Monday, March 28, 2016

The great city of Troy - Aegean archaeology and reconstruction of settlements

A warm welcome to everyone! Especially to those who still await new posts. After a long silence - lasting for several years - I finally managed to secure enough free time to continue my research into Minoan matters. This time we shall explore a brand-new question: How accurate are the restorations of Bronze-age cities - if they are based on excavations of their citadels only?

A few years ago as I was travelling through Turkey, we paid a visit to numerous historical sites: from the Neolithic to the Ottoman era. Of these many, one ancient city stands out - because both of its fame and its relatedness to the civilizations across the Aegean. This is the city of Troy, known to Greeks as Ilion. Compared to the impressive hellenistic ruins found elsewhere in Asia Minor, the site of Troy does not offer much to the average tourists. Apart from the few Roman-era remains dotting the hillside, there is very little to be seen. Except for the foundations of earlier cyclopean wallings. However, the building stones seen deep on the bottom of the trench dug by Schliemann betray the lengthy history of this township.

Something that surprises even people educated in ancient history is the high age of this archaeological site. The region of Troy was probably first settled in the Neolitic. Eventually it grew into a village, then a town. As early as in the 3rd millenium BC, it already had a fortified citadel with stone buildings. Schliemann's excavations unearthed some of the wealth that looters did not take. "The golden jewels of Helen" actually belonged to a noblewoman who lived in the age when the Pyramids of Gizah were built! As early as 2600 BC (Troy, layer II), it was already a modest settlement with over 2000 inhabitants, spreading far beyond its citadel on the plains. Troy lay at the crossroads of ancient trade routes - both overland and naval ones. This gave the city a high level of prosperity rarely seen in that period. Remember, that long-range trading already began with the Sumerians. Some of the jewellery found at the excavation of Ur (southern Iraq) had lapis lazuli insets stemming from the mountains of Badakhshan, Afghanistan. The route between these two locations is more than 3000 km (1900 miles) long, and must have taken several months for ancient trade caravans to complete - if there was ever a direct connection. Similar lapis lazuli objects were also discovered at Troy itself, implying a fairly "globalized" trade network of luxuries, even in that early era.

We still have a lot to learn about this period. But it looks certain that Troy (the so-called "maritime Troia" culture) was an exception, rather that the rule. In the earliest Bronze Age, much of the western Aegean was still severely lagging behind the ancient Near East in development. The great "palace" of Knossos was built only a millenium later. The Lion Gate of Mycenae is approximately 1300 years younger, than the walls and gates of Troy II!

 Walking around the archaeological site, there is but one thing disturbing the mind. The excavated area is just too small for such a prosperous town, and we are not even talking about Homer's Troy. It is expected to be a local power, yet there are no more than perhaps half a dozen buildings within the walls of Troy II. Built some 600 years later, the walls of Troy VI form a somewhat bigger circle. Even so, the visible remnants of Troy VI or VII consist of less than a dozen or so buildings. Somewhat unimpressive for those having read Homer's the Iliad (of watched its modern recreation, made in Hollywood).

After the era of high prosperity in the 3rd millenium BC, Troy II was destroyed by fire. But the site continued to be inhabited, even if impoverished. Layers III and IV document several centuries of history, when Troy was apparently disconnected from the major trade routes of the world. Starting from the early 2nd millenium BC (Troy IV and V), the town increasingly fell under the influence of the advanced Anatolian cultures in the east. With the coming of the Late Bronze Age, the walled citadel of Troy was rebuilt again, in a more grandiose way than ever before. Thus Troy VI - roughly contemporary with the palatial complexes of Minoan Crete - was more than a match for the neighbouring Anatolian or Mycenaean city-states. From the Hittite archives, we can deduce that the town was probably called Wilusa, and was possibly a capitol of a local state Taruisa (ancient Greek
Ιλιον [Ilion] and Τρωας [Troas], respectively). Wilusa could have been a member or an ally to the "League of Assuwa", a confederacy of lesser city-states in Western Anatolia (c.f. ancient Greek Ασια [Asia], Linear B A-SWI-JA). Its very existence bothered the Hittite great kings and Mycenaean warlords alike.

 Where could the rest of the city been? Some fairly recent excavations have finally managed to answer this question, by unearthing the outer walls of the settlement, lying far beyond the citadel hill. Troy was a major city of its time and occupied a much larger area than just the hilltop fort. The lower city - the main settlement itself - was several times the size of the archaeological site open to tourists. It has been recently estimated that Troy VI had roughly 10,000 residents. Troy was a great city for its age; even if it was a dwarf compared to the largest Mesopotamian or Egyptian cities, like Babylon during Hammurappi's reign (>60,000 residents) or Avaris, capitol of northern Egypt (up to 100,000 inhabitants).

Clearly, this under-estimation of Bronze-age settlements is not restricted to Troy. The castle of Mycenae encloses no more than a dozen stone-walled buildings; and must have been supported by a major town surrounding its impressive cyclopean walls. Similarly, the Cretan city of Knossos was much more than just the "palace" (the actual city-centre): Some reconstructions depict the excavated buildings lying in a grove of cypress-trees, while this could not be any further from the truth. The outer walls of Knossos (yes, it had walls!) were only found a few decades ago, giving a more realistic impression on how big this city once have been. Knossos was the largest of the excavated Minoan and Mycenaean settlements, with an estimated urban population of 40,000 people.

But if Troy was so large, with well-developed trade relationships and an elaborate culture, why did it lack writing? All the great cities of the era had complex administration systems with written archives: Just think of Mycenae, Knossos, Hattusa or Ugarit.  Together with many others, I firmly believe that the Trojans actually did have scribes and recorded their everyday economy and deeds on clay tablets - like all other civilizations of that time. But for some reason, the archives did not survive after the fire that destoyed the Bronze-age city of Troy VI. The architectural history of the Trojan citadel gives the critical key: the upmost sections of the Troy VI-VII citadel are not preserved at all!

It was not even Schliemann, who removed these sections to expose earlier settlement layers (Troy I-II), but the ancient Greeks themselves. During the hellenistic era, when Troy was rebuilt, the Bronze-age citadel was practically levelled to make place for Greek temples (such as the poorly-preserved Temple of Athena, whose white marble fragments still dot the site). The builders also expanded the hill by systematically dismantling the ruins and using them as landfill, to increase the area of the elevated platform. If the main archives were indeed located in the upmost buildings of the citadel (a likely scenario, in comparison with Pylos and Knossos), then their remnants were irrevocably destroyed in the process. Or perhaps the archaeologists should look for the clay tablets (or rather, their weathered fragments) in the classical-era landfills used to expand the citadel area. Who knows what future excavations might yield there?

With no surviving local archives, one is left to guess what language and writing system the ancient Troyans used. They may not have been restricted to single script, either. A well-preserved Luwian seal, pertaining to a scribe hints at the Anatolian character of Wilusa. But other finds were also uncovered at the earlier excavations. Among them, two vessels bearing crude markings that might (and just might) have been Linear A. These latter finds were even interpreted as a distinct "Trojan script" by some, with Aegean origins. But building a theory on these sparse findings is pointless: We have to wait until more inscribed objects are discovered.

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