Was the Ancient City of Hisarlik the Ancient City of Troy?

Did Heinrich Schliemann Find the Royal Palace in Homer's Trojan War?

Overlook at Hisarlik, Thought to be Homer's Troy
Overlook at Hisarlik, Thought to be Homer's Troy. Sean Gallup / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Was the archaeological site of Hisarlik in Turkey the location of the Greek poet Homer's stories of the Trojan War? Most scholars would agree that Hisarlik was the most likely site of some events described in the Iliad, but the evidence is still debated.

The archaeological site of Hisarlik is what is known in archaeological circles as a tell. A tell is an artificial hill, made by centuries and millennia of people living in the same location.

Hisarlik's 15 meter (50 foot) height above the bedrock is the result of people building on top of the rubble of the previous generations--there were no bulldozers in prehistory. Is ancient Troy buried somewhere in that 15 meters?

One Reason the Evidence is Smudgy: Heinrich Schliemann

To date, there have been four major excavators at Hisarlik, but the earliest and most famous is Heinrich Schliemann. Now, that's a problem. From today's viewpoint, the fact that Heinrich Schliemann spent 20 years excavating at Hisarlik is appalling. As intelligent and well-read as he was, Schliemann's sum total of real, in-the-ground archaeological experience by the spring of 1870 consisted of the three days he spent watching Guiseppi Fiorelli dig at Pompeii, and the day and half he spent digging a small pit in Mount Aetes.

Certainly Schliemann's early work reflects his lack of experience; he removed enormous amounts of dirt and rubble in his first two seasons, having hired between 80 and 100 workers, with only himself, his wife, and two or three foremen to supervise.

That's too fast and sloppy, even for the standards of the 19th century. Fortunately, he took copious notes, and in the 1890s he hired one of the smartest archaeologists available as his assistant--Wilhelm Dorpfeld.

Using Schliemann's Notes

Unfortunately, Schliemann's notes are problematic because from the outset Schliemann planned on publishing them, and in print he wanted to be right.

Real archaeologists know that you may not have a reasonable interpretation of what you find until long after you're out of the field. Schliemann wanted to appear prescient. Several discrepancies between the various available texts provide evidence that Schliemann edited his notes for the best possible spin on the facts, even if they weren't exactly the facts.

To be fair, Schliemann's notes and diaries and maps do provide adequate information to provide a solid basis for exploration at Hisarlik by later archaeologists, including Carl Blegen of the University of Cincinnati in the 1930s, and Manfred Korfmann of the University of Tübingen and C. Brian Rose of the University of Cincinnati in the 1980s and 90s. But the notes are unreliable and have to be used carefully.

Hisarlik in the Early Bronze Age

Based on the results of over 125 years of excavations now, Hisarlik was first occupied during the Late Chalcolithic/Early Bronze Age. Troy Level II, an early Bronze Age occupation dated to 2500-2300 BC, produced Schliemann's fantastic, controversial "Priam's Treasure" which doesn't date to Priam's occupation, and was probably augmented by artifacts he found earlier. It was Schliemann's fondest, and most incorrect, assumption about Hisarlik that this group of artifacts belonged to Homer's Priam, and he fudged his notes to make it more likely; but more recent studies indicate they were produced 1,000 years too early.

Archaeological evidence for the levels assigned to Homer's Troy (Levels VIh/VIIa) today indicate that the city grew in size during the Late Bronze Age, making Troy one of the largest settlements in the Aegean region (although there is some debate about that). During Level VIh times, the site was characterized by a large royal citadel, surrounded by a fortification wall of cut limestone 4 m(13 ft) thick with an adobe superstructure. Unfortunately, the royal residences were razed during the Greek period occupation, and so little is known about their construction or form. Level VIh was destroyed, not through fire, but a substantial earthquake. Level VIIa begins with the reconstruction of the walls destroyed by the earthquake of circa 1350 BC.

Much of the domestic architecture for Level VII was also destroyed by the Hellenistic constructions, but one remarkable difference is the appearance of subterranean storage pits below the house floors.

It has been argued that the survivors of the earthquake who lived outside of the fortification walls at Hisarlik, moved inside, increasing population density and decreasing the amount of space possible for personal homes. It is clear that the city represented by Level VIIa of Hisarlik burned in a huge fire that destroyed the structures within and outside the fortification walls. Unburied human skeletal remains recovered from Level VIIa indicate that the scale of the destruction of the city prevented recovery of all those persons who died during the catastrophe. Level VIIa was destroyed ca. 1230–1180 B.C. See the entry on Hisarlik for further details of the site.

But Is It Troy?

But is it Troy? To be honest, we don't even know for certain that Troy as Homer defined it existed. Homer was a poet living five centuries after the Trojan War: he probably took liberties with an ancient legend that itself had probably changed over time. Certainly, the site includes a Late Bronze Age occupation, with a royal residence and a large population that was destroyed by a conflagration at about the right period of time. There are tantalizing clues that Troy was also called Wilusa, a kingdom that was vassal to the Hittites: there are references in Hittite documents of battles at Wilusa and "Wilusa" is linguistically close to "Ilios" (see Bryce).

The bottom line is, as is true with most ancient texts, we'll probably never know how much of Homer's poetry was based on fact, and how much on embellished stories of the Heroic Age. But it's a great story, isn't it?


This article is a part of the About.com guide to the Homeric Questions, and the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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