German scholars are locked in furious argument over a 3,000-year-old settlement. Was the mound at Hisarlik, in northwestern Anatolia, the site of a huge, prosperous, commercial city during the Late Bronze Age—even the site of Homer’s Troy? Or was it just a tiny backwater, perhaps a 017nobleman’s country estate? All Germany seems fascinated by the debate. Whatever the outcome, reputations will be besmirched and archaeological methods will be reconsidered. The dispute is now as much about media attention and politics as it is about Troy.
Heinrich Schliemann, the first excavator of Hisarlik, walked a precipitous path between fact and fiction. He was not always sure which world he inhabited, and he did not refrain from telling lies when his interests were at stake. In 1871 he claimed to have found Homer’s Troy carrying a spade in one hand and the Iliad in the other—concealing the fact that the Englishman Frank Calvert had led him to the site.a Two years later he discovered a cache of gold artifacts that he promptly named “Priam’s Treasure” (after the king of Homer’s Troy), though this hoard could not have belonged to a Late Bronze Age king; the Trojan War is often dated to about 1200 B.C., but most of the pieces date to a thousand years earlier. Even worse, it now seems certain that Priam’s Treasure was not a single hoard but a collection of pieces from different time periods and find-spots that Schliemann passed off as a single find.b
Schliemann dug at Hisarlik for 17 years, learning systematic excavation techniques on the fly, freely 019conjecturing about what events of the Trojan War took place where. Perhaps his greatest quality was his profound instinct for the mythical aura of the site. For thousands and thousands of people, he has indelibly attached this spot on the Dardanelles, a stretch of water connecting the Aegean and Black seas, to Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War.
And yet, after only three years of excavation, Schliemann admitted: It is all poetry, Troy is a myth—and the site of Hisarlik never was a city of 50,000 inhabitants, but “only a hill … without a citadel.”1
Since Schliemann’s death in 1890, things haven’t changed much: The excavators of Troy still tread a path between reality and fantasy. They popularize their work, are attacked by their opponents, and are forced to correct themselves from time to time. In the German academic world, digging with the spade to prove the myth still gets headlines. But archaeology and myth are not getting along very well of late.
In 1991 the geoarchaeologist Eberhard Zangger speculated that Troy could have been the Atlantis described by Plato in the Timaeus—the fabled continent that sank into the sea. University of Tübingen archaeologist Manfred Korfmann called Zangger a “dreamer” and dismissed the suggestion as “pure speculation.” Korfmann, who had headed the German excavations at Troy since 1988, described the site as “a pirates’ nest of 5,000 souls.”
More than a decade later, Korfmann is still digging at Hisarlik, though he now believes the site was once a “considerable town.” For centuries, Korfmann says, “around the Aegean Sea, in southeast Europe, in west Anatolia, in the Black Sea area and in the Caucasus, there was hardly any place with this quality of architecture and with these dimensions.”2 Korfmann believes the Late Bronze Age city (14th and 13th centuries B.C.) had a “downtown area of 25 hectares [60 acres], room for 7,000 to 10,000 inhabitants.” Due to its position at the head of the Dardanelles, the Late Bronze Age settlement prospered from international trade—and was an attractive site for invaders and plunderers, as in the Iliad.c
What the spade has turned up at Hisarlik was recently displayed in a traveling exhibition called Troy—Dream and Reality, which attracted more than a million visitors in the German cities of Stuttgart, Braunschweig and Bonn. Supervised by Korfmann, the exhibit included a wooden model of the site, along with a virtual reality device enabling the viewer to fly over a simulacrum of the ancient city. From a bird’s-eye view, the soaring visitor saw the great citadel, the Scamander River and the Ida mountains; once again 020on terra firma, he or she could saunter through the city’s lanes and enter houses from different time periods—all the while reminded by Korfmann: “This is what it might have looked like, but not necessarily.”
Korfmann’s reconstruction of Troy has triggered a ferocious contentiousness rarely seen in the calm, reclusive world of German historians, philologists and archaeologists. It has escalated to a vicious personal war, with the combatants challenging each others’ credentials and methods. Korfmann’s critics charge that the exhibition is misleading; it should only have shown what is known to be true, not what might have been true (that is, what might not have been true). A respectable phalanx of Troy experts, led by historians Frank Kolb (University of Tübingen) and Karl-Joachim Hoelkeskamp (University of Cologne) and the archaeologist Henner von Hesberg (University of Cologne), attacked Korfmann for simply making things up—for example, by placing buildings where his excavations hadn’t found anything at all.
Korfmann and his supporters, including Hans-Peter Uerpmann of the University of Tübingen, respond that historians like Kolb simply do not understand that archaeologists work with scanty remains that need to be interpreted—not just read, like historical documents. Archaeologists need to make hypotheses and then test them. According to Korfmann, evidence “suggests” the existence of a lower city, or “downtown.” In coming years, the excavations will seek to uncover it.
