Was the city of Troy a real place?

A red figure grecian vase with the figure on the left stabbing the seated middle figure with a sword whilst another man looks on

Terracotta amphora attributed to the Nikoxenos Painter, showing the Death of Priam

© The Metropolitan Museum of Art (image cropped)

    • Have you ever heard of the story of the Trojan War? It was one of the most important events in Ancient Greek mythology. But did it ever really happen? Was the city of Troy a real place? Show Me investigates.

      The Ancient Greeks used to tell each other stories for entertainment and one of those stories was about the Trojan War. The war began when Prince Paris of Troy took the beautiful Helen from her husband Menelaus, the King of Sparta in Ancient Greece. The Greeks camped outside the city walls and fought battles against the Trojans for ten years. You may have heard of some of the Greek heroes who fought, like Achilles, Odysseus and Ajax.

      This pot from the Vatican Museum shows two warriors, Achilles and Ajax, playing a game whilst wearing their armour.

      Photograph of an ancient Greek black figure pot of two warriors playing a board game and holding spears.© Steven Zucker (own work), CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, via Flickr
      After many years of battle, Odysseus came up with a cunning plan. The Greeks built a giant wooden horse and pretended to leave it to the Trojans as a peace offering. In fact, the horse was full of Greek soldiers. When the Trojans pulled the horse inside, the Greek warriors waited until the Trojans fell asleep and then jumped out and opened the city gates for the rest of their army, who burned the city to the ground, winning the war.

      It's a great story, isn't it? You can see more objects linked to the myth of the Trojan War on the British Museum website

      But did any of it really happen? The ancient Greeks believed that poets had exaggerated stories about a real war that took place in the 13th or 12th century BC. They thought the real city of Troy was located in what is now Turkey.

      However, by the mid-19th century most people believed that the war and the city were both completely fictional. That didn’t deter a German businessman called Heinrich Schliemann though.

      Heinrich claimed that when he was eight years old, his father told him the story of the Trojan War. He said he was so impressed by the story that he was determined to find proof that the city of Troy really existed.

      Eventually, after a great deal of study and hard work, he revealed that he had found the original site of Troy, at a place called Hisarlik in Turkey.

      It’s another great story – but is it true?

      Black and white photograph of a balding man with a moustache and wearing spectacles© Public Domain
      Above is a photo of Heinrich Schliemann. He was a very clever man - he travelled the world, made several fortunes and spoke 15 languages. When he was 48 years old, he decided to study archaeology.

      Frank Calvert was another 19th century archaeologist who was interested in Troy. He was convinced that Hisarlik in Turkey was the city’s original site and had begun to excavate the site. He found some objects such as this pottery handle (now at the British Museum), which seemed to confirm that there had been a city there once.

      Unfortunately, he didn’t have the money to conduct a larger dig. Heinrich, however, did.

      In 1870, he began excavations at Hisarlik, with Frank Calvert’s help. Nowadays, archaeologists are trained to dig down through different levels of the soil very carefully. But during Heinrich’s time, archaeology was still developing. So he decided that since Troy would be in one of the earliest layers, he would just dig down quickly instead, straight through the other layers. He and Frank argued about this and eventually fell out over it.

      Heinrich never admitted that Frank was the first to investigate Troy at Hisarlik, only saying that Frank agreed with his views. Heinrich is now credited with not only discovering Troy but as being the creator of Greek prehistoric archaeology and for being the man to popularise archaeology in general.

      It’s now thought that Heinrich was too eager in his digging, and that the layer that he thought was Troy was in fact hundreds of years too early.

      He did discover some amazing objects however, including a lot of gold and other precious objects. He called this “Priam’s Treasure”, after the King of Troy. You can see some of these treasures at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

      The so-called 'Jewels of Helen', a collection of gold jewellery including an impressive diadem, can be seen at the Puskin Museum in Russia. Unfortunately, the page is written in Russian but you can see a picture of the diadem there.

      Heinrich also had his wife Sofia photographed wearing the diadem, which you can see below.

      A photograph of a woman wearing a gold diadem, necklace and earrings© Public Domain
      Experts now generally agree that Hisarlik is the site of Troy, although we’ll probably never know for sure.

      Did the Trojan War itself happen? Well, archaeologists have found evidence at Hisarlik that the city was destroyed by fire around the 13th century BC. That was when the ancient Greeks thought the war had taken place, so perhaps it really did happen.

      You can find out more about Heinrich Schliemann and his wife Sofia at the National Museum of Athens.
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