The Secrets Hidden in Achilles’ Shield
How a retired foresight scientist’s unusual approach has led to rethinking Troy’s location and the motives for the Trojan War.
When award-winning Dutch innovation expert Henk van Oosten retired, he wasn’t interested in taking up golf or bridge. Instead, he decided to solve one of ancient history’s most enduring mysteries.
Using skills acquired over many years in foresight studies and his experience as a sailor, he took on the knotty topic of the Trojan War and Odysseus’ travels. Were they just myths conjured up by Homer to entertain his Greek audience or could they be something more?
He treated the search as if it were one of his innovation projects, using wide spectrum thinking and knowledge from diverse fields. And in doing so, he has come up with a tantalising hypothesis. He believes that the Trojan War was not fought over the breathtakingly beautiful Helen of Sparta and based in the Mediterranean. He thinks it took place in the Atlantic around 1400 BC and was fought over something the ancients considered even more precious.
The poems that prompted the quest
When van Oosten retired in 2007, his approach to this new phase of life was typical of a man who had spent his entire career thinking outside the box.
He decided to read at least one classical text a year to see why they were considered classics. He began with Dante’s Divine Comedy and Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
Then came the works that would change his life.
In 2013–2014, he tackled Homer’s 8th-century BC epic poems about the Bronze Age Trojan War and its aftermath: The Iliad and The Odyssey, finding the first difficult to read but the second much more interesting.
As luck would have it, a rock opera O Die Zee (Oh That Sea) was playing near where he lived in Zeeland, south west Netherlands. The wordplay of its clever title mirrored its subject matter: it was based on Iman Wilkens’ 1990 book Where Troy Once Stood, which argues that the city of Troy was near Cambridge in the UK, that Odysseus’ travels were based in the Atlantic not the Mediterranean and that Odysseus spent a year in Zeeland on an island belonging to the goddess Circe.
“As a scientist, I disliked the fact everyone was saying the same thing about Troy — that it was Greek and on the coast of Turkey.”
Van Oosten’s interest was piqued. He knew that modern scholars believed the Homeric stories were Greek myths which had been passed down in the oral tradition over time and were probably fiction.
Yet people were also saying that the famous city of Troy, central to the ten-year duration of the war, was definitely not a myth and what’s more, that it had been found on the hill of Hissarlik on the west coast of Turkey by a German businessman and amateur archaeologist called Heinrich Schliemann in 1873. However, numerous excavations since then had still not come up with concrete evidence that Hissarlik was Troy.
“As a scientist, I disliked the fact everyone was saying the same thing about Troy — that it was Greek and on the coast of Turkey,” explains van Oosten. “The few people saying something different and that the Odyssey was possibly on the Atlantic were completely dismissed by classical historians and archaeologists. That gave me the motivation to find out more and to look into this properly. It involved reading, field visits, discussions and studying. Testing each hypothesis and if it was wrong, coming up with the next one.”
Van Oosten began by visiting Cambridgeshire and the Wash (a bay and estuary in the north-east corner of East Anglia in the UK) to test Wilkens’ hypothesis that they were the true location of Troy and the Trojan War. He also tested whether Circe could have been in his native Zeeland. This took him the best part of two years at the end of which he concluded that “it couldn’t be true, particularly for the Wash and Zeeland. It was simply impossible because of the much lower sea levels in Odysseus’ time and the dynamics of the deltas and coasts.”
He was then faced with what to do next.
The shield as catalyst
Van Oosten’s former career in foresight studies was fundamental to how he tackled the search for Troy. “This approach is different from pure science,” he says. “This approach is at the core of the innovation process. It involves arranging existing knowledge in a different way which then leads to new insights and perspectives.”
His “innovation approach” to discovering the truth about Troy and the Trojan War began by widening the geographical area and landscape and lengthening the timescale.
He knew he then had to expand his research beyond the usual text analysis and archaeology. He did this in a brilliantly appropriate yet unusual way.
“I used the new shield of Achilles to select the additional fields of research,” he says. He is referring to Homer’s extremely detailed description in Book 18 of The Iliad of the shield forged by the god Hephaestus for Achilles.
The shield is made of four metals: gold, silver, copper and tin. It has five layers, several of which are of bronze, which is an amalgam of copper and tin. The shield is decorated with the world-encircling river Oceanus and contains detailed imagery depicting scenes of war and peace, and the dome of the sky with the sun, moon and four constellations.
“This led me to include metals, astronomy, oceanography, geology and knowledge of cultures outside the Greek world in the Bronze Age,” he explains.
