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Real or imagined, Troy is with us still

Michèle Woodger

For more than 3,000 years stories of the mythical city have beguiled western imagination. As the British Museum exhibition demonstrates, the facts are fascinating too

One of the most heartrending scenes in Homer’s Iliad takes place by Troy’s city walls. Hector, son of the King of Troy, meets his wife and son before returning to battle. The baby is frightened by his father’s helmet, so laughingly he removes it. But it is their final meeting; soon the Trojan warrior will be killed by his vengeful Greek counterpart Achilles. (That’s Eric Bana and Brad Pitt, if you want to visualise their appearances).

We now assume these gated walls to be those of Hisarlık, western Turkey. The British Museum's latest exhibition, Troy: Myth and Reality, brings back to life a city more powerful in the imagination than it ever was in fact.

The exhibition is in three parts. First is a walk-through of the three epics that cover the Trojan War and its aftermath: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (c750 BC but part of a much older oral tradition) and Virgil’s Aeneid (c29-19 BC, in Latin). An impressive array of art and artefacts illustrates these tales – Etruscan wall paintings and sarcophagi, fragments of Pompeiian frescoes, Roman silver drinking vessels and Greek black-figure and red-figure vases.

If, as Marlowe wrote, Helen’s was the face that launched a thousand ships, Troy is the city that launched a thousand myths. The classical poets conjure an era when men, monsters and gods walked the Earth together. We revisit such stories as the elopement of Helen and Paris, Priam begging the Greeks to return the mutilated body of his son Hector, Odysseus’ eventful return to Ithaca, and Aeneas’ escape from the burning city towards Italian shores. (The Trojan hero will eventually become the progenitor of the Roman people). A large wooden horse occupies the central space, a reminder of a certain infamous Greek pop-up structure.

Terracotta face pot from Troy, c2550–1750 BC.
Terracotta face pot from Troy, c2550–1750 BC. Credit: Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte. Photograph © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte. Photo: Claudia Plamp

The very first exhibit is an amphora by Exekias (c530 BC) on which Achilles slays the Amazonian queen Penthesilea. It is a monumentally ill-timed misadventure – the moment she dies, he realises he loves her. Immediately to the right are ceramics on loan from Berlin, charred by Second World War bombing. These are next to an enormous abstract painting by Cy Twombly. The subject is Achilles’ rage. Such careful choice and positioning of artworks dramatically bring the myths alive while questioning what is truly meant by heroism, love, death and war.

In the later part of the exhibition, we are shown how the city of Troy was envisaged by later artists and writers, including Shakespeare, Byron and Keats (there is a copy of Chapman’s Homer). Artworks by Josiah Wedgewood, William Blake, William Morris, William de Morgan, Edward Burne Jones, Elizabeth Frink and Eduardo Paolozzi raise the city from its ruins, time and again.

But the most intriguing part of the exhibition is an understated middle section which shows us, with artefacts uncovered from the site itself, a glimpse of the real Troy. These findings – spearheads, metallic drinking vessels, fragments of inscriptions and curious pots with human faces – are presented against a backdrop showing the different stratigraphic layers, or phases, of the town. Settlement at Troy began around 3000 BC, in the Early Bronze Age; it was abandoned around 600 AD, in the Byzantine period.

A reminder of echoes of Troy through the ages: Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), Helen's Tears, drawing from ‘The Flower Book’ 1882 – 1898.
A reminder of echoes of Troy through the ages: Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), Helen's Tears, drawing from ‘The Flower Book’ 1882 – 1898. Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

There is evidence of contact with Mycenae on the Greek mainland, with Minoan Crete, and with the Hittites from Anatolia. There are fortification walls and defensive ditches. There was an earthquake, a catastrophic burning, and a period of devastation which corresponds to the wider ‘Late Bronze Age Collapse’ in the region (1180 BC). But this isn’t sufficient evidence for a 10-year war, as Homer tells it.

Many artefacts were unearthed by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in the 1890s. He is a controversial figure who, like many imperialist era explorers, embodied a peculiar blend of narcissism, naivety and romance. Schliemann undermined the value of his own pioneering discoveries by misinterpreting evidence (shoehorning it into ill-fitting theories), malpractice (falsifying his diaries) and amateurishness (reckless digging).

Archaeological Hisarlık is as interesting as mythological Troy. It is a place which yields information about life for ordinary people, offering insights into trade networks and the exchange of ideas across the ancient Mediterranean.

The exhibition reveals Troy to be not one city, but many: to modern archaeologists, a town repeatedly rebuilt; to Schliemann, a place to seek for, and be distracted by, buried treasure; to the ancient Greeks and Romans, a locus for collective identity and memory. Whether or not ‘The Trojan War’ occurred is more or less immaterial. That a city (and the people that lived and died there) have dominated our imaginations for over 3,000 years is a far more beguiling state of affairs.

The BP exhibition Troy: myth and reality runs until 8 March 2020 at the British Museum.