Though Hollywood may lead us to believe that the only real question behind Troy is whether Brad Pitt or Orlando Bloom looks better in fighting gear (or without it), a greater controversy has been brewing among historians and archaeologists for the past century.
Scholars have yet to reach a consensus about the historicity of Homer’s Troy, offering various theories on the location of the city and the Trojan War. During Thursday’s lecture at the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Professor Frank Kolb of Germany’s University of Tübingen discussed the truth of claims made about the location of Troy. His lecture was followed by a reading by University of Kansas Professor Stanley Lombardo from his translation of the Iliad, Homer’s timeless account of the Trojan War and its mythic heroes.
Kolb has been involved in a dispute in past years with another Tübingen professor, Manfred Korfmann, who led Troy-related excavations in Turkey from 1988 until his death in 2005. While the subject is unlikely to become the topic of heated debate on The Daily Show, it is nonetheless a divisive issue within the scholarly community. The controversy involves what Kolb believes is Korfmann’s misrepresentation of findings concerning archeological evidence for the existence of Troy. His concern stems not from jealousy, Kolb claims — he was the one who recommended Korfmann as the leader of the Troy investigations — but from a desire to separate fact from fiction.
The two men’s dispute is centered on the ruins at Hisarlik, an archeological site in northwestern Turkey. With a touch of dry humor, Kolb enumerated the many examples of the Turkish government’s attempts to claim the Trojans as their own descendants. According to this dogma, “Homer and Troy are Turkish.” Kolb believes it therefore comes as no surprise that Korfmann, who obtained his excavation license for Hisarlik from the Turkish government, faced no criticism for his Hisarlik-Troy findings.
Kolb guided the audience through the layers of the Hisarlik ruins, parts of which date anywhere from the Bronze Age to the first century B.C. He questioned the veracity of one of Korfmann’s claims that a ditch surrounding part of the ruins served as a defensive measure against attackers. As Kolb pointed out, the ditch is only a few feet deep. At best, the ditch was perhaps a water channel or irrigation device.
“Show me the enemy who might be stopped by a ditch of this size,” said Kolb sarcastically, pointing at the picture of the structure on the screen.
He also refuted Korfmann’s theory that Hisarlik, which he renamed Troaie to match his findings, served as a major trading center in the area. With no archaeological evidence to back such a claim, Kolb regards the theory as having “no more credibility than the Trojan horse.”
Kolb believes that the “city called Troiae never existed.” Rather, a study of the word Ilios — the ancient Greek name for Troy — reveals Greek, not Trojan, connotations. According to Kolb, Homer’s Trojan War may in fact have been a compilation of conflicts that occurred in northern Greece, where those peoples known as the Ilians resided. The Ilians then may have altered the details of their stories once they expanded into Asia Minor.
If we want to experience Troy the myth rather than Troy the reality, Kolb says, we “should undertake a voyage into the text,” providing a good transition from his lecture to Lombardo’s reading from the Iliad.
Lombardo reads with a classic audio-book voice that is both clear and unforced. He is not the high school English teacher who reads all dramatic verse with the same contrived whisper, the kind of voice one saves for deathbeds and funerals. He is Stanley Lombardo, translator of epics, and he speaks with the voice of a true poet.
Lombardo accompanied his reading with his usual instrument of choice, a small drum. He sped up or slowed down his playing to match the tone of certain passages, creating a steady sense of urgency throughout the reading.
With the combination of Lombardo’s reading ability and musical accompaniment, one does not have to overexert the imagination to see him as a classic muse. However, Lombardo has made something so ancient as the Iliad more accessible to the populace by using conversational English in his translations. In this way, everyone can share in the experience of poetic recitation, which is at its core a means of reaching all through storytelling.
Kolb and Lombardo provided two very different takes on the story of Troy. Kolb’s lecture served as evidence of the difficulty of deconstructing myth in the present day, while Lombardo’s reading embraced the myth itself.
Perhaps Kolb is correct. Perhaps Homer’s Troy never existed, and was merely an amalgam of stories. But maybe one can forget this uncertainty every now and again and simply indulge in the myth.