Review of Troy: Myth and Reality exhibition at the British Museum
published in Cornucopia magazine
I had been expecting to find that this exhibition, hosted by the British Museum, would succeed in uniting all the evidence from Troy. I had imagined that material from the various Schlieman excavations (held in Berlin) would be joined with that found by Frank Calvert (held in London) and then be referenced against the recent series of methodical digs in Turkey. The star of the show would be “Priam’s Treasure” - currently possessed by Russia as one of the spoils of her victory over Nazi Germany.
I was wrong. There are no loans from either Russia or Turkey to the British Museum, not even a wooden horse.
The Troy exhibition at the British Museum has a very different brief. It is an inquiry into the artistic and literary inspiration of the Trojan story, not a historical inquest into a Bronze Age trading city. On these terms it is, a glittering and triumphant success. A wonderfully eclectic gallery of art has been assembled, ranging from very ancient to very modern, all united by the Trojan theme. Troy was never forgotten and did not need to await the Renaissance for its rediscovery. So the exhibition includes medieval manuscripts as well as an opulent sculpture of Achilles (a classical counter-part to the famous statue of the dying Gaul) commissioned in the early 19th-century by a young English Duke and early surveys and watercolours of the Troad. There are Roman silver drinking vessels from a Danish chieftains tomb, gorgeous examples of black and red figure ware (from Greece and Sicily), wall paintings from Pompei, and pictures by Biagio d’Antonio, Rubens and Angelica Kaufman, and some vigorous sketches by Nicolas Poussin and Henry Fuseli and prints by Elisabeth Frink. Now and then, your memory is stretched as you try and recall the literary source of some enigmatic scene such as Ajax, falling naked on his broad sword that has been planted firmly in the ground?
But there is a legitimate cause for some confusion, for this ancient artistic heritage rests on eight epics that once told the whole story of Troy, of which we now possess just two, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Fragments of these lost books survive in the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides aside from what Vergil would create eight hundred years later with his Aeneid. So there are plot variations, battles, campaigns and characters from the Trojan story that you will have never have encountered, however diligently you can quote Homer.
Homer remains an historical enigma who has launched a thousand scholarly debates. The current consensus is that he did exist. He is now envisaged as the last (and the most brilliant) of a succession of oral bards who told this tale as an entertainment, literally singing for their supper. Bards worked with established mythical story cycles, with which they added their own individual variations – like a contemporary script writer creating a film from a book. We think Homer lived around 800 BC (possibly born in Izmir), on the cusp of the new craft of writing which would eventually record a standard rendition of his epics that had been recited by a dynasty of bards, the Homeridae (from Chios), for three hundred years after his death. But it is intriguing to reflect that Homer must have been separated from the events he so evocatively described by four hundred years. He was clearly not interested in singing stories from his own time (dominated by irresistible iron weaponry and the mysteriously destructive sea peoples) but wanted to recall the glories of the Old Civilization whose warriors were descended from the gods and possessed dazzling bronze body armour. Recent archaeological work allows us to speculate that Homer may have recited the Iliad at Troy itself, for there are a group of altars raised to Heroes (to Achilles and Hector) that stood before the ruined walls of the citadel of Troy. Historians have linked the ancient name of Ilion (as Troy was known) to “Wilusa” which appears in Hittite records and there is even a suggestion that “Priam” and “Paris” might be based on similar derivations.
This Late Bronze Age era is represented by burnished ceramic pots (largely empty of figurative art) lent from Berlin that were unearthed by Schlieman, the so-called discoverer of Troy. Schlieman was not a total fraud, especially towards the very end of his life when he was assisted by trained technicians. His early excavations were well-funded treasure hunts designed to reinvent himself as a scholar. Schlieman was a dodgy German banker. He had made good during the California Gold Rush (where he acquired a reputation for short-weighing gold dust) and then bettered this fortune by trading in armaments to Russia during the Crimean War. A suspicion that he salted his excavations at Mycenae and Troy, with gold objects designed to generate international publicity, has never entirely gone away. For better or for worse, he has successfully woven himself into the three-thousand-year old story of Troy. An Odysseus for our times?
It was the triumph of Odysseus that drove the warrior hero Ajax to fall on his sword, rather than accept second place to such a man.
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