The Hisarlik mound is about 100 feet high and 600 feet in diameter. Archaeologists have uncovered 10 main occupation levels (Troy I through Troy X) and over 50 phases of construction—from the late Neolithic settlement of Troy I (c. 2900 B.C.) to the Byzantine-medieval settlement of Troy X (c. 500–1300 A.D.), when Troy was the seat of a bishopric. Two of these strata, Troy II (2550–2250 B.C.) and Troy VI (1700–1230 B.C.) are of special relevance in the new Trojan wars, because they were involved in the old Trojan wars. It was in Troy II that Schliemann discovered Priam’s Treasure, which he falsely—either out of ignorance or in a deliberate attempt to mislead—dated to the Mycenaean period (c. 1200 B.C.) of kings Priam and Agamemnon.
Archaeologists think that only Troy VI (1700–1230 B.C.) and VIIa (1230–1180 B.C.) are candidates for the city described by Homer. The exhibit explained 021that Troy VI was destroyed between 1250 B.C. and 1230 B.C. by an earthquake and that Troy VIIa was destroyed by fire. The excavators now think of Troy VI and VIIa as one period, a Late Bronze Age “Trojan High Culture” and the best candidate for the Troy described in the Iliad.
The Troy VI stratum consists of a circular citadel covering about 5 acres, enclosed by a 1,800-foot-long wall that in places stood 23 feet high. Immediately in front of this massive wall are some foundation walls dating to early Troy VI. By the time Schliemann arrived, however, 2,500 years of settlement (from the Late Bronze Age through the medieval period) and 3,000 years of exposure to the elements had wreaked havoc on the site. Now the site’s 34 excavation campaigns have helped complete the destruction of Troy.
How densely developed was the Late Bronze Age site, and how sophisticated was its architecture? These are the questions the scholars are fighting about. Korfmann’s wooden model of Troy VI displays a citadel and a densely packed “downtown” area; he also shows a city wall with a defensive trench in front of it. According to Korfmann, the excavations have revealed at least the kind of scenery Homer had in mind in the eighth century B.C., when he composed his epic about the ruined Trojan palace. “Our excavations are revealing fascinating correspondences between his descriptions and the remains [of Troy VI].”3
“Too coarsely cut,” objects Frank Kolb, Korfmann’s colleague at the University of Tübingen and perhaps the most vocal critic of the exhibition. Although Korfmann’s critics readily agree that he is a 022technically sound excavator, they charge that his interpretations of the evidence are largely fantasy. After reading Korfmann’s excavation reports, Kolb could not understand how the archaeologist could establish a downtown area. “There is no indication of dense development outside the citadel; there is hardly a single complete ground plan of a Troy VI house outside the walls,” Kolb says. The acropolis “is only a gathering of some bigger houses,” which had “nothing in common with palaces.” The Troy of the Late Bronze Age was not a town at all, Kolb declares, but a “residence with a citadel complex.” At this time, adds archaeologist Dieter Hertel of the University of Munich, Troy was only of regional importance and “hardly got into military conflicts with the Greeks.”
Less than one percent of the downtown area has been excavated, the Kolbians point out, so there’s simply not enough data to draw large conclusions.
“Geomagnetic research has already proved the existence of a widespread town,” the Korfmannites shoot back.
The exhibition, especially the virtual tour of the city, made it obvious how little of the reconstruction is actually proven fact. The virtual tour showed three occupation levels: Troy II, VI and VIII. A screen with a three-dimensional map showed the actual findings. By pushing a “probability button,” visitors saw Korfmann’s interpretation of his findings. Indeed, that button revealed a far, far different world from that of the excavated remains. Maybe Troy did resemble the bustling city Korfmann imagines—but maybe not.
The dispute culminated in a symposium in February 2002, titled The Importance of Troy in the Late Bronze Age and held in the large auditorium at the Eberhard-Carls University in Tübingen. For two days, scholars, students, journalists and others packed the auditorium—even sitting on steps and window sills—to watch the gladiators: historian Frank Kolb versus archaeologist Manfred Korfmann, both students of ancient history and professors at the University of Tübingen. Their contest, to some extent, was a war between two different scholarly disciplines, with the scholar behind his desk taking on the excavator in the field.
All the while, this academic sniping was given full treatment on television and in the newspapers. “Troianischen Phantasien” (“Trojan Fantasies”) read a headline in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. A story in Die Welt lamented, “Statt einer Lösung ein Skandal: In Tübingen stritten die Gelehrten über Troias Bedeuting in der Bronzezeit” (“Instead of a Solution, a Scandal: In Tübingen Scholars Fight Over the Meaning of Troy in the Bronze Age”).