He added one more lead to the mix: the changing dynamics of the world’s coastlines over time. His assumption is that the Trojan War took place in around 1400 BC and the coastlines of today look very different from those of the Bronze Age.
The metal that launched a thousand ships
The key question was what might have triggered something as massive as the Trojan War, which allegedly lasted for a decade and cost tens of thousands of lives. Could it really have been over Helen, supposedly the most beautiful woman in the world? Maybe there was something else.
Van Oosten focussed on the shield. Homer had been quite specific about the details. It was made of bronze, a strong alloy of copper and tin. It was decorated with gold and silver. The message was clear, metals were important in some way. He decided to do some research on metals in the Bronze Age. What he discovered surprised him.
Between 5000 and 1500 BC, there was a highly developed Atlantic culture along the coasts and islands of southern Spain, Portugal, Brittany, England and Ireland reaching as far as Scotland. This is evidenced by the numerous megaliths and other structures found in these areas and the level of architectural and astronomical precision with which they were constructed.
Consider the magnificent Neolithic Brú na Bóinn complex, a World Heritage site in County Meath, Ireland. It contains the 5000-year-old Newgrange monument whose entrance is aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice. Another beautiful example from the same complex is the Knowth passage grave with its stunning megalithic art.
When you realise constructions like these are older than the Egyptian pyramids and classical masterpieces from the Greek golden age such as the Parthenon, this is a remarkable achievement. Maritime shipping helped spread this knowledge and technology along the coasts.
When gold, silver and copper were discovered in southern Spain and other locations along the Atlantic coast, a crucial shift from stone to metal took place. These finds attracted seamen and traders from the Mediterranean region from around 3000 BC, as attested by one of the most iconic figures in Spanish archaeology: German historian, archaeologist and geologist Adolf Schulten, in his book Tartessos.
Southern Spain became a powerful centre for the mining, handling, processing and trading of metals. Once it was discovered that adding tin to copper made bronze much stronger, therefore making stronger weapons, the demand shifted to tin.
Tin is a relatively rare metal. It makes up 2 parts per million of the earth’s crust compared with say, iron which is 50,000 parts per million.
“Bronze was essential for weapons,” explains van Oosten. “If you have tin and can make bronze you have the power. But all the literature showed that there was hardly any tin at all in the Mediterranean, so they had to get it from somewhere. Some people said it came from Afghanistan, but you just have to look at the practical implications of travelling 2500km through the desert with donkeys carrying heavy loads of tin to know that this was not really a serious option.”
Tin is plentiful in Cornwall (the rugged southwestern tip of England) and also present to a lesser extent in Britanny, France and Galicia, Spain. Van Oosten believes that Cornwall must have been the main supplier of tin to the metal trading centres, while Spain controlled the supply of gold, silver and copper.
“In my opinion, these were the two main power centres in the Atlantic world in the Bronze Age,” he says. “But then Spain became dependent on Cornwall for tin, which inevitably led to tensions. Instead of working together, they became competitors.”
Homer talks about escalating conflict between two power centres: Ithaca and Troy. This was triggered by the abduction of the beautiful wife of King Menelaus of Sparta by Trojan prince Paris, son of King Priam of Troy during his visit to the region. The result is the ten-year Trojan War.
Troy is the name for the rock that used to be known as “Grey Rock in the forest” and “Iktin”. We know it today as St. Michael’s Mount.
Van Oosten believes there was a Trojan war, but its focus was the Atlantic and it was not a power struggle over a woman, but a power struggle over tin.
He thinks Ithaca was the name Homer used for the metal-rich power centre in southern Spain. Homer describes Ithaca as “an island/ peninsula with a hill” which is “between two seas” and “with some islands nearby”. This description corresponds to the peninsula with Huelva at the mouth of the Rio Odiel and Rio Tinto at around 1500 BC. Following this line of reasoning, Ithaca is the name of the area that later included Tartessos and is now the city and province of Huelva on the Gulf of Cadiz coast.
And what of Troy? Did it exist? In van Oosten’s opinion, Troy was the name Homer used for the power centre of Cornwall. It is described as an elevated impregnable castle in a tin-rich area on or near the coast. There was a bay providing shelter from storms from the north large enough to hold a fleet of ships and be the scene of daily battles. Using this train of thought, Troy is the name for the rock that used to be known as “Grey Rock in the forest” and “Iktin”. We know it today as St. Michael’s Mount. This rock used to be on land, but is now in the sea due to a rise in sea levels, so all traces of its much fought-over past have been lost.
