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Homer’s Ithaca possibly found

Jan. 10, 2007
Special to World Science  

Brit­ish re­search­ers say they may have solved a cen­turies-old mys­ter­y: the lo­ca­tion of Ith­a­ca, home­land of the he­ro of Home­r’s The Od­ys­sey.

The ep­ic po­em de­scribes Ith­a­ca as the birth­place of King Ulys­ses, who wan­dered for dec­ades at sea be­fore a long-awaited home­com­ing to his queen, Pe­nel­o­pe.

Up­on com­ing home to his wife Pe­nel­o­pe in Ith­a­ca, Ulys­ses slaugh­tered a group of suit­ors who had been tor­ment­ing her for years. This 1812 paint­ing of the scene is by Louis-Vincent-Léon Pal­lière.


A modern island of Ithaca ex­ists, and for cen­turies clas­si­cists have thought it was the one in the sto­ry. But there was al­ways a glitch: Hom­er as­serts that the is­land was the west­ern­most of the Io­ni­an ar­chi­pel­a­go. But the west­ern­most is­land is real­ly Ke­falo­nia, which is al­so much big­ger than the place Hom­er de­scribed.

The re­search team in­clud­ed busi­nes­man and am­a­teur ar­chae­o­lo­gist Rob­ert Bit­tle­stone, heir to a tra­di­tion be­gun by an­oth­er busi­ness­man, the fa­mous Hein­rich Schlie­mann—dis­co­v­er­er of the ho­mer­ic city of Troy, in 1870. 

With Bit­tle­stone worked clas­si­cist James Dig­gle of Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty and geolo­gist John Un­der­hill of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ed­in­burgh.

They found that Ith­a­ca is in­deed to­day’s Ke­falo­nia; but on­ly the west­ern­most part of it, which is now a pen­in­su­la. Three mil­len­nia ago, in Home­r’s Bronze Age, this pen­in­su­la was an is­land, they said. Land­slides and rock­falls from earth­quakes later filled in the gap be­tween the two is­lands.

Ge­o­log­ic tests an­nounced this week by the team have con­firmed this the­o­ry, in­i­tial­ly based on ge­o­graph­ic con­sid­er­a­tions on­ly, the re­search­ers added.

The group said they con­ducted ex­ten­sive ge­o­log­i­cal and geo­phys­i­cal stud­ies on the south­ern end of the strip of land be­tween the pen­in­su­la and the rest of Ke­falo­nia. There, they drilled a 122-meter (133-yard) bore­hole. The drill nev­er hit bed­rock but in­stead plunged through loose sed­i­ments, rock­fall and land­slide ma­te­ri­al, reach­ing well be­low sea lev­el, they said. 

The ab­sence of bed­rock and pres­ence of very young ma­rine fos­sils in the sed­i­ments show that this added earth could have filled in the an­cient sea chan­nel to cre­ate an isth­mus, or land bridge, be­tween the once sep­a­rate is­lands, the re­search­ers claimed. “Although this is on­ly a first step in test­ing wheth­er or not this whole isth­mus was once un­der the sea, it is a very en­cour­ag­ing con­fir­ma­tion of our ge­o­log­i­cal di­ag­no­sis,” Un­der­hill said.

Additional details on the find­ings ap­pear in the Jan­uary issue of Geo­times, a ma­ga­zine of the Amer­i­can Geo­lo­gi­cal In­sti­tute.


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British researchers say they may have solved a centuries-old mystery: the location of Ithaca, homeland of the hero of Homer’s The Odyssey. The epic poem describes Ithaca as the birthplace of King Ulysses, who wandered decades at sea before a long-awaited homecoming to his queen, Penelope. A modern island of Ithaca exists, and for centuries classicists have thought it was the one in the story. But there was always a glitch: Homer asserts that the island was the westernmost of the Ionian archipelago. But the westernmost island is really Kefalonia, which is also much bigger than the place Homer described. The research team included businesmann and amateur archaeo logist Robert Bittlestone, heir to a tradition to which another businessman, the famous Heinrich Schliemann—discoverer of the homeric city of Troy—belongs. With Bittlestone worked classicist James Diggle of Cambridge University and geologist John Underhill of the University of Edinburgh. They found that Ithaca is indeed today’s Kefalonia; but only the westernmost part of it, which is now a peninsula. Three millennia ago, in Homer’s Bronze Age, this peninsula was an island, they said. Landslides and rockfalls from earthquakes filled in the gap between the two islands since then. Geologic tests announced this week by the team have confirmed this theory, initially based on geographic considerations only, the researchers added. The group said they conducted extensive geological and geo physical studies on the southern end of the strip of land between the peninsula and the rest of Kefalonia. There, they drilled a 122-meter (133-yard) borehole. The drill never hit bedrock but instead plunged through loose sediments, rockfall and landslide material, reaching well below sea level. The absence of bedrock and presence of very young marine fossils in the borehole sediments show that this added earth could have filled in the ancient sea channel to create an isthmus, or land bridge, between the once separate islands, the researchers claimed. “Although this is only a first step in testing whether or not this whole isthmus was once under the sea, it is a very encouraging confirmation of our geological diagnosis,” Underhill said.