Making Sense of Troy: An Introduction

I’ve been circling around this for awhile, this Troy thing (particularly on my other blog). When I had the opportunity to go to Troy last summer — you know, the Troy of the Iliad fame, Homer, Helen of Troy, the Trojan Horse, Brad Pitt — I didn’t even know that it was in Turkey.  I’d always thought, Greece.  And I had a hard time keeping straight which characters in the Iliad were Greek and which were Trojan — there aren’t enough differences in their names, or maybe it’s that there aren’t enough similarities among the names in each group, for me to remember who’s on which side.  And then there’s the fact that they’re not really called Greeks at this point, but Achaeans, and Myrmidons, and Mycenaens, and Spartans. So all of this was a jumble in my head.  And I’m guessing that a lot of people are in a similar position.  I took an informal poll among my friends, who are highly educated and/or highly intelligent and/or avid, curious readers, and none of them knew that Troy is in present-day Turkey.  I think that a lot of the confusion may also stem from the distinct country boundaries we have now that didn’t necessarily exist in the ancient world.  I keep thinking about Africa and some of the arbitrary (at least as far as ethnic groups go) boundaries that were demarcated during colonialism and that we still adhere to today.

Google map with Troy marked by the “A” in Turkey.

It’s not easy to make sense of the site of Troy, and I just haven’t found a good source — one that lays it all out in a way that’s easy to understand. To be fair, I’m at a somewhat impatient moment in my life, and I don’t feel like wading through big tomes. (I’m not going to get into all of the academic discussions about whether or not Homer’s Troy existed, for example.  Not that they’re not interesting!) I’ve re-read the Iliad, and some really good introductions to the Iliad, but this doesn’t tell me about the site of Troy.  So here, I want to get down and dirty, try to lay it all out, make sense of it all as much as possible.

Although Troy is the famous setting for the Iliad, cities had existed and thrived on that site for centuries before the Iliad, from 3000 BCE. (The Iliad is set in around the 8th century BCE, that is, the 700s BCE.)  We call that first city Troy I. The subsequent cities of Troy (or levels of the dig) are numbered up to Troy IX and include some a’s and b’s (Troy VIIa), AND the numbers have changed, so Troy VIb became Troy VIIa, for example.  Confused yet? (The map below makes my head spin.  Don’t worry, we’ll sort it out.)

Layers of Troy

The first thing to clear up quickly is that cities are built on top of cities, so the levels of Troy are one on top of the other.  You have to dig through one to get to the previous city, and through that one to get to the earlier city, and so on.  Often a city was destroyed (fire, earthquake, invading army), and the residents or the conquerors would rebuild using the old materials in the same place, or they would bring in new materials if necessary.  This has been going on for centuries.  Even into the 19th (and probably 20th) century, exposed stones were being taken from the site of Troy and reused in the area.  Take a look at this diagram from the Troy website put up by the University of Cincinnati (they co-ran the dig there through last summer). It will help you visualize the layers.

Re-use of materials: The purple circles are porphyry (a purple stone) columns that have been sliced and placed here in Aya Sofya (Istanbul, 6th century CE)

The site of Troy doesn’t have a great reputation among guidebooks (the Lonely Planet basically says go if you must, but you’re not missing anything if you skip it).  So much of it was destroyed by the impatience of Schliemann and even earlier, by other “excavators,” including an English military leader with bored soldiers, who he encouraged to go dig stuff up, basically, with no training and no supervision.  However, impressive and interesting artifacts have been found, and they’re now in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum and the Canakkale Archaeological Museum, so not on site. A new museum is being built, though, right at Troy.  Since there aren’t a lot of archaeological “wow” moments while walking around Troy, having artifacts close by should make a big difference, I think, to the visitor’s experience.  Also, honestly, some of the signage there is good, and some of it is not.  A lot of it is in German, of course, since they’ve been excavating there for so long, and since I don’t speak more than a few words of German, I can’t say whether or not the German signage is helpful.  Either way, in my opinion, it needs to be updated and spruced up.

One of the more impressive finds from Troy: Bust of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, Canakkale Archaeological Museum

What I find fascinating about the site of Troy is what it can tell us about lives lived ages ago, from the prehistoric people of the Bronze Age up through the Romans into the 5th century CE (AD).  I’m interested in sorting out when it was a Greek city and when it was a Near Eastern city, or maybe it’s not that simple.  Honestly, I care less about whether or not it was the actual site of Homer’s Iliad or if the Trojan War really happened at all or as he described.  But since that’s such a huge part of the site, we’ll explore it, too, and who knows?  Maybe that will be one of the most interesting bits.  Stay tuned!


2 thoughts on “Making Sense of Troy: An Introduction

  1. Pingback: Turkey: ancient stone tablets found | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: Turkey: ancient stone tablets found | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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