Blog by Gillian Hovell, The Muddy Archaeologist www.muddyarchaeologist.co.uk
While the world sits in Covid-19 isolation, our wanderlust is curtailed.
It need not be this way. Let’s join in a virtual journey.
Today, we are travelling back 3,200 years to the great Trojan War, the source of the stories of Homer’s famous epics The Iliad and Odyssey. Here, we shall walk through legends, consider the adventure that is archaeology, and stroll through the ages.
Many folk arrive at the ancient site of Troy from a cruise ship, being brought by coach from the sea but maybe we are on a land tour of NW Turkey. Either way, our arrival seems inauspicious; the usual flurry of small buildings, crammed with memorabilia, places to snatch some kind of food, and the essential facilities. The last should always be visited before heading onto any ancient site – a golden rule when travelling is that you never know when you might see a toilet again …
While we wait for our companions, a large modern wooden horse stands before us. It’s inescapable. Many of us cannot resist climbing the wooden steps and the ladder within to lean out of the windows in the horse’s side and wave down at our friends below …
This is a playful nod to the tales of the wooden horse that the ancient Greeks of Agamemnon’s armies left on the shores. Its story was famous throughout the ancient Greek and Roman world; the long-besieged Trojans thought the Greek armies encamped on the shores had finally given up and gone home, leaving this wooden horse as an offering to the goddess Athena. The Trojans, ignoring a priest’s cry not to ‘trust the Greeks, even when they bear gifts’, dragged this horse into their walled town. At night, some Greeks who had hidden silently within, climbed out amidst the drunken celebrations, and opened the gates, letting in the Greeks who had snuck back. Troy was sacked, burned, men and boys killed and women and girls taken as slaves. Troy had fallen.
Songs would be sung of the tragedy of Troy, the deeds of the heroes and warriors, their journeys home. Maybe, as we drove out of the harbour to get here, we had passed the wooden horse built for the 2004 Hollywood film ‘Troy’. The story lives on. Now, we are about to walk in Troy itself.
We set off, over the dry parched soil, through a jumble of fluted columns hinting at the grandeur that once graced this site, and past a garden of pithoi, the large ancient Greek storage jars found on the site. We glance and may notice the hint of varied ages we are about to visit, but we are eager to see the site itself.
Our first glimpse is impressive. The sloping walls and the square, monumental tower are just a part of the great ramparts that protected the city of Troy. The sloping walls were earthquake proof and the turn in the ramparts at the gate prevents battering rams being an option in attack.
As we climb up the steps, we gain a sense of the imposing height of the citadel for at the top, a steep drop beside us offers us a view out to the shores where the Greeks were camped: plains stretch ahead of us. 3,000 years ago, the sea was much nearer – about where the modern road cuts across our view. We can almost see the flickering camp fires, hear the murmur of thousands of soldiers, and shudder at the clash of bronze weapons and thud of round shields as the Trojans and Greeks battle it out, month after month. The Iliad and the later Greek artwork help us to imagine the great heroes as they charge into battle on their chariots, leap off and cause mayhem and death before their chariot driver sweeps them up again and takes them into another vital part of the fray … and this goes on day after day after day. Until the fateful night of the Trojan horse.
Behind us, as we gaze at a view where millennia vanish, there is a plateau of heavy stones. On these, the Greeks built a great temple to Athena in the 300s BC, a thousand years after the war. Troy had become a tourist attraction back then: Alexander the Great had visited (smitten by his urge to emulate the great Achilles), and the Roman Emperors would visit too. This temple would have been visible from the sea; a beacon to all that here stands the great site of Troy, the source of the dawn of Greek literature and, for the Romans, the homeland of Aeneas, the Trojan warrior who fled and eventually founded a dynasty that would become Romulus and Remus and finally Julius Caesar and Augustus. For us, now, we are probably greeted by one of the local cats who parade here and seem to think they are the main attraction.
