The most evocative of legends, that of the siege and sack of Troy, had for many centuries compelled adventurers to go in search of the devastated city. But this fabled site eluded discovery until, in 1871, a German businessman and archaeologist discovered King Priam’s treasures. Or did he? To identify the reality behind a myth is the spur that motivates both explorers and archaeologists. And the legend of Troy – the city besieged during the Trojan Wars – was no exception, but its precise location and eve its very existence had never been satisfactorily proved until the late 19th century.
Heinrich Schliemann, a wealthy German businessman, had as a child conceived a romantic passion for the story of Troy, and decided to devote the fortune he had made to locate the lost city. He knew that there had been an ancient settlement of some kind called Troy because it was mentioned in reliable historical sources, but it had not been recorded by name since AD 355.
After finding no trace of Troy at the site of his initial investigations in Turkey, Schliemann transferred his efforts to a man-made mound just outside the town of Hissarlik nearby. Local folklore supported this decision so, assisted by his young Greek wife and a team of about 100 local workers, Schliemann began excavations there in 1871 and the dig continued until his death almost 20 years later. (He did, however, leave the site of Troy during this period to excavate the Greek site of Mycenae).
While digging at Hissarlik, Heinrich Schliemann (1822-90) uncovered a shimmering hoard of gold jewelry, silver goblets and vases, and bronze weaponry that he wrongly took to be the treasures of King Priam.
Acting as his own ‘curator’, Schliemann dug out the treasures and passed them to his wife, Sophia. She bundled them into her shawl and took them away from the site before Turkish officials could examine them. The public was happy to believe Schliemann’s claims about the treasure, particularly when a photograph was published of Sophia wearing the spectacular diadem of ‘Helen of Troy’. Academics scorned Schliemann’s account, however, and it was later established that the objects probably came from Troy II or III (2200 BC), 1000 years too early for King Priam’s Troy.
The treasures were smuggled out of Turkey and, with the exception of a few small pieces deposited in the Berlin Museum. After World War II, all but a few small objects disappeared from the museum. They were not heard again until 1991 when it was confirmed that they were not heard again until 1991, when it was confirmed that they were in the former Soviet Union, taken there by Russia soldiers; the treasure is now on display in the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.
Schliemann was an enthusiastic but highly unsystematic amateur archaeologist. During his digging he unwittingly destroyed evidence that should have been carefully sifted through, and he also removed objects from site without documenting where they came from. He did, however, succeed in unearthing ancient fortifications and numerous weapons and utensils. Schliemann was convinced he had found Troy. Many ancient historians were skeptical, but his supporters included W.E. Gladstone, the British prime minister, himself an accomplished classicist.
With the help of Willhelm Dorpfeld, an experienced archaeologist, the complicated history and structure of the city began to emerge. Schliemann and Dorpfeld unearthed nine principal layers, each representing a new city of Troy built upon an older predecessor. They numbered them, starting with Troy I for the oldest, and ending with Troy IX for a city build in roman times. Later archaeologists have refined this system, recognizing many subsidiary layers that bring the total to 46 levels. Although Schliemann originally believed Troy II to be the city of his quest Troy VIIa has since been identified as the Troy he sought. This layer was destroyed by fire, and the condition of human bones found there suggests that the citizens met a violent death around 1200 BC, the date generally accepted by scholars for the fall of the city.
The best preserved structure of the nine cities of Troy identified by Schliemann is the amphitheater on the south side of the site. The legacy of rebuilding programme initiated by Julius Caesar in the first century BC, it forms part of the last and largest city of Troy – Troy IX.
The epic struggle between the Greeks and the Trojans had begun when Paris, the most handsome of mortal men, was asked to decide which of three goddesses – Athena, Hera and Aphrodite – was the most beautiful. Aphrodite won because she had bribed Paris with the reward of the love of any woman he chose in the world. He picked Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, one of the most powerful Greek states, and aided by Aphrodite, Paris was able to escape with his reward. The choice of Troy for his sanctuary, a city that lay some 300 miles (480 km) away on the coast of what was then called Asia Minor, was not made rashly; although he had been raised as a shepherd, Paris was in fact a prince, one of the sons of King Priam, who was ruler of that doomed city.
King Menelaus vowed vengeance and his mighty fleet set sail to attack Troy. The walled city was besieged for ten years but would not surrender. Unable to win by force, the Greeks resorted to the cunning play that so enthralled Heinrich Schliemann 3000 years later. They built a huge wooden horse and hid a band of warriors inside. Then they left the horse outside the gates of Troy as a gift, so tempting the Trojans to take it inside the walls of their city. The Greeks then boarded their ships and ostensibly sailed away – but they went only just out of sight.
That night the Greek warriors crept from the wooden horse, opened the gates of Troy for their army, which had returned under cover of darkness. Most of the male population including Paris, was slaughtered and the women enslaved. Helen, whose beauty had launched the fleet o 1000 ships, was reunited with the victorious Menelaus. The city, which today lies 91/2 miles (15 km) inland, was burnt to ashes, the site providing a foundation for further settlements there. Eventually these too disappeared and were not to be seen again until Schliemann, in pursuit of a boyhood dream, blew away the dust of obscurity.