To Korfmann, Troy was a substantial commercial center of about 10,000 inhabitants who lived in the shadow of a vast citadel. In Late Bronze Age Troy, he believes, all kinds of valuable goods were traded: horses from the prairies north of the Black Sea and from the highlands of central Anatolia, amber from the Baltic Sea, copper from central Asia, gold from the Troad (the region around Troy), tin from Bohemia, 023iron from northern Turkey, slaves from various places, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, and faience from Egypt. Korfmann even speculates about the existence of a trading federation, organized by the Trojans and regulated by contracts. The federation members, Korfmann says, were Troy’s allies in Homer’s Iliad.
Kolb counters that Korfmann’s own excavation reports show nothing of the kind: After almost a decade and a half of excavations, Korfmann cannot even point to houses or shops where these people lived and worked. Kolb comes to the conclusion Korfmann did ten years ago: Late Bronze Age Troy was a small village, without even a harbor.
Kolb mockingly refers to Korfmann’s description of a highly commercial Troy VI/VIIa as a “World Trade Center.” The Kolbians say there is no evidence of trading networks at Troy VI; Korfmann has simply conflated findings from all Bronze Age levels, much as Schliemann did. In the Late Bronze Age, when the legendary war is supposed to have taken place, Kolb says, there were no trade centers in Anatolia or the Aegean. Late Bronze Age sites like Knossos (in Crete) and Mycenae (on the Greek mainland) were political and economic centers, but not trade centers.
How could Troy have been a commercial center, asks Kolb, when it was hundreds of miles from any trade routes? The notion that the Trojan war was actually a trade war, with Greeks and Trojans fighting to control access to the Black Sea, is utter nonsense. There was no such “trade” in the Late Bronze Age; at this time, trade consisted of exchanges of goods, not profit-making enterprises. The Iliad does not even mention trade or traders, Kolb notes: “The Trojans of the Iliad are cattle breeders, herdsmen and farmers.”
The Korfmannites vehemently disagree: As early as the third millennium B.C., Troy II was already a substantial settlement, they say. According to Joachim Latacz of the University of Basel, the golden treasure found by Schliemann provides evidence of a kind of prosperity that could hardly have been earned simply by agriculture and occasional exchanges of presents.
The Kolbians believe the Korfmannites are also wrong in describing the strategic importance of Troy. Hisarlik is about 20 miles from the narrowest part of the Dardanelles, they say, meaning it could not have controlled the seaway very effectively. Moreover, in Mycenaean times the Black Sea was a terrifying, largely unknown, distant region; only rare expeditions, like the one described in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, would have dared to enter. Unfavorable winds and currents made it extremely dangerous for ships of the Late Bronze Age to head east into the Black Sea, Kolb argues. Even later, when Greeks and Romans did sail into the Black Sea, the site of Hisarlik (then called Ilios or Ilion) had no geopolitical significance and was of no commercial importance.
If Troy VI had been a “World Trade Center,” the Kolbians reasonably point out, you’d think that a century of excavations would have turned up trade goods. Yet finds of imported goods “tend to zero,” in Kolb’s words. This suggests that Troy VI had hardly any foreign contacts. The lack of finds is a significant fact, Kolb says, making nonsense of Korfmann’s picture of the site as a huge international commercial center. Nor is there any evidence that Troy VI was a manufacturing center: The excavators have found no significant remains of textile or pottery production, for instance.
In 1993 Korfmann found two trenches. One of them, carefully cut into the bedrock about 450 yards south of the walls of Troy VI, is about 13 feet wide and 7 feet deep. To the excavators, these trenches are defensive moats, protecting Troy against siege machines and chariots. To Kolb, the trenches resemble irrigation canals.
One important piece in the Korfmannite chain of evidence is a bronze seal with text in Luwian, a language closely related to Hittite, found at Hisarlik in 1995. (This is the only text from Troy VI.) The fact that the seal was inscribed with Luwian hieroglyphs suggests at least the presence of native Anatolians at Troy—possibly even that Troy was an Anatolian (Luwian) settlement, rather than a Hellenic city—a thesis welcomed by Korfmann’s Turkish colleagues.
A number of Hittite texts (found elsewhere) mention a place called Wilusa (a word similar in sound to “Ilios,” one of the Greek names for Troy), which was located in northwest Anatolia—that is, in the Troad. One such text is a treaty signed around 1280 B.C. between the Hittite king Muwatalli and King Alaksandu of Wilusa. Thus the kings of Troy and Hatti may even have had formal diplomatic relations.
