But when it comes to the Bronze Age, we have much less to go on.
As a scholar and researcher of the classical world, I felt I was on fairly firm ground when I decided to do a retelling of Homer’s Iliad in my first novel, For the Most Beautiful. After all, I’ve studied Homer’s epic tale for over ten years, both at Cambridge and at Yale. What I didn’t know, however, was just how important it would be to unlearn what Homer had told me – and to go back to the archaeology of the Bronze Age itself.
The crucial thing to understand about Homer’s Iliad is that it was written down in 750 BCE – that’s about 500 years after the Trojan War. This means that tools and customs from the 8thcentury BCE (most notably iron, which wasn’t used yet in the Bronze Age), make anachronistic appearances in Homer’s Troy in ways that just wouldn’t have been historically accurate to the 13th century BCE. Not only that, but Homer’s Trojans behave in notoriously Greek fashion – they wear Greek clothes, eat Greek food, practise Greek customs, and even worship Greek gods. Yet I wanted the Trojans in For the Most Beautiful to be as historically authentic as I could make them. I wanted to make sure that they felt like a real, historical people with a culture, a society, a religion all their own – not just a reflection of one Greek poet’s imagination.
And to discover who the Trojans really were, I had to dig a bit deeper.
For a long time the existence of the site of Troy was in doubt – until Heinrich Schliemann discovered the remains of a Bronze Age city on the site of Hisarlik in north-west Turkey. The site of Troy (or Ilios, as Homer calls it) gives up many important secrets to a researcher and novelist on the path to tracking down the real identity of the Trojans. For one thing, there is the predominance of seashells in the archaeological record – suggesting a diet rich in shellfish, as well as the presence of a rich dying industry (the colour purple came from the shell of the murexin antiquity). Yet Homer (notoriously) avoids having his characters eat fish at all. The intricate construction of the city – an upper citadel with a lower city beneath – is preserved in the archaeological record in ways that we cannot guess from Homer. Most importantly of all, perhaps, details of the Trojans’ dealings with the massive Hittite empire to the east – preserved in meticulously kept Hittite correspondence – suggest that, rather than being Greek as Homer would have us believe, Troy was actually an independent Anatolian kingdom, in some sort of loose alliance with the Hittites.
By visiting the site of Troy, discussing the current excavations with the head of the excavations at Troy, Prof. Dr. Ernst Pernicka, and researching the latest finds in journal articles, I was able to uncover a different Troy from the one Homer describes – a rich culture with its own character and history, its own language, its own gods.
And it’s these Trojans – fiercely independent, wealthy, resourceful, with a culture and a religion all their own – who ended up becoming the heroes of For the Most Beautiful, and of the Trojan War.
Find out more about Emily on her website: www.emilyhauser.com and follow her on Twitter: @ehauserwrites