Science can unlock secrets that lie between history’s legends and reality

Everyone knows a bit about the legend of Troy: Boy meets girl, boy steals girl, Greeks dispatch Achilles and a bunch of guys in 1,000 ships to fight the Trojans, 10-year siege ends when the Greeks build a wooden horse, slip inside the gates, and kill all of the city’s gullible defenders.

That’s the legend, slightly abridged from the Homeric epic. Sifting through history for a better grasp on the reality of ancient Troy is the subject of a groundbreaking research project involving researchers at the UW-Madison.

It’s an example of how dramatically different research disciplines – in this case, molecular biology, genetics, and archaeology – can meld to change how we view history as well as our understanding of human health.

William Aylward, a professor in the UW-Madison Classics Department, is leading one of the world’s high-profile “molecular archaeology” projects at the site of ancient Troy on the western coast of modern Turkey. It is combining the field science of archeology with laboratory sciences such as genomics and molecular biology in search of what really happened at Troy some 3,200 years ago – and how people lived and died.

“Right now, the legend and reality of Troy are irreconcilable,” said Aylward, who described the project during a recent dinner at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. “By bridging the gaps between the humanities and the sciences, however, that may not always be true.”

Ancient Troy was actually nine Troys, each built roughly on top of its predecessor. The Troy of Homer’s Iliad was No. 6 in the pecking order, flourishing from roughly 1700 B.C. to 1200 B.C. It was a “crossroads of civilization,” Aylward explained, because it stood on the shores of the Dardanelles, a narrow strait that guards the entrance to the Aegean Sea.

While Aylward has little doubt that a clash took place between Troy’s inhabitants and the Mycenaean Greeks, most likely over trade or territory, there’s no evidence that Helen, Paris, Achilles, Hector, or any other characters from Homer’s poems existed. Then again, the Iliad and the Odyssey were the first stories to be written down after the Greeks developed an alphabet. That speaks to how culturally important the legend was to Greeks who lived only 400 years later.

So, if something really happened at Bronze Age Troy, what was it? Researchers from UW-Madison, in partnership with a private university in Turkey, are sorting through a site that is 10 times larger than what archaeologists first believed in the late 1800s. The discovery of the much larger Troy footprint was made in the mid-1990s, thanks to modern geo-radar technologies.

The expanded site is yielding human and animal remains that are being subjected to paleo-genomic analysis to help determine everything from migratory patterns to what people ate and drank to what diseases they contracted. The origins of modern diseases, such as tuberculosis, may be traced through remnants of pathogens found in some remains.

At its core, molecular archaeology is the study of ancient molecules. Studies have centered on DNA recovered from human skeletal remains, mummified bodies, and organic residues recovered from artifacts such as cooking utensils. This young science has also been used to trace how animals and plants were domesticated and hybridized over time.

While researchers run the risk of contamination of ancient DNA with modern genetic material, it’s a science that can amplify bits of genetic code that have been trapped in time. It’s also part of a larger trend: interdisciplinary research, which is responsible for increasing amounts of innovation in science and industry.

“It is critical that we train our future students in disparate fields such as classics and DNA chemistry, because most of the secrets that lay ahead of us lie in the research areas between the usual fields of research, rather than in any one,” said Michael Sussman, head of the UW-Madison Biotechnology Center and Aylward’s partner in the Troy project.

“The sequence of DNA of ancient bones can provide as much information on how people lived and where they came from as the important texts passed on from generation to generation, such the Illiad and Odyssey,” Sussman said. “When you have both, it can be a gold mine for everyone.”

The world will likely never know if there was a Helen, a Trojan horse or other staples of Homer’s story. Thanks to emerging technologies, however, it may learn a lot more about a long-gone civilization and how it may have affected life today.

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