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Computer-simulated City of Troy
First broadcast: BBC Two, Thursday 25 March 2004
The Truth of Troy
Elsewhere on Horizon
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The Truth of Troy - transcript

NARRATOR: In May this year Hollywood releases its latest epic. It’s the story of the Trojan war.

LOUISE SCHOFIELD: There’s a great will to believe that there was a Trojan war and it was for the love of a beautiful woman.

NARRATOR: But is any of it more than just a myth?

ERIC CLINE: You have science on the one hand and you have the imagination gone wild on the other.

NARRATOR: Tonight Horizon can reveal the latest scientific evidence about the real Troy.

MANFRED KORFMANN: There are skeletons. We found for example a girl, I think sixteen, seventeen years old. It was a city which was besieged and they were defeated.

NARRATOR: The evidence comes from the written tablets of a lost civilisation. An extraordinary shipwreck, and treasure uncovered a Troy itself.

ERIC CLINE: The scientists collides with the romantic.

NARRATOR: We show how science is taking us closer than ever to the truth behind one of the greatest stories of them all.

NARRATOR: For thousands of years these tunnels have held a secret, until now. They are carved in to the bedrock of an ancient city in North West Turkey. The marks of the workman who made them still visible.

MANFRED KORFMANN: You see the burning still of the lamps up here, and the chisels which went in to, to make this cavity.

NARRATOR: Archaeologist Manfred Korfmann has come here with a new scientific technique that he hopes will uncover a truth about these tunnels. It may reveal something that many have suspected but no one has been able to prove. His technique may take us closer than ever to the hard facts behind an ancient myth. The story of the Trojan war. It’s one of the greatest love stories ever. Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world, she’s married to a Greek king but she is spirited away to the magnificent city of Troy after she’s seduced by the Trojan Prince, Paris. For the Greeks this means war. Their most powerful King Agamemnon assembles an army. A thousand ships from all across Greece set sail to lay siege to Troy and bring back Helen. The siege drags on for ten years. The Greeks can not break Troy’s great walls so they resort to trickery. They leave a great wooden horse outside the city and the Trojans pull it inside. Greek soldiers hidden in the horse jump out and open the city gates. Troy is then razed to the ground. The story was composed by the Greek poet Homer almost three thousand years ago. It’s so compelling that for centuries people wondered if any of it was true. Was there a war fought for love? Did a coalition of Greek set sail? Did Troy even exist? Eric Cline is an archaeologist who has tried to answer these questions.

ERIC CLINE: Is there any truth in the story? Is their a nugget, a kernel of truth at the base of the story around which everything else is wrapped? Is there some historical war which took place which Homer wrapped in layer after layer after layer so it became much more than just a single battle, a single conflict, much more than just a war, it became a story, an epic, a saga. And what we have to try and do is peal away the layers and get at the truth, if there is any there to find.

NARRATOR: The first task was to find out when in history the legend was set. Most scholars accept that Homer composed the story in the eighth century before Christ. But it’s thought that he was writing about a time hundreds of years earlier, some time in the age of Bronze. At the beginning of this era the pyramids of Egypt were being built. Writing came to Greece. And the invention of bronze weapons revolutionised the face of warfare. It was in the late Bronze Age, around twelve hundred years before Christ, that it is believed the story of the Trojan war is set. Having determined the time the task now facing archaeologists was to find out if Troy ever existed. The first breakthrough was made by Heinrich Schliemann in 1870. He was something of an amateur, but he had other qualities.

ERIC CLINE: To be an archaeologist you have to be both good and lucky. Schliemann was not necessarily that good but he was luckier than almost anybody else that has ever put trowel or spade in to the ground.

NARRATOR: Schliemann looked for geographical clues in Homer to follow up. They placed Troy in the north west corner of what is now Turkey. Schliemann believed they fitted the site of an ancient mound by the coast. He didn’t hang around.

ERIC CLINE: Schliemann shows up at the site, hires a couple of hundred workers, and puts a whacking great trench right through the middle of the mound, and that was archaeology.

