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Peninsula Seen as Homer's Ithaca

September 30, 2005|Thomas H. Maugh II And Janet Stobart | Times Staff Writers

LONDON — The long-lost city of Ithaca, home of the legendary hero Odysseus in the "Iliad" and "Odyssey," is on the island of Cephalonia off the western shore of Greece, three British researchers said Thursday.

The original contours of Ithaca have been distorted over the millenniums by a series of earthquakes that raised land levels, converting it into a peninsula of Cephalonia called Paliki.

The researchers said the topographic changes hid Ithaca's identity from generations of historians and archeologists who traced Odysseus' epic journey around 1200 BC.

The team, led by Robert Bittlestone, chairman of management consulting firm Metapraxis, has identified the locations of 26 sites in Ithaca mentioned by Homer, they said.

" 'The Odyssey' fits Paliki like a glove," Bittlestone said at a London news conference for "Odysseus Unbound," a new book describing the discovery.

His co-authors are historian James Diggle of the University of Cambridge and geologist John Underhill of Edinburgh University. The next step is to dig for traces of Odysseus' castle and city as soon as the group can secure sufficient funding.

The search for the location of Ithaca has been in progress at least since the time of the 1st century Greek historian Strabo, who placed it east of Cephalonia (Kefallinia in Greek), on the modern-day island of Ithaca (Ithiki in Greek).

But each tentative assignment of a real location to the story has required bending the geography of "The Odyssey" to fit the location.

Some critics have said that Homer didn't get it right because he lived in Turkey and never visited Ithaca. Others believe the story was simply fictional.

"It's possible that [Ithaca] never existed and that the whole tale is fictitious," Diggle said.

But that is what they said about Troy, he added, "until the city was discovered on the northwestern coast of Turkey."

"What if Homer was right?" asked Bittlestone, who studied the classics at Cambridge. "What if the mismatch between geography and the poem hasn't happened because Homer didn't understand geography, but because the geography had changed?"

That has certainly happened, Underhill said. Kefallinia, Ithiki and Greece's other Ionian islands lie above the edge of the continental tectonic plate where Europe collides with Africa. Earthquakes of magnitude 7 or greater occur an average of once every 50 years in the region.

A 7.2 temblor struck the region Aug. 12, 1953, raising the landmass nearly 2 feet. At least three similar upthrusts have occurred since roughly the time of the Trojan wars, he noted.

"Cephalonia has been rising out of the sea," Underhill said, perhaps by 15 feet or more.

Bays have shrunk, for example, as the shoreline has migrated farther into the Ionian Sea. Traces of older shorelines are visible in the bays, some marked by ancient seawalls that are now fences, the team said.

But the most dramatic change, they said, occurred on what is now the isthmus connecting the Paliki peninsula to the main body of Cephalonia.

Geological evidence suggests that the isthmus was once bisected by a water-filled channel that connected the Argostoli Bay on the south to the Ionian Sea on the north. With the channel in place, Paliki would, in fact, have been an island.

The eastern portion of the landmass would then have been the island known in Homer's books as Same. Modern-day Ithiki would be the island Homer identified as Doulichion.

Terrain samples indicate that the channel's floor was raised by earthquakes and the channel itself was filled in by rockslides from the surrounding hills.

The channel is named after Strabo because he noted its presence, although he apparently failed to grasp its significance, Bittlestone said. The channel was filled in sometime after the 1st century.

Given this conclusion, "there are 60 or 70 clues of topographical nature which correspond" to the story, Bittlestone said.

To begin with, "The Odyssey" describes Ithaca as the westernmost island of a group. Old Paliki fits the description, Ithiki does not.

A site the team identified as Eumaios' pig farm, where Odysseus poses as a beggar, matches the text precisely, with a spring on one side and a rock formation on the other.

Kastelli mountain, which they believe to be the site of Odysseus' palace, has the view of the harbor described in the text.

But much work remains to prove the contention that this is where Odysseus completed his 10-year journey home from Troy, the team acknowledged.

Over the next two years, the team will continue geological studies and begin archeology on Paliki. In 2008, it will start excavating, probably at Odysseus' palace and Ithaca city.

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Maugh reported from Los Angeles and Stobart from London.

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