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The Discovery of Troy and its Lost History

This review article first appeared in:  The Skeptical Intelligencer 22:3 (2019), 11-14

Reproduced with permission

Bernard Jones, Trojan History Press (Kefallinia, Greece), 2019, pp viii + 388 (with comment on earlier works of the same kind)

Various non-mainstream theories involve the Greek legends regarding the Siege of Troy (normally thought to be represented by one layer of the ruins at what is now Hisarlik, on the Aegean coast of Turkey) and its aftermath (the victorious Greek leaders returning home). These legends are recounted in the long epic poems attributed to the (himself possibly legendary) poet Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which were originally oral works and very probably pre-date, in their earliest (lost) forms, the revival of Greek literacy arising from the introduction of the alphabet. Indeed, Barry Powell (1), expanding upon earlier notions, argues that a single ancient scholar, maybe indeed the author later identified as Homer, actually developed the Greek alphabet (from the Phoenician abjad = consonantal alphabet) precisely for the purpose of recording these poems (perhaps around 700 BCE). Other classicists, while admiring Powell’s erudition, generally find his often technical arguments obscure, speculative and unconvincing. There are numerous other works of varying degrees of scholarship, proposing a wide range of non-standard claims about the poems.

Most relevantly in this present context, several authors have sought to re-assign the location of the Trojan War and associated legendary events to distant areas, in the Atlantic and elsewhere – as indeed others have done with the narratives of the Bible, with other Greek legends such as that of the voyage of Jason (see below), etc. Perhaps predictably, such authors often identify their own homelands or other areas dear to them as the true locations of these stories (just as many amateurs seek special statuses for their own languages). The precise location of Troy was not established in the mainstream until C19, and the ‘facts’ of any genuine ‘Trojan War’ and the locations of many associated places remain disputed and indeed often conjectural (see the rider to my earlier piece ‘The status of oral traditions’ which appears in ‘Language on the Fringe’ in this issue.). But of course it is universally accepted by professional scholars that these events, or the genuine events upon which they were based, did indeed occur in the Mediterranean world, where they appear to be set. Amateur enthusiasts, however, are not deterred!

Perhaps the best known revisionist work of this kind is that of Iman Wilkens (2). On less than persuasive grounds, Wilkens maintains that the main actions of the Trojan Cycle really occurred in Eastern England, Northern France – and his native Netherlands! He argues that the locations and the weather described in the poems fit in much better with Northern Europe than with the Mediterranean. On the linguistic front, he identifies Homeric place-names etc. with later British (Celtic), English, Dutch and other local names, using the usual amateur impressionistic methods. For instance, he equates the Greek place-name Ios (pronounced ‘ee-os’) with a Dutch location with the name Joos (in Dutch the letter J is pronounced as consonantal Y is in English, and –oo– represents a long O sound); and he equates Cambridgeshire river-names with the superficially and unsystematically similar Homeric Greek names of rivers in the Trojan Plain.

In contrast, Felice Vinci (3) unconvincingly re-interprets the actions of the Trojan Cycle as occurring in the area surrounding the Baltic Sea. More recently, in 2014, Adam Nicolson (4) has proposed that Homer’s works refer to a wider area than the Mediterranean and in addition to a much earlier period: Bronze Age Eurasia, around 2000 BCE (800 years before the accepted date), when nomads from the Steppes confronted the pre-Greek societies of what later became Greece. Nicolson’s work is relatively sober and scholarly, but he is not a specialist in the relevant subjects and clearly overstates his case (his occasional use of linguistic data is egregiously flawed); as far as his historicity is concerned, strongly positive reviews have come only from non-specialist readers.

The latest work of this kind, under review here, is due to the Welshman Bernard Jones, described in online ‘blurb’ as ‘a retired multi-disciplinary professional, Chartered Practitioner and Chartered Fellow, with a lifetime of scientific, technical, investigative and research work behind him’ and ‘a historian of some 35 plus years who completed his post graduate research in ancient philosophy/mythology and ancient history’. As far as I can see, Jones provides no details of his post-graduate studies, which is hardly encouraging (if they are genuinely relevant, why not be ‘upfront’ with them?). He has apparently been working on the matter of Troy ‘for the last three decades’, and has arrived at conclusions rather similar to those of Wilkens, locating the events of the Trojan Cycle in North-Western Europe and more specifically in the ‘Celtic’ lands (see below), the British Isles; Troy itself was on the coast of East Anglia, and the various Homeric Greek peoples were located in Scotland (and indeed were the ancestors of the Scots and the Irish; see his Chapter 5).

