Planet Earth

Homer's Bones

Can an archaeological dig in Greece reveal the line between truth and fiction in the Iliad and the Odyssey?

By John FleischmanJul 1, 2002 12:00 AM


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Five years ago, on the western edge of the greek peloponnesus, Sharon Stocker stood before a darkened basement door and wondered if going inside was such a good idea. As a doctoral student in classics at the University of Cincinnati, Stocker was trying to track down a particular group of Bronze Age pottery sherds for her thesis work. Her search had led her to a small archaeological museum in the village of Hora and an underground storeroom that had been opened only rarely in 30 years. "The museum guards opened the door very slowly, and then they stepped back," Stocker recalls. "There were just tons of stuff in there. I immediately thought about asking the guards to close up again. Talk about looking for a needle in a haystack."

Stocker forced herself from sunlight into the dark. Then, as her eyes adjusted, she made out some order among the rough wooden boxes and sagging cardboard barrels that were closely packed right to the ceiling. Some still carried greetings from the American people—relics of the U.S. food relief program during the Greek civil war in the 1940s. Stocker began to peek under lids and poke among bundles wrapped in yellowing newsprint, their labels fading toward blank. She stopped to read a wooden identification tag and to admire a Greek newspaper from the 1960s with a picture of a young Jackie Kennedy wearing a pillbox hat. The filthier Stocker's hands got, the happier she became. There were tons of pottery fragments and other ancient detritus stored there. And there were animal bones, lots of them. More than 3,000 years earlier, these animals fed the inhabitants of a great hilltop palace in the southwest corner of Greece. Their remains had been excavated on April 4, 1939, in what may have been the luckiest first day in archaeological history. That day, Carl Blegen, Stocker's predecessor at the University of Cincinnati, was digging an exploratory trench through an olive grove when one of his workmen lifted a clay tablet from the soil. Lightly brushing away the dirt, Blegen saw at once that the tablet was incised in Linear B, an undeciphered script known from Bronze Age Crete and never before seen on the Greek mainland. That spring, before war closed in on Greece, Blegen raced to unearth hundreds more tablets, providing the critical mass for deciphering the script. The tablets revealed that the people of this hilltop palace wrote in an early form of Greek. Although they never named their king, Blegen became convinced that his name was Nestor. Nestor. To students of classical literature, the name is a piece of fiction. In Homer's Iliad, a sage old king named Nestor joins Agamemnon in the war on Troy and fires up the troops with tales of his youthful exploits. In Book 3 of the Odyssey, Telemachus begins his quest for his long-lost father, Odysseus, at "sandy Pylos," Nestor's kingdom. When Telemachus runs his ship's keel ashore at dawn, he finds the wise but long-winded king on the beach, his people assembled around him:

This olive grove in southwestern Greece is the site of one of the luckiest digs in archaeological history—and one of its most fascinating controversies.Photographs courtesy of Pylos Regional Archaeological Project (PRAP).

Sacrificing sleek black bulls to Poseidon,god of the sea-blue mane who shakes the earth.They sat in nine divisions, each five hundred strong,each division offering up nine bulls, and while the people tasted the innards, burned the thighbones for the god.

Nestor's Pylos was one of the glories of Mycenaean civilization. His palace straddled a strategic ridge, commanding a view south across the sandy Bay of Navarino and northward over the shoulder of Mount Aigaleon into the kingdom's rich inland province. When a great fire destroyed the palace around 1200 B.C., it heralded the collapse of Mycenaean culture across Greece. For many archaeologists since Blegen, the details of that collapse and the often-mundane lives of the people who lived through it are of far more interest than their romantic echoes in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Homer was a poet, they say, not a historian. To Carl Blegen, the barrels and boxes, bones and potsherds, that he packed off to the storeroom in Hora were just table scraps from an archaeological feast—carefully excavated, dutifully noted, and then forgotten. But to Stocker and a new generation of forensic archaeologists, these leftovers had their own fascinating story to tell. Stocker's first thought was that the place desperately needed reorganization. Her next thought was that a good housecleaning might yield fresh evidence. What she didn't guess is that hidden within that archaeological mishmash, in an unremarkable wooden box, were some remains with the power to reawaken the Greek bard's ancient voice—and with it, the debate over what he was talking about.

