What Do We Know About Bronze Age Troy?

Tim Venning

3 mins

14 Feb 2020

Between 1871-3 Heinrich Schliemann, a German businessman turned archaeological pioneer made one of the most famous discoveries in the history of archaeology.

He discovered that the legend of a major pre-Classical trading-city on a hill above a plain on the east side of the entrance to the Dardanelles (known in Classical times as the ‘Hellespont’) was based on reality: Troy.

Uncovering the city’s many layers

Walls of Troy

Walls of Troy, Hisarlik, Turkey (Credit: CherryX / CC).

There had been such a place at the mound then known as ‘Hissarlik’ and large walls showed that it had needed major defences, though his discoveries of a relatively compact site the size of a citadel argued for much poetic exaggeration.

Subsequent digs identified a larger urban centre around this citadel. The archaeological finds at Troy have been variously interpreted, with different layers of finds taken as representing the Troy that the Greeks sacked in legend probably in the mid-13th century BC.

The many layers of settlement found by Schliemann at the site were carefully divided up into different stages of the city’s development, with signs of a fire or other destruction eagerly sought as identifying its Homeric sacking.

Troy ‘VI’ or ‘VIIa’ (in his initial numbering, since revised) are the most likely candidates, though a layer of burnt material may indicate a domestic conflagration rather than a sack and evidence of overcrowding in the town does not necessarily indicate refugees fleeing from the Greeks.

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What do we know?

Troy’s geographical site and commercial importance however give a good strategic or political reason why Greek kings annoyed at high tolls on the passage of the Hellespont or greedy for loot might want to attack the town, whether or not a Trojan prince had run off with a Mycenaean princess called Helen as in legend.

There is also evidence from the bureaucratic records of the kingdom’s powerful eastern neighbour, the Hittite kingdom, that a powerful state called ‘Wilusa’ – a name equivalent to the alternative Greek name for Troy, ‘Ilion’ – existed in north-west Asia Minor.

Hittite Empire

A map Illustrating Hittite Expansion and location of the Capital City Hattusa (Credit: Dbachmann / CC).

One of its rulers was a name similar to ‘Alexandros’, the alternative named for Helen’s ‘abductor’ Paris, son of king Priam of Troy. The (Greek?) ‘Ahhiwiya’ were campaigning in the area in the 13th century BC.

But the existing Greek traditions clearly do not record enough rulers for the long history of the site of Troy, or take clear account of the fact that the town was rebuilt after the sack.

The Greeks may have accurately recorded ‘Priam’ as the king at the time of the great war. There is also later tradition linking the Etruscans in northern Italy, Rome’s neighbours, to Lydia south of Troy.

The names, culture and DNA of the two peoples have similarities so some truth may lie behind the persistent stories that some Trojan exiles migrated to Italy after the war.

Dr Timothy Venning is a freelance researcher and the author of several books spanning antiquity to the Early Modern era. A Chronology of Ancient Greece was published on 18 November 2015, by Pen & Sword Publishing.

A Chronology of Ancient Greece
Featured image: Troy VII wall on the left, Troy IX wall on the right. (Credit: Kit36a / CC).