Expedition To Legendary City Of Troy Begins In 2013
October 16, 2012

Expedition To Legendary City Of Troy Begins In 2013

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“Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men. Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth, now the living timber bursts with the new buds and spring comes round again. And so with men: as one generation comes to life, another dies away.” “• Homer, The Iliad

The city-state of Troy is the stuff of legends, with mythical heroes, women of unsurpassed beauty and the fabled wooden Trojan Horse. Now a cross-disciplinary team of scientists will begin a new excavation project in 2013.

University of Wisconsin-Madison classics Professor William Aylward will lead the expedition. Aylward is an archaeologist with a long history of experience digging in the ruins of the classical world, including in Troy itself. The new excavation project, which will be a series of summer-time expeditions, will be an international collaboration with many organizations, conducted under the auspices and in cooperation with Turkey's Çanakkale Onsekiz Mart University, which is close to the site of Troy.

"Troy is a touchstone of Western civilization," says Aylward. "Although the site has been excavated in the past, there is much yet to be discovered. Our plan is to extend work to unexplored areas of the site and to systematically employ new technologies to extract even more information about the people who lived here thousands of years ago."

The poet Homer immortalized the city of Troy and the Trojan War in the epic poem, The Illiad, written centuries after the events it described. The city was almost continuously occupied for about 4,500 years, from the Bronze Age to the 13th century A.D. For some reason, it was abandoned and consigned to myth at this point. A wealthy German businessman and pioneering archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, rediscovered Troy in the 1870's. His work there laid the foundations for modern archaeology.

"Our goal is to add a new layer of information to what we already know about Troy," says Aylward, who is contributing an international team of archaeologists and scientists to conduct what promises to be the most comprehensive dig since Troy's discovery over 140 years ago. "The archaeological record is rich. If we take a closer look with new scientific tools for study of ancient biological and cultural environments, there is much to be found for telling the story of this world heritage site."

The site of the ancient city is on the Dardanelles, in modern Turkey. The Dardanelles, formerly known as Hellespont, is a narrow strait in the northwest area of Turkey that links the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara. It is considered a crossroads between East and West, and a historical flashpoint for conflict, both in ancient and modern times. The site of Troy is layered with the remains of 10 cities superimposed on top of one another, some with the clear evidence of violent destruction.

Troy was destroyed at the end of the Bronze Age and re-settled by a succession of Greeks, Romans and others. All these societies claimed Homer's Troy and the heroes therein as their own cultural heritage. A who's who of ancient celebrities visited the city, including Xerxes the Persian general, Alexander the Great, and several Roman emperors, such as Augustus and Hadrian.

Except for a 50-year hiatus between 1938 and 1988, archaeologists have been digging at Troy for 140 years. In that time, less than one-fifth of the site has been scientifically excavated. Because Troy represents about 4,500 years of uninterrupted settlement at a crossroads between Europe and Asia, the excavation becomes fundamental for answering questions about the development of civilization in Europe and the Near East.

"Troy deserves a world-class archaeological program," says Aylward.

Troy contained a citadel with 12 feet thick walls that were more than 30 feet high and covered about 6 acres of land. Another 50 acres contained a walled lower town, much of which is unexplored yet. Many mysteries remain, including the location of Troy's royal cemetery. Researchers are eager to add to the single example of prehistoric writing from Troy, which is on a small bronze seal dated to the Bronze Age.

"Major gaps in our knowledge involve the identity of the prehistoric Trojans, the location of their principal cemeteries and the nature of their writing system," says Aylward. "The enduring question of the historicity of the Trojan War is also worthy of further exploration."

Aylward and colleagues have planned a series of future collaborations to deploy powerful new techniques in order to reveal the hidden record of the city of Troy and its inhabitants. For example, a chemical analysis of the residues left on pottery may reveal secrets of ancient Trojan culinary proclivities. Another possibility is that genomic analyses of human and animal remains might shed light on diseases and afflictions.

The majority of the new study focuses on an area called "molecular archaeology," which includes DNA sequencing and protein analysis. This will be conducted in collaboration with the UW-Madison Biotechnology Center, an active partner in the new Troy project. Recently, researchers from the center participated in reconnaissance for future studies.