The Investigation of Troy

Heinrich Schliemann did not discover Troy himself but launched the first excavations there in 1870. He was criticized throughout his life for his ruthless excavation methods. His rough approach contributed to it being later largely forbidden to remove architectural remains from archaeological excavations in order to get to older layers. Without deep cross-sections and excavations, however, it will never be possible to uncover the settlement sites of the Bronze Age.

Current State of knowledge

For a long time Heinrich Schliemann was thought to have discovered Troy. He claimed that as a boy his father showed him drawings of Troy in flames and that he then decided to search for the city. But it seems that Schliemann did not become interested in archaeology until he was in his forties, and even then it was just a fashionable thing to do. After a successful career as a businessman, Schliemann learned Latin and Ancient Greek, and traveled to Greece for the first time in 1868, where he searched in vain for the palace of Odysseus on Ithaca. Moving on to the Troad, and using the help of local workers, he dug some holes where Troy was supposed to have been. Schliemann searched in the wrong place, however, following the hypothesis of Jean Baptiste Le­Chevalier. When he could not find much of interest, he decided to leave. In Çanakkale, Schliemann missed his ferry – and unexpectedly came across Frank Calvert, the son of an English diplomat. Calvert was highly interested in Troy and a proponent of a new theory regarding its location: that the citadel had been on the hill called Hisarlık. Additionally, his family had purchased parts of this hill. This theory had first been put forward in 1821 by Charles Maclaren, a Scottish newspaper publisher and amateur geologist. Maclaren identified Hisarlık as the Homeric Troy without having visited the region. His theory was based to an extent on observations by the Cambridge professor of mineralogy Edward Daniel Clarke and his assistant John Martin Cripps. In 1801, those gentlemen were the first to have linked the archaeological site at Hisarlık with historic Troy.

Frank Calvert managed to win Schliemann over to undertake joint excavations on the Hisarlık hill. Schliemann later played down the importance of Calvert. After all, he was wealthier, more driven and better at self-marketing than Calvert. In retrospect, however, he was also more irresponsible: Without permission, he drove a 40-meter wide and 15-meter deep ditch through the middle of the hill, without paying attention to more recent settlement layers. Later Schliemann would be much criticized for his crude methods. German scientists denied him the professional recognition he coveted, even after he had become a celebrity with the discovery of the so-called Priam’s Treasure in 1873. Today, however, Schliemann is considered one of the pioneers of modern archaeology, despite his initially rough approach.

All in all, ten main phases of habitation have been recognized on Hisarlık, suggesting a continuous settlement from the 5th millennium to late antiquity. The excavations between 1988 and 2012 were directed by scientists from Tübingen in Germany, initially by Manfred Korfmann. After his death, the chief natural scientist of the project, Ernst Pernicka, took over. The German Research Foundation discontinued its financial support in 2009, but some work did continue as it was funded by donations. At the end of 2012, the University of Tübingen’s excavation permit expired. Since 2013, Rüstem Aslan from the University of Çanakkale has been the new director of excavations. He too had been part of the previous project and received his PhD at the University of Tübingen.


A look below the temples of antiquity

The strong criticism of Schliemann’s initial brute force has made legislators and excavators in Turkey and Greece overly cautious. Because excavations potentially destroy cultural heritage, today archaeologists are increasingly regarded as conservators rather than researchers. They are allowed to dig down to the first preserved architectural floor plans and expose these, but removing them is often not permitted. The underlying layers thus lie hidden forever. Precisely for this reason, the Luwian culture remains undiscovered to this day. In the case of a 20-meter high settlement mound, like the one in Kadıkalesi on the Aegean coast of Turkey, archaeologists know little more than the top buildings dating to the Byzantine period. Layers recording thousands of years of settlement history remain invisible below, despite ongoing excavations. In order to explore those earlier deposits, one would have to remove some of the walls above.

What is much needed in western Turkey are deep soundings and profile trenches extending all the way down to the bedrock. Only by creating such sections can the sequence of settlements be determined. In this respect, western Turkey is lagging behind the research on Crete and mainland Greece by more than a century. The Yugoslav-German archaeologist Vladimir Milojčić has exposed an exemplary profile showing thousands of years of habitation at Pefkakia Magoula, near the Greek city of Volos. Exactly such cross-sections are needed from settlement sites in western Asia Minor. We know where it would be most promising to start. Since finds are recovered and exhibited, and walls are carefully drawn and restored using virtual reality, therefore nothing would be destroyed. Also, many hundred settlement mounds are known in western Turkey alone. The partial removal of one hill would not cause any damage. Modern day science could benefit from having more of the courage and pioneering spirit of former times.


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Zangger, Eberhard, Horst Leiermann, Wolfgang Noack & Falko Kuhnke (1997): “A 21st Century Approach to the Reconnaissance and Reconstruction of Archaeological Landscapes.” In: Aegean Strategies: Studies of Culture and Environment on the European Fringe. P. Nick Kardulias & Mark T. Shutes (eds.), Rowman and Littlefield, Savage, Maryland, 9-32.
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Next April I intend to lay bare the entire hill of Hissarlik, for I consider it certain that I will find there Pergamos, the citadel of Troy.

Heinrich Schliemann, August 22, 1868, Letter to his brother Hans and his sister Doris

This does not mean that outsiders are necessarily wrong. Heinrich Schliemann, the German tycoon who first excavated at Troy and Mycenae in the 1870s, made a naïve but fruitful conjunction of legends, historical documents and topography, showing that much as academics might like it to be so, the obvious is not always false.

Martin Bernal 1987, 5