Van Oosten surmised that the King of Cornwall (Troy), aware of his powerful position as chief supplier of the metal everyone wanted, decided to change the terms of the deal with the rich kings of southern Spain (Ithaca). He came up with some demands and conditions and sent his son to deliver the bad news to the kings in southern Spain. Naturally, they wanted to hold on to their existing lucrative trade agreements and would brook no challenge to the delicate balance of power, so refused the king’s demands. Conflict ensued, Cornwall was attacked, the king’s castle destroyed and the leaders killed.
Both sides suffered huge losses of kings and troops. At home, as time went on, the population grew weak and poor. Many moved away in search of a better life. It marked the end of the highly prosperous Atlantic era.
Van Oosten believes that this dispersed population could be the Pelasgian migrants, forerunners of the Greeks, written of by Plato and Herodotus, perhaps even the “Sea People” who used ships to attack Egypt in 1207 BC and 1177 BC and then tried to invade it from the land.
Not one for desk-based research alone, van Oosten travelled to Cornwall and to southern Spain in 2018 and 2019. “Writing was not really a top priority at the time,” he explains, “ but I became more and more convinced that I might have something new, something controversial, a basis for debate. This was confirmed when I went to London in February 2020 to see the Troy: myth and reality exhibition at the British Museum. In their catalogue they state “There is no connection between archaeology and the Homeric poems.”
The shield yields more
As a sailor, van Oosten became increasingly captivated by the voyage undertaken by one of the characters in the Iliad: Odysseus, King of Ithaca, the brains behind the Trojan horse ruse that led to victory. After the end of the Trojan War, Odysseus sets sail for home, but storms foil his plans and he ends up making the epic ten-year sailing trip that is the Odyssey.
Again using the shield described in the Iliad as his starting point, van Oosten began applying his innovation techniques to Odysseus voyage. Homer describes how the global river Oceanus encircles the shield. In van Oosten’s opinion, Oceanus is what we now call the North Atlantic. Its circular nature on the shield represents the flow of the ocean and the Gulf Stream, whose current and clockwise winds are the unique dominant characteristics. The current goes in a southwards direction from England to Spain to Cape Verde and then westwards. In the Caribbean the Gulf Stream goes to the northwest and then bends north of the Bahamas eastwards to the Azores.
Van Oosten is convinced that Odysseus’ journey is not around the Mediterranean, but across the Atlantic
Achilles’ shield depicts four constellations: the Great Bear (Ursa Major), Orion, Hyades and the Pleiades and van Oosten was convinced they could be used to navigate Odysseus’ route. He made contact with Stan Lusby, an English navigator and astronomer living in New Zealand who was studying how the Polynesians used the stars when sailing the Pacific Ocean. Lusby had also done some research on the Odyssey being on the Atlantic Ocean and he taught van Oosten how to use the Skymap stellar computer programme to view the night sky as it was in 1400 BC. They disagreed about the date of the journey but in other aspects their ideas were similar.
The Atlantic Ocean is best crossed in the winter months (November to February) on the westward current of the Gulf Stream between Cape Verde and the Caribbean. In early summer (end of June — end of August) the eastward Gulf Stream will take a ship from the American coast via the Azores to Huelva (Ithaca).
“In the northern part of the Atlantic Ocean, the Great Bear is always in the north,” he explains, “and never takes a bath”, meaning it never dips into the sea but always stays above the horizon.
“Going west, the Great Bear is on your right, going east it is on your left. You know you are sailing the correct course if you can see two stars on the horizon perpendicular to each other. The vertical lines of stars function just like two harbour lights perpendicular to each other indicating a safe course. Every harbour has its own combination of stars. This method of navigation is used by Polynesian sailors and is a form of latitude sailing.
“If you apply this to the west course from Cape Verde to the Caribbean, which I believe is the true route of Odysseus’ wanderings, then in winter to the west Procyon (Canis minor) is directly above Betelgeuse (Orion). In the summer if you head towards the home port in the east, Aldebaran (Hyades) is directly above Saiph (Orion).”
“Some stars mentioned in the Iliad and the Odyssey act as a pointer for the skipper about the progression of the season. When these stars rise before the sun for the first time, you must leave that particular area because of the threat of heavy storms.”
“When the Pleiades rise earlier than the sun at the end of April, it’s time for the ship to leave the Caribbean. Later in the season, something similar happens with Orion and Sirius. With this knowledge of the ocean and the night sky, it is possible to cross the ocean safely from and to your home port in one or two years.