NARRATOR: Fifteen metres down he found a walled palace, with a paved ramp leading to the gate.

ERIC CLINE: He found a great gate in stone, with a great road leading through the gateway, wide enough so that two chariots could have driven through it side by side. And that is one of the clues that Homer gives.

NARRATOR: Schliemann thought he’d found Homer’s Troy. The rest of the world wasn’t so sure. But in this trench he answered the doubters with a breathtaking discovery. Treasure, gold diadems, jewels fit for the most beautiful woman in the world. Here was evidence of a rich and advanced culture.

ERIC CLINE: He had found the very jewels that are in necklaces, bracelets, earrings, that Helen had worn. Or so he claimed. And so the world was absolutely entranced, especially when Schliemann put these necklaces, these jewels on his wife, when he bedecked Sophie.

NARRATOR: Schliemann had brought the myth dramatically to life. He was certain he’d found the mythical city of Troy. And the world wanted to believe him. But in fact he’d got something completely wrong. A site that has been inhabited for centuries poses a particular problem for archaeologists. Because each generation builds on the remains of its predecessors, forming a sequence of layers. So the deeper you dig the farther back in time you travel. At Troy there are nine layers representing four thousand years of inhabitation. Each layer a different era in human history.

MANFRED KORFMANN: Here we have a cake, a period, a sequence of layers. Down there two thousand five hundred BC, which means the pyramids in Egypt. Up there, layer six, the exodus of Egypt. The blue sign, the period of Jesus Christ. So we have a history of humanity and a wonderful sequence which we can control as archaeologists.

NARRATOR: But Schliemann didn’t know how to date his layers. And as the science of archaeology evolved it became clear that these jewels could never have been worn by Helen, they were more than a thousand years too old. Schliemann had dug down too deep, the late Bronze Age, the time of the legend, was four layers higher up.

MANFRED KORFMANN: Now if there was a Trojan war we would look to the layer six, which is the fortification wall which you can see over there.

NARRATOR: A very different Troy emerged from that layer, with physical features that seemed to match some of Homer’s descriptions. Here seemed to be his fine towers. His wide streets and lofty gates. The city was indeed well walled as the myth described. The city that emerged seemed to be drawn from the pages of Homer. Here was a royal citadel, robustly defended. With imposing watchtowers dominating the land as Homer described. But there was one feature that just didn’t fit the myth. The city of legend had been mighty enough to withstand a siege for ten years.

ERIC CLINE: The city is probably too small, it doesn’t fit what Homer describes. Yes it’s wealthy, yes maybe powerful, maybe some trade, but there aren’t enough people there, it’s simply too small.

NARRATOR: Once again doubters suggested that there might be nothing to the myth at all. That perhaps Homer’s Troy never existed. But even if this was not Homer’s Tory it was a fascinating archaeological site in its own right. And in 1988 it drew a large international team to begin work again. In charge was the leading German archaeologist Manfred Korfmann. He was interested in science, not the myth. But his work was to lead to extraordinary new insights in to the legend. It began when Korfmann started to re-examine the citadel defences.

MANFRED KORFMANN: We have here fortification wall, in some places eight metres high still standing. Now the purpose of this tower is actually I would say to show power and to make sure that this was a powerful residence. You see the greatness of this tower, you see the powerful thickness of these walls.

NARRATOR: But then it appeared to him that whoever had constructed the defences had made an elementary mistake. It seemed there was no way of closing off the gateways. Any invading army could have just walked in.

MANFRED KORFMANN: Now this gate is open and it is inviting everybody to come in and so we went hundred time through it and thought how this was closed, how this was blocked, how could they defend themselves. Obviously they did not defend themselves here on the gate.

NARRATOR: It just didn’t make sense to him. No one would have built a city that was not defensible. So he began to wonder, perhaps these weren’t the outside walls. Perhaps there was more to Troy than had so far been uncovered. Outside the city walls Korfmann’s team began to excavate. They began to unearth remains from the late Bronze Age.

MANFRED KORFMANN: You have pitoy which means storage jars, quite a number of it. We have found here a hearth in the middle, so it was warm. We, the back rooms were two storeyed, and we found in the corner something which we can interpret as a kind of toilet.