The modern origins of the Homer Question can be precisely dated—April 1870—and placed: a hill called Hissarlik in western Turkey overlooking the Dardanelles, the narrow strait between Europe and Asia. Here Heinrich Schliemann, a self-made German merchant prince turned self-made Homeric scholar, arrived with a revolutionary scientific instrument—a shovel. He was looking for Homer's Troy. The best classical scholars of his day had agreed that Troy was a myth. Schliemann had other ideas. After making a few test trenches, he returned the following year with a gang of local workmen and drove a massive trench straight through Hissarlik, slicing into a wedding cake of lost cities. He counted nine. They ranged from Troy IX, the Roman city rebuilt by the Emperor Augustus to celebrate his family's fanciful connections to the Trojan hero Aeneas, and so on down, city below city, to Troy I, a small but powerful early Bronze Age fortress. Schliemann's only problem was deciding which one was Homer's Troy. He chose Troy II chiefly because in that layer, he had recovered a treasure of ancient gold, crystal, and bronze. If this was Homer's Troy, then Schliemann could proclaim his hoard the "Treasure of Priam," after the Trojan king, and its golden bead headdress as nothing less than the jewels of Helen of Troy. Schliemann was the kind of founding father to make any descendant nervous, capable of sharp practice, outright fabrication, and promotional bombast. Troy II was eventually found to date from roughly 2400 B.C.—far older than Schliemann had imagined and too old to qualify as Homer's Troy. But Schliemann had found something, a clue to a lost Bronze Age civilization on the Greek mainland. In 1876, assuming that he'd uncovered Homer's Trojans in Turkey, Schliemann went looking for Homer's Greeks in Greece. There in Mycenae, home of the legendary ruins of King Agamemnon's palace, he found a treasure of gold masks, bronze weapons, and stylized vessels that marked a new civilization that Schliemann named Mycenaean. The Mycenaeans, influenced heavily by the Minoan civilization on Crete, were aggressive seafarers. They lived in state-controlled economies, tightly organized from the top down by a king and his scribes. Then, late in the 13th century B.C., their power centers collapsed, one after another, leaving behind their language, their names, and little more than a memory of their grandeur. Some 500 years later, many scholars believe, along came Homer. Tradition says he was a blind wandering bard from Ionia, the western coast and islands off what is now Turkey. Whoever Homer was, he seems to have known the geography of northern Ionia—the islands of Imbros and Tenedos, the Dardanelles, and the low coastal hills and wetlands around Troy. But even Schliemann conceded that Homer retold a very old story, "as it was handed down to him by preceding bards, clothing the traditional facts of the war and destruction of Troy in the garb of his own day."

Homer's HomeBelow: Tradition holds that Homer (shown in a modern reproduction of a Hellenistic bust from the second century B.C.) came from Ionia, the western coast and islands off Turkish Anatolia. Homer never saw the palace at Pylos, on the southwestern tip of Greece, but sang most eloquently of Pylos's warrior king, Nestor. Map by Matt Zang

Click on the image to enlarge (44k)

