BMCR 2011.07.12

Tatort “Troia”: Geschichte, Mythen, Politik

, Tatort "Troia": Geschichte, Mythen, Politik. Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 2010. 310. ISBN 9783506770097. €29.90.

1 Responses

Table of Contents

[For Frank Kolb’s response to this review, see BMCR 2011.10.34 ]

For over 2,500 years, the epic poems bearing the name of Homer have towered over the beginning of the Western intellectual tradition as the earliest expression of European culture and the foundational texts of Hellenic paideia. The origin and historical significance of the Iliad have been thrashed out by scholars since Hellenistic times, while the story of the war against Troy has inspired artists and orators, politicians and generals down to the present day. That the Troy/Ilion of myth was in fact a city in northwestern Asia Minor was universally accepted throughout antiquity; even when the area was deserted in the time of Alexander the Great, the story of Achilles’ and Patroclus’ burial there remained, and the Hellenistic-Roman city of Ilium benefited from its tangible identification with the place where the Greeks and Trojans so fatefully met. The rise of philological criticism and geographical inquiry in the 18th and 19th centuries increased interest both in the language of Homeric poetry and in where the events it relates took place, stoking controversies about “the Homeric question” as well as hot debates about the location of Troy. The excavations by Schliemann at the site of Hisarlik beginning in 1870 built on the work of Frank Calvert and concluded a long series of efforts by Lechevalier, Maclaren, and others to ascertain the location of Homeric Troy. Despite strong opposition by some classical philologists and amateur topographers, Schliemann’s identification of Hisarlik as Troy is now widely accepted both in scholarly circles and among the general public. Re-examination and reinterpretation of finds at the site began early in Schliemann’s collaboration with Dörpfeld, who continued work at Hisarlik after 1890, but did not change the overall picture. Excavations by Carl Blegen of Cincinnati in the 1930s refined the site’s chronology and, since 1988, the international Projekt/Project Troia (Tübingen-Cincinnati-Pennsylvania) under Manfred Korfmann (d. 2005), Ernst Pernicka, and C. Brian Rose has continued archaeological investigations.1

Not everyone has been won over by Schliemann’s scenario, however. The title of the present book can be rendered into English as Crime Scene “Troy”. Its author is a professor of ancient history, also at Tübingen, who has criticized the conclusions of Korfmann and the members of his project team, repeatedly challenging Korfmann, in print and in person, to explain and defend his findings, and decrying (15; cf. 123-126) “the highly problematic effect” of “a sort of bestseller,” Joachim Latacz’s 2001 Troy and Homer (English tr. 2005).

Kolb adumbrates his view of Homer’s Troy and Schliemann’s Hisarlik briefly in the first chapter, summarizing it in three main questions (18). Is there “a historical nucleus” to the myth? (i.e., did Homer’s Ilium exist, and was there a Trojan War?) Do Hittite and other ancient Near Eastern documentary sources indicate any such “historical nucleus”? Have the excavations at Hisarlik uncovered an extensive, populous “Anatolian palatial city, royal capital, and commercial metropolis” commensurate with the Homeric depiction, as asserted by Korfmann and Latacz? Evidence is marshaled, corroborating specialist authorities are presented, objections to scholars with opposed views are articulated, and conclusions are set out in the book’s remaining ten chapters.

Before proceeding to his main points, Kolb speaks out against what he considers the “instrumentalization” of the myth of Troy since antiquity, in other words the fact that various groups and individuals have used the story for their own political and commercial ends (19-39). Jumping over Hellenistic and Roman Ilium, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the early modern period to focus on the twentieth century, Kolb singles out Turkish leaders, especially Ataturk, who exploited it to create “an Anatolian heritage ideology” (21) that linked Turkey to the West, and Korfmann, whose excavation and generally Turkey-friendly attitude brought Turkey and Germany unacceptably close together, politically and economically (35-38). The anti-Turkish tone returns in later chapters, particularly when Kolb describes when Korfmann was made a Turkish citizen as an occasion inspiring “new, politically correct insights,” “peace-campaigning and environmentally friendly longings” that nonetheless failed to save him from a journalist’s critical scrutiny (227).

Returning to the story of Troy, Kolb affirms that it is only a myth, that the city of Ilium and the war against it are nothing more than poetic fictions (11-13, 53-85). The historical and linguistic connections claimed between Troy/Ilion and the larger world of Bronze Age Anatolia and the Eastern Mediterranean are merely unsubstantiated assertions based on incomplete and/or misinterpreted evidence (87-114). From Schliemann to Korfmann, the excavations at Hisarlik show a history of recurring abuse of the story of the war against Ilion, always privileging the (mis-)interpretation of material evidence over textual evidence, correctly weighed by qualified experts (115-126). Thus, as the chapter titles that begin with “The Emperor’s New Clothes” make plain, Kolb considers all arguments for the existence of a “trading metropolis at the Dardanelles” (127-150) and Bronze Age cities on the hill of Hisarlik (151-202) bogus; it is for specialists to judge the validity and relevance of Kolb’s evidence (cf. 172, 174), as well as the allegations he makes against Korfmann’s excavation and publication practices (e.g. at 178-195).

