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Exploring the myth and reality behind Troy's epic tale

By Theresa Thompson

Odysseus and the Sirens, Athenian jar, c.480-470 BCE, ceramic © The Trustees of the British Museum

The title of the British Museum’s major exhibition, Troy: myth and realityspells it out. The epic tale of Troy, that is to say the decade-long Trojan War is one of the world’s great stories. It has all the ingredients: love, loss, anger, hope, fear, courage, frailty, rage and retribution, jealousy and journeys that embody the human experience. First told by early poets such as Homer and Virgil and retold and reinterpreted for over 3,000 years, Troy’s history and complex characters from Helen to Odysseus continue to fascinate and inspire. But how much of the story was fiction, and how much fact?

TheexhibitionTroy: myth and reality with its rich layering of fiction and reality, ancient and modern artefacts and interpretations, is a winner from start to finish. It’s no 100 metre dash - the finishing line is 300 ravishing objects away through the darkened vast space of the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery - but it’s a terrific gallop all the same.

We get off to a great start in the first gallery with American artistCy Twombly’s painting of a bloodied spear thrusting sharply skyward, hanging to the right of a vitrine displaying three ancient pots: the first of myriad rich pickings.

The stage is set. And blood is already on it. Twombly’s scarlet-tipped Vengeance of Achilles (1962) steals the limelight here, but not for long.

“Rage - Goddess, sing the rage / of Peleus’ son Achilles...” exhorts the text from Homer’s Iliad, from about 700 BCE, the quote written high on the wall, overseeing the gallery.

Around the corner we meet the author, a ‘portrait’ bust of the Greek poet Homer, purely imaginary as no-one knows what he looked like. But human nature requiring an image, this Roman bust from 100-200 CE (a marble copy of a Greek original from 200-100 BCE), conforming to traditional iconography gives us a blind old man with curly locks.

Filippo Albacini (1777-1858), The Wounded Achilles, 1825, marble. Chatsworth House. © The Devonshire Collections, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of the Chatsworth Settlement Trustees

Thus, we get to the storytelling. We learn stories from Homer’s two great epic poems, the Iliadand the Odyssey, some from Virgil’s Aeneid (written between 29 and 19 BCE, the Roman poet linking the foundation of Rome to the fall of Troy) from illustrations on pots(a marvellous array of black- and red-figure vases), frescoes, sculptures, paintings, gems, coins and so forth, all superbly lit and explained.

We see the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, where the story of the Trojan War begins; the Judgement of Paris; Aphrodite introducing Helen to Paris; Achilles’ anger as Briseis, his prize of war, is claimed by Agamemnon for himself; and the legendary warrior sitting hunched, grief-stricken in his tent after the loss of Patroclus. More moving, we see the heart-rending moment when the Trojan King Priam begs for his son’s body to be returned... so many powerful scenes, too many to name.

Many common sayings today come from Trojan myths, such as the Trojan horse epitomising deception (the trick ultimately brought down the city), and having an Achilles heel implying a weakness. Depictions of the Trojan horse are quite rare in ancient art, yet two significant loans from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford show it surrounded by Trojan buildings carved on a jasper gem, dated to 100-200 CE; and carved on a Roman sarcophagus lid, a wheeled wooden horse armed with a helmet and shield - hinting at the Greek warriors hiding within.

Sidney Hodges (1829-1900), Portrait of Heinrich Schliemann, 1877, painting. Photograph © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Vor-und Frühgeschichte. Photo: Claudia Klein

An impressive circular gallery at the heart of the exhibition showcases the archaeology of Troy. On display are almost 100 items on loan from the Berlin museums, representing German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann’s finds from the real city. Or, what he thought was the real city. One section outlines the search for Troy, including the work of English archaeologist Frank Calvert (1828-1908) and Schliemann (1822-1890) who sought to prove the reality of the famous city.

A graphic and display of related objects offers a timeline for the phases now called Troy I to Troy IX. It is known now that the city was far larger than Schliemann had recognised and that it was repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt over the course of its 3,600 year history. Nine major settlements existed from its foundation in about 3,000 BC. And the only phase that could provide a feasible background for a major conflict between Greeks and Trojans is the period between about 1400 and 1200 BCE (that is, Troy VI-VIIa).

Controversy surrounds Schliemann’s finds and methods (no space for which here). Among the exhibits are silver vessels, bronze weapons, small stone sculptures, and pottery such as goblets with two handles and the ‘face pots’ that Schliemann was keen to show echoed the dramatic history of Troy.

Terracotta face pot from Troy, c. 2550–1750 BCE, Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte

Photograph © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Photo: Claudia Plamp

Schliemann equated many of his finds to Homeric descriptions. For instance, it is now agreed that the small stone figurines, schematically representing the human body, were common in Troy between 3,000 and 2,000 BCE, whereas Schliemann likened them to early representations of the Trojan cult statue of Athena, the Palladium.

The Search for Troy section is well-positioned for it marks the point in the exhibition where the emphasis shifts from ancient artefacts portraying stories from the Iliad and Odyssey (mainly) to more recent, including contemporary interpretations.

'Father,' retorted I, 'if such walls once existed they cannot possible have been completely destroyed... at last we both agreed that I should one day excavate Troy".

Schliemann tells how he was inspired himself by an illustration of a story from the Iliad. A picture of Aeneas fleeing the burning Troy in a book given to him at the age of seven (Jerrer’s Universal History for Children) was the original inspiration for his excavations, he writes in 1880: " 'Father,' retorted I, 'if such walls once existed they cannot possible have been completely destroyed... at last we both agreed that I should one day excavate Troy".

The quotations that dot the gallery walls and texts are among the joys of this outstanding show. Similarly, to hear the chanting of high female voices while I was looking at exhibits midway in the show but as yet unable to see the source. It was an inspired curatorial touch. The voices were female Syrian refugees in a film of a theatre production being shown further on, a ‘modern retelling’ of Trojan Women, a tragedy by the Greek playwright Euripides. It was haunting and it brought this exhibition back to the present time. Even after millennia the story of Troy has lost none of its relevance. The human cost of conflict is extant.

Roman sarcophagus lid, late 2nd century CE, marble, including detail of the Trojan horse

Photograph © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Unbelievably, this is the first major Troy exhibition in the UK. It is alsothe first to feature finds from Schliemann’s excavations at the site of Troy since a display in London in the 1870s. The revelation that Troy was a real place and that there may be truth behind the legend continues today to be a source of fascination and debate. This exhibition can only add to that. Perhaps too it will be the source of inspiration for future archaeologists in the search for Troy.


Troy: myth and reality

The British Museum

Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery


Showing until: 8 March 2020


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