A winding track takes us past remnants of stone; an upturned hollowed roof fragment from the temple, and then down to circle around a surprise – a reddened mud brick structure protected by a curving modern tent-like roof. This deep in the citadel, these are the remains of the fortification walls and a great megaron, a royal centre possibly, certainly over 4,000 years old. This is ‘Troy II’ (out of 9 Troys that were found built one on top of each other). In 1886, the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann called this reddened remnant his ‘Burnt City’ and further on we shall see evidence of why he was tempted to think this was Homer’s Troy (although in reality it was over 1,000 years older than the Trojan War).
A few steps further we walk past a sloping stone wall and tower base, set deep into the ground beside us. The remarkable thing is that this is even older, being part of the first walls of Troy, built onto the bedrock in the Early Bronze Age, nearly 5,000 years ago. These walls encircled a wealthy if small settlement who traded across the seas.
Our tour takes us back out towards the sea, glancing down at long stone foundations of elite houses from Troy II. And we can turn back and gaze at the gouged excavation trench dug by Schliemann’s army of diggers in 1873 as he brutally hacked his way down through the later Troys to reach what he mistakenly thought was the gold-bearing Homeric Troy with its Treasures of King Priam’ and the ‘Jewels of Helen’. As an archaeologist, this is a tragedy; so much was destroyed.
A little further on we see the cause for Schliemann’s excitement; a great ramp, wide enough for carriages and strong enough for great loads, leading into a fortified Troy. This too is Troy II dated to between 2,500 BC – 2,200 BC. Here, Schliemann claimed he had found royal treasure. But, splendid as this gateway is, it is not and cannot be Homer’s Troy of c.1,200 BC.
Close by is an open area full of shrines and wells. These are much younger, later than Homer’s Trojan War but very roughly contemporary with or later than the poet himself. This is the Greek Archaic sanctuary area, begun when the Greeks settled at Troy in the 700s BC. The remains belong to various times; after Alexander’s visit, the sanctuary was modified in the 200s and 100s BC and Romans added to this sacred space in the centuries that followed.
We walk on, with few ruins to see amongst the trees and Mediterranean flora. We may get a glimpse of a barred-up rock-cut tunnel that heads deep into the rocky citadel. Astonishingly, this was begun in the Bronze Age c.2,000 BC when the inhabitants traded largely with inland folk rather than out to the sea, and this rocky corridor, associated with a water deity, was even mentioned in a treaty with the Hittites in 1,280 BC.
A short stroll takes us back up to the top of the citadel, to the youngest part of the site, the Roman additions. Emperor Augustus visited Troy and invested in building a small theatre called and Odeon for music and speaking events. Although this was a very Greek building in style, Rome now called Troy Ilium rather than the old Greek ilion (the reason Homer’s Greek Iliad was so called – the song about the city of Ilion).
In AD 124, The Emperor Hadrian would also visit, having baths and a fountain and aqueduct built to service the town. His statue was erected. On the site, a scrubby area opposite the Odeon is a pale reflection of the grandeur that once stood here; a few diamond-shaped stones embedded in a far wall are testament to Roman architecture here. The smooth marble columns that litter this area are Roman (smooth because then it is easier to see the expensive marble and remark on where in the world these expensive resources had been brought from).
Our path takes us back, near the sloping walls we began at. We can scamper back for a final look, maybe climbing the small hillock to take photos and wonder if Hector, prince of Troy, really did fight down by these walls. If it happened, then these are the walls that maybe witnessed it all.
As we leave the ancient site, it is worth noting that nearly all of us have, at some point, stopped and gazed about and exclaimed ‘I’m in Troy. TROY! This is Troy!’. The sense of place may have been, at first, underwhelming. But during our walk, this awareness bubbles up. It is an honour to be here, to walk through (even virtually), not just history, but legend. Whether this really is Troy has been debated for years and years. But the ancients certainly believed this was Troy, the site of the great stories that would be remembered for ever.
And that’s good enough for me.
This blog is copyright of Gillian Hovell, ‘The Muddy Archaeologist’ and is for educational non-commercial purposes only.
More can be found about Gillian and her work at http://www.muddyarchaeologist.co.uk