Published online 29 January 2003 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news030127-4

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Geologists show Homer got it right

Trojan geography in Homer's Iliad matches sediment record of Dardanelles coastline.

The ruins of Troy now perch on the edge of a plateau overlooking a river flood plain.The ruins of Troy now perch on the edge of a plateau overlooking a river flood plain.© A. Wickham.

Homer knew his geography, say US researchers. The ancient Greek writer's description of the war fought around Troy is consistent with a new reconstruction of the way the region looked about three millennia ago1.

In his Iliad, Homer recounts how the city of Troy was besieged and finally conquered by the army of the Spartan king Menelaus, who sought to reclaim his wife Helen from her abductor, prince Paris. This is thought to have happened around 1250 BC.

Homer's account of the siege and battles give several clues about the lay of the Trojan plain. Then, in the first century AD, the Greek writer Strabo expanded on the description in his book Geography, by which time Troy was known as New Ilium.

Ancient Troy is thought to have stood at a site called Hissarlik in present-day Turkey; archaeological excavations have revealed the remains of a city. There are, in fact, several different ancient Troys, as the settlement was built and destroyed many times since the third millennium BC. These ruins now perch on the edge of a plateau overlooking a river flood plain of sand, silt and marshland.

When Troy was first built around 3000 BC, say John Kraft, of the University of Delaware in Newark, and his colleagues, it was on the coast of a great bay that filled most of the plain.

Today, however, Troy's environs look very different. Little by little, silt from the Simois and Scamander rivers (today called the Dumrek Su and Kara Menderes), which flow into the bay, moved the Dardanelles coastline several kilometres north, leaving Troy high and dry.

The researchers tracked these changes back through time by radiocarbon dating the fossils in columns of sediment drilled from the rivers' flood plain. Their analysis revealed where, at different times, the ground was once a swamp, a brackish lagoon, or earlier still, a flooded bay. The investigation was begun in 1977 and has been directed by Kraft's collaborator Ilhan Kayan of Ege University in Izmir, Turkey .

The Greek army, Homer tells us, camped on the Aegean cost to the west of Troy, and drew up their ships "on the shore of the surging sea well away from the fighting". Kraft's team figures that this camp was situated on a promontory along the west of the former Bay of Troy, which the Greeks defended with a "deep ditch" to the south that prevented the Trojans from advancing up the narrow finger of land.

The researchers also located the "ford of the fair-flowing river" Scamander. Here, according to Homer, Achilles "broke the Trojan line" and forced many of the Trojans over the steep riverbanks into the deep, swift water. By Strabo's time, the plain was probably much farther north, so that the promontory was no longer evident and the two rivers were able to flow together before emptying into the retreating bay.

The team's findings show that Strabo's judgement was unfailingly acute when he spoke of the geography of the Trojan War. He realized that alluvial deposition had changed the coast since Homer's day, and he seems to have guessed rightly when he stated that the Greek camp and ship station were situated "20 stades [about 4 kilometres] from Ilium". 

  • References

    1. Kraft, J. C., Rapp, G., Kayan, I. & Luce, J. V. Harbor areas at ancient Troy: sedimentology and geomorphology complement Homer's Iliad. Geology, 31, 163 - 166, (2003). | ISI |