The chapter “Politics, Money, the Media, and the New War for Troy,” in which Kolb took a leading role, is filled with moral outrage as the author steps forward to denounce modern profit-fixated academic politics that foster publicity-grabbing announcements and other self-promoting behaviors for the sake of hefty foundation grants and corporate funding (203-231). Quoting copiously from newspaper and magazine accounts of the time, he comments disapprovingly on the dominance of the Schliemann-Korfmann view, particularly among English-speaking scholars thanks to Latacz’ friendships (204), on Korfmann’s profitable relationship with Mercedes-Benz AG (later Daimler-Chrysler), the main project sponsor (205-209), and especially on Korfmann’s scholarly failings, which Kolb believes were papered over by the media (Project Troia-friendly journalists) as the controversy unfolded (208-231).

The final chapter recaps Kolb’s views about Hisarlik as a “hill of scandal” (233-252). He is deeply troubled by both the persistence of “the Tübingen Troy myth” as perpetuated by “the influential media” and the continuing receptivity of scholars to the idea that Troy actually existed where Schliemann and Korfmann said it did or even that it existed at all. Kolb thinks that the entire Troy undertaking is intellectually defective and indeed fraudulent (cf. 125-126), that Korfmann repeatedly contravened university and academic funding agency guidelines, and that no special advantage was conferred by interdisciplinary and international participation (234-241). Here follows a discussion of “pseudoarchaeology” and Korfmann’s place in it.2 Ultimately, Kolb believes the whole problem would be best solved if the Project Troia leaders stopped defending their excavation findings so that “the conjectures of Schliemann, Dörpfeld, Blegen in this connection——and the assertions of Korfmann——are refuted from now on and one thing is thereby made clear once and for all: Homer’s picture of a glittering Ilium is poetic fiction and not the result of historical memory. This would be scholarship in the service of an enlightened interpretation of history instead of pseudo-science in the service of a new Tübingen Troy myth.” (250). His is a voice crying in the wilderness, one suspects.3

Beyond the universal interest Troy offers, and the spotlight Kolb shines on certain academic passions, this is an inherently German book, intellectually and politically conservative, written for a particular segment of the public, and ultimately negative. Kolb misses an essential point: the reason that myths are myths, that they are remembered at all and handed down through the ages, is that people continue to find them useful for a variety of reasons. If they were useless, they would be forgotten. “Instrumentalization” is inescapable.

A few subsidiary issues deserve comment. Kolb’s characterization of Schliemann is ambivalent, not least because he considers Korfmann a would-be improved version of Schliemann. Early on, he states that Schliemann made the hill at Hisarlik “a crime scene for the confirmation … of the basic reliability of the Homeric narrative” (13). He is sometimes patronizing—“the spade of the autodidact, of the gifted adventurer, had, so the impression would have it, triumphed over the criticisms of the bookish theorists” (14)—and sometimes gives credit fairly, as in the cases of Schliemann’s openness to scientific methodology and collaboration with a wide range of specialist scholars (116), as well as his willingness to reconsider his interpretations (119-120). Still, his judgments are largely derived from previous scholarship (116-121) rather than from direct contact with Schliemann’s own writings.

Kolb’s sense of humor is most evident in his treatment of scholars friendly to Korfmann and his views. His greatest bugbear is unquestionably Joachim Latacz, at one point typified as “the herald of the future Troy excavation” (125). Current Project Troia director Ernst Pernicka, an experienced archaeometallurgist, is simply called “a chemist” (131: “Der Chemiker [sic!] ”; 228), as Kolb regards only philologically trained historians as fully able to evaluate archaeological data. Compare the epithets for Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff: “outstanding Hellenist” (118) and “renowned scholar” (122).4 The eminent Hittitologist J. David Hawkins, who at the height of the controversy in February 2002 was quoted in The Times (London) as saying that Kolb and Korfmann had come to blows5 is dismissed as a “Korfmann-follower” who saw something no one else did: “presumably he fell asleep during the lectures and dreamed of incidents in his English pub” (224).

A correction: Stella Miller was not the first director of the American Project Troia team (204); she was co-director with Brian Rose in 1988-1990, after which he was sole director until 2002.


1. Project webpage:

2. This chapter draws on G. Fagan (ed.), Archaeological Fantasies (London and New York 2006).

3. Cf. the closing lines of Oliver Hochadel’s review in Der Standard.

4. But Wilamowitz was not infallible in archaeological matters: C. Habicht, Pausanias’ Guide to Ancient Greece (Berkeley 1985), 165-172.

5. See Philip Howard in The Times, 25 February 2002. Hawkins was also Korfmann’s obituarist, in The Independent (29 August 2005).