Just as Schliemann sliced through Hissarlik, classics scholars have sliced through Homer's text in search of layers of meaning. His verse, though, is more like a fruitcake than a layer cake. The Iliad and Odyssey, scholars have concluded, contain a core of very old stories, recited and reshaped by bards over centuries. Those stories were drastically revised, most likely around the eighth century B.C., when Homer is thought to have lived. At the time, the illiterate Greeks had just begun adopting a Phoenician writing system that began "alpha, beta." In that text are many Bronze Age details that no one in Homer's Iron Age would have known: chariots ferrying bronze-armored warriors to combat, helmets covered in boars' tusks, and semicylindrical "tower" shields so large that enemy warriors must have felt as if they were dueling men behind trees. Homer rattles off roughly 30 Mycenaean kingdoms that sent ships to join Agamemnon's assault on Troy. Except for Athens and a handful of others, these kingdoms had vanished or sunk to insignificance by the eighth century B.C. If archaeologists have since tracked a quarter of them down, it's only because Homer kept them vivid in memory. Pylos is a prime example. Between a living Homer and a burning Pylos yawns an illiterate dark age, bridged at best by oral traditions and well-worn tales. Another 400 years or so stretches between Homer and the Athenian invention of history as a record of facts. By then the location of Pylos was hopelessly confused. The Roman writer Strabo reported that eager locals in the first century A.D. were promoting three different sites as "authentic." He turned away, muttering: "There is a Pylos before Pylos, and yet another." When the Greeks won their modern independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1832 and started re-Hellenizing place names, they changed the Turkish city of Navarino to Pylos. It was a rough guess. On that lucky morning in 1939, Carl Blegen may have discovered the real Pylos, but he hardly put the question of Homer's veracity to rest. For all his attention to Bronze Age costuming, Homer often slips into contemporary Iron Age garb. His warriors cremate their dead, for instance, instead of burying them as the Mycenaeans did. Achilles offers the winner of the funeral games at Troy enough iron to keep vassal shepherds and plowmen back home well supplied with tools. Yet iron was the rarest of metals in the Bronze Age. The animal sacrifices in the Iliad and Odyssey are just another Homeric "mistake," many scholars say. The Greeks didn't practice such sacrifices until the eighth century B.C., when the practice was imported from the Near East. No evidence has been found among Mycenaean remains for the kind of animal sacrifices described in Homer. The sleek bulls that Nestor butchers on the beach at Pylos, in other words, are just a figment of Homer's ahistorical imagination. Or are they?

Above: Among the remains discovered by Carl Blegen at Pylos were pieces of this urn, now reconstructed. Blegen had lost his right arm above the elbow in a teenage accident, yet he painstakingly excavated the site, revealing the remains of a Bronze Age palace ruled by a king who Blegen called Nestor.Photograph: left (urn), courtesy of University of Cincinnati's Classics Department

A year after Sharon Stocker's storeroom discovery, her husband, Jack Davis, decided to take a closer look at what she had found. Davis is the Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati, but he's a very different sort of investigator from the man who discovered Pylos. Davis draws more on physical anthropology and hard sciences than the classics or even the testimony of the shovel. He's a leading proponent of survey archaeology: Rather than excavate trenches in search of artifacts, he tends to focus on the surface of a site, laying grids over large swaths of territory, plotting any artifacts that have weathered to the surface, and subjecting the results to statistical analysis. His sites often resemble a crime scene, with biologists and chemists brought in to go over the evidence for organic clues. To sort out the bones from Hora, Davis and Stocker called in Paul Halstead, an animal-bone expert and a professor of archaeology at the University of Sheffield in England. Halstead jokes that his first summer at Pylos was "an excavation of an excavation." Barrel by barrel he and Davis carried the contents of the basement out into the sunlight and onto wooden tables set out under the trees behind the museum. While Davis struggled to decipher the fading information penciled onto the excavation labels by Blegen's trench supervisors, Halstead happily sorted the bones by type and by appearance. Most appeared to be standard food refuse—broken bits of goat and sheep bones, mostly unburned—but one collection "stood out like a sore thumb," Halstead says. "They were almost exclusively cow, almost exclusively femurs, humeruses, and mandibles, and all burnt." The following summer Halstead returned to Pylos with Valasia Isaakidou, a doctoral student at University College London with bone experience. They pored over the burnt bones with hand lenses, noting butchering marks, species indicators, age, sex, and the absence of tissue residues. The bones had been badly fractured either by an intense roasting fire or by Blegen's excavators, but Halstead and Isaakidou were able to reassemble whole specimens. There were at least 10 animals, primarily bulls, plus one red deer. The parts were carefully filleted of their meat but their marrow was left intact—something no one cooking for mere mortals would have done. The burn marks weren't uneven in the way of meaty bones burned on a cooking fire or buried underneath a burning palace. They were uniform, as if the entire bone surface had been exposed to the flames at once. To Halstead the bones looked exactly like the remains of a burnt sacrifice.à These were startling words in certain ears. Last year, when Halstead shared his preliminary findings at a Bronze Age roundtable discussion in Sheffield, his colleagues were nonplussed. "I hadn't been fully aware of the extent to which the absence of evidence for burnt sacrifice was quite so contentious," Halstead says. Although no one mentioned Homer at the roundtable, his name hovered in the shadows. These burnt bones could have come smoking from the beach at Pylos on the morning that Telemachus stepped ashore.

