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Engineers to aid search for Homer’s Ithaca

A geological engineering company said Monday it has agreed to help in an archaeological project to find the island of Ithaca, homeland of Homer's legendary hero Odysseus.
Amateur British archaeologist Robert Bittlestone looks through a book in Athens on Monday. Bittlestone has received backing from academics as well as from the Fugro Group to test his theory that the island of Ithaca in Homer's Odyssey is in fact part of the larger island of Kefallonia.Derek Gatopoulos / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A geological engineering company said Monday it has agreed to help in an archaeological project to find the island of Ithaca, homeland of Homer's legendary hero Odysseus.

It has long been thought that the island of Ithaki in the Ionian Sea was the island Homer used as a setting for the epic poem "The Odyssey," in which the king Odysseus makes a perilous 10-year journey home from the Trojan War.

But amateur British archaeologist Robert Bittlestone believes the Ithaca of Homer is no longer a separate island but became attached to the island of Kefallonia through rock displacement caused by earthquakes. The theory could explain inconsistencies between Ithaki and Homer's description of Odysseus' island.

"Because no one has ever been able to find Ithaca, people felt the Odyssey was like a Lord of the Rings story," Bittlestone said in an interview. "This would say Ithaca was a real place — it doesn't say Odysseus was a real person, that's another jump."

The Dutch-based engineering services company, Fugro Group, will use high-tech surveying equipment normally used in oil and gas exploration for the Ithaca project, due to start this summer and last about three years. The Greek Geological Society is also sponsoring the research.

"The technology will be very varied, and that attracted Fugro to this," said Steve Thompson, director of airborne survey at Fugro. "It's unusual to be faced with a problem where you can apply the broad range of services that we have."

"We're all secretly hoping the thesis is true," he added. "But we are approaching this is in a very scientific way."

To test the theory, engineers and geologists will examine rock where Bittlestone believes a narrow sea channel once existed, possibly separating Kefallonia from a flat peninsula called Paliki. They hope to discover whether it is made of solid rock or debris, which would suggest Paliki was once an island.

Homer describes Ithaca as low-lying and "furthest to the sea" — but present-day Ithaki is mountainous and is not the outermost Ionian island. Paliki, on the other hand, is generally flat and could theoretically have been the outermost island.

Kefallonia lies in a seismically active area, and was rattled Sunday by a magnitude 5.9 earthquake, followed by scores of aftershocks Monday.

Thompson said the company would sink sensors into bore holes, and likely follow up with sonar analysis of the seabed, as well as using material detectors that dangle from a helicopter and undersea sensors dragged through the water by ship.

Bittlestone, a management consultant, said he came up with the theory while reading up for a Greek holiday in 2003 and gained support from two British academics who help attract archaeologists to excavate in Paliki.

The academics — James Diggle, a professor of Greek and Latin at Cambridge University, and John Underhill, an Edinburgh University professor of stratigraphy — are the co-authors of a book with Bittlestone about his hypothesis, "Odysseus Unbound: The Search for Homer's Ithaca."