Skip to main content


Unlocking the Power of Myth

By Victor Wishna | HUMANITIES, May/June 2005 | Volume 26, Number 3

The ancient city of Troy has endured the human imagination. Abandoned in the fifth century C.E. and not rediscovered until the 1870s, the city for centuries seemed no more real than Camelot or Valhalla.

No one knows exactly why the Trojan War was waged, when it took place, or whether it took place at all. Excavations at the ancient site of Troy have unearthed no wreckage of a giant wooden horse, no statues of Helen, no physical evidence that a warrior named Achilles ever existed.

Some of the strongest evidence for the Trojan War, or any war there, is that the city grew layer upon layer because of a series of destructions. "You can imagine destruction coming in many different forms, but clearly a lot of it had to do with military aggression," says Elizabeth Riorden, director of Troy on the Internet, a project under way with NEH funding at the University of Cincinnati. Riorden has spent fourteen years studying and excavating at Troy and is developing an online resource to bring that knowledge to schoolchildren.

Roughly three thousand years ago, a people known as the Mycenaeans--prehistoric settlers of mainland Greece--might very well have battled with an obscure population in Northwest Anatolia, what is now present-day Turkey. It would have been one of dozens of major skirmishes likely fought in that period for any number of reasons: a trade dispute; a dissolving alliance; territorial expansion; or perhaps, as the story of the Trojan War goes, for the lost love of the most beautiful woman in the world.

Troy sits on the entrance to the Dardanelles, the only route from the Mediterranean and Aegean to the Black Sea--and the only way for ancient traders to get goods such as amber, gold, timber, and wool from the Black Sea Region. "It was like a toll gate that everyone had to pass through," she says. "So you can be sure they probably made some enemies. And they wouldn't have built all those series of fortification walls unless they were afraid of being attacked by somebody."

Decades of digging and research have revealed that there was not one Troy but at least nine distinct cities over a period of two-and-a-half thousand years, one built on top of the other. Troy grew powerful in the Early Bronze Age, a thousand years before the kingdom of Homer's epic, and other societies followed in the centuries afterward. Based on structural remains and discovered plans, archaeologists have been able to envision--and with the help of computers, depict--what some of those impressive civilizations looked like.

Seemingly commonplace architectural findings help unlock the power of myth. Reconstructed on the Web site is a simple wellhead dating from the Hellenistic period that likely covered a passageway used by Locrian maidens--women from Locris who were enslaved in the Temple of Athena as retribution for when, as the legend says, centuries earlier, Ajax of Locris attempted to rape Cassandra of Troy, an Athenian priestess. Legal inscriptions discovered from the same era allowed that if a citizen saw one of these maidens in public, she could be put to death. Hence, she could only move at night--or through this underground passage.

"That's just one strange ritual, which has no meat to it unless you say, 'Wow, these people really believed in this legend,'" Riorden says. "Or you could be cynical and say they used it to their advantage . . . but either way, you have to consider it."

Part of the purpose of Troy on the Internet is to show how integral myth and fact are to appreciating what happened there. Says Riorden, "You have to understand a lot of the myths to understand what they were thinking and what purpose the buildings were serving."

Students visiting the Web site will have the opportunity to examine many of those buildings and learn about the history and the mythology that makes them significant. For example, a short video tour of the Temple of Athena, the center of Troy's citadel, will be followed by links to the legends, such as the story of Athena and how she sided with the Greeks in the Trojan War. Interactive components will give opportunities for students to virtually pick up and examine an artifact, and enter a room, house, or temple, exploring not just the Web site, but the site of the excavation.

"We don't have to believe that the stories of Theseus and all the myths relating to early Athens are true, yet no one doubts that Athens is Athens," Riorden says. "But Troy--just its very existence--seems mythological."

The real Troy, located near the Turkish city of Canakkale, is a popular tourist destination, with about one thousand people arriving daily in the summer season. Yet Riorden knows that even visiting Troy is not enough to envision it.

"Most people make the trip because they've read The Iliad--they're usually quite disappointed," she says. "It's very ruinous and hard to picture what was there. So I began to wonder, can we use new technology to make up for this lack of being able to see very much? The most difficult thing is how to distill all that information into a form people can understand."

Riorden wants to bring the reality of Troy to the public's understanding through its archaeology. Her own experience with the excavation began in 1989, when Brian C. Rose, now a professor of archaeology at Cincinnati and co-director of the Troy excavation, offered her a chance to take a month off and work at Troy. Soon after, Manfred Korfmann, the project's director and professor of prehistory at the University of Tübingen, offered her a chance to study with him in Germany and at the dig in Turkey during the summers. She stayed for seven years.

