FOR centuries, scholars have puzzled over the location of Ithaca, the island home of the Greek hero Odysseus described in Homer's epic poems The Odyssey and The Iliad. But now the search may be over.
In what is billed as one of the most significant classical discoveries for more than a hundred years, a team of experts led by Robert Bittlestone, a management consultant and businessman, claimed yesterday that they had found the "mystery" island.
Instrumental in the project was an Edinburgh-based academic, John Underhill, who specialises in stratigraphy - the study of geological strata or layers.
In London yesterday, Mr Bittlestone announced that the Ithaca described by Homer was not the present-day Greek island of Ithaca, as had previously been believed.
Instead, he and his colleagues have concluded that Odysseus's Ithaca was located on the western peninsula of the neighbouring island of Kefalonia - an area now known as Paliki.
In Homer's time, they argue, this peninsula would have been separated from the rest of Kefalonia by a narrow sea channel, but over the last 3,000 years that channel has gradually been filled in by a combination of rockfalls and tectonic uplift, joining the two land masses together.
However, a note of caution was sounded by Michael Wood, a leading historian and television presenter, who argues that the location of Ithaca is already well-established. According to Mr Wood, the general description of Ithaca in Book 9 of The Odyssey "matches today's Ithaca perfectly well". He also bases his opinion on archaeological evidence.
"It is what has been found on Ithaca by modern archaeologists that really clinches the identification, in my view", he said. "There have been important Mycenaean finds, especially in the north of the island, which show that the place was indeed a kingdom in the Late Bronze Age, the period on which Homer's narrative ultimately rests. No matter how much the new book denies this, the evidence is clear."
The findings of the Bittlestone study are to be published next week in a book called Odysseus Unbound - The Search for Homer's Ithaca, co-authored by Mr Bittlestone, James Diggle, a professor of Greek and Latin at Cambridge University, and Prof Underhill, of Edinburgh University.
Prof Underhill, who has been carrying out research on the Ionian Islands since 1982, was invited to take part in the project in 2003 after Mr Bittlestone came across his name on the internet. By studying rocks and sediment in the valley that lies between Paliki and the rest of Kefalonia, he set out to test the hypothesis that the peninsula used to be an island.
Prof Underhill found "considerable coverage" of so-called drift cover in the area - material deposited in the last 10,000 years - which supports the new theory.
The big question that still needs to be answered, however, is whether the drift cover extends all the way down to sea level.
Prof Underhill is keen to carry out more tests, including seismic acquisition - shooting soundwaves into the earth and recording the echoes that bounce back - and drilling boreholes to find out what kind of rocks are filling in the valley.
However, any such work will have to be approved by the Greek government.
In an appeal to be allowed to carry out more intensive research, Mr Bittlestone said: "The Greek authorities clearly need to evaluate the credibility of these proposals and to orchestrate what follows.
"I hope that what has been achieved so far will represent only a beginning. We shall ultimately learn the truth about Odysseus's homeland only if we have the courage and the confidence to look."
The initial signs are encouraging. In a statement issued earlier this week, the Institute of Geology and Mineral Exploration (IGME) in Athens described the findings published in Odysseus Unbound as "unexpected and thought provoking".
After graduating in economics from Christ's College Cambridge in 1972, Mr Bittlestone went on to found the consultancy and software company Metapraxis. He first turned his attention to the Ithaca question in 2003, when he noticed that Homer's description of the island fails to tally with the location of the present-day island of Ithaca.
In book nine of The Odyssey, Ithaca is described as "low-lying" and "furthest towards dusk [i.e. west]" of all the nearby islands. However, the island now known as Ithaca is mountainous, and lies to the east of its neighbours.
There have been various attempts to explain this inconsistency over the years, but most scholars simply concluded that Homer was ignorant of the geography of the area. Mr Bittlestone, however, wondered if this mismatch could have occurred not because of an error on the part of the poet, but due to geological changes in the landscape since the time of the Trojan War in around 1,200 BC.
In formulating the theory that Ithaca was located in western Kefalonia, a computer program was used to analyse literary, geological and archaeological data.
He also used satellite imagery and 3D global visualisation techniques, developed by NASA, to look for clues in the landscape. He then assembled a team of more than 40 geologists, classicists and archaeologists from all over the world.
Their discovery - arguably the most significant regarding the classical world since the unearthing of Troy in north-western Turkey in the 1870s - raises the possibility that important Bronze Age artefacts might be found in the area.
Archaeological finds disprove theory
OVER the last few decades archaeologists and textual historians have been able to prove that Homer's detailed descriptions of places are indeed based on autopsy, whether first or second-hand. I believe that it is beyond doubt that the same goes for Ithaca. Though there were big arguments in the 19th century as to whether Homer's Ithaca was today's island (next to Kefalonia) most, if not all, experts now believe Homer is describing today's Ithaca.
As William Gell first noted in his book on the island published in 1807, it is the numerous coincidences between Homer's description and the topography of the island that tend to prove the identification; and it is what has been found on Ithaca by modern archaeologists that really clinches the identification.
There have been Mycenaean finds, especially in the north of the island, which show that the place was indeed a kingdom in the Late Bronze Age, the period on which Homer's narrative ultimately rests. No matter how much the new book denies this, the evidence is clear.
Furthermore, a whole series of Homeric place names which describe natural features on his Ithaca can be identified with landmarks on the modern island, including torrents, fountains, caves, cliffs, offshore islets, bays and harbours.
It is, however, the archaeological find made by a British team in the 1930s that put any doubts to rest.
Sylvia Benton excavated a site by the sea in the north of the island, a cave shrine in which the roof had collapsed in the time of the Roman Empire. In the 1860s and 1870s locals had dug up a bronze tripod for holding a cauldron, and Mycenaean pottery turned up here in 1904. Benton found the cave had been used as a shrine from prehistory, the Bronze Age, down to the first century AD. She found a terracotta mask - a votive offering inscribed "My Prayer to Odysseus", showing that the cave had been centre of a cult to Odysseus at the time of Alexander the Great.
Even more fantastic was Benton's find of the remains of 12 more votive bronze tripods and cauldrons - magnificent artefacts with each tripod 3ft high (they can still be seen in the little museum nearby at Stavros village). When dated, they are found to be late ninth or early eighth century BC, which shows they are before Homer.
In Book 8 of the Odyssey, Homer tells how Odysseus receives gifts from King Alkinoos of Phaeacia before he sails back to Ithaca. The gifts were from "12 noble lords ... and I myself the 13th", says the king. What were the gifts? Later in Book 13 we read: "Come let each of us man by man give him a large tripod and cauldron..."
So 13 men gave Odysseus gifts, and the finds in the 1870s and 1930s add up to 13 cauldrons. When dated, they are proved to be from before Homer.
What this proves is that the story was older than Homer; that the cult of Odysseus on today's Ithaca was already in existence in the ninth century BC, and it proves too that Homer had this very cave in Ithaca in mind when he composed the Odyssey. He may even have been there.
Michael Wood is a leading history writer and television presenter probably best known for his programmes Conquistadors and In Search of Myths and Heroes.