Saturday, January 27, 2001

Discovery settles debate on Bronze Age mystery

UC grad student shows Homer's report accurate

By Ben L. Kaufman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Grunt work rather than flashy discovery has provided new evidence that Homer's Odyssey correctly reported the use of ancient burnt animal sacrifices.

        For generations, scholars assumed that the poet had added religious practices of his time to the epic tale of an earlier time.

        Not now.

[photo] Sharon Stocker (left) and Jack Davis display a plan of the Palace of Nestor where UC archaeologists in Greece 50 years ago found bones that now are shedding light on a Bronze Age controversy.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
        The modern discovery was made in a basement storeroom of the Archaeological Museum of Hora near Pylos (Pilos) in southwestern Greece.

        Sharon Stocker, a doctoral candidate in the University of Cincinnati classics department, wanted to be sure she had not overlooked anything for her dissertation research.

        That led her to sort boxes and barrels of materials unearthed half a century earlier by UC archaeologists at the nearby Palace of Nestor.

        Ms. Stocker found 66 pounds of stored animal bone fragments, all tagged by teams working under the late UC archaeologist Dr. Carl W. Blegen.

        “It was really exciting,” she said from her family's Clifton home, because few archaeologists bothered with burnt bones 50 years ago.

        Using Dr. Blegen's notebooks from the early 1950s, Ms. Stocker and her husband, Jack Davis, a UC professor of Greek archaeology, concluded that the bones had been found in a heap in a palace archive.

        Items found with them and recorded in the field notes confirmed the dating as middle Bronze Age.

        The couple invited a British colleague and expert on bones, Dr. Paul Halstead, senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield, to have a look.

        After two weeks, Dr. Halstead discarded any suspicion that they might be kitchen scraps and was sure the bones were from burnt sacrifices, concluding:

        • They were from cattle.

        • The bones were from the thigh, a part commonly used in sacrifices.

        • Marrow was still there; a cook would have removed it.

        • Hack marks were consist with preparing a bull for sacrifice, not a royal supper.

        Dr. Davis said his colleague's findings, released last week in Sheffield, England, help settle a “longstanding controversy about Bronze Age Greece.”

        Burnt animal sacrifices were common among descendants of Bronze Age Greeks, Dr. Davis said, but no one knew when the sacrifices began.

        The conclusion: That the bones could be dated and were found in the palace suggests burnt animal sacrifices were part of religion in that place and age.

        And that makes them coincide with events retold in the Odyssey.

        Dr. Davis said scholars long suspected that theauthor of the Odyssey, probably writing in the eighth century B.C., had inserted then-contemporary religious practices into the more ancient epic.

        Forget it, Dr. Davis said, crediting research by his wife and their British colleague.

        “The practices represented by these bones are marvelously evocative of the first lines of Book 3 of Homer's Odyssey,” the UC professor said, “where the youthful Telemachus, son of Odysseus, meets King Nestor making a sacrifice of black bulls on the shore of Pylos and burning their thigh bones to the gods.”

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