Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
On Monday in the Scheuer Room, C. Brian Rose, Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke on “Assessing the Evidence for the Trojan Wars” in a well-attended lecture sponsored jointly by the Art History and Classics Departments.
His lecture focused on the discoveries that have been made in the last eighteen years of excavations at Troy, and specifically on evidence found for battles that occurred at Troy.
Troy is located in the Troas to the northwest of modern-day Turkey, and it guards the entrance of the Dardanelles Strait, which eventually leads all the way to Istanbul. Since whoever controlled Troy controlled access to everything that lay further to the East, it was a site of great strategic importance in antiquity.
German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann was the first to explore the Mound of Troy in the 1870s. Unfortunately, he had had no formal education in archaeology, and dug an enormous trench “which we still call the Schliemann Trench,” according to Rose, because in the process Schliemann “destroyed a phenomenal amount of material.” He did, however, find evidence for the existence of ten different cities over the course of forty-five hundred years. Troy is still a difficult place to dig, said Rose, in part because “going through just a few centimeters can mean going through hundreds of years of habitation.”
Schliemann found a phenomenal amount of gold jewelry, bronze vessels, and even lapis lazuli in Troy II, the 2500 BC city he unearthed. The lapis was particularly important because at this time in history it could only be found in Afghanistan, and thus established a trading link between Troy and Afghanistan in this period. Schliemann dubbed the find “Priam’s Treasure,” and declared the city to be that of the Homeric King Priam.
Only much later in his career would he accept the fact that the treasure had been found at a layer one thousand years removed from the battle between the Greeks and Trojans, and thus that it could not have been the treasure of King Priam. Schliemann may not have discovered the truth, but the publicity stunt worked, making Schliemann and the site famous and igniting the field of Homeric studies in the late 19th century.
In more recent, and significantly less inept, excavations, Rose and his colleagues have looked for defense fortifications around the lower part of Troy. 200 meters south of the main mound, they were able to dig down to find the bedrock, and cuttings for a wooden fortification wall that would have protected the southern part of the city. The discovery that there were two lines of defense as early as 2500 BC was vitally important.
Although scholars don’t understand Troy III, IV, or V very well, they do understand Troy VI, which existed from the 17th to the 13th centuries, extremely well. It had thick and extraordinarily strong walls of limestone capped by mud brick, some of which is still intact. Rose’s excavation also uncovered evidence of a second line of defense in Troy VI, a defensive ditch six feet high and ten feet wide followed by a wall that could have supported Trojan archers. This dual system of defense would have protected the most important buildings very effectively.
There is evidence of a huge earthquake in Troy in 1250 BC, and the rebuilt city is known as Troy VII. At this time, people did not want to leave the city. Better walls were constructed, and the walls were filled with cheap housing to fit as many people as possible. Each house featured enormous food storage vessels sunk into the floor that would have prevented inhabitants from having to leave the protection of the citadel walls for a good long time. “People who lived here at that point were clearly scared to death,” observed Rose, and with good reason. The Trojans lost a major battle that occurred around 1200 BC. The destruction level in some parts of the city was up to five feet high. We do not know to whom they lost the battle, as the sling stones that have been found could have come from any culture.
Although it used to be thought that the site was abandoned for four hundred years after this attack, the recent excavations have disproved this assumption. There were always people in Troy, and the next four hundred years of excavations show that they were part of a cross-Aegean trading network.
Evidence for the Trojan Wars has not been found as of yet, but by the seventh century BC Troy was already the site of a burgeoning Trojan War tourist industry. In 480 BC, Xerxes of Persia stopped by to pay homage to Trojan heroes (and sacrifice a thousand oxen to Athena) on his way to sack Greece. Alexander the Great made the same pilgrimage in the opposite direction in 340 BC, even re-enacting the funeral games of Patroclus with Trojan War relics from the Temple of Athena.
The tourism increased even more when Troy was identified as the mother city of the Romans. Roman Emperors came and “dropped enormous quantities of money,” as Rose put it, in Troy. Statues were even set up to commemorate their visits. Rose himself once found a portrait of Augustus at the excavations on his birthday.
It was in 500 AD that another earthquake turned Troy into a graveyard. Today, Rose noted, “the exploitation of the Trojan heritage of the site which began as early as the second century BC continues unabated.” You can climb into a big wooden horse, watch re-enactments of Trojan war events, and even go to the Judgment of Paris beauty contest, which crowns the same Miss Helen of Troy every August 15th.