POST #4. THE ARCHEOLOGICAL RECORD

I’ve referred to the mythical Trojan war to distinguish it from how I believe it probably unfolded, if it was ever actually fought. Scholars disagree over whether a coalition of Greek city-states did invade northwestern Anatolia during the bronze age, when such an invasion might have taken place (if it did), and what the underlying causes of such a war might have been. Disagreement over this last question made the shadow of Xeno’s eye  a plausible account of the mythical war, inviting all the comparisons between the myths and the debacle in Iraq. I believe that, overall, shadow’s account is more plausible and logical than the romanticized heroic myth.

Historians and archeologists do agree that at some point after the interval when the war might have taken place (1250 B.C – 1180 B.C.), both the Mycenaean civilization in Greece, and the Hittite civilization in Anatolia, were overrun by invaders and collapsed. Thus, when modern interest in the myth began to emerge in the late 19th century, the relevant archeological sites were not only more than 3,000 years old, they’d been left to rot and/or been built over by succeeding civilizations. This was particularly true of Troy, where the Hittite civilization gave way to a Phrygian speaking civilization from Thrace (the northwestern edge of Turkey and what is now modern Bulgaria), eventually to be replaced by Greeks, and then Romans. The Trojan site at Hissarlik had many layers of cities, some with sub-layers, built one on top of the other. Upper layers contaminated lower layers through natural decay, earthquakes, and normal activity, over time, of those living in the upper layers. In addition, the incompetence of the first archeological investigators destroyed the integrity of some of the levels beyond repair.

Modern interest in the Trojan war myths was generated, in part, by publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859. Darwin’s theories so directly contradicted the Judeo-Christian creation myths that it sparked interest in validating mythical accounts in general. The codex of Trojan war myths is one of, if not the, core non-biblical myths of western civilization, and the nascent field of archeology seemed to offer a scientific way to validate this foundation myth. This dynamic, however, led to questionable results and procedures. The deteriorated archeological record could not provide conclusive proof of the mythical war’s specifics, and the lack of objectivity of the investigators led investigators to interpret the already meagre archeological record as proof of what they’d set out to find. Furthermore, the newness of archeology as a systematic field of study left it without established guidelines and procedures.

The work of Heinrich Schliemann, the pioneer archeologist in the quest for Troy, embodied all of these problems. He’d been fascinated by the Trojan war myth since his youth, and his business success allowed him to pursue his dream in the late 19th century. Once at Hissarlik, he was convinced that the Troy he was looking for was deep underground, so he dug straight through many layers of newer cities to get at what he thought was the Troy of the Iliad. As it turned out, the Troy he reached, the Troy he thought he was looking for, was centuries too old, and he’d damaged or destroyed many of the layers he’d dug through to get at it, including layers more likely to have been Homer’s Troy. Some of his many detractors allege that he was more than merely incompetent. He is thought to have deliberately misrepresented some of his findings, even going so far as to plant artifacts at his dig that were really found elsewhere, claiming they were genuine Trojan relics. Although he did pioneer the excavation at Hissarlik, work that is ongoing to this day, his lack of professionalism destroyed valuable evidence, misdirected those who followed in his path, and compromised the integrity of the entire effort by lying about his findings and interpreting a circumstantial record as conclusive proof of what he’d originally set out to establish. Archeologists who followed him, Wilhelm Doerpfeld, Arthur Evans, Carl Blegen, and others, pursued the quest with greater care and professionalism as the science of archeology developed, but were not able to conclusively prove that the mythical Trojan war actually occurred, or that any particular layer of Troy was the site under siege by a  Bronze Age coalition of Greek city states.

This is the state of the current knowledge concerning the mythical Trojan war. Some scholars believe it was fought as mythically described, others do not. Some think that level VI at the Hissarlik site is the Iliad’s Troy, some think it’s level VIIa, the evidence as to either is circumstantial, if not ambiguous. I personally think it unlikely that a Spartan King would air his personal dirty laundry throughout the Greek world, or that other Greek city-states would commit their armies for ten years to recapture his wayward queen. Seizing control of the Dardanelles from the Trojans, and controlling access to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean, might have motivated such a commitment (except, of course, for the Ithacans; see Post #3) but such a venture would have needed a more emotionally appealing image, because the mercantile benefits of would accrue to the Greek equivalent of the top 1%, while the bottom 99% did most of the fighting. The shadow of Xeno’s eye thus came from the shadow in mine.

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