Professor Manfred Korfmann

Energetic archaeologist whose excavations of Troy ran into controversy

Wednesday 10 July 2013 05:26

The German archaeologist Manfred Korfmann was the current excavator of Troy - "Troia" to him in his many publications. He worked for most of his career in Anatolian archaeology, publicising his results to an international audience with panache, and reawakened interest in this important and dramatic site by placing it in the context of modern knowledge.

Born in Cologne in 1942, he grew up in post- war Germany and was educated in Frankfurt. After a break year acting as school assistant in Bethlehem, he studied prehistory, provincial Roman archaeology and ancient history at the University of Frankfurt, and took his doctorate in 1970. He was academic consultant from 1972 to 1978 at the German Archaeological Institute in Istanbul, where he entered Anatolian archaeology, directing four seasons of excavation at Demircihüyük in north-west Turkey near Eskisehir. There, following a pre-war campaign by Kurt Bittel, he uncovered a small circular fortress of the Early Bronze Age, breaking new archaeological ground in that area. The rich finds of the excavations were presented in six substantial volumes under his editorship.

In 1978-82, he was back at the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin as academic assistant, and there completed his Habilitation. He was appointed professor in 1982 at the University of Tübingen, where he became Director of the Institute for Prehistory in the picturesque surroundings at the Schloss Hohentübingen, a post which he held for the rest of his life.

The Early Bronze Age levels at Demircihüyük corresponded to the earliest Troy Level I, and Korfmann's interest was drawn westward to the Troad, where he conducted six seasons of excavations in the environs of Besik Bay, the "harbour of Troy" some seven kilometres south-west of the site, in the years 1982-87. He excavated and surveyed several of the local sites, initially expanding knowledge of the Early Bronze Age, and later investigated a Late Bronze Age cemetery on the shore. All the while he was formulating a view of the position of Troy in its environment, and it was perhaps inevitable that he would become involved in the famous but problematic site itself. He began excavations at Troy in 1988 and conducted 17 annual campaigns up to that of 2005, in which illness (he died of cancer) prevented him from participating.

The site of Hisarlik-Troy, ravaged by the large-scale operations of Heinrich Schliemann between 1870 and 1890, concluded after his death by his architect Wilhelm Dörpfeld in 1893-94, and investigated more soberly by Carl Blegen and the University of Cincinnati in 1932-35, might well have been considered exhausted. Korfmann however took the view that, in the 50 years which had elapsed since the conclusion of the Cincinnati excavations, our knowledge both of Anatolian archaeology and of Bronze Age history had expanded so enormously that new excavations employing the latest archaeological techniques would yield very significant results.

In this he was surely right. Specifically, advances in our knowledge of Hittite relations with western Anatolia as documented in their cuneiform texts make it certain that such a city must have been known to the Hittite kings, most probably as the Arzawa land of Wilusa, a name plausibly recognised as the Bronze Age form of Ilios.

Korfmann's aim was to fit the archaeological site into its historical context, thus providing the physical background to the textual picture. As an archaeologist, he carefully distanced himself from the vexed question of the degree of historicity to be found in the Homeric epic, conceding only that it was relevant to his plan to establish in outline the appearance of the site in the eighth century BC at the putative date of the composition of the Iliad.

In pursuit of these goals, Korfmann, as was characteristic, thought big. In addition to his own expedition from the University of Tübingen, he enlisted also another from the University of Cincinnati under the directorship of Professor Brian Rose to cover the Hellenistic and Roman periods. To finance the work, besides subventions from the universities and the German funding bodies, he approached other sources, most notably Daimler-Benz, which made regular and substantial contributions. This necessitated a major fund-raising effort on his part which he undertook with gusto, lecturing widely and inspiring frequent press reports and other forms of publicity.

His reward was the ability to mount large-scale annual campaigns, well supported by specialists, students and workmen. The investigations were wide-ranging, including survey and environmental studies alongside archaeology proper, and of course restoration and the exhibition of the site as an important touristic attraction also demanded attention. On the scientific side, the results of the excavations were meticulously presented in the annual Studia Troica inaugurated and edited by himself, which now approaches its 15th volume.

The problems of the site of Troy are well known. The size has often disappointed visitors arriving with expectations of Homeric grandeur, but this is clearly because the Bronze Age site as visible today is only the fortified citadel; furthermore, even this was severely damaged in the classical period, when the central area was razed and levelled to create a platform for the temple of Athena, thereby removing all trace of its central, probably palatial, buildings. Also any lower city was overlaid by the Hellenistic and Roman building, rendering it difficult of access, yet archaeologists familiar with the typical layout of Bronze Age Anatolian cities did not doubt its probable existence. The establishment of its presence and extent was recognised as an important goal for Korfmann's excavations.

It must be conceded that the search has not produced impressive remains. The difficulties of access have been compounded by the evidence that here too the later building was accompanied by heavy destruction of earlier levels, sometimes down to the bedrock. Nevertheless sufficient traces were recovered to establish that a fortified lower city did indeed exist over a wide area.

In publicising his results, Korfmann made good use of reconstructions of city and buildings and this at a time when artists' impressions were being superseded by computer-generated pictures. These were prominent in the major exhibition mounted by Korfmann in 2001, which was held in several German cities, and was accompanied by a weighty catalogue-publication, Troia: Traum und Wirklichkeit. Unfortunately this had the effect of bringing to a head a measure of dissatisfaction with Korfmann's methods, in particular his use of reconstructions. But, instead of measured academic criticism, this found voice in a vituperative press campaign, along with all the exaggeration and half-truths which characterise such presentation. Though Korfmann responded robustly, it has to be recorded that these attacks on his academic integrity saddened what were to be his last years.

Though Troy remained the centre of his activities, Korfmann found time in recent years to extend his range by excavations in Georgia in collaboration with the local archaeologists. His relationship with his host country Turkey was unusually close, so that he was invited last year to take out Turkish (second) nationality. This signal honour he marked by assuming legally the second name Osman, previously his excavation nickname.

In 1996 he had been instrumental in establishing the area of Troy as a Turkish national park to protect it against the depredations of development and in 1998 he had Troy registered as a Unesco World Heritage site. Most recently, this year, he was elected full member of the Turkish Academy of Sciences, an honour to join the large number which he had won from academic and other bodies in Germany, Turkey and elsewhere.

Korfmann was a big and powerful man, not only in the physical sense, energetic and a great organiser and leader. A bluff and genial manner softened a certain steeliness.

J. David Hawkins


Manfred Korfmann was an internationalist, writes D. F. Easton. Having seen the devastation of the Second World War in Germany, he set himself the aim of doing something in his own life to repair the damage. His Troy excavations were a truly international effort, the core staff drawn equally from Germany, America and Turkey, with contributing specialists from over 30 countries. He wanted Troy, site of the legendary war, to become a place of reconciliation.

It needed a person of great determination to hold together the exceptionally large team, and it is true that there was a steeliness about him. Some found the excavation a little over-regimented but, at the site where Schliemann's theft of treasures still rankled, Korfmann's object was to keep the team above suspicion. He could take great pains with individuals, showing both friendship and affection. Some of his local workforce had dug with him for 25 years, and many were quietly helped in times of difficulty. But he was held in awe, and the pace of work would quicken noticeably when the whispered nickname went around, "Osman Bey geliyor" ("Mr Osman's coming").

His premature death at a point where the vast job of writing up and publication should have begun is a tragedy. Work will, one hopes, continue in most capable hands, but the synthetic overview gained from dealing at first hand with every aspect of the research over 17 years will be almost impossible to replace.

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