This book has begun to attract online reviews, so far mainly positive if not wholly uncritical in nature; Jones has put some of these reviews on his web-site (5). Some of the reviews raise some of my own points of criticism, albeit soft-pedalled, and one (which to his credit Jones has on his site) not unreasonably questions Jones’ failure to identify any archaeological remains of the ‘real Troy’ (and wonders as to the actual identity of the ruined city normally identified as Troy). One thing which reviewers (understandably) do not so far discuss is Jones’ specifically linguistic argumentation, on which see below.

Jones begins his book (Chapter 1) with a discussion of the early history of Britain. Naively, he talks as if pre-Roman Britain is little known or studied by mainstream scholars, perhaps because his own focus is upon written texts (very sparsely represented for this period) rather than upon archaeological finds (see previous para) – though he does refer later to some such finds. He then introduces the ‘history’ attributed (probably mistakenly) to the C9 Welsh monk Nennius and apparently compiled from various sources. Some of Nennius’ stories were followed by the C12 Welsh bishop and scholar Geoffrey of Monmouth, to whom Jones refers later. The main relevant story involves the legends of the Trojan hero Aeneas, who fled from the sack of Troy and founded the city in Italy which eventually became Rome, and the adventures of his descendant Brutus, who is reported as settling in Britain in late M2 BCE. Relying on tendentious arguments involving the details (or lack of same) in Virgil’s C1-BCE literary (and politicised) re-telling of the story of Aeneas in his Aeneid, Jones reinterprets this story, which he treats as historical in character, as referring to the Atlantic rather than to the Mediterranean, and by way of expanding upon his ideas on this front he has written a second book which is forthcoming as I write: The Voyage of Aeneas of Troy. Of course, his re-interpretation of the Homeric epics themselves supports this view. And in addition Jones essentially accepts the C9-12 story of Brutus settling in Britain.

Later, in Chapters 10-11, Jones treats as historical another literary epic, Apollonius Rhodius’ C3-BCE Argonautica, which is a version of the story of Jason. He also argues that the (almost certainly legendary) voyage of Jason itself took place in the North Sea near the British Isles, not in the Black Sea as normally understood. (In his 1959 fictional work The Land Beyond The North, Roger Lancelyn Green, the classicist and junior member of J.R.R. Tolkien’s group ‘the Inklings’, portrays Jason’s ship Argo as visiting the British Isles and other Atlantic locations on its way home from Colchis – but leaves the main action in the Black Sea. Charles Kingsley, in his 1855 re-telling The Heroes, tells a similar story, much more briefly.)

Of course, these conclusions oblige Jones to divide the ancient history of the Greek-speaking world between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic – especially if he were to acknowledge the 1952 decipherment of the Cretan ‘Linear B’ script as archaic Greek (now very generally accepted) and the well-established findings regarding identified ‘Homeric’ sites such as Mycenae on the Greek mainland. It is difficult to see how this scenario would make sense.

But the main problem with all this is simply that there is no hard evidence of any kind that supports these Atlantic locations in this context. In fact, such evidence of early British history as survives (archaeological, etc.) tells a very different tale. The account of British history given by Geoffrey of Monmouth in particular includes otherwise obscure figures such as King Leir or Lear and ‘Old King Cole’ and some highly fanciful material about Merlin and King Arthur which seriously conflicts with what is known of late- and post-Roman Britain. Geoffrey claimed to have obtained his information from an earlier Welsh-language treatise, but no such book is known. Although others have done likewise (notably some of the recent Russian ‘chronological revisionists’), Jones is quite out of order in presenting the work of Nennius and Geoffrey as genuinely/straightforwardly historical. (See the work of Anthony Adolph (6) on the possible politically-motivated origins of the story of Brutus.)

