Earliest Extract of Odyssey?

A frustratingly brief Guardian story (credited to AFP in Athens) reports on an exciting find:

Archaeologists have unearthed an ancient tablet engraved with 13 verses of the Odyssey in the ancient city of Olympia, southern Greece, in what could be the earliest record of the epic poem, the Greek culture ministry said.

The clay slab is believed to date back to the 3rd century AD, during the Roman era.

“If this date is confirmed, the tablet could be the oldest written record of Homer’s work ever discovered in Greece,” the culture ministry said.

The extract, taken from book 14, describes the return of Ulysses to his home island of Ithaca. […]

It was found close to the remains of the Temple of Zeus at the site of the Olympic Games in the western Peloponnese.

In the first place, if it was close to the remains of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia, how the devil has it not been discovered in the last couple of millennia? And in the second, what’s the text like?? Ah well, more will be revealed in good time, I’m sure. Thanks, Trevor!

Update. Turns out that press release is full of nonsense; see this link (from Daryl’s comment below).

Comments

  1. Here’s a bit more explanation about the discovery. “The tablet was discovered during geoarchaeological survey of the site as part of the Multidimensional Space of Olympia program, a project which explores the relationships between the sanctuary and surrounding areas. During three years of fieldwork (2015-2017), a multidisciplinary team of researchers did an intensive grid survey of ancient Olympia, its immediate surroundings and the nearby villages of Epitalio and Salmone. They made several important discoveries in the process — Mycenaean chamber graves, Bronze Age terracing, the remains of an ancient polygonal wall and one very special clay tablet.” http://www.thehistoryblog.com/archives/51974

  2. Stephen Carlson says:

    “oldest … ever discovered in Greece”: I believe that there are older ones discovered in Egypt. (Not sure about the same span of text.)

  3. Trond Engen says:

    I was going to say that a single clay tablet with an arbitrary passage from the Odyssey surely must be a tiny part of something much bigger, but the photo doesn’t suggest that the tablet was meant as monument or a status object. And it’s roughly the size of an A4 or “Letter” format paper. Could it be a school excercise where the teacher recited a passage from the Odyssey from memory as a dictée?

  4. “oldest … ever discovered in Greece”: I believe that there are older ones discovered in Egypt.

    Ah, that would make sense. And of course the Greek culture ministry wouldn’t bother to point it out. Sigh. Still an interesting find…

  5. On earlier material testimonies of the Odyssey and speculation that this might be “a rhapsodic votive offering”
    https://philologicalcrocodile.wordpress.com/2018/07/11/oldest-odyssey-fragment-no-but-what-is-it/

  6. Thanks, Daryl! From that link:

    But the most widely repeated claim — that it’s the oldest copy of the Odyssey ever found, or even that it might be the oldest — is dead wrong. The tablet misses out on being the oldest existing copy by some 700 years. […]

    The most responsible handling of the story by any news outlet in the world, as far as I can see, is by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. They realised that the thing about the date was untrue and contacted the Greek embassy in Rome about it. The response was that the tablet was the earliest copy of the text on a hard material.

  7. Bill W. says:

    “The response was that the tablet was the earliest copy of the text on a hard material.” But it turns out even that isn’t strictly accurate, as Daryl’s link points out.

  8. Good point. I’ve updated the Update accordingly.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    I have read the two articles by Homeric scholars and I am puzzled by the one that suggests that the tablet in question could be “a rhapsodic votive offering”, of which the scholar gives an example, which is similar to a prayer. But the translation given by the earlier scholar is very obviously that of an episode of the Odyssey itself. How would a description of how to set up pigs’ living quarters qualify as “a votive offering” by a young rhapsode anxious about his upcoming performance?

  10. Bill W. says:

    “How would a description of how to set up pigs’ living quarters qualify as “a votive offering” by a young rhapsode anxious about his upcoming performance?”

    m-l: The swineherd Eumaeus is an important and very sympathetic figure in the Odyssey, and the description of his little farmstead is actually quite enchanting: it’s really the earliest example of the pastoral tradition in Greek literature, except that it involves pigs instead of sheep and goats. Eumaeus is the first (or one of the first) individuals Odysseus encounters on his return to Ithaca, and in the event he proves his loyalty to his long-absent master.

    That said, the “votive offering” theory seems to me, if not implausible, at least highly suspect without any shred of evidence. Mysterious objects from antiquity — including the Iliad and the Odyssey themselves — typically invite this kind of wild and groundless speculation. The obvious and sloppy errors in the clay tablet argue against the “votive offering” theory.

  11. Bill W. says:

    But I can’t resist speculating either. Trond’s dictée theory or some sort of school writing exercise also occurred to me and seems plausible, at least to me. But why in Olympia? And was the clay specifically baked to preserve an error-ridden exercise?

