Ithaca Found?

[Cross-posted to Revise & Dissent]

Borehole drilling
Drilling for Ithaca. © Robert Bittlestone.

Some tremendously exciting news was announced yesterday. Ithaca, the home of Odysseus from Homer’s Odyssey, may have been located. The reason why I’m finding it so exciting isn’t so much that from what they’ve found, but from the way that different strands of evidence are coming together to confirm the idea.

Locating Ithaca has long been a puzzle, complicated by the fact that Homer may have been making some of the description up for dramatic effect. For instance he refers to wealthy Corinth, which was nowhere special at the time of Trojan Wars and didn’t become a major power till much later. So there was the possibility that something similar was true of Ithaca.

Ithaca was described in the Odyssey:

I am Odysseus, Laertes’ son, world-famed
For stratagems: my name has reached the heavens.
Bright Ithaca is my home: it has a mountain,
Leaf-quivering Neriton, far visible.
Around are many islands, close to each other,
Doulichion and Same and wooded Zacynthos.
Ithaca itself lies low, furthest to sea
Towards dusk; the rest, apart, face dawn and sun.

Odyssey 9, 19-26 (trans. James Diggle)

The island known in modern times as Ithaki is currently thought to be Ithaca, but there are problems. Ithaki is hilly, among other islands and slopes to the east. Paliki would be a much better fit for the description, but there’s a problem there too. Paliki isn’t an island, it’s a peninsula on Kephalonia. Robert Bittlestone has looked at the isthmus connecting Paliki to the rest of the island and he’s come up with a solution. He thinks the isthmus is infill of a marine channel and that, in ancient times, Paliki was an island. However the isthmus is up to 180 metres above sea-level. Is this reasonable?

There’s evidence that it is. Strabo writing in the first few years AD, describes a channel which was periodically inundated. There’s then the question how did this channel come to be filled? Kephalonia is a hotspot for earthquakes. The African tectonic plate is hitting into the European plate here, and so periodically there are major massive uplifts of land. These trigger landslides and rockfalls. Bittlestone thinks this is the process that filled in the channel.

Fortunately there is a way to test this idea. While the surface may look the same as the adjacent hills, the bedrock should, if Bittlestone is right, be noticeably different. On the other hills you don’t have to go too far down to hit bedrock. So a drilling rig was set up over the proposed channel, and the results have just been announced (PDF). They drilled from a site around 107 metres above sea level down 122 metres, and they have not hit bedrock. This would appear to be infill.

The neat thing is that several lines of inquiry are coming together independently to the same result. The classical texts suggest there should be a channel, the geography favours Paliki over Ithaki as the site. On Paliki there is a site which looks like it could have Bronze Age architecture, to my non-specialist eyes. They’re also finding Helladic pottery on site, which suggests Bronze Age occupation. Further there’s another biological surprise which they weren’t looking for.

Microscopic marine fossil
© Robert Bittlestone

This is a fossil found in the drilling of the borehole. It’s a microscopic marine nanofossil Emiliania huxleyi. It’s the remains of plankton. Bizarrely it was found around 60 metres above sea-level and now there’s a question how it got there. Bittlestone’s team think it could have been placed there by splashing after a catastrophic landslide into the channel. Another alternative is that it landed in a tsunami event that moved up the channel. A project for 2007 is to try and decide what happened and how.

Further surveys by resitivity, ground penetrating radar and satellite survey are all also consistent with this being Ithaca. The most cheering aspect of all is the importance they’re placing on the historical and archaeological context of the site. Even is this is a channel, it won’t prove that Ithaca was on Paliki, but it would lend support to the idea. This year and next they still plan to use non-destructive methods to survey the site. The proof, if it happens, will come from more intensive excavation after 2009. It’s only here I feel a bit negative because they plan to excavate Odysseus’ Palace. The existence of King’s Cross doesn’t prove the existence of Harry Potter. The existence of a bronze age site on what might be Ithaca won’t prove the existence of Odysseus, so I’m not sure if at the end of it they’ll be able to say that Odysseus lived there.

Regardless, if the results continue to hold, it will be a fantastic discovery.