At the other end of his book, Jones presents a series of appendices (pp 326-372) providing largely fanciful lists of kings etc. for various relevant territories including the British Isles. These lists are presented without sources, with impossibly vaguely described sources such as ‘British histories’ or ‘Spanish histories’ (this format also occurs in the body of his text, for example on p 138, and is a familiar pattern of ‘referencing’ on the fringe; but if Jones knows of the texts in question why does he not name them?), or with obviously suspect sources such as Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth (in one case supported by a modern fringe book, Bill Cooper’s 1995 Christian fundamentalist work After The Flood). In Appendix 17 Jones equates Germans with Assyrians (!), following unsourced/undefended claims made on p 281.

In fact, this problem recurs throughout Jones’ treatment of historical evidence. On p 281 itself, for example, he refers back to his Chapter 12 (‘Druidism’), which asserts that along with Welsh writers German authors preserved the early history of Western Europe but refers neither to credible primary sources nor to mainstream-scholarly secondary historical works. The bibliography of secondary sources on pp 313-329 is also egregiously short on mainstream-scholarly historical works dealing with points of detail – but includes various pseudo-historical works; these are treated in the body of the text as authoritative, as are uncorroborated legends from various countries. Whatever the nature of Jones’ post-graduate experience, overall he certainly gives a non-scholarly impression in these respects, and it is difficult to take his material as seriously as he evidently expects.

Apart from his reliance on dubious sources, Jones (starting on p 9) follows Wilkens in interpreting the inclement weather as described in the Aeneid, the Iliad etc. as unlikely to be encountered in the Mediterranean. (Wilkens is one of the few recent commentators on Homer to whom Jones actually refers.) He wrongly suggests that Virgil would not have been aware of Atlantic conditions, but this point does not itself obviate his notion that these conditions would not be found in the Mediterranean locations which are apparently mentioned in his poem and in Homer. However, he certainly exaggerates the force of this notion. The climate in the Mediterranean was cooler and wetter in 1200 BCE (and indeed in C1 BCE) than it is today; even nowadays, stormy winter weather is not unknown in the region (in 2015 I myself saw the devastation left by a wintry storm on the coast of Turkey near the accepted site of Troy). In addition, some of the Homeric descriptions (in various sections of the poems) are clearly metaphorical. And Jones’ idea that the Mediterranean could not be described as ‘salty’ is simply wrong. Jones also argues (see p 14) that Homer’s words for the colour of the sea (including the word often mistranslated as wine-dark) and other words descriptive of the sea indicate Atlantic rather than Mediterranean conditions; but this claim is again exaggerated to say the least, and indeed Jones appears naïve about the long-discussed, fraught issue of Homeric Greek colour terminology. These critical points have been raised by the very astute skeptical historian Jason Colavito (7), and I endorse his comments.

Colavito makes various other forceful points, arguing that Jones is again naïve in assuming that the Aegean and Mainland-Greek peoples of the time of the Trojan War (or even the Greeks of Homer’s own day some 500 years later) did not engage much in maritime travel and trade and therefore had access only to limited ranges of materials and artefacts (and thus could not have been the peoples described in the poems). He also quotes Jones as stating that the poems depict a ‘warrior aristocracy’ of the kind portrayed in ‘Celtic’ stories such as the Irish ‘Ulster Cycle’ dealing with the deeds of the legendary Cúchulainn. But these legends are not recorded prior to C7 CE; and in fact Celtic-speakers (and the term is essentially a linguistic one) were not living in Northern Europe in 1200 BCE or even in the time of Homer. These peoples arose in central Europe after 1300 BCE and did not arrive on the Atlantic seaboard until the middle of M1 BCE. Even Atlantic-based sources for Homer (if any existed) would not have been aware of them. Celtic-speakers did eventually occupy most if not all of the British Isles, including all of what is now England, but this was later.