Since Pylos was discovered in 1939, its fragmentary remains have been bound together to form a vivid picture of Mycenaean life: (clockwise from left) eight restored vases; a letter by Carl Blegen's assistant, Marion Rawson; the title page of Blegen's masterwork and a reconstruction of King Nestor's throne room; a picture of Blegen and Rawson at Pylos.

Truth be told, Homer is something of an embarrassment to 21st-century archaeology. He catches the public imagination, archaeologists say, but complicates the science. "I understand the public love of Homer, but it can be dangerous," says James Wright of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. "Some archaeologists will say, 'Well, if you were really excited by the Iliad, let me take you to the very place.' It's right on the edge of pandering, of bending the scholarship to make it more palatable to more people." To prove that Halstead's bones were once truly burnt offerings, Wright says, archaeologists would have to point to similar remains and rituals from before and after Mycenaean times. "Until that moment," he says, "I think we need to respect the silence of the intermediate 400 years." Yet there are those who welcome Halstead's awkward bones. Cynthia Shelmerdine, a prehistorian at the University of Texas who has worked with Jack Davis at Pylos, says younger scholars and archaeologists are willing to take a new look at Homer and the problem of cultural continuity through the dark age. In some ways this is a response to the anti-Homer backlash that began in the mid-1960s. The targets of that backlash were archaeologists like Blegen who dug, if not with the Iliad in hand, then with a memory of it fresh in mind. "By the mid-1970s we had people talking about Homer as a liar, a pseudo-historian, and a false source of information," Shelmerdine says. "The thinking was that if you want to know about the Bronze Age, you don't read Homer. You come and look at the Bronze Age evidence. Then you can look back at the Homeric texts and say, OK, here's a yardstick for what's reliable in Homer, but you can't use Homer for the Bronze Age." Only now are people daring to take the reverse perspective again. "The world that Homer evoked through poetry and the world we evoke through archaeology have great similarities, great points of contacts," Shelmerdine says. "Animal sacrifice is what they do in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. Whenever they have a battle or an escape, they slaughter a couple of animals and have a great feast, and it's meat, meat, and more meat. Meat is what's special. You're not going to have a celebratory feast and eat lentils. The Linear B textual evidence for this has just been emerging in the past five years." Homer may not be an "officially reliable source" for the Bronze Age, Shelmerdine admits. "But there are echoes that we can't deny." The bones at Pylos, in the end, offer archaeology a magnificent opportunity to have it both ways. Whatever they say about Homer, they also suggest a great deal about the Mycenaeans at the height of their power. "Just by analyzing bone material, studying the location of pottery, and collecting evidence from frescoes," James Wright says, "archaeology can put together a story on its own, a very rich and detailed story." Stocker and Davis, for instance, were able to trace the burnt leg- and jawbones of 10 cattle to a single room near the entrance to the palace. Allowing for the burnt offerings to the gods, Stocker and Davis calculate, still leaves 4,000 pounds of beef for human consumption. If all 10 animals were sacrificed at a single event, they could have fed 6,000 people—far more than lived in and around the citadel at its height. Add in the evidence of floor plans, potsherds, and Linear B tablets, and you begin to get a picture of Pylos not just as a fortress but also as a catering complex. Just outside the central court, or megaron, where the king sat on his throne and received his great guests, were outdoor banqueting courtyards well served by pantries and stocked with cooking gear. Blegen found wine storage jars, mixing bowls, ladles, and thousands of examples of a delicate, two-handled drinking cup, known as a kylix, which stood on a narrow stem above a round foot.