"I remember, not long after I arrived at Troy, I was sitting around with some colleagues debating how to bring the results of our work to a larger public," she says. "You've dug up all this stuff, you've cataloged it, you've analyzed it, you've written articles about it--now, how do you illustrate it? After all that, what did it look like?"

Recruited as a professor of architecture at the University of Cincinnati, Riorden began experimenting with new computer-aided design (CAD) technology that made it easy to render buildings in three dimensions. By then, she had already been using computer-aided drafting to recreate plans and cross sections of the excavation.

On the Troy Web site, every aspect will be tied to a timeline running down the side of the page, emphasizing the importance of how Trojan civilizations were spread out over years, often with large gaps in between. One feature of the timeline reveals what was happening concurrently in Egypt, China, and the rest of the ancient world.

Researchers have determined there were several Troys, which have been numbered one through nine. The Trojan War--if there was one--may have happened in Troy VI, the Homeric Late Bronze Age. Troy II was when the city reached its peak of wealth and beauty during the Early Bronze Age. Later Troys--VII and VIII--show Balkan and Greek influences, and Troy IX was an all-Roman city.

Riorden is most excited about the renderings of Troy IX, which has never been modeled even though it is perhaps the best understood of the levels. Working off ruins, maps, and inscriptions, Riorden and several graduate students have begun to assemble approximations of structures she didn't know existed until very recently. Riorden is also collaborating with Peter Jablonka, an archaeologist at TŸbingen who has worked on site at Troy since 1988, to improve models he first created for a presentation at an exhibition in Germany. "Doing reconstructions always brings up interesting research questions," Jablonka says. "Until now, archaeologists mostly worked in two dimensions, using plans and section drawings. Being forced to find out how things really looked like in three dimensions sometimes leads to new interpretations."

One notable discovery is evidence of the Roman aqueduct, exactly where Riorden had suspected it would be. Her team can now build a model, which will lead to a Web page about the Roman water supply system and how it worked.

The Troia Project, led by the University of TŸbingen and the University of Cincinnati, is making all of its materials available to the Web site, including a five-thousand-image photo archive and all of the published work of excavation teams present and past, dating back more than a century.

Each page on the Web site will feature a special button marked "Find the evidence," which will link to a fact sheet detailing the physical findings and previous writings that support whatever claim or model is being presented. Each section will also contain a list of frequently asked questions, culled from Riorden's years of explaining the archaeological site to tourists.

The Web site will tell not just the story of Troy, but of people's fascination with it--which itself is ancient history. More than two thousand years ago, Troy was already a tourist attraction, particularly among the early Romans, who traced their origins to Aeneas, the famous warrior who escaped the Sack of Troy. In the time of Alexander the Great, replicas of mythical buildings were constructed on what was believed to be their original locations, including a faux tomb of Achilles that became a site for pilgrimages. "Early peoples had a different view of authenticity," Riorden explains. "It didn't matter if everyone knew that they had just built it then, so long as the idea behind it was accepted as real."

The site will also include some more recent legends, such as the story of "Priam's Treasure." In an attempt to generate publicity for his discovery of Troy, the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann claimed in 1873 that he had unearthed a trove of jewels and gold belonging to the mythical Trojan king. After first promising it to the Turkish government, he gave it to Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany, where it remained until World War II, when it was stolen by the Soviets and secreted back to Moscow; the Russian government eventually "uncovered" it in the early 1990s. While the Troy treasure was real, the claim, of course, was a hoax. Schliemann had accumulated the artifacts over many months, and later investigation revealed they could not have come from the era in which Priam was said to have lived--they were at least fifteen hundred years older.

The lure of Troy holds true today, with Trojan and Greek imagery celebrated in popular culture, from sport mascots to big-budget films. "It's great that there's such an interest in Troy--even Hollywood couldn't ruin that," says Riorden. She was disappointed at how a high-profile portrayal removed "all the monsters and gods to make it a believable story. They removed the myth, and perhaps that is a loss." What Riorden hopes to add is not another interpretation, but a more complete picture, a repository of the riches a century of discovery has reaped. Riorden and her team will try out some of the material and images on a local fifth-grade class this May, and they plan to launch the site in 2007.

About the Author

Victor Wishna is a freelance writer in New York City.

Funding Information

The University of Cincinnati received $182,000 from NEH to create a multimedia Web site on the archaeological and literary history of Troy for elementary and secondary schools, and $104,883 to support three years of excavation at Troy. Brian C. Rose received an NEH fellowship to write a book on the archaeological history of Troy after the Bronze Age.