Like Wilkens and many other authors promoting non-mainstream history, Jones includes many linguistic arguments in support of his thesis. I have already identified his problems in dealing with Homeric colour-words. More generally, Jones reveals that he is untutored in historical linguistics, relying on the impressionistic comparison of superficial and unsystematic similarities between words which I have critiqued many times previously in these columns, and ignoring matters of phonological structure, grammar, etc. For example, on p 67 he treats the Homeric Greek term Danaoi (‘Greeks’; often translated into English as Danaans) as obviously being the same word as Irish Danaan as in Tuatha Dé Danaan (‘people of the goddess Danu’), regarding both expressions as referring to an early colonisation of Greece from Palestine which is unknown to scholarship. On the same page, Jones follows Robert Graves in identifying the Latin word Graeci (‘Greeks’) as originally meaning ‘crone-worshippers’; but this is undemonstrated, and is part of Graves’ highly dubious theory of the pre-classical Aegean as a benevolent theocratic matriarchy.

On pp 208-209 Jones interprets the term Doric, used in Scotland to refer to the ‘broad’ Scots dialect of areas such as Aberdeenshire, as indicating the presence in early Scotland of speakers of ‘Dorian’ Greek (Spartans and such), even though there is a well-established explanation for the name in quite other, much later-dated, unspectacular terms – and of course no actual trace of ancient Greek in Scotland! In the same section Jones glibly interprets various Scottish place-names commencing with Dor– as containing the same Greek root, ignoring their known or strongly-supported (mostly Gaelic) etymologies (which can readily be obtained).

On pp 170-171 Jones adopts without argument another of Graves’ notions, involving the ‘Irish Tree-Alphabet’, in the context of a brief, confused, unreferenced account of the archaic alphabets of Greece which apparently relies in part on legends such as that of Cadmus (regarded as factual by the Afrocentrist Martin Bernal but not by mainstream classicists). (In fact, Jones cites Graves as authoritative in various places.) And on p 181 he engages in a thoroughly confused discussion of the name Peddar (as in Peddar’s Way, the somewhat mysterious ancient path across East Anglia) in which he rejects the unproven but not implausible etymology in terms of the Latin root ped– (‘foot’, as in pedestrian) on the ground that –dd– does not occur in Latin (within roots/morphemes; it does occur at morpheme boundaries following the prefix ad-) – as if such ‘corruptions’ of words ‘borrowed’ between languages were inconceivable! He then speculates as to the identity of the final –ar or –dar, without giving any evidence. In Chapter 11 Jones glibly equates the female name Helle as in Hellespont (the straits between Troy and the peninsula where Gallipoli lies, now known as the Dardanelles) with the Germanic word Hell (as in English), re-analyses the (Latinised) Greek word Corybantes (referring to worshippers of the goddess Cybele; we admittedly lack an etymology for this word) as Welsh cor y bantes ‘choir of the heights’ (there is also a grammatical issue here involving singular versus plural number; but as noted Jones pays little attention to grammar); etc. – all simply to suit his own agenda. On p 207 he equates Argos with Argyll. And he cites pseudo-historians such as Comyns Beaumont as if they were authorities on etymologies. Etc, etc.!

Jones also makes occasional sheer errors involving place-names; for instance, he does not seem to realise that the word Propontis was an ancient name for the Sea of Marmara, and treats it as referring to a separate body of water.

All in all, a linguist will take the view that Jones’ use of linguistic data in this context is of no account. If he is to make out a case for his claims, it must be on other grounds. But it has already been argued that these other grounds are themselves weak, to say the least. Jones may have an online following, but if he wants attention from the genuinely well-informed (other than active skeptics out to critique him) he must try much harder. The very strong likelihood is that he is simply mistaken. His work should not be taken seriously by non-expert readers. It is a pity that a qualified person has engaged in so many years of study, only to arrive at an altogether untenable conclusion.

REFERENCES

(1) Barry B. Powell, Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet (Cambridge, New York and Oakleigh, VIC, 1991)

(2) Iman Wilkens, Where Troy Once Stood: The Mystery of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey Revealed, 2nd edn. (New York, 1991)

(3) Felice Vinci, The Baltic Origins of Homer’s Epic Tales (Felice Vinci and Amalia de Francesco trans.) (Rochester, VT, 2006)

(4) Adam Nicolson, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters (London, 2014)

(5) https://www.trojanhistory.com/

(6) Anthony Adolph, Brutus of Troy and the Quest for the Ancestry of the British (Barnsley, 2015)

(7) http://www.jasoncolavito.com/blog/new-book-claims-homers-iliad-proves-troy-was-a-celtic-city-in-northern-europe

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