Nov 27 2018

The Myths of Troy

Last week I wrote about yet another claim for a possible location for Atlantis. This sparked some lively discussion, indicative of the fact that there is something alluring and iconic about the idea of Atlantis. I also think having a cool name is critical for such appeal (and not a small part of why Nostradamus, for example, is so iconic).

Long story short – there is no evidence that Atlantis existed, that Plato intended his writings to be an actual claim that Atlantis was real, and there is no evidence that the new supposed location, the Richat structure in Africa, is Atlantis or any ancient city.

In the comments, defenders of Atlantis made a claim, one that I have heard frequently before, that caught my interest.

One commenter wrote:

Atlantis a myth…?
Perhaps the story, but is the story based on something?

Let’s remember Troy was a myth until rediscovered in 1870.

Another:

They laughed at Heinrich Schliemann, but he found Troy and started, for the most part, the science of archaeology.

and:

back in 19th centrury(sic): The consensus of actual scholarship is that Troy is a myth.

Thank you Heinrich Schliemann for not caring about consensus.

The initial response by me and others was – so what? The logic here is not valid. Just because one city written about in ancient texts turned out to be real, that doesn’t mean they all are, or that Atlantis specifically is. Further, the analogy is not a good one.

Homer wrote about the Trojan War in two epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. In the Iliad, Paris, son of King Priam of Troy, kidnaps the beautiful Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. This sparks a war essentially to rescue Helen and punish Troy. These events allegedly took place in the 12-13th century BCE, 400 years before Homer wrote his poems (and 800 years before the first known writings).

At the time of Homer the Trojan War was accepted as Greek history, and several sources discuss it and some of the historical figures depicted in the war. That amount of time, 800 years, is not too long for continuous cultural memory. This is similar to stories of Robin Hood today, which involve real places, events, and people, even if the legend of Robin himself is fictional.

Plato, however, is the only person to ever mention Atlantis, which he says existed 9000 years before his time. It is not plausible that Plato would have reliable knowledge about something so ancient, and there is no record to indicate any cultural connection from that time down to Plato. The two situations, Troy and Atlantis, are simply not analogous.

But upon further investigation, it also turns out that every factual claim made above about the discovery of Troy is not true. Those are the myths of Troy.

The core claim is that up until the 19th century the consensus of opinion was that Troy was nothing but a myth. Schliemann is credited with bucking the consensus, in the face of ridicule, and single handedly discovering Troy and even creating modern archaeology. Another commenter even stated, in response to my point that there are no archaeological findings at the Richat:

Yes, because they were digging … before digging, Troy was a normal hill. Troy walls were found after archeological excavations. No digging were done in Richat structure, so nothing was found, obviously.

So much for your ‘logic’.

My logic: Schliemann used solely Homer text to locate Troy, then he started digging and found it. Jim used solely Plato’s text to locate Atlantis, when somebody starts digging, he/she may find it.

Until u learn about how Troy was found, all you have is a bad logic.

Again – not true. Here’s the actual story – Heinrich Schliemann is an interesting character. By all accounts he was a wealthy explorer, a genuinely smart and talented guy, but also a self-promoter and even a con-artist. He decided to take up archaeology at age 46, partly because of his fascination with Homer and the classics. But he was an amateur and essentially didn’t know what he was doing.

Frank Calvert was an actual archaeologist at the time. He was looking for Troy, and believed it might be in Hisarlik, a city in Turkey. Contrary to that last comment, in Hisarklik there is a hill that the locals all knew contained the ruins of an ancient city. In fact it was a local tourist attraction. It was not “a normal hill” – it was a “tell,” a mound created by building cities on top of cities. Calvert did some preliminary excavation and uncovered evidence that one of the cities buried in that mound could be the Troy of Homer.

Calvert, however, did not have the money to do a major excavation. He tried to get funding, but failed. So he went to the famous rich guy who was fascinated with Troy and hit him up for the money. Calvert told Schliemann about Hisarlik. Schliemann then used his personal wealth to excavate Hisarlik, and he uncovered lots of evidence of ancient cities. In fact, there were at least nine layers of different cities of different ages in that mound (which he named Troy I – Troy IX).

In Troy II he found the mother load – a treasure of gold and silver jewelry. Schliemann claimed this was the treasures of Priam, proof that Troy II is the Troy of Homer’s Trojan War. It turns out, this is not true. The artifacts are too old and don’t match the late Bronze Age of the Trojan War. So Schliemann’s primary claim turned out to be false. Schliemann also took all the credit for the find himself, did not give Calvert any credit, and generated the myth that he discovered it all by himself. This is the myth that grew into the modern manifestation, which is used by Atlantis apologists as above.

As the Schliemann legend grew it evolved, making it more profound – claiming that the experts at the time did not believe him, even laughed at him. None of this is true.

Knowledge that Troy was a real city existed continuously from ancient times. There was never a consensus of scholars that Troy was only a myth. What was lost to knowledge sometime in the Dark Ages and had to be rediscovered by Calvert and Schliemann was the location of Troy. That’s it. Further, it was always known that the Hisarlik hill was an ancient city, and the locals even believed it was Troy.

Finally, Schliemann did not create modern archaeology or revolutionize it. He clumsily dug into Hisarlik, destroying evidence, poorly documenting the site. He did, to his credit, identify the nine city layers, and did find the large cache of treasure, but anyone just digging up the site would have discovered that. Later archaeologists had to go back to more carefully explore the site.

Further still – Schliemann was wrong in his main claim. He did not find the Troy of the Trojan War. His discovery, in fact, did not change the consensus on the remaining question of how much of the Trojan War is true. It still remains unknown.  The different accounts have many conflicting details, and it was already a foggy legend by Homer’s time. The legends do seem to be based on Greek history (as much as the Robin Hood legend is based on English history), but it is likely that they were transformed by time out of all recognition.

In fact, the story of Schliemann shows how this happens. The version that has come down to public awareness, from just 145 years ago, is almost completely wrong. Stories tend to have themes and a moral lesson, and the facts morph over time to amplify those themes. Eventually the morphed details become the story, which is more apocryphal than real. So in a century and a half we go from: archaeologists believing Troy is historical, having several theories of where it might be, and Schliemann essentially stealing credit from one archaeologist believing it to be in Hisarlik, to – they laughed at Schliemann for claiming Troy was real. They thought that was just a hill. Schliemann invented archaeology.

The fact that the myths of Troy being a myth serves a specific rhetorical purpose amplifies the amplification. The Troy myth is used, knee-jerk, to dismiss any appropriate skepticism regarding extraordinary claims about ancient aliens, advanced civilizations, or Atlantis.

As almost always turns out to be the case – the real story is more complex, and more interesting, than you think. It is also yet another example of why you should be skeptical of stories that are really useful, especially when they support your side. Nice clean and punchy stories are rarely accurate.  At the very least you should do some serious digging before using the story as a major talking point.

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