It was detective work of a most ancient kind. The recent discovery of a single line of poetry from a 3,200-year-old clay tablet is being hailed as the latest scrap of evidence that the stuff of Homeric legends may indeed be true. Prof. Calvert Watkins, a Harvard University linguist, believes he has discovered a line of a song that corresponds with the ``Iliad,'' Homer's 2,800-year-old epic poem that chronicles the fall of Troy.
Working in Luvian, an extinct language of Anatolia (the site of modern Turkey), Professor Watkins came upon a series of words that, when translated, reads: ``When they came from steep Wilusa . . ..'' Says Professor Watkins, ``When I looked at the thing I realized it was poetry, not just ordinary discourse.''
The text of the clay tablet, which Professor Watkins calls the ``Wilusiad,'' literally breaks off at that point, but Watkins suggests that ``Wilusa'' and the subject of the ``Iliad,'' the city of Ilios, are one and the same city of Troy. Other scholars say the city that Homer referred to as Ilios was originally spelled with a ``W.''
Professor Watkins's conjecture, being heralded by linguists and classics scholars as skillful detective work, lends exciting credence to the theory that the Trojans may have had a literary tradition that overlapped that of the ancient Greeks.
While Watkins and other observers are quick to deny that the verse line offers conclusive proof, the professor says it indicates ``that the city of Troy, known as Wilusa, was considered a fit subject for . . . literature, not only in Greek, but also in Luvian.''
``That two cultures should be singing about the same city of Troy is remarkable,'' says Dr. Emily Vermeule, a Harvard University classicist. ``You never find that.''
Professor Watkins adds that the writing also serves as additional circumstantial evidence that Luvian was actually the language of Troy. ``We [have] the place,'' he explains. ``We just don't know what language the people used because they didn't write, or at least we have no [archaeological] evidence that they did.''
Homer's epics, the ``Iliad'' and the ``Odyssey'' (believed to have been written in the 9th or 8th century BC), are considered the starting point of Western literature, influencing subsequent generations of poets from Virgil and Dante to Milton and Pope. But the fabled Trojan War has never been substantiated, even though it was said to have occurred in known cities and countries. While scholars have generally held that the content of Homer's epics is almost entirely set in the Mycenaean age, a number of questions have been left unanswered -- namely, to what extent they chronicled actual historical events.
Evidence for the historical accuracy of the poems stems from three primary sources -- Greek legends that predate Homer, archaeological excavations, and clay archives of particular kingdoms, especially that of the Hittites, who dominated central Asia Minor in the 14th century BC. While archaeological evidence indicating the existence of Greeks in Anatolia and specifically Troy has been known since the 19th-century, Professor Watkins's discovery draws on the third source, the clay archives.
In the course of preparing a paper for a recent Bryn Mawr College symposium on the Trojan War, Watkins was seeking evidence for his theory that Luvian was the tongue of Trojans. Examining a document that has long been in print -- a 1959 transcription of a Hittite religious tablet first republished in cunieform characters in 1923 -- Watkins detected a previously untranslated Luvian line. In it he recognized not only the similarity of the word ``Wilusa'' to the Greek ``Ilios'' but also the repetition of the adjective ``steep,'' which Greek poets had used to describe the high-walled Troy. It is a correspondence that Watkins describes as ``more than coincidence'' and suggests that the Greek and Luvian literary traditions did not exist ``wholly independent of each other.''
As further evidence for this claim, Watkins, along with other Middle Eastern linguists, has also argued that several Greek names, including those of King Priam and his son, Paris, have their roots in Luvian. Prof. Hans Guterbock, a leading Hittite authority at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, points to five ``very suggestive'' linguistic similarites -- most notably that between Alexandros, one of the two names Homer gave Paris, and a ruler of Wilusa whom the Hittites referred to as Alaksandus.
While such tantalizing coincidences remain conjectural, they add weight to Watkins's ideas about Wilusa and Ilios. ``[Watkins] has found this parallel that would be very telling if it is correct,'' says Dr. Guterbock, ``especially when [considered] with the other [linguistic] similarities.'' Guterbock, however, adds that several possible discrepancies between Wilusa and Ilios remain, relating to chronology, geography, and pronunciation.
Of more immediate significance is what the Watkins discovery suggests about the chronology of the fabled Trojan War. Scholars have traditionally considered Homer's ``Iliad'' a text from the 8th century BC, but the clay tablet in which Watkins's ``Walusa'' phrase appears dates to at least the 13th century BC, more than 500 years before Homer. A subsequent discovery by Watkins of an even earlier Luvian line, ``When the man came from steep. . . .'' he says dates possibly to the 15th century BC.
It is this corroboration, says Dr. Guterbock, that is the most substantial aspect of the Watkins discovery, and which goes a long way toward proving ``that the beginnings of epic poetry approach the time of the Hittites' texts.''
Watkins and other scholars hasten to add that the new evidence does not prove the existence of the Trojan War or that Luvian was the language of the Trojans. Says Watkins. ``We know that there was a Troy, and now we have some vague indication what [the people's] language was, and that they thought it was a neat place to write about.'' Now Watkins wants access to more Hittite texts -- which must literally be ``dug out of the ground.''