How archaeologists found the lost city of Troy

This doomed city at the heart of the Trojan War was lost for thousands of years until a team of German archaeologists uncovered the ancient site.

This magnificent 16th-century saddle shows the Trojans bringing the wooden horse into their city, unaware of the Greek enemies hidden inside. Ambrosiana Gallery, Milan
Photograph by DEA/Album

Heinrich Schliemann, the German archaeologist, was in Turkey in the late 19th century on an eccentric quest. He was excavating a tell—an artificial mound that covers long abandoned settlements. The site, known as Hisarlik, was familiar to only a few specialists. But as Schliemann dug, he was pinning his hopes on finding the ruins of the most famous city in classical literature: Troy.

The trouble was that Troy might not even have existed. The acclaimed Greek poet Homer popularized the Trojans and their city in The Iliad and The Odyssey, the 8th-century B.C. epic poems. These works told the story of a 10-year war between Greece and Troy, fought by such timeless characters as the kings Priam and Agamemnon, the warriors brave Hector and mighty Achilles, and the survivors crafty Odysseus and loyal Aeneas. The poems tell of bloody battles, fantastic adventures, heroic deeds, and tragic consequences. But was Troy a real place? Schliemann set out to prove it was. (Homer's Iliad contains timeless lessons of war.)

And he did. Hisarlik is now widely accepted as the setting for Homer’s epic tales. Studies have revealed that the 100-foot-high mound contains not just one, but nine Troys, each built over the ruins of the one before. Today archaeologists consider Troy VI—the sixth counting from the bottom up—to be the likeliest candidate for Homer’s Troy. This city dates from around 1700 to 1250 B.C., and its citizens lived in dynamic times.

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