The Archaeology of Hissarlik

Any modern discussion of the stratigraphical situation at Troy must lean very heavily on the work of the University of Cincinnati expedition which dug at the site between 1932 and 1938 under the direction of Carl W. Blegen. The need for a new and definitive survey of Hissarlik arose in the 1920’s because of continuing uncertainties about the dating of the various strata identified earlier by Schliemann and Dörpfeld.

Schliemann’s great trenches, dug in haste in his relentless drive to reach the lower layers of the mound, where he firmly believed he would find the remains of Priam’s fortress, ironically resulted in the irretrievable loss of large portions of the higher levels which scholars were later to identify as the Ilion of Homer. Dörpfeld’s campaigns, though executed and organized on a much more scientific basis, nevertheless dismantled additional portions of the hill without really resolving some of the most urgent problems facing Homeric scholarship. While a few definite conclusions could be drawn on the basis of Dörpfeld’s work—such as the realization that Troy II belonged to the Early Bronze Age, and could not therefore be the Homeric city—many new problems arose, especially concerning the relation of the Late Bronze Age city to its seventh-century Greek successor.

It was left to Carl Blegen, whose careful work at Korakou, Zygouries, and Prosymna had earned him a well-deserved reputation for accuracy and thoroughness, to undertake a new examination of what remained of Hissarlik in the hope that the troubling chronological questions could once and for all be resolved.

Before turning to the results of the American excavations, let us briefly glance at the stratigraphic situation as it was understood before Blegen.

Schliemann’s interpretations have already been reviewed—his identification of Troy II with the Homeric Ilion led him to describe the sixth city with its characteristic Gray Minyan ware as a “Lydian” settlement, “contemporary with the colonization of Etruria by the Lydians.” (1) Yet in his last campaign at Troy, conducted in 1890 with the assistance of Wilhelm Dörpfeld, he found this same Gray Minyan pottery belonging to Troy VI mixed with Mycenaean ware of a sort familiar to him from his diggings at Mycenae and Tiryns. Further discoveries by Dörpfeld in the years following Schliemann’s death confirmed the fact that Troy VI in its later phases belonged to the Mycenaean Age.

When in 1902 Dörpfeld published his results,(2) he argued for the sixth city to be identified as Priam’s, and had Troy VII follow immediately after. After about the year -700 the appearance of “advanced Geometric pottery” marks the transition to Troy VIII. “We can thus take approximately the year 700 as the boundary between the VIIth and VIIIth strata.” (3) H. Schmidt in his ceramical study in the same publication viewed the two phases of the seventh stratum as “a long period of transition” from the Homeric sixth city to the Greek eighth. The seventh stratum could be linked to the sixth by the presence in both of imported Mycenaean pottery and of Gray Minyan ware; the manufacture of Gray Minyan pottery continued into the eighth phase. “In about the year 700 B.C. belongs the approximate boundary between the latest phases of the seventh stratum and the oldest of the eighth.” (4) No break in the occupation of the site was noted by either Schliemann or Dörpfeld. Even Blegen at first found no reason to postulate any hiatus—in an article published soon after the completion of his excavations he put forward some of the new insights presented by his discoveries, outlining the areas where he found it necessary to differ with Dörpfeld’s scheme.(5) Troy VIIa was made to span the thirteenth century, and thus became the obvious choice as the city of Priam. Troy VIIb, where imported Mycenaean pottery of a late phase was still in evidence, was assigned to the years from ca. -1200 to ca. -900, the latter date marking, in Blegen’s view, the beginning of the eighth city with its Gray Minyan and Geometric pottery.

