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Last Updated: Friday, 21 May, 2004, 07:31 GMT 08:31 UK
Unearthing Troy's truth
By Martin Hutchinson

Brad Pitt as Achilles
Brad Pitt stars in the Hollywood movie Troy

For plenty of cinema-goers, the prospect of seeing Brad Pitt as a loincloth-clad hero is enough to encourage them to see the film, which opens in the UK on Friday. But many others will want to know whether there is any truth in it all. Did Troy exist?

Its makers Warner Bros are no doubt hopeful that their latest sword and sandal epic will bring home the Oscars as Gladiator did in 2001.

The "book of the film" is The Iliad, reputedly written in 800BC by the blind Greek poet Homer.

Modern culture is still familiar with the tale. "The face which launched a thousand ships" is a well-known quote referring to Helen, the beauty at the centre of the story.

And any football fan knows the significance of an injury to the Achilles tendon, referring to the warrior hero with a fatal weakness.

Even computer users recognise a "Trojan horse" as something dangerous, if not to life and limb, at least to their PC, referring as it does to the crafty subterfuge which enabled the penetration of Troy.

The story appears to have everything - a 10-year conflict between mighty nations and their warrior heroes, triggered by the abduction of Helen of Troy - the most beautiful woman in the world.

But Professor Brian Rose, an archaeologist from the University of Cincinnati, has been trying to separate fact from this fiction for decades.

Professor Rose
Professor Rose has made many finds
He says the Troy legend is as relevant today as it was to the ancient Greeks.

"Look at the story - it talks about a coalition of forces heading off to fight in the East, a conflict between East and West. Who would not recognise that today?"

For centuries experts have pored over Homer's description of this lofty, heavily fortified city and attempted to put it on the modern map.

The text seemed to place it by the side of the Dardanelles - the straits between the Aegean and Black seas. It is difficult to imagine a more strategically-important spot in terms of trade.

In 1870, German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann began excavating a mound at Hisarlik, a few kilometres from the Dardanelles. He found remains of a substantial ancient settlement.

In fact, closer examination of the site revealed not just one city - but several, built one on top of the other. The deeper you dug, the further back in time you travelled, right back to 4,500 BC.

The site where Troy is believed to have stood
Digs have revealed a probable site for Troy
So was one of them Homer's Troy? While there is no obvious cause for the abandonment and rebuilding of some of the cities, there is clear evidence of a violent end to others.

In particular, one caught the eye of researchers. Dating roughly from 1200 BC, this city bore all the hallmarks of having been destroyed by an invading army.

Professor Rose said: "What we found was a five-foot 'destruction level' with evidence of burning, bones, and piles of stones for slingshots - it is consistent with a sack of the city."

A recent study by University of Delaware geologists of sediments in the flood plain beside the city, suggests many of the battlefield details of Homer's Iliad may have been close to the truth as well.

Many archaeologists now believe that there was indeed a war, or perhaps several wars between Greeks and "Trojans" - most likely the western end of the huge Hittite empire which then dominated what is now Turkey.

Diane Kruger
Diane Kruger plays Helen in the movie

What they really needed to prove that this indeed was Troy was some written evidence from the time that might suggest a conflict, and virtually none has ever been found.

However, when fragments of Hittite writings from this era were unearthed, they offered some tantalising clues.

They spoke of a dispute in the West at this time, and described a city whose name was similar to Ilion - a later name given to Troy.

No document from the period has ever mentioned a Helen of Troy, or an Achilles, but these writings mention an individual called Alexandros - an alternative version of the name Paris.

While Paris may have been a real person, it remains doubtful that his city descended into war over his desire for Helen - the strategic position of Troy on the main trade routes between East and West is a far more likely explanation.

Wooden horse

Professor Rose said: "If a war was fought over Troy, it was much more likely to be for money and power rather than love."

Even the existence of the famous wooden horse - one of the highlights of the movie - is in doubt. No trace of it has ever been found by archaeologists.

Homer's epic was the blockbuster of its time, and it is possible that in a different age - eyesight permitting - he might have been a cinema scriptwriter himself, hyping up the battles and bringing in the love interest.

Audiences experiencing his stories for the first time this summer may be seeing a little more truth than in the average Hollywood potboiler.


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