A reconstruction of Nestor's palace at Pylos.Photograph courtesy of University of Cincinnati's Classics Department.

In the right hands those cups alone could tell the story of Pylos in a new way. Lisa Bendall, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, used Blegen's published excavation records to plot how many kylix stems were found in each room. A single stem was a dot; a room filled with hundreds of kylix stems became a red blob. The resulting map showed concentrations of cups in the serving pantries and in the small room just off the entrance court—a wine bar for travelers entering the palace, Blegen suggested. Red dots also outlined a large courtyard west of the megaron and a large open area in front of the palace gates where erosion had jumbled sediment layers but left a churn of kylix fragments. To a Cambridge-trained archaeologist like Bendall, these patterns suggest the "negotiations of social hierarchies." To the rest of us, it's the seating plan for a catered function. Bendall believes the lowest-ranked guests probably drank, and presumably ate beef, on a plaza outside the palace gates. The merely second-class probably had their drinks in the gated western courtyard, where they could take pride in having been invited into the palace, if not into the megaron itself. The A-list likely joined the king in the megaron, drinking from fancier metal vessels. Bendall found signs of yet another class of "to go" diners in the palace's Linear B tablets: The king used these to order wine and other luxury foodstuffs for his subjects in the provinces. All this feasting suggests how the palace drew smaller, regional power centers into its orbit and cemented new alliances. Counting kylix stems clashes with the Homeric reading of Nestor as a piratical, warrior king: The king of Pylos may have assembled his domain—or at least assuaged his newly conquered constituents—with a wine cup more than with a sword. Archaeologists in Carl Blegen's time could make little sense of such ceramic sherds and bone fragments. But Blegen, to his enduring credit, had the foresight to preserve the remains for his successors. "Everyone else was pitching this stuff," Stocker says. "In that respect he was way ahead of his time." In 1960 the Greek Archaeological Service erected a huge metal shed over the central ruins of Pylos to protect them from the elements. Go to Pylos today and you can trace the passages, rooms, and courtyards where the king ruled 3,200 years ago. Room 7 is right by the front gate of the palace, the realm of clerks and their chattering tablets. On feast days the third-class banqueters would have gathered just outside, waiting perhaps for the king to appear at the main gate with the remains of the sacrifice. Perhaps those remains were deposited with the clerks in Room 7 as proof that the king had kept faith with the gods—and that he was rich enough to feed the leg- and jawbones of 10 bulls to a roaring fire. The Linear B tablets tell us some of the names the king worshipped: Poseidon, Zeus, Hera, Dionysius, and Ares. But in the end those gods couldn't save the palace. Circa 1200 B.C., the storehouses—stuffed with perfumed oils, fine-spun wool, vintage wine, chariot wheels, and bronze weapons—all went up in flames. The king's scribes abandoned their clay ledgers to the fire. Ash rained down on the great outdoor banqueting courts, the shelves in the pantries collapsed, and drinking cups smashed to the floor by the thousands. From every corner of the king's domain, the fire by night and the smoke by day would have been clearly visible. In time the palace rubble was overrun by maquis, the razor-leafed Mediterranean chaparral, and Pylos was lost. If we can see its remains today, it's only because a legendary bard had the force of imagination, some 500 years after the palace burned, to rebuild it in memory. And if that memory grows more vivid with each passing year, it's thanks to the painstaking work of Blegen and his successors—and their stubborn insistence on taking Homer, at least in part, at his word.

Homer sings of Pylos in Book 3 of the Odyssey, shown here in ancient Greek from the 15th century. "It's like a big dirty snowball that has collected stuff as it rolled down the side of the hill," archaeologist Jack Davis says. "It has collected stuff from different periods, places, and times that we call the poems of Homer. But it's hard to take a snowball apart."

Read a condensed version of the Odyssey at For additional Odyssey resources, see Resources for the Iliad:

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