The final publication of the findings of the Cincinnati expedition was only completed in 1958, twenty years after the end of the excavations. By then it had become evident that the solution advocated by Blegen in his earlier article was no longer tenable: Troy VIIb could not have lasted for three centuries—its span was halved to ca. 160 years—and Troy VIII showed no sign of being any earlier than ca. -700.(6) Blegen’s final conclusions can be summarized as follows: after the destruction of the sixth settlement in an earthquake ca. -1300, the survivors rebuilt the town, though poorly, and on a much-reduced scale. Troy VIIa was destined to be short-lived, succumbing to an enemy attack ca.-1260, and was replaced by Troy VIIb, whose two phases lasted until about -1100. The eighth settlement, built atop the remains of this last Bronze Age city, was unmistakably a Greek town, and was assigned to the beginning of the seventh century. What transpired in the meantime? Archaeology could provide no clue, no trace of any human habitation between the extinction of Troy VIIb, supposedly ca.-1100, and the beginning of the Greek city slightly before -700. Thus a Dark Age was called upon to envelop Troy.

The lack of any deposits between the levels of the Late Bronze and Greek cities would normally be interpreted as indicating that there was no break in the occupation of the site, and it was so understood by Dörpfeld, as we have seen; but here, a diametrically opposite conclusion was reached purely because of the need to conform to the strictures of an extraneous chronological system. The imaginary break in the stratigraphic sequence was then claimed to signify a total desertion of the hill during the Dark Age.

An even more puzzling problem arose when it was realized that the inhabitants of the eighth, or Greek, settlement were linked to their predecessors in the seventh, or Helladic, settlement by numerous and strong cultural ties, despite the supposed gulf of some four centuries separating the one from the other: there was “a continuity of transmission” of an “abundant heritage, cultural and historical.” (7) Most perplexing was the fact that the new settlers used the same type of pottery as their Helladic predecessors. “In the seventh century B.C. the Trojan citadel, which had been virtually deserted for some four centuries, suddenly blossomed into life once more with occupants who were still able to make Gray Minyan pottery.” (8) Gray Minyan ware made up “the great bulk of the pottery of Troy VIII,” (9) and was characteristic also of the earlier Late Bronze Age settlements, Troy VI and Troy VII. The survival of the tradition at Troy itself was ruled out since Blegen’s scheme required a 400-year abandonment of the site—but, the excavators speculated, was it not possible that the artisans carried on their peculiar style elsewhere during the dark centuries and then returned? Some remnants of the Trojans perhaps survived on the near-by hill of Bali Dagh, where they could have “maintained a foothold for several centuries in virtual isolation until 700 B.C.” There the survivors would have “clung to their customs and traditions through the troubled period from about 1100 to 800 or later, and thus transmitted their ancestral gray pottery to successors in the eighth and seventh centuries.” (10) Such remarkable tenacity of tradition is all the more questionable, being devised specifically to evade the conclusions that would normally follow from a straightforward interpretation of the stratigraphical situation. Even so, it is not explained why the Trojans would have found Bali Dagh any more hospitable than their own hill during the Dark Age, and why, once settled elsewhere, they would have seen fit to reoccupy bare and desolate Hissarlik.

The strata exposed by Blegen’s team reveal a city of the Late Bronze Age (Troy VIIb) remade ca. -700 into a Greek settlement (Troy VIII), with considerable continuity between the two phases. Even the boundary between the two settlements could not always be clearly delineated—thus in undisturbed strata belonging to the Late Bronze Age Settlement were found fragments of pottery assigned to “the very beginning of the seventh century.” “As far as we could judge [the sherds] seem to be of exactly the same kind as the late Geometric pottery from the archaic [seventh-century] strata.” Such finds were unacceptable in the standard chronological scheme; as a way out the excavators pleaded mea culpa: “the only explanation we can find is to suppose that, in spite of our efforts to isolate and certify the deposits we examined, contamination had somehow been effected, and brought about the intrusion of the later wares into the strata of Troy VIIb.” (11) In another part of the site, in the level of the Late Bronze Age settlement, pieces “indistinguishable from types that are common in Troy VIII and are usually attributed to the seventh century” were found; and the excavators acknowledged that “their occurrence in several areas in the stratum of Troy VIIb, below the deposits of Knobbed Ware [pottery characteristic of the last Bronze Age settlement] presents a perplexing and still unexplained problem.” (12)

