Clay tablets hold key to tale of Helen, Paris and the siege of Troy

New archaeological finds show that Homeric and Hollywood epics may be based on more than just myth

The legend has dominated Western culture for more than 3,000 years - the kidnapping of the most beautiful woman in the world, the thousand ships sent to bring her back, and the bloody 10-year war that followed.

Now a leading British historian claims that the true story of Troy is finally about to be uncovered.

Bettany Hughes, currently making a television series about ancient Greece, says that a number of recently unearthed clay tablets hold "the keys" to the compelling tale of Helen, Paris and the siege of Troy.

The famous story - originally told in Homer's epic poem The Iliad - has always been considered more myth than reality. Now, says Ms Hughes, a collection of shattered tablets discovered beneath the Greek city of Thebes could completely overturn that belief.

"There is no doubt that this discovery is one of the keys that will unlock the story of Troy," Ms Hughes said yesterday. "The tablets that have been rescued at Thebes mean we are having to re-draft the Bronze Age map. What is emerging is a picture of a world remarkably close to that described by Homer."

The fragmented tablets, inscribed in the ancient script known as Linear B, have been dated back to the 13th century BC - the period when the Trojan war is supposed to have been fought. A number of pieces are still emerging from the site.

"It's fabulously frustrating," said Ms Hughes. "The tablets are slowly, slowly being deciphered, but it is like putting together a massive jigsaw."

Promisingly, the tablets already decoded mention a number of key names from Homer - including lost or vanished cities that supplied ships for the famous fleet led by Agamemnon and Achilles. This, says Ms Hughes, is highly significant, as the tablets pre-date Homer's supposedly fictional work by around 500 years.

"Up until now, no one has written seriously about the characters in The Iliad: the people who make it live and breathe," said Ms Hughes, who has been working on a biography of Helen for the past four years. "Evidence like this means that at last we can start to draw lines between the three points of the triangle - the archaeological, textual and literary sources."

The Iliad tells the story of what happened after Paris, the Prince of Troy, took Helen, Queen of Sparta, back to Troy. Her husband, King Menelaus, assembled an army of warriors from across Mycenaean Greece, including Achilles, and declared war on Troy.

The legend of Troy returns to the forefront of popular culture later this month, when Wolfgang Petersen's $200m Hollywood film opens, with Brad Pitt starring as Achilles and Orlando Bloom as Paris.

Despite Ms Hughes's confidence, other leading experts urged caution until the discoveries at Thebes have been studied fully. Professor Tom Palaima, a Linear B expert at the University of Texas, warned that the ongoing archaeological process required "maximum ingenuity".

"The Linear B tablets are important because they show us that the Mycenaean Greeks had a vested interest in operating along the coast of Asia Minor, and that would have brought them into direct contact with the Trojans," Professor Palaima said.

"To my mind, given all the new information, I don't find it at all difficult to conclude that at some point a combined Greek military campaign could have been launched against Troy, giving rise to the epic."

Dr Michael Lane, an Aegean scholar at Sheffield University, said: "It's perfectly correct to say that the Linear B tablets provide us with a lot of information about the institutions of the time, but they don't directly cover the topics that the epic poems do.

"By and large, the majority constitute lists - things like who has a flock of sheep in a certain place. The stories of the Trojan war are about big guys bashing each other - not about somebody making notes."

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