NARRATOR: Korfmann began to speculate whether this was evidence that the city extended beyond the citadel walls, in to the fields below.

MANFRED KORFMANN: The big question is, is there a lower city? Now is this the lower city, from the topographical point of view this should be the lower city.

NARRATOR: But the area was too big to excavate with spades. So Korfmann had to try a different technique, magnetic imaging to look beneath the surface. What was revealed was a city hidden beneath the fields. A grid of wide streets and long avenues. It was immediately obvious that this belonged to a much later period, classical Greek and Roman times.

MANFRED KORFMANN: We find the Greek and Roman layout of the city with streets, with channels and so on. Wonderful to have such a city plan but we were looking for the lower city of the Bronze Age and the end of the lower city.

NARRATOR: At first it seemed there was nothing here from the late Bronze Age, that later buildings had obliterated any remains. But then Korfmann spotted one feature, so faint it could easily have been overlooked.

MANFRED KORFMANN: Then we got alerted by a fine line which alerted us, I just draw it here, it goes up and down, it goes inward and outwards, and there was a gate interruption, and it continued like this. So by this we had the idea we should excavate what is this.

NARRATOR: The excavation revealed a section of a deep ditch.

MANFRED KORFMANN: This magnificent ditch is cut in to the rock and we can follow it up seven hundred metres just around this hill crop.

NARRATOR: Korfmann believes it was designed to stop enemy chariots, and so marked the outer limit of the lower city. He dated remains in the ditch, and it was from the late Bronze Age.

MANFRED KORFMANN: And this means that we have now the southern limit and we know that it was quite a substantial place here, all over here, and in the back over here. So I think we are speaking of a considerable lower city and a lot of effort to fortify it with this ditch.

NARRATOR: A city of the late Bronze Age was now revealed. Korfmann believes that it was a sizeable city, with a population of between four and eight thousand. For the scientist not interested in the myth it was an amazing breakthrough.

MANFRED KORFMANN: Now the people will believe that there was a Homeric Troy, that means a city of substantial size and population, will be happy with this result.

ERIC CLINE: The discovery of such a lower city is, is crucial, and the fact that Korfmann has apparently discovered just such a lower town is, is wonderful. It, it maybe what was necessary to put the finishing touches on the identification of this site as Troy.

NARRATOR: After three thousand years the legendary city of Troy seemed to have become a reality. It seemed there was some historical truth in the myth. But there was still no evidence that Troy had been destroyed as Homer said by an enemy army. Then Korfmann’s team began to look for clues about the fate of Troy in the late Bronze Age. Soon they began to find evidence of violence. They began to uncover arrowheads in the lower city. It suggested close quarter fighting. Korfmann began to build up a picture of what had happened.

MANFRED KORFMANN: Now the evidence is burning and catastrophe with fire. Then there are skeletons, we found for example a girl, I think sixteen, seventeen years old, half buried, the feet were burned by fire. Half of the corpse was underground. This is strange so a rapid burial was in public space, inside the city, and we found sling pellets in heaps.

NARRATOR: He believes these pellets had been assembled by the defenders of Troy and then abandoned after they lost the battle. It pointed to a clear conclusion.

MANFRED KORFMANN: It was a city which was besieged. It was a city which was defended, which protected itself. They lost the war and obviously they were defeated.

NARRATOR: Korfmann had shown that Troy had been destroyed in a battle at the end of the Bronze Age, just as the legend had said it was. But there was one thing Korfmann couldn’t determine, who the attackers had been, that evidence would have to come from elsewhere. Homer said that the army that sacked Troy came from Greece. That it was led by the King of Mycenae, Agamemnon, and this whole era in Greek history has become known as Mycenaean. In the legend a thousand Mycenaean ships sailed to Troy to bring Helen home. Their army besieges Troy for ten years. But were the Greeks capable of mounting such an expedition together? And could it have been led by a king of Mycenae like Agamemnon? These magnificent lions have guarded the palace at Mycenae for three thousand years. In the late Bronze Age Greece was carved up in to independent kingdoms. Each ruler had his own palace. The mighty wall suggested this was the palace of an important king. But for the myth to have substance this one had to be the most important of all, home to the Greek king of kings. Professor Spyros Iakovidis has spent most of his career excavating Mycenae. He’s part of a team that have just completed a ground breaking study, an atlas that shows what Mycenae looked like during the Bronze Age, including the road system that linked it to the rest of the country.