In the Greek city the archaeologists came upon the remains of a house (no. 814) which, as became evident with the progress of digging, had been originally a Late Bronze Age building belonging to Troy VIIb—yet its seventh-century Greek owner apparently could re-occupy the place and re-use the still-standing walls and intact foundations of the previous structure. Parts of the walls of the Greek house were “indistinguishable from the earlier construction,” and the excavators “could not follow any clearly marked stratum throughout the building”(13)—in other words, they could not distinguish supposedly twelfth-century features from seventh-century ones.

The continuing doubts and misgivings, raised by finds such as these, finally evoked the following admission from Blegen’s team—this after seven years’ digging and decades of careful analysis:

“...It has been argued that Troy VIIb came to its end about 1100 B.C. Generally considered, our evidence leads us to believe that a gap of 400 years exists between the end of Troy VIIb and the beginning of Troy VIII, but the possibility of a contrary view is established by the evidence of several successive floors of house 814, and also by the presence of Geometric sherds in a context of Troy VIIb.” (14)

What the “contrary view” might be they did not spell out; but the question would not be laid to rest: Did not the Greek city follow the Homeric directly, with no abandonment of four centuries’ duration intervening?


  1. Schliemann, Ilios, The City and Country of the Trojans (New York, 1961). Herodotus (I.94) put the migration of the Lydians to Etruria some time before the Trojan War; but archaeologists find no sign of the Etruscans in Italy prior to about the beginning of the eighth century, a discrepancy of ca. 500 years. Cf. T. Dohrn, “Stamnoi und Kratere aus grauem Ton, Nachahmungen von Metalgefassen (Civilta Castellana)” in W. Helbig and H. Speier, Führer durch die öffentlichten Sammlungen klassischer Altertümer in Rom, (revised edition, Tübingen, 1969), p. 701, Nr. 2791; H. G. Buchholz, “Gray Minyan Ware in Cyprus and Northern Syria” in Bronze Age Migrations in the Aegean (Park Ridge, NJ, 1974), p. 180.

  2. Troja und Ilion. Ergebnisse der Ausgrabungen in der vorhistorischen Schichten von Ilion 1870-1894 (Athens, 1902).

  3. Ibid. p. 201: “Die VIII lassen wir mit den entwickelt-geometrischen Vasen beginnen und koennen daher als Grenze zwischen der VII. und VIII. Schicht rund das Jahr 700 annehmen.”

  4. Ibid., p.298.

  5. C. W. Blegen, “New Evidence for Dating the Settlements at Troy,” Annual of the British School at Athens 37 (1936-37).

  6. According to J. N. Coldstream (Greek Geometric Pottery [London, 1968], p. 376) some vases from Troy VIII belong to ca. 720-700, but a few sherds may be slightly earlier. In Geometric Greece (London, 1977), p. 246, he dates the re-settlement of Troy “from ca. 750 B.C. onwards.”

  7. C. W. Blegen, J. S. Caskey, M. Rawson, Troy, Vol. IV, pt. I (Princeton, 1958) p. 10

  8. Blegen, Troy and the Trojans (New York, 1963) p. 172.

  9. Blegen et al., Troy, vol. IV, pt. I, p. 251.

  10. Ibid., p. 147. Surveys of Bali Dagh carried out in 1959 and 1968 revealed “nothing earlier than 600 B.C.”—J. M. Cook, “Bronze Age Sites in the Troad” Bronze Age Migrations in the Aegean, p. 38.

  11. Blegen et al., Troy, vol. IV, pt. I, p. 181.

  12. Ibid.,. p.158.

  13. Ibid., pp. 291-92.

  14. Ibid., p. 250 (emphasis added).