picture, image, illustration

A Trojan warrior returns at the end of the day to his wife and child at home within the walled city of Troy by Ron Embleton

The story of the war between the Greeks and the Trojans, which Homer described in his epic poem, the Iliad, was as far removed from him in time as we are from Elizabethan England. The Greek poet Homer lived about 900 B.C. and the war took place at least 300 years earlier. It ended with the Greeks utterly destroying the city of Troy. Any Trojans who survived the war were enslaved or became fugitives.

But did Troy ever really exist, or was it simply born of Homer’s imagination? This question was argued for centuries, and those who claimed that there had once been a real city called Troy pointed to a particular spot in Turkey, about three miles from the coast. Here a low mound rises about 120 feet above the plain. The Turks called it Hissarlik, which means “castle”, for there were fort-like ruins upon its summit, and from the very earliest days tradition asserted that this was the true site of Troy.

Xerxes, Alexander the Great, Augustus Caesar, Julius Caesar – all visited the spot and paid homage to the mighty dead of the war. Nevertheless, scholars mocked at the idea that Troy was buried within the mound. Homer could not be used as a guide, they said, for he was a poet, not an historian, and he was writing centuries after the events he described.

In any case Troy, according to Homer, had been situated on beetling cliffs – a description which hardly applied to the unimpressive hillock of Hissarlik. The most likely spot was the steep cliffs near a place called Bunarbashi, 36 miles from the coast.

No one troubled to do anything practical about the problem, however, until 1873, when a German, Heinrich Schliemann, confounded the scholars by the simple method of actually digging.

Schliemann was a merchant who made a fortune for one purpose only – to find Troy. In his colourful autobiography he disclosed that he was still a child when he swore to uncover not only Troy but the treasure of its last king, Priam, although both were supposed to be legends.

Unlike most scholars, Schliemann believed that almost every detail in the Iliad was based on fact and, using it as a kind of guidebook, he examined the site at Bunarbashi. This could not be Troy, he declared, for its details did not correspond with the details given by Homer.

He then moved off to Hissarlik and conducted a similar inspection. One of the many points that impressed him in its favour was Homer’s frequently repeated statement that the Greeks marched from their ships on the coast to the walls of Troy and back again within a single day.

This would have been an impossible feat if Troy had been situated at Bunarbashi, whereas the six-mile return journey between Hissarlik and the coast would have been nothing to veteran soldiers. Convinced that Troy was indeed at Hissarlik, Schliemann set out to prove his theory with that same enormous energy with which he had amassed a fortune.

His plan was very simple. Troy must lie in the middle of the mound and he therefore drove a great trench, 60 feet deep, straight through it.

He found not one Troy but ten cities.

The mound of Hissarlik could have been deliberately constructed as an archaeological model so perfectly did it show the manner in which human beings establish settlements. The first-comers discover an attractive site and build their small, primitive huts. In the course of time, plague, famine, or war force them to abandon it but, because the site is favourable, others inevitably settle there again. The area is levelled off and new buildings are erected upon the rubble of the old. The pattern is again repeated, and slowly the level of the land rises in a series of layers, each layer containing not only ruins but bits of broken pottery, bones, rusty armour and the like.

These objects, thrown away as rubbish, are of priceless value to the archaeologist when attempting to find the dates of each of the settlements.

The second layer from the bottom at Hissarlik showed the remains of a large city, with strong walls and massive gates, that had been destroyed by fire – just as Homer’s Troy had been. Schliemann was certain that this was what he was seeking: he even discovered, beneath a huge, tottering wall, an incredibly rich hoard of gold and silver ornaments which he announced to the world as being the treasure of King Priam.

Here his vivid imagination led him astray: the treasure had been buried at least a thousand years before Priam ruled, for the city in which it was discovered was prehistoric. The Troy of which Homer wrote had occupied the seventh layer from the bottom.

The scar in Hissarlik caused by Schliemann’s great trench long remained as a warning that, for the archaeologist, enthusiasm without discipline can be not only misleading but actually destructive. Schliemann ignored everything except that which contributed to his theory, and his bulldozing approach destroyed much of the ruins and mixed up the contents of the various layers.

It was the man who came after him who, with patient, tedious care, read the testimony of the stones and so at last found Troy. Nevertheless, it was Schliemann’s tremendous enthusiasm and boundless faith in Homer which ensured that the search for Troy was begun.

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