There are other indicators of places along the Atlantic route. “The island of the king of the winds, Aiolos, is ‘a floating island, surrounded by an unbreakable wall of bronze’. I take that to mean an island surrounded by a calm sea, within a coral reef. There are some islands in the Caribbean which match this description, particularly Barbuda. Elsewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, this situation only occurs around Barbados and the Bermuda Islands.”
The island Aeaea of Circe might be an island in the Bahamas, thinks van Oosten. In the time of Odysseus, 1400 BC, the sea level was between three and five metres lower than it is now. Coastal areas look very different today from how they did 3400 years ago.
Large parts of the current sea around the islands of the Bahamas are very shallow (between 0 and 8 metres deep). Vast areas that were above sea level in Odysseus’ time are now underwater. Odysseus stays there for a year — it’s a nice place to spend the winter. Before leaving he has to go to Hades, “at the furthermost end of Oceanos where the sun sets”. This might be the American coast. He has to sail the “stream-river”, to reach Hades and back to Circe. Van Oosten thinks this can be interpreted as a sailing trip from Aeaea, an island in the Bahamas, to the coast of Florida, across the fast flowing Gulf Stream. That would mean Odysseus was in Hades on the American coast. On the return journey, the sun rises exactly in the east above Aeaea, the island of Circe.
To give another example, St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall is now in the sea, but back then it was situated on land in a forest. At the time of the Trojan War it was on the coast or a peninsula.
Odysseus stays with the goddess Calypso for seven years on the island of Ogygia which the god Hermes calls this island “the navel of the sea” that is “in the middle of that immense salt lake without a city nearby, where sacrifices are made to the gods.” Van Oosten believes this could be an island in the Azores.
Finally, Odysseus is free to go home. Calypso gives directions using the four constellations and one extra one: Bootes. The reason might be that Odysseus is not allowed to go eastwards directly to Ithaca, but has to first go in a south-easterly direction to reach Scheria, (Lanzarote). This detour is possible on the Atlantic but not on the Mediterranean as you would end up in the Libyan desert!
Navigating by constellations in this way is completely understandable on the Atlantic because no orientation points can be seen for weeks. It is less likely on the Mediterranean, where islands and coastal barriers make navigating by night using the stars dangerous.
A real story about real people
For Henk van Oosten, the Iliad and the Odyssey are not just works of fiction. At their heart is a real history describing the fall of a flourishing Atlantic culture and the use of knowledge and technology to sail the ocean and finally return to the “home port”. This was passed down in the oral tradition over the centuries by the displaced Atlantic people as they settled in their new homelands, including Greece. Homer heard the stories and reworked them, setting them in his own era in Greek cities with Greek gods. It is thanks to him that these ancient stories have survived and still speak to us today.
The Odyssey is a coded sea chart containing hidden knowledge…
His research is meticulous, his hypothesis compelling. But how sure is he of its validity? “ Back in the Bronze Age tin was of as much strategic value as oil is today,” he says. “I am convinced that the cause of the Trojan War was not the abduction of Helen, but a power struggle over tin. “
For him, the new shield of Achilles has been the key to everything. “The Odyssey is a coded sea chart containing hidden knowledge about how to sail on the Atlantic Ocean for weeks without instruments. Perhaps it was also a trading route in those early days. I read a book recently by Robert Macfarlane called The Old Ways. He says that on land there are paths that have been used for centuries, perhaps millenia. This is also true of the sea, where there are sea lanes — routes determined by prevailing wind directions and currents — some dating back to the Stone Age. The problem is that unlike land, the sea leaves no trace.”
The quest for the real Troy has been Henk van Oosten’s own Odyssey, taking him around the world while making interesting new friends and new connections along the way. He has even written a fascinating book about his hypothesis: The Trojan Tin War and Odysseus’ Ocean Route, so far only in Dutch with an English summary, although an English version is in the pipeline.
Has he now reached his own “home port”?
On the contrary, he thinks his research is just the beginning and hopes it will open up debate. “I wanted to leave old ideas behind and introduce a new perspective, an alternative approach using current knowledge and technology,” he says. “ You know, I once used to explain my job to people using author Jeanette Winterson’s description of metaphor. She wrote that a metaphor is ‘…that which is carried above the literalness of life… a way of thinking that avoids the problems of gravity…’ In tackling this ancient myth I tried to do that. To use this free way of thinking as well as my own experience as a reader, traveller, sailor and innovation expert. I didn’t expect it to lead to this conclusion, but I do feel I’m onto something important.”
Visit Henk van Oosten’s Facebook page in English and Dutch.