In its new winter exhibition, which opened this week, the British Museum has set itself a big challenge. Its subject is a war that may not have happened, made famous by a man who may never have existed. But, as the first room of the exhibition hints, Troy: myth and reality is not really about the archaeology of the famous city which was continuously inhabited for nearly four thousand years. There, two small, fire-damaged pots found during the excavation of the city are dwarfed by Cy Twombly’s vicious Vengeance of Achilles and a sombre installation by Anthony Caro. The show’s emphasis is on the art inspired by the stories of the Trojan War, most famously those in the Iliad and Odyssey, which we ascribe to a blind man we call Homer. 

The man who found those blackened pots was Heinrich Schliemann, the German businessman who directed an obsessive hunt for evidence to corroborate the Homeric legend from 1871. In October that year he began hacking a dual-carriageway-wide gash through the mound at Hisarlik at the mouth of the Dardanelles, which was thought – correctly, as I’ll come on to explain – to be the likely site of ancient Troy. A clash between the Greeks and Trojans, if it happened, most probably took place during the thirteenth century BC. In 1873, having burrowed at least a thousand years deeper, Schliemann spirited away a collection of gold, silver and bronze finds that he then dubbed “King Priam’s Treasure” all the same. Having exhibited these artefacts for a time in London, he ultimately gave them, and other finds including the two pots that start this exhibition, to a museum in Berlin. It was there the pots acquired their current look, when they were damaged by fire caused by bombing in 1945. The gold in Priam’s Treasure was seized by the Russians, who refuse to lend it, presumably because they fear they will not get it back. But, thanks to the Berlin museums, the rest of the treasure is now on display in London for the first time in over 140 years.