  12. Maybe it preserves the childish efforts of someone who grew up to become a great rhapsode who performed at Olympia; his proud mother had it baked and presented to the Hall of Fame.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    Bill W., I know about Eumaeus and his major role in recognizing and protecting the returning Odysseus, but the clay tablet only deals with the pigs’ quarters. It is hard to see why this particular paragraph should have been preserved. I agree that the hypothesis of a pupil’s copy or dictée is quite plausible. There may have been others of the same type if a schoolmaster had used Homer as a source of material, and only this particular tablet has survived for some reason. But what if that particular passage had been chosen especially for (or even by) a particular learner, perhaps an illiterate adult from a rural area, eager to learn to write?

  14. How about a votive offering by a somewhat literate pig farmer? Maybe he came from a well-to-do family and received the beginnings of an education, enough to read Homer (which was the principal aim of Greek education anyway), but was captured by pirates at a still tender age and sold into slavery, but then, though industrious and diligent labor, managed to obtain his liberty, in gratitude for which he left as an offering at Olympia a passage from the Odyssey relevant to his calling, dutifully but somewhat sloppily copied in clay from a papyrus roll in the possession of his former master.

  15. If you’ll add in a difficult but ultimately successful romance, I think you’ve got the makings of a historical novel.

  16. From Piggery to Paradise

  17. “If you’ll add in a difficult but ultimately successful romance, I think you’ve got the makings of a historical novel.”

    The Odyssey is full of tales like this — Eumaeus and Eurycleia have similar stories. Eumaeus was the son of a king, but his nursemaid got pregnant by Phoenician traders, who sold Eumaeus into slavery. And Eumaeus’ tale is similar to Herodotus’ Phoenician version of the rape of Europa. At a much later date, Daphnis and Chloe is the romance with the couple reunited and married at the end.

  18. Robert Hay says:

    In case you missed it, Emily Wilson wrote about the discovery in LRB today:
    https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2018/07/14/emily-wilson/making-a-pigsty/

  19. marie-lucie says:

    Bill W, I like your script.

  20. Robert Hay: I did miss it, so thanks!

  21. marie-lucie says:

    Robert Hay, Thank you for linking to the article. I don’t usually read the LRB, so I would have missed it.

  22. Wilson basically says the press release is a bunch of nonsense, sums up the facts, discusses the passage in question, and concludes:

    The bright side to this inaccurately reported story is that it reveals a hunger among the general public for news about the ancient world. With many exciting new discoveries, such as the new poem by Sappho discovered only in 2004, and with the new application of digital imaging to make legible faint or obscured marks on papyrus that spent centuries in the trash, these are boom times for the study of very old records of even older texts. Maybe this fake news story will inspire more people to investigate the ancient world for themselves, and also to realise that the stories told about the Odyssey are – like the poem’s wily, scheming, deceitful protagonist himself – not always to be taken at face value.

  23. I made a comment about Trune’s idea (without naming him), but I doubt if Wilson will actually see it unless by chance.

  24. Trond Engen says:

    Thanks.

    Unfortunately (1), Trune’s idea doesn’t explain why the tablet was preserved. But then, we do preserve schoolwork for reasons that are hard to explain in hindsight.

    Unfortunately (2), with nothing said about the context, no explanation is more than speculation.

  25. Trune’s idea doesn’t explain why the tablet was preserved

    Easy-peasy. By sheer accident, as most things are preserved.

  26. Lars (the original one) says:

    Can a clay tablet be preserved just by lying in the sun and out of the rain for a few decades, or does it have to be fired?

  27. @Lars: Clay tablets can be sun-baked in a matter of days, but they never get as hard as kiln-fired ones. Exactly how hard they end up depends a lot on the composition of the clay, but there are plenty of unfired tablets that have survived for thousands of years.

  28. Lars (the original one) says:

    Right, so we don’t have to think that anybody thought this thing was more valuable than the back of an envelope where you proved to yourself you could remember the words to White Christmas. For instance.

  29. Trond Engen says:

    Sheer accident is no problem. With the total amount of schoolwork that must have been done in ancient Greece, sooner or later a piece of it should turn up. But I don’t know if context suggests a more deliberate action.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    Most interesting may be the use of clay instead of wax or papyrus.

  31. I assume papyrus would have been too valuable to use for school exercises or scribbling. Wax or clay could be wiped and re-used.

  32. Papyrus wasn’t expensive as long as Egypt was plugged into the trans-Med trade routes, but before and after that it would have been unavailable. Wax and clay of course were always cheap. Parchment and vellum would have been the most expensive of all.

  33. Stephen Carlson says:

    Certain inks, especially soot-based ones, can be washed off papyrus (and parchment) with water, allowing for that material to be reused.

  34. Certain inks, especially soot-based ones, can be washed off papyrus (and parchment) with water, allowing for that material to be reused.
    I assume that one could do that only a limited number of times, while way and clay (as long as it didn’t harden) could be re-used more or less infinitely.

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