The search for Troy, the purported site of the Trojan War, has been going on with some intensity from the early 1800s. Many persons have made their careers, while others have had their careers destroyed through their involvement in the quest. The debate about Troy’s location, or indeed whether it is even a real physical place, continues to this day. But there are some important lessons that can be learned from all this, and some fun to be had reviewing a few of the twists and turns of this remarkable story.
Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are two of the greatest epic poems ever. They claim to recount the last days of the Trojan War and Ulysses’ voyage home. Prior to about 1800, Troy was generally taken to be a myth—an invention by Homer. But that view began to change when a “renegade archeologist” named Heinrich Schliemann decided to take Homer at his word and take the stories literally.
Why was Schliemann a “renegade archeologist”? Because he was a just fellow who simply got fixated on Troy and the idea of finding it. He was not trained in archeology (even as rudimentary as the science was in the early 1800s.) He was a businessman. His passion for finding Troy led him to devote his entire fortune to the goal. His techniques were crude and in many ways destructive. His digging at Hissarlik, Turkey is said by many to have done more harm than good.
Did he really find Troy? While Schliemann believed he had found Troy throughout his life, there is growing dissent that Hissarlik is Troy. Still, there is no question that Schliemann found at Hissarlik evidence of a very old and sophisticated civilization. His life’s work showed that it can be productive to be open-minded about “myths”—open to the possibility that they may contain more than just a grain of truth. They might contain many grains. In some cases they might even be literally true, in the sense that the author(s) might have been doing their best to document things that actually happened, or tell about people who actually lived.
So if we take Homer at his word, where does that take us?
Going down the road of literalism doesn’t mean we leave common sense and even healthy skepticism behind. For example, while it is very exciting to see that taking Homer literally led to some amazing archeological finds, we still need to be cautious. Homer’s stories have a lot of geographical errors. The locations of some islands, for example, are not where Homer says they are. The locations of known cities are not accurate. So if Homer got these facts wrong, why should we believe his descriptions of Troy’s location? It certainly should give us pause. And perhaps it should make us ask deeper questions, such as whether we’re certain we know about the real locale Homer was referring to? After all, the location was deduced from hints throughout the texts, but what if these deductions were wrong. Perhaps there are other locales that better fit Homer’s geography than the Near East.
Some investigators think so. They point to the fact that the island of Ogygia, mentioned in the Odyssey, was described by Plutarch as situation “five days sail from Britain, towards the west.”
Some investigators point to other clues in the text, such as references to birds that don’t exist around the Mediterranean but instead live in the British Isles and Scandinavia. And then once the location is questioned and the idea is brought forth that the text may contain clues to Troy’s real location, numerous clues are seen:
description of tidal activity more consistent with Northern latitudes than Mediterranean ones,
description of vegetation not seen around the Mediterranean,
references to fog and snow (rare around the Mediterranean),
references to the gray and misty sea (not a typical description of the Mediterranean)
inclusion of name places that are linguistically similar to ones found in Scandinavia
description of the use of chariots in battle (unknown to the Greeks but known to have been used in Britain)
the use of bronze drinking chalices (typical of Celtic customs but atypical of Mediterranean cultures)
All of this is, to me, very interesting in and of itself. It really does raise some questions about what Homer was talking about. But beyond simply being intriguing, there is perhaps an important lesson here. If we are willing to set aside pre-conceived notions and to question assumptions, we may uncover clues to enduring mysteries which might help us actually solve those mysteries.
 Colvin, Verplanck. Geographical and Mathematical Discussion of Plutarch’s Account of Ancient Voyages to the New World. New York: Albany Institute of History and Art, C. Van Benthuysen & Sons, 1893.