Day By Day

Monday, December 14, 2009

Still Fighting Over Troy

It is not only in the field of climate science that we find journalists and publicity seeking scholars promoting an illusory "scientific consensus". Luke Slattery, writing in the Australian, notes that in recent decades a journalistic and literary narrative has emerged on the subject of the Trojan War that holds that Hissarlik, a small settlement in Northwest Anatolia, is in fact the site of Bronze Age Troy and that Homer's Iliad represents a poetical telling of historical facts. This has been the claim of a long series of excavators at the site who present themselves and their interpretations as representing a scientific consensus, but, as Slattery notes, the scientific evidence supporting this claim is scant. Instead of consensus, what we have is:

a kind of faux science... rolled out in the service of fantasy. For there is no firm evidence that a Bronze Age conflict between West and East -- a kind of world war, in effect -- ever took place at Hissarlik.

The site was dubbed Troy by Heinrich Schliemann in the late 19th century, but its identification has never been secure.

This should be evident to anyone who has ever set foot there...
The problem is that very little in the excavations matches anything related in Homer's account. Trying to force a fit, successive excavators have made extravagant claims for their discoveries that are to say the least questionable. Even the most recent digs directed by Manfred Korffman, have displayed this indulgence in grandiose interpretation.

Korfmann's major discovery was a magnetic anomaly that he interpreted as evidence of a wall enclosing a large settlement, one large enough to plausibly be identified as Homer's city. The trouble is that when excavations actually took place, the anomaly turned out to be merely a ditch. The excavator, Peter Jablonka of Tubingen University, notes that "both the geophysics guys and Professor Korfmann were not pleased with my findings" and admits that evidence for a city wall is "indeed scanty". Another Tubingen scholar, Frank Kolb, brands Korffman's claims for the site "a scandal" and asserts that the actual evidence from Hissarlik shows a tiny citadel surrounded by "a thinly built-up area with dispersed houses or farms" -- hardly the impressive city of Homer's Iliad. Yet when challenged on their interpretation, Korfmann and other promoters of Hissarlik take the position that the burden of proof lies with the skeptics, and not with themselves. Sound familiar?

Scholarly reservations, and there are many, have not made it into recent popular literature on the subject. As Slattery notes, reviewing recent publications:
Largely as a response to the dream promoted by [the excavators] the Trojan War is assumed to have been a historical event, centred on the citadel at Hissarlik. We are to believe that the truth behind the legend has been uncovered; the Troy code cracked.
Read it here.

Once again, in Archaeology, as in Climatology, Medical Science, Nutrition studies, and a host of other disciplines, we find problematic and contentious subjects being presented as scientific certainty. Certainly careerism, corporate interests, and cronyism play a part in all of these scandals, but behind them all lies the essential proposition at the heart of modernism -- the idea that the complexity and uncertainty of the world can be understood as the product of fundamental principles that can be discerned and managed by credentialed experts. Today's technocratic priesthood, like the religious or aristocratically based authorities that preceded them, are selling certainty to a public yearning for simple answers to complex problems and the illusion of control that such answers yield.