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Was there a real Trojan war as depicted in the Iliad? Is "Agamemnon's death mask" real?

July 20, 2007

Dear Cecil:

In mythology class the other day, my teacher mentioned that Agamemnon's death mask had been found, which coupled with the discovery of Troy in the 19th century makes me wonder if the war and characters Homer described were real. What's the evidence, and what's the straight dope on this so-called death mask?

Forget the mask. Protoarchaeologist Heinrich Schliemann found what was dubbed the "mask of Agamemnon" in 1876 on a crumbling skull while digging up Mycenae, the Greek city the Trojan War general was said to have ruled. Though the fancy gold artifact was plausibly regal, it's now known to have originated in the 16th century BC, predating any likely Trojan War by centuries. On the other hand, Schliemann's identification of Troy with a place near Turkey's Aegean coast called Hisarlik is more certain than ever. He wasn't the first to make the connection, but his excavations in 1870 proved the Bronze Age city was prosperous enough to match Homer's description.

That doesn't prove anything about the events of the Iliad, of course. Even classical writers like Thucydides, while not denying a Trojan war happened, didn't really buy Homer's description of its cause and extent. Many modern scholars agree, acknowledging the war but doubting its ten-year duration, or that it was fought over a woman. But could the Greeks have been somehow involved in a more modest assault on Troy? Not only possible, but judging from Hittite records, more likely than not.

The Hittites conquered western Anatolia, including the Hisarlik area, about 1400 BC. Among the subdued lands, Hittite texts tell us, was a place called Wilusa. Since the 1920s, shortly after Hittite was deciphered, some have identified Wilusa with Troy (Ilios in Greek, possibly Wilios before Greek lost its W sound). Initially this theory had little more going for it than the similarity of names, but with the archaeological map largely filled in, geographical clues plus the process of elimination strongly suggest Wilusa was Troy.

With that in mind, several Hittite texts offer tenuous evidence of a Greek-Trojan conflict. These documents use the place-name "Ahhiyawa," currently thought to refer to one or more Greek-speaking kingdoms. Ahhiyawa is phonetically similar to Akhaioi, a Homeric term for the Greeks. More importantly, the texts indicate it was a formidable power that meddled in Anatolian affairs, and the only good candidates for such an entity are the Greek kingdoms, of which Mycenae was among the greatest. So let's further assume Ahhiyawa was someplace Greek.

If all this is right, the Hittite texts say just enough about a Trojan war to tantalize. One document from about 1280 BC says a Greek ally named Piyamaradu had overthrown Troy's unnamed Hittite-allied king. In another text, circa 1250 BC, the Hittite king begs his "brother," an unnamed Greek ruler, to rein in Piyamaradu, who is again making trouble in Anatolia. This letter mentions an earlier Greek-Hittite war or dispute (translations vary) over Troy, presumably the one from 1280. The earlier conflict apparently ended with a Greek-Hittite agreement that removed Piyamaradu from Troy.

A third Hittite document from about 1230 BC tells us the Hittites had then overthrown the Greek-allied ruler of Milawata (probably Miletus, also on the Anatolian coast). We learn that the rightful (read: Hittite-friendly) king of Troy, named Walmu, was to be reinstated, implying that the Greeks or their allies had ousted a Trojan king for the second time in less than a century.

Now for the archaeology. A hundred years ago the consensus was that the Trojan War, if it happened, was behind the destruction evident in a stratum called Troy VIh (about 1300 or 1250 BC). Research in the 1930s, however, suggested this damage was caused by an earthquake, so attention shifted to the destruction of Troy VIIa (or Troy VIi, as it's sometimes called), dated to about 1200 or 1180 BC. But the dismissal of Troy VIh may have been too hasty. Earthquakes and warfare aren't mutually exclusive; the Greeks are known to have taken advantage of quake damage to attack cities. What's more, archaeological evidence suggests Troy VIIa was still standing after Mycenae had been sacked by forces unknown - in other words, the Greeks were players when Troy VIh was destroyed, but out of it by the time of Troy VIIa. We can't rule out a Greek pirate raid on VIIa, but that's far removed from what Homer describes.

So we've got two destructions of Troy deduced from physical evidence and two usurpations gleaned from Hittite texts. Given the uncertainties of dating such things, it's impossible to conclusively line up the two sets of events, if in fact they're related at all. The point is, we know the Greeks (or at least the Ahhiyawans) interfered in Trojan (or at least Wilusan) politics and on one or two occasions arranged the overthrow of the king. That's a frail thread to hang the Iliad on, but it's all we've got.

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