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The myth and reality of Troy

Posted on 05 Dec 2019

Troy is a city of the imagination, as much as an archaeological fact. A recent show at the British Museum explored the Trojan myths and truths that have captivated us for more than 3,000 years.

IMAGE: Achilles kills the Amazon queen Penthesilea, Athenian amphora, c.530BC, ceramic © The Trustees of the British Museum

The story of the Trojan War is one of the world’s greatest stories. For more than 3,000 years, it has forged an extraordinary narrative tradition — told and retold from Homer to Shakespeare to Hollywood.

It is a story epic in scale, and tragic in its chain of effects. From the first seeds of conflict to the eventual return of the surviving Greeks, it spans nearly half a century of turmoil and loss. Its account of Greek kings and warriors united in battle against Troy reflects a nascent Greek identity, yet the message of the Trojan tale is more than patriotic. It tells us how a relatively minor cause can have catastrophic consequences, that there is no such thing as victory in war, and that suffering and trauma are universally felt.

But are there any facts behind this foundational tale? Was there a Trojan truth, as much as a Troy of multiple imaginings through art, and writing, and theatre? And what about the mythological characters? Warrior Achilles, kidnapped Helen, cunning Odysseus.

IMAGE: Filippo Albacini (1777-1858), The Wounded Achilles, 1825, marble, Chatsworth House Photograph © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees.

In its recent exhibition, Troy: Myth and Reality, the British Museum paired the archaeological quest for the “real Troy” beside the narrative intricacies that make up the Trojan story and its artistic interpretations over the centuries.

IMAGE: Filippo Albacini (1777-1858), The Wounded Achilles, 1825, marble, Chatsworth House Photograph © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of Chatsworth Settlement Trustees.

The archaeological story centers on the exploits of Heinrich Schliemann, a German archaeologist and showman credited with discovering the lost city in the late 19thcentury. He found it at the site of Hissarlik, in modern-day Turkey. Schliemann was not the first to dig there, but he was the most successful, discovering all kinds of treasure to support a Trojan past, including elaborate vessels, jewels, and owl-faced pots which Schilemann identified with the Trojan cult of Athena.

IMAGE: Terracotta face pot from Troy, c. 2550–1750BC, Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte Photograph © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Photo: Claudia Plamp

It was a remarkable discovery, one of the greatest archaeological finds on record, and Schliemann relished adding another layer of myth to his excavations. He interspersed his accounts of the dig with extensive autobiographical details (some now contested) and famously photographed his young wife, Sophia, bedecked in a gold diadem and earrings known – inevitably – as the “Jewels of Helen”.

The British Museum show not only included a large number of Schliemann’s original finds, but also recreated a cross-section of the ancient mound where he dug, determined to find some Trojan traces in the strata of history below.
The discovery of this real Troy perhaps only enlivened its appeal to imagination and artistic expression. The British Museum’s collection holds some of the most exquisite antique artefacts of the Trojan story, including astonishing vases showing Achilles killing the Amazon queen Penthesilea, and Odysseus stunned by the Sirens on his journey home.

IMAGE: Odysseus and the Sirens, Athenian jar, c.480-470BC, ceramic © The Trustees of the British Museum

For this exhibition, the museum borrowed from numerous other institutions to show more modern interpretations of the Trojan tale alongside these classical images. There was the collaged Siren’s Song by African-American artist Romare Bearden. There was Eleanor Antin’s photo series Helen’s Odyssey, where Helen regains a voice in imagined scenes from her life. There was Cy Twombly’s haunting Vengeance of Achilles, and there’s a film of Syrian Queens, a devastating 2016 performance of Eurpides’ play, Trojan Women, by a group of refugee Syrian women.

IMAGE: Eleanor Antin Judgement of Paris (after Rubens), 2007, from "Helen's Odyssey" © Eleanor Antin. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York

For more than 3,000 years, the stories and the truths of Troy have fascinated and resonated across generations and cultures. Travellers, explorers, historians, writers, artists, and performers, have all been drawn to its riches both material and narrative. In its intricate web of objects and artwork, this exhibition explored the layers of meaning we have found – and continue to find – in both the mythical, and the real, Troy.


Words by Eliza Apperly

Troy: myth and reality (British Museum)

Alexandra Villing, J. Lesley Fitton, Victoria Donnellan, Andrew Shapland