Race on to identify ancient Ithaca

As Greek team announces discovery of Odysseus? palace, questions persist about location By John Leonard

As the summer comes to a close and archaeologists begin reporting their latest results from excavations and surveys around Greece, their public disclosures can be a fascinating reminder that below the surface of many a great archaeological discovery usually lies a healthy amount of controversy. Archaeology is essentially about collecting evidence and presenting and exchanging ideas to achieve as correct an understanding of the past as possible. Disagreement and debate, then, are good things, not to be avoided but welcomed, since they usually lead to a clearer appreciation of a problem.

The announcement on August 20, 2010, by husband-and-wife team Thanasis Papadopoulos and Litsa Kontorli-Papadopoulou, of the University of Ioannina, in which they reported that they had at last discovered the actual palace of Odysseus on the western Greek island of Ithaca (Ithaki), is at first glance an exciting development. However, it also fuels the centuries-old controversy concerning where Odysseus ? if he was indeed a real person or at least based on a real-life historical figure ? actually resided. During the past decade, this particular problem of Homeric geography (?The Ithaca Question?) has become even more fascinating and hotly debated ? especially since the intriguing 2005 publication of an alternative suggestion, put forward by amateur archaeologist Robert Bittlestone, that Homeric Ithaca was not present-day Ithaki, but Peliki, the northwestern peninsula of nearby Cephalonia. Peliki, in his view, may in ancient times have been an independent island separated from larger Cephalonia by a narrow strait.

Bittlestone?s book ?Odysseus Unbound ? The Search for Homer?s Ithaca? represents the first systematic approach to this argument of Peliki being Homer?s Ithaca, an idea initially advanced over a century ago by Greek scholar Gerasimos Volterras. His proposal has received growing support from specialists within the academic community, who have on occasion compared the affluent British business executive with an earlier, similarly insightful amateur archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann (see box). In the face of nearly overwhelming evidence that present-day Ithaki is not ancient Ithaca, and increasingly convincing evidence that Peliki may indeed have been the seat of Odysseus? homeland, Papadopoulos and Kontorli-Papadopoulou?s recently proclaimed discovery of ?Odysseus? palace? on Ithaki seems to be a last attempt to preserve an outdated theory that perhaps instead should be laid to rest.

The topography and geographical location of the island presently known as Ithaki do not match Homer?s original description of ancient Ithaca. Speaking to King Alkinoos in ?The Odyssey? (Bk. 9), Odysseus says: ?I am Odysseus, Laertes? son... / Bright Ithaca is my home: it has a mountain... / Around are many islands, close to each other, / Doulichion and Same and wooded Zakynthos. / Ithaca itself lies low, furthest to sea / toward dusk; the rest, apart, face dawn and sun. / A rugged isle...? In ?The Iliad? (Bk. 2), Homer also relates that Odysseus ?...led the gallant Cephallenians, / from Ithaca and leaf-quivering Neriton, / from Crocyleia and rugged Aigilips, / men hailing from Zakynthos and from Samos, / from the mainland and the region opposite.? These passages reveal that ancient Ithaca was a low-lying island at the furthest western edge of a group of islands including Doulichion, Same and Zakynthos. In addition, Odysseus ruled a people called Cephallenians, who apparently inhabited not only this island group but also portions of the adjacent mainland.

For centuries, however, the location of ancient Ithaca has remained a mystery. If ancient Zakynthos was the island that bears the same name today, and ancient Same was present-day Cephalonia ? a connection made by the Roman geographer Strabo in the 1st century BC / 1st century AD ? then where were Ithaca and Doulichion? Strabo associates Ithaca with present-day Ithaki but to achieve this correlation he departs from a strict reading of Homer?s text and leaves Doulichion unidentified. In ancient or medieval times, a tradition arose that Doulichion was Ithaki, while in the late 19th century, Wilhelm Dorpfeld,

Schliemann?s architect, proposed that ancient Ithaca was the present-day island of Lefkada. Since modern Ithaki does not resemble Homer?s Ithaca (it appears mountainous, not low; is not the furthest western island; and lies east of adjacent islands, not west), it was probably Doulichion. But, still, where was Ithaca?

Bittlestone points to another passage in Strabo, in which he describes an isthmus on Cephalonia that may hold the answer: ?Where the island is narrowest, it forms an isthmus so low-lying that it is often submerged from sea to sea.? Cephalonia, then, in antiquity may have been two islands and the smaller, westward island may have been ancient Ithaca. Bittlestone is the first researcher to address the puzzle of Ithaca systematically through a methodology combining traditional scholarship with modern technology. After having his revelation concerning Peliki and ancient Ithaca while on holiday in Greece in 1997, Bittlestone has poured over ancient texts, recruited the aid and advice of respected scientific specialists ? including classicist James Diggle, geologist John Underhill and archaeologist Anthony Snodgrass ? and mustered teams of high-tech investigators to conduct both land-based and marine studies of Cephalonia?s Thinia isthmus. To date, Bittlestone and his collaborators have shown that a considerable amount of Mycenaean pottery from the Late Bronze Age era of Odysseus litters the Peliki landscape; Strabo was correct in his description of a low, sea-washed isthmus; and this isthmus has been filling up with repeated, massive rockfalls over the past three or more millennia. These rockfalls have been caused by severe seismic activity and sea-induced erosion. Final proof of an ancient strait once having existed between Cephalonia (Same) and Peliki (possibly Ithaca) may have been uncovered this past summer during the Odysseus Unbound project?s 2010 campaign. An update with geological results, according to project spokesperson Anne Stephenson, will be posted on next week.

In Ithaki, meanwhile, after 16 years of excavation, Papadopoulos and Kontorli-Papadopoulou have discovered a complex of buildings in the Aghios Athanasios area that the archaeologists assert may be Late Bronze Age in date and resemble Mycenaean palaces elsewhere in Greece. The complex features a multilevel megaron with a rock-cut stairway and a 13th-century BC well similar to wells previously found at Mycenae and Tiryns. The discovery of another Mycenaean palace is important news, whether or not the site can be connected with Odysseus.

Strangely, the excavators on Ithaki appear to have used the same expression to describe their site as Bittlestone has previously used for Peliki. Papadopoulos and Kontorli-Papadopoulou report that the location of the newly discovered palace ?fits like a glove? with Homer?s description of the view from Odysseus? palace. It seems the race is on to identify ancient Ithaca. With any luck, more definitive answers may soon be forthcoming, as the Odysseus Unbound project?s geologists withdraw from Peliki and the next planned stage of archaeological investigation begins in 2011.

Impressive amateurs

?By pursuing quite literally Homer?s descriptions of the place names in the [?Odyssey?], Schliemann went to Troy and Mycenae and he found them. The results were of course not as simple as this, as later research has shown, and controversy around the interpretation of the finds continues to this day. It remains however the case that the amateur Schliemann, by following Homer?s poetic instructions and with an improbable series of site visits, identified some of the most sensational archaeological exhibits that have ever been found. Schliemann?s field visits did not however solve the enigma of ancient Ithaca...?

Denis Searby, University of Stockholm, 2006