You can
or watch a video clip from Channel 4 News.

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6 Responses to Ithaca Found?

  1. Nonsens. Bittlestone’s theory is just one more of many speculations! He is lake Schliemann, a very good publicist: an expert “marketer”. He knows his “costumers” well, and he listens to them carefully, and he responds to what he belives they neeed in order to convice them. Professor Diggle doesn’t know that all problems of exegesis actually derive from the fact that the exact of Homer has not been grasped.


  2. In conclusion, as for the “mystery” of the real location of Ithaca raised by different researchers, this can be explained by paraphrasing the thesis on Feuerbach (“Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”), which could be applied to the Ithaca question in the following way: researchers have hitherto located Ithaca in various geographical locations; the point is to determine and locate it on the geographical location that completely corresponds to Homer’s description. This is the only measure. This is where all previous and future theses about Ithaca either stand or fall (assuming, of course, that Homer’s description of Ithaca in the Odyssey is truthful).

  3. (The archaeological excavations which have been initiated in the meantime on Eresos are already providing the first confirmations of my theory.)

    (…”The finds were revealed during digging for construction in the town of Fiscardo and the theatre, which extends underground beyond the lot, appears to be in excellent condition, the ministry added.”…)

    Please search at my new book: ODYSSEUS’S ITHACA:THE DISCOVERY. Thank you.

    Berislav Brcković

  4. Unfortunately, Bittlestone’s theory is just one more of many speculations!He is like Schliemann, a very good publicist: an expert “marketer”. He knows his “costumers” well, and he listens to them carefully, and he responds to what he belives they neeed in order to convice them. Professor Diggle doesn’t know that all problems of exegesis actually derive from the fact that the exact MEANING of Homer has not been grasped.

  5. What is the author of book “Odysseus’s Ithaca: The Discovery” has done.

    “I explained the simple meaning of Homers’s words, his primitive but correct orientation, conected the relevant episodes and the main story in the Odyssey and have located Ithaca- homeland of Odysseus towards the poet’s description on the one of the most enchanting and interesting places on earth.
    The home of this ancient mythological hero, one of the best known figures of human history, has finally beeen located.”

    Author: Berislav Brcković

    : The Discovery

    Author: Brckovic, Berislav

    Review Date: JUNE 02, 2008
    Publisher:BookSurge (63 pp.)
    Price (paperback): $23.50
    Publication Date: October 18, 2007
    ISBN (paperback): 978-1-419-67585-0
    Category: AUTHORS
    Classification: NONFICTION

    A Croatian lawyer offers a meticulously researched and exhaustively detailed identification of the present-day whereabouts of Homer’s ancient Ithaca.

    The location of Odysseus’s homeland, as described in the Odyssey, has long been a matter of debate for philologists, archaeologists and Homeric scholars. One easy conclusion to the argument is that the island currently known as Ithaca, located in the Ionian Sea just off the northeast coast of Cephallonia, was the mythological hero’s home. However, this island, known by locals as Thiaki, does not share topographical details with the Ithaca described in the Odyssey; while the island in the myth is low-lying and far to the west, Thiaki is mountainous and sits to the east of a larger land mass. Burrowing deep into the text of the Odyssey and creating a somewhat tedious inventory of Ithacan characteristics, Brckovic provides a convincing case that Erisos, the northern peninsula of the island of Cephallonia, is indeed the Ithaca to which Odysseus returned at the conclusion of the epic poem. The author assumes that Homer, despite mythologizing his Greek hero and his adventures, meant to reference an authentic landscape as one of the central settings of his narrative. Building off that assumption, Brckovic cites more than 100 lines of the poem that precisely describe the general environs of Erisos. Not satisfied with a concise argument, the author spends the second half of the book identifying exact locations in and around Erisos that inspired a dozen or so important locales mentioned in the Odyssey, including the Harbour of Phorcys, Raven’s Rock, the Hamlet of Laertes and the Hill of Nion. A generous use of color photographs and maps both current and historical support the thesis presented in this slim but thorough volume.

    A convincing, compelling argument compromised by a density of details.

    Copyright 2005 Kirkus Reviews


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