In 1997, while excavating in the western part of the “downtown” area, the Korfmann team discovered a cave with a well and a man-made canal more than 300 feet long. One Hittite text refers to the “underworld” of Wilusa—which, in Joachim Latacz’s view, “definitely” refers to this cave. Archaeologists Gustav Adolf Lehmann of the University of Göttingen and Franz Starke of the University of Tübingen agree that there is a “high degree of certainty” that Troy is Wilusa. From this evidence, Korfmann concludes that Troy VI was an Anatolian city that had strong relations with the Hittite Empire, whose capital was at Hattusa in central Anatolia.
Kolb again objects: “In Troy there is obviously no single finding, not even one piece of Hittite pottery. 055And there are no findings in Hattusa that can be traced back to Troy. Only a dozen Hittite objects of the Late Bronze Age have been found in the whole Aegean area. There was no Hittite trade to the west.”
The Tübingen symposium ended with a strange statement by Manfred Korfmann, astonishing the media. He said he did not care how his opponents come to terms with Troy; it doesn’t matter whether they call it a residence, a town or a trade center. These debates are simply about the meanings of words. What matters is that the excavations at Troy arel going on. Latacz agreed: Interpretation was a task for the future; excavation was the job at hand.
Kolb suggets that Korfmann’s “motives are not purely scientific.” Korfmann’s sponsor, Daimler Chrysler, which has funded the excavations since 1988, also helped to establish and promote the exhibition. Very likely, Korfmann hopes Daimler Chrysler will help preserve the area around Hisarlik. The government of Turkey has already expanded agricultural land in the vicinity of the mound. They have also dammed up the Scamander River and built a power station nearby. Korfmann is afraid that the remaining natural areas in the Troad—possibly with important archaeological remains—might be endangered by intensive farming. Would the excavations and the efforts to preserve the area be suspended if Hisarlik turned out not to be romantic Troy? Would Daimler Chrysler fund the excavation of a run-of-the-mill country estate—even to serve the interests of science?
Korfmann is also helping to plan a 056museum at the site, to be built by the Turkish government. Would the Turks put valuable resources into such a museum if it is determined, to a high degree of certainty, that Hisarlik is not the site of Homer’s Troy?
In other words, even from Korfmann’s own point of view, the “don’t talk, just dig” philosophy does not make much sense.
The excavations at Hisarlik demonstrate that the mixing of myth and history can result in an explosion of fantasy and gross exaggeration. In Kolb’s view, this combination has lent itself to a kind of heroic charlatanism, which certainly characterized Heinrich Schliemann—who recalled in his autobiography (almost certainly speciously) that upon reading Homer as a child he had vowed to find Troy. According to the German archaeologist and Schliemann biographer Hartmund Doehl, Schliemann “walked a path between real dream and dreamed reality.”
But now Hisarlik has its own magic. For Germans, it is a very German place: German archaeologists have excavated at Hisarlik from the beginning, and German tourists flock to “Troy” in droves every year. Troy, and now Hisarlik, is part of the German cultural heritage—which helps explain how an academic dispute could hold a nation spellbound.
Many Germans think of their literary heritage as a kind of belated “Renaissance,” a recovery of the Hellenic world in the 18th century. German classicism—including works by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller and Friedrich Hölderlin—was largely based on aesthetic concepts developed by the German scholar Johann Winckelmann (1717–1768) while studying Hellenic art in Rome. For years, centuries even, familiarity with the Iliad and Odyssey was an absolute must for anyone to be considered refined, educated and civilized.
Although much of this has changed in an era dominated by popular culture, archaeology still retains some of its former aura in Germany and elsewhere. Archaeologists are always welcome in TV documentaries—especially if they have an Indiana Jones hat—to discuss the building of the pyramids, the travels of Odysseus or the tomb of Midas. Frank Kolb says his colleague Manfred Korfmann knows how to manipulate the media. The public “wants something glamorous,” Kolb says. “Therefore, I am a trouble-maker, because I question this ideal picture.”
The new Trojan war raises questions about German academic standards. Korfmann has characterized his voluminous excavation reports, Studia Troica, as only “preliminary reports,” even after 14 years of digging (and 130 years of total excavation). Will scholars ever reach consensus about this excavated material? Is it possible that for years German archaeologists have been digging at a relatively unimportant site? Why is there so little disagreement about the importance of Ugarit and so little agreement about the importance of Hisarlik? Is all this time and effort being spent on a place that exists only in the world of myth, fiction and adventure?
The Trojan question is still open.
German scholars are locked in furious argument over a 3,000-year-old settlement. Was the mound at Hisarlik, in northwestern Anatolia, the site of a huge, prosperous, commercial city during the Late Bronze Age—even the site of Homer’s Troy? Or was it just a tiny backwater, perhaps a 017nobleman’s country estate? All Germany seems fascinated by the debate. Whatever the outcome, reputations will be besmirched and archaeological methods will be reconsidered. The dispute is now as much about media attention and politics as it is about Troy. 018 Heinrich Schliemann, the first excavator of Hisarlik, walked a precipitous path between fact […]