SPYROS IAKOVIDIS: We have a citadel of Mycenae here. This is a modern road which goes up the black one, and these are the remains of ancient, of Mycenaean roads. These red things here. We have another road there, goes across the river bed. This one it makes a curve and goes east. The roads lead to all directions.

NARRATOR: He believes that the road network that radiates out from the citadel suggests that Mycenae could have been at the political centre of the Greek world.

SPYROS IAKOVIDIS: It was the centre of Mycenaean civilisation, therefore we assume that it was also the political centre of, of Mycenaean, of the Mycenaean states. And it was certainly one of the most powerful states. So it could very well have been in the middle of things, in the centre of whatever expedition was mounted against the coast of Asia minor and therefore also against Troy.

NARRATOR: His work implies that Homer may have been right when he said Mycenae was at the centre of Greek power. But was there evidence that these were the mighty warriors described in the legend? Evidence that the Mycenaean’s were indeed great warriors came when these graves within the citadel walls were excavated many years ago.

LOUISE SCHOFIELD: It was on this very spot here in this circle of graves within the citadel walls of Mycenae that the discovery of the lost civilisation of the Mycenaeans was first made. We’re standing here in a great circle of graves surrounded by massive slabs of stone with the retaining wall of the great ramp that leads up to the Mycenaean palace behind us.

NARRATOR: Here were uncovered the rulers of this lost civilisation.

LOUISE SCHOFIELD: The men were found lying wearing massive gold death masks and wonderful ceremonial armour.

NARRATOR: It was a sensational discovery. For the first time the world looked at the face of Mycenaean warrior chief. This is a face from the late Bronze Age. Buried alongside it weapons of war.

LOUISE SCHOFIELD: We find Mycenaean warriors sometimes buried with up to as many forty or fifty swords that they probably collected and used during their lifetime. There’s a whole sort of military strength and a military feeling to the civilisation of the Mycenaeans. So from the artefacts we can see it’s very much a warrior culture.

NARRATOR: This warrior culture that archaeology had revealed did seem to fit the warrior culture that Homer described in his story. But even so there was nothing to link these great warriors to Troy. The myth says the Greeks sailed to Troy to win Helen back. That it was a war of love and vengeance. It makes a wonderful story, but it has never seemed very likely. Another possible motivation for a war began to emerge, from the stones of Mycenae. That motivation was greed. Archaeologists have discovered that the rulers of Mycenae had undertaken an epic task. To build mighty new walls. To transform their citadel.

LOUISE SCHOFIELD: There's a massive rebuilding program, a whole new section of the citadel is added, almost doubling the size of the fortified area.

NARRATOR: To complete the work Louise Schofield believes they would have needed great wealth. Supplies and food for an army of workers, and the latest technology to work with, bronze.

LOUISE SCHOFIELD: The sophisticated, heroic palace civilisation that you, that you see spread across the mainland of Greece would have demanded huge resources. You had a palace here with your dependants, you’d have your army to feed, these civilisations here really depended on wealth.

NARRATOR: But the problem the Mycenaeans faced was that they didn’t have the natural resources that mattered. They had no tin to make bronze weapons and tools. Nor did they have gold. Their civilisation was greedy for this wealth. And they had to get it somehow.

LOUISE SCHOFIELD: If these independent Mycenaean kingdoms were to band together to undertake an expedition like that to Troy they're not going to be doing it for honour or for the love of a beautiful woman. They’re going to be doing it because they want something, and what they’re going to want over there really is access to, is access to wealth.

