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In Search of the Trojan War : by Michael Wood (Facts On File: $22.95; 272 pp., illustrated)

July 06, 1986|Ronald S. Stroud | Stroud is a professor of classics at UC Berkeley. and

Michael Wood is a determined young man. Like the great archeologists whose discoveries he chronicles in this exciting book, he knows exactly where to search for the real Trojan War. He leads us first to the mound of Hisarlik, in Turkey south of the Dardanelles, where the brilliant but devious Heinrich Schliemann in 12 ravaging campaigns of "excavation" exposed the ruins of seven superimposed ancient cities. Today even the most extreme skeptics concede that these cities stood on the spot the ancients called Troy. What remains in dispute is which, if any, of them was sacked after a 10-year siege by the Greek heroes of Homer's "Iliad."

The homes of these great-souled warriors were on the Greek mainland where Wood follows the tireless Schliemann and his lucky spade to Mycenae "rich in gold," to Tiryns "of the mighty walls," and to the sumptuous Treasury of Minyas in Orchomenos. Schliemann's dazzling finds of royal graves and his sometimes bizarre behavior at these centers of Bronze Age Greece are woven into Wood's vivid narrative. Maps, plans, photographs, chronological tables, and lucid descriptive passages also help to bring these and other ancient sites to life.

Fascinated by the vision, the drive, and sometimes the blindness of such archeological pioneers as Wilhelm Doerpfeld, Sir Arthur Evens, and Carl Blegen, Wood next follows their careers to the Palace of Minos and Knossos, the Palace of Nestor at Pylos, and back again to Troy. Schliemann's chronology at Hisarlik was refined by the careful American Blegen, who argued strenuously that the Troy of Priam and Hector was at the level he labeled VIIA. Wood here rejects this view, and, with equal vigor, champions Troy VI whose massive walls, Doerpfeld urged, had blocked King Agamemnon and the besieging Greeks.

After identifying archeological remains of the right date (ca. 1300-1200 BC), of the right type (fortresses, palaces and royal graves), and in the right places for a historical Trojan War, Wood turns next to Homer's "Iliad." This great epic of Achilles' wrath and the slaying of Hector at the siege of Troy could not have been written down any earlier than roughly 750 BC when the Greek alphabet came into existence. What possible link, then, could Homer have had with Mycenae, Tiryns, and Troy across almost five empty centuries when there was no Greek writing? Also, how do we know that those great centers of Bronze Age Greece were actually in the hands of Greeks and not of some other people such as the Phoenicians or the Cretans?

Wood answers the first question by explaining the nature of oral epic and how these long poems were composed and transmitted in early Greece. Embedded in the supple artificial dialect of Homer's verse are place-names and descriptions of exotic pieces of armor that can only be explained as relics from Mycenaen epic poems. We now know that those poems must have been sung in Greek in the Bronze Age palaces of Agamemnon and Nestor, thanks to the discovery of clay tablets carrying inventories of the palaces in a script called Linear B that was deciphered in 1952 as Greek.

In his most imaginative chapter, Wood explores the possible evidence for Greeks of the Bronze Age in the written documents of the contemporary Hittite Empire. Like Schliemann, he gets more speculative and dogmatic as the data become sparser. "This is what happened," he bravely asserts, while guessing wildly.

In a wonderful coda, Wood draws together all the strands of stratigraphy, pottery, poetry, linguistics, legends, topography, etc. that make up this fascinating book. Yes, for him there really was a Trojan War, possibly involving a king called Agamemnon from Mycenae and even a woman called Helen. A Greek armada sailed to Hisarlik and destroyed Troy VI after a bitter siege. Wood does not insist on the historic1769240864he is as romantic and as plausible as Schliemann and Blegen ever were.

Written to accompany a television series of the same name, "In Search of the Trojan War" carries a few traces of the author's preparatory crash course. Achilles sacrificed 12 noble Trojan captives over the funeral pyre of his friend Patroclus, not of Hector. The sculptured gravestones at Mycenae were not "inscribed." The lengthy discussion of the Linear B script is puzzling without a word anywhere about Linear A. We are never told anything about Thera, whose wall-paintings appear in the illustrations. Many of the colored photographs are too blue and out of focus. But these are the quibbles of a scholar who greatly enjoyed this book and who eagerly recommends it to all who are intrigued by the tales of Troy and the romance of archeology.

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