New Light on Troy: Eric Cline and the Third Annual David Traill Lecture in Classics

Professor Eric Cline’s lecture on May 7, sponsored by the Classics program, was particularly interesting for two reasons. Not only did the scholar of Classics and Anthropology (George Washington University) shed new light on recent theories regarding the ancient city of Troy, but he also reminded his audience of the scholarly contributions made by UC Davis Professor Emeritus David Traill, namesake of the lecture series now in its third year.

For those of us unfamiliar with Traill’s work, Cline acknowledged his enormous contribution by describing how the UC Davis academic exposed fraudulent and careless scholarship by Heinrich Schliemann, the 19th century excavator of the ruins of Troy who became famous for finding the so-called “Priam’s treasure.” Perhaps even more importantly, on a local level, Traill was largely responsible for convincing the University of California not to close Davis’ Department of Classics in the 1970s; the strength of the department today can be credited to David Traill.

Assuring listeners that Troy did, in fact, exist, Cline’s talk outlined his theory that the ancient city on the northwestern Turkish coast wasn’t one of two opposing sides in the Trojan wars of 1250 B.C., but that it was the focal point in a conflict between Mycenaens and Hittites. He supports his theory with several Hittite documents discovered in Turkish archives in 1906; several of them describe a Greek wedding arrangement and a military treaty made in 1295 B.C. between Muwattalli II of Hatti and Alaksandu of Wilusa, in which the Hitites agreed to protect what Cline believes is Troy.

Cline believes that there actually may have been four major “Trojan” wars fought between 1430 and 1237 B.C. Five hundred years of oral storytelling transformed the account until Homer wrote it down in the Iliad and Odyssey; the epic story we have come to know was most likely a telescopic amalgamation of the major events in this conflict. While elements of the Homeric epic accurately depict Bronze Age weaponry, Cline explained, others come from the Iron Age. As an historically reliable description of Troy’s fate, therefore, Homer can’t be trusted completely; archeological evidence has to be used with written record to approximate the truth.

What, for example, was the famous Trojan Horse? Cline suggests that a wooden horse containing soldiers might be a stretch of literary imagination, and that, given archeological evidence in the cracked walls of Troy, the “horse” may have been an earthquake attributed to Poseidon, god of the sea, earthquakes, and horses.

Cline’s talk moved from Shliemann’s imaginative theories to Traill’s debunking of several of them, and on to the recent work of Manfred Korfmann, who took advantage of magnetometry to “excavate” the site without digging. This advanced technology revealed a bronze age Troy that is similar to that described by Homer, including a citadel and  lower city, house foundations, and a defensive ditch surrounding the site.

Today, Cline remarked, the Trojan wars are fought between, and sometimes within, Classics and Archaeology departments, as scholars attempt to further theories that depend on a fragment of parchment or clay. Priam’s treasure, for example, had nothing to do with the ancient wars sung of in the Ilead, but the trove raises many unanswered questions that only well-supported departments can hope to resolve.