NARRATOR: So the archaeological record at Mycenae does find evidence of a rich warrior culture. And it suggests a likely motive for these warriors to join battle, the search for wealth and loot. So was there something about Troy that would have attracted a people like the Mycenaean’s in their quest for riches? A discovery on the seabed further down the coast from Troy hints at an answer. In fifty metres of water, a shipwreck. Archaeologist Cemal Pulak was called to investigate.

CEMAL PULAK: Going down there and seeing rows and rows of these copper ingots was just absolutely unbelievable. We were extremely excited and the more we looked around the more was available and, and it was quite apparent that we were dealing with a very, very large major rec of the Bronze Age.

NARRATOR: There were enough metal ingots to make eleven tonnes of bronze.

CEMAL PULAK: The cargo that the ship was carrying is by the far the largest assemblage of Bronze Age goods found anywhere.

NARRATOR: Onboard the ship a dazzling cargo from the late Bronze Age. Beautifully shaped gold, ostrich eggs from Africa or Asia, goods from all over the known world on this single ship.

CEMAL PULAK: This gives us a clear idea of how intricate and how far reaching the ancient trade network is, it’s much, much more sophisticated than we originally thought.

NARRATOR: Pulack’s discovery suggested the late Bronze Age was a time of rich trade, of great wealth being moved across the high seas. Laden with bronze and treasure ships like this could easily have called in at Troy.

CEMAL PULAK: These ships were obviously sturdy enough and capable enough to be able to sail northward in to the Aegean and on to Troy.

NARRATOR: Discoveries like these begged the question, was there something special about Troy’s position in these trade routes that might have attracted the attention of the Mycenaean’s? Manfred Korfmann believes that Troy was a very special trading port indeed. That it occupied a vital strategic position. It sits at the edge of the Dardanelles, a narrow channel that separates Europe and Asia. Today it’s a vital trade route. And Korfmann believes it was important three thousand years ago.

MANFRED KORFMANN: Now it’s, the straits which are so narrow here that everything you could expect of contact between Asia and Europe should have passed here. So Troy could have benefited from this special geographic situation, and I think that’s why it is so big in comparison to other sites. In this area there is no site as important as Troy.

NARRATOR: Korfmann believes that Troy became a wealthy city because of the strategic position of the gateway between two continents. So it seems Troy was a very desirable city, desirable to the Mycenaeans because of its wealth. But its position also made it desirable to someone else, because Troy stood at the edge of another great civilisation of the day. They were called the Hittites, their empire covered much of the territory of modern day Turkey. The Hittites were a super power of the late Bronze Age. They’d sacked the ancient city of Babylon and fought the mighty army of the pharaohs to a standstill. But the Hittites have also left behind clues about what really might have happened at Troy. It is all contained in a vast collection of written tablets. Trevor Bryce has studied this astonishing collection. Remarkable accounts of what was happening to cities across the Hittite empire more than three thousand years ago.

TREVOR BRYCE: They have really unlocked the key to an understanding of the whole history and civilisation of the Hittite world. They give us pictures of conflicts and tensions in that region, and that really provides us with an actual historical written record.

NARRATOR: So scholars began to look for references to Troy in the texts. It appeared to be a hopeless task because no one knew what the Hittites had called the place. Then they started to discover references to battles over an important city. Its name was Wilusha, a name very similar to another ancient Greek name for Troy, Wileos.

TREVOR BRYCE: Many scholars believe that a country called Wilusha in Hittite text was in fact the name of Troy.

NARRATOR: The tablets described festering conflicts involving the Mycenaeans, all along the coast by Wilusha, conflict spread over two hundred years. The tablets stated Mycenaean warriors had once fought at the gates of Wilusha. If scholars could show that Troy and Wilusha were the same place they could then compare the legend against historical records. The tablets might at last reveal the real truth of Troy. But it wasn’t to be a simple task.

TREVOR BRYCE: The problem was we couldn’t really prove it because we didn’t know exactly where Wilusha lay.

NARRATOR: This was the task for archaeology, to discover if Troy and Wilusha were the same city. A recent breakthrough has given us the answer. It involved a mysterious message on a mountain, inspired detective work, and following an army on the move. The first clue came from a tablet that recorded at the military might of the Hittites was being unleashed in the late Bronze age.

