Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Odysseus Unbound Project Makes Progress

The researchers involved with the Odysseus Unbound Project were recently interviewed by the "Naked Scientists" (what's with this "naked" business? Naked archaeologist, naked scientist...) and related some of the progress that has been made this past year:

"The text of the Odyssey gives us three very clear indications on where
Ithaca is and what kind of island it was. These are they:
First of all, the Odyssey tells us that Ithaca is in a group of four islands - but
modern Ithaki is one of three. Secondly, the Odyssey tells us that Ithaca is the
farthest West and the farthest out to sea of these islands - but Ithaki is the
closest East and closest to the mainland. Finally, the Odyssey tells us that Ithaca
is low-lying – that it hasn’t got any mountains - but Ithaki is a mountainous
island with cliffs plunging sheer into the sea.

[We think]...we simply haven’t found the correct island. Given that we have found other places that are mentioned in the heroic poems like Troy and Mycenae (these have been excavated) we know that they existed. There’s therefore reason to believe that the poet described in great detail Ithaca he was talking about a real island.

...there’s been some massive ground movement which has made what was four
islands become three islands. One of them is the original Ithaca.

The western peninsula, Paliki is very low-lying. There is a narrow valley called Thinia which separates it from the main part of Kefalonia. If that particular valley were once underwater - and we’re talking 3000-2000 years ago - there are two independent references: the Homeric text of the Odyssey. The second is that Strabo,
the first geographer 2000 years ago (around the time of Christ that he was writing) actually says that there is a narrow isthmus where Kefalonia is narrowest. From time to time, not always, it saw waters going from end-to-end. We know very specifically where he was describing because there are two Roman settlements that he mentioned within his text. They both lie on either side, or at least the areas which they governed lay on either side of this valley.

The theory is very challenged in this valley. We should not underestimate that. The
valley itself rises to over 175m at the present day in the central saddle area. The
work that I’ve undertaken around the coastlines of Kefalonia indicate that we
cannot have recourse to uplift alone despite the seismicity; the earthquakes
recurrence in the area. Wave-cut notches and raised beaches in the area show us
that uplift is insufficient. We must appeal to other processes.

This particular area which we know to be the earthquake hotspot of Western Europe lies at the boundary between the Eurasian and African plates. Cephalonia is, in fact, the seismically most active part of Greece.

What was done to test the hypothesis that these four islands have become three?

The first thing we did was ground geology. We mapped the area and it was clear from a very early stage that the surface geology is insufficient to test the theory rigorously. You need to look beneath the ground. What you can see on the ground in the area is that there is massive landslide and rock fall debris strewn across the valley surface. Large boulders the size of houses, trucks and the like, which as we know from the August ’53 earthquake (depicted in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin of course), there were catastrophic failures of whole hillsides at that time. They’ve been captured on film and are in the record.

We think there was a big landslide potentially, that could have filled in the gap which previously was covered by ocean but filled in now by debris from a landslide. I think we would be foolish to think it was a single landslide. Catastrophic landslides occur regularly within this area. Indeed in November of last year without an earthquake attached to it a village, Nifi, was swept away unfortunately after a major landslide from the eastern slopes of Thinia - a test of the principle we are looking at.

The first borehole that we drilled was back in Autumn of 2006. It was located on the
eastern side of the valley. We drilled down from a surface elevation of 107m. We drilled down 122m so below sea level. Interestingly, that borehole found rockfall debris extending at least 40m below the current land surface i.e. 67m above present sea level.

Most importantly, the matrix to that borehole contained large boulders of cretaceous and other limestone material derived from the eastern slopes and a very young fossil called Emiliana Huxleyi, a marine fossil that is 80,000 years or younger. Actually within this area we know that marine waters only reached the region within the last 5000 years, so this is a very interesting result.

It was very exciting after that autumn drill hole when the borehole went right the way down and didn’t encounter any solid limestone. It encountered material that made us think of the possibility that an enormous rockfall event or series of events came thundering down the mountainside, hit a body of relatively shallow sea water and in the process of that perhaps thrust much of that water up into the air in such a way as to interpenetrate all the debris coming down and end up with all these tiny nanofossils.

But it’s tough to interpret the data. It takes a lot of work, a lot of resource and fortunately a lot of industry support that we’re now getting with the project. It mixes together a whole variety of blends with archaeology, geology, science of various kinds, mythology – just about everything. A wonderful multidisciplinary activity that we’ve got ourselves involved in."