TREVOR BRYCE: The Hittite army is on the move from its homeland, we know it’s moving westwards and we know that its final destination is the kingdom of Wilusha. But we didn’t know precisely where Wilusha lay. In fact it could have been anywhere along this coastline. But all events we know that the Hittite army continued to move westwards. But then did they go north or did they go south?

NARRATOR: Troy is situated in the north. So if Troy and Wilusha are the same place then the Hittite army should have headed north. But the tablet offered no clue. The direction the army must have taken was finally revealed when the inscription on this mountain pass was deciphered. It marked the boundary between two kingdoms, and indicated the Hittite army had headed north.

TREVOR BRYCE: Once they reached close to the western coast they then turned northwards, bringing them right up in to the region of where Troy was located. So really the conclusion now seems inescapable. The kingdoms of Wilusha and Troy Ilion are one and the same.

NARRATOR: The scholarly evidence was compelling. The mythical city of Troy and the Hittite city of Wilusha may well be the same. But what was missing now was supporting archaeological evidence. That evidence was to come from the water tunnel that Manfred Korfmann had excavated at Troy. And the breakthrough was to do with dating the tunnel. Most people believed this tunnel had been built a thousand years after the late Bronze Age, but Korfmann was less sure.

MANFRED KORFMANN: Outside there are basins of Roman period, so it is a Roman structure, a Roman tunnel system. But then we were suspicious that it is older.

NARRATOR: The reason the date of the tunnel mattered so much was because of this tablet. It contains a reference to a water tunnel at Wilusha. So if this tunnel at Troy was from the same time as the tablet here would be archaeological evidence that Troy and Wilusha were the same place. Everything now depended on the date of the tunnel. But was there anything in it to date? Then Korfmann noticed that over the centuries water had seeped in to the cave walls and left behind it layers of limestone. It’s the same process that furs up your kettle. Here it’s left slabs on the side of the cave.

MANFRED KORFMANN: So here is the outer surface, that means the last time that water is, was coming pouring through it, it’s like a teapot this calcareous matter, pouring through the rocks and accumulating here. This is the inside when it started.

NARRATOR: Korfmann then realised that the limestone layers contain something he could use to date the tunnel, tiny quantities of uranium. Back in the lab Korfmann’s team analysed the minute amounts of naturally occurring uranium in the cave limestone. The uranium undergoes radioactive decay at a predictable rate. They used a mass spectrometer to measure the decay, and so determine how old the tunnel was. When the result came back it was astonishing. The tunnel had been started in 2600 BC. And it had been in use when the Hittite tablet was written. Science had delivered the supporting evidence. Troy and Wilusha were the same city. We can now build up a likely scenario of what might have happened to Troy. The tablet show that the Mycenaean’s had fought at Troy in the late Bronze Age.

ERIC CLINE: The Hittite text mention battles that took place. The Hittite records indicate through the war that the Mycenaean’s were not only interested in this region but had been actively fighting on and off for more than two centuries.

NARRATOR: The tablet show that Troy was an ally of the Hittites. If Troy was attacked the Hittites were likely to come and fight alongside them. So Homer’s legend appears to have been based on a real conflict between two super powers of the late Bronze Age, the Mycenaean’s and the Hittites.

TREVOR BRYCE: I believe that these conflicts were distilled in to a tradition of a single war lasting ten years.

NARRATOR: It seems the war occurred because Troy was a wealthy city in a vital strategic location, and that both super powers wanted to control it.

ERIC CLINE: Was the Trojan war fought for love? No. Was it fought because of greed, for money, for territory, for ambition? Of course, it’s what most wars are fought for. Troy was caught between two mighty empires, the Mycenaeans and the Hittites. It was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it was crushed.

NARRATOR: So there was no face that launched a thousand ships. War or wars were not fought for love but more likely for gold and loot. And what of the Trojan horse? There are no clues in the texts, nor in the archaeological records. Perhaps it just shows that Homer really was above all an amazing storyteller.

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