Public Release: 

Classics doctoral student finds bones proving Homer was right about sacrifices

University of Cincinnati

Ancient animal bones stored in the basement of a Greek archaeological museum for the past 50 years have resolved a longstanding archaeological controversy and given historical credence to details in Homer's "The Odyssey." University of Cincinnati doctoral student in classics Sharon Stocker came across the skeletal reamins in 1996 during an inventory of storerooms containing materials found by UC archaeologist Carl W. Belgen at the Palace of Nestor in Pylos, Greece.

Stocker and her husband, Jack L. Davis, UC's Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology, invited Paul Halstead, senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield (England) to study the 30 kilograms of animal skeleton fragments found in the basement of the Archaeological Museum of Hora near Pylos. In Sheffield at the Sixth Round Table on Aegean Prehistory on Saturday, Jan. 20, Halstead's co-researcher Valasia Isaakidou, a PhD candidate at University College London, will report on the team's two key findings:

1.) The Pylos bones provide the first conclusive proof of burnt animal sacrifice in Bronze Age Greece.

"This resolves a longstanding controversy about Bronze Age Greece and their classical Greek progeny," said Davis. "There has been a lot of debate about whether certain practices in classical Greek history, including burnt sacrifice, had origins in the Bronze Age. We have surmised for many years that the elite who resided in palaces in the so-called Mycenaean civilization, which flourished in the 13th century B.C., offered burnt sacrifices to the gods. We knew that their classical Greek descendents did. And now, we know they did too. This research demonstrates the continuity from one period to the next in this significant aspect of Greek religious life."

2.) Homer's "Odyssey" is historically accurate concerning animal sacrifices.

"The practices represented by these bones are marvelously evocative of the first lines of Book 3 of Homer's 'Odyssey,' 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," said Davis.

Davis has headed the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project (PRAP) in the region around the Palace of Nestor since 1991. As a member of the PRAP team, Stocker volunteered to reorganize and modernize the storage conditions for archaeological materials that had been languishing unstudied in the Hora museum since Blegen's death in 1971. "Many of the containers are so large, they are bigger than Shari is," Davis said.

Blegen was a world-renowned archaeologist who discovered the Bronze Age Palace of Nestor and several hundred clay tablets bearing Linear B script. He gained respect for his thorough research and prompt publication of findings, despite the fact he worked in a discipline where excavation and flashy artifacts usually won the glamour, rather than did scholarship. His books included four large volumes on his Troy excavations and three volumes on the Palace of Nestor.

However, Blegen died before he could publish all the results of his excavations at Pylos, where a statue stands in his honor outside the museum. Blegen did, however, take steps to preserve his findings for future generations. "He no doubt imagined that some day the expertise would be available to wrest from them useful information about the past," said Stocker.

That has proven to be the case, thanks in part to Stocker, who rediscovered the bone fragments stored in boxes plus some cardboard barrels originally sent to Greece with relief food shipments following World War II. "We knew there were some bones, and that they had never been properly studied. We had no idea Blegen had saved the quantity that he had," she said. The bones had tags with the original excavation information that Blegen's team put on them.

Stocker and Davis have ascertained, by studying Blegen's excavation notebooks from 1952 and 1954, that Blegen's team found one group of the bones in a heap in the corner of the Archives Room annex of the Palace, just as they had been stacked when the palace was destroyed by fire sometime around 1200 B.C. The bones' dating can be ascertained through the context of the other items with which they were found in the ground. Blegen's team found them on the same level as other Bronze Age items such as the Linear B tablets.

It remains uncertain what connection the pile of bones had to the recording of documents in the archives. "Blegen himself was puzzled," said Davis. "Eleven miniature drinking vessels called kylikes were found next to the bones and are suggestive of religious ritual."

The room in which the bones were found is also near a part of the palace complex that scholars Cynthia Shelmerdine of the University of Texas, John Bennet of Oxford University and Davis have suggested was used for ritual feasting.

According to Halstead, the bones can be connected to burnt sacrifice because of the way they were burned, the cut marks on them, the type of animals and parts of the body they come from, and the fact that the marrow was still in them and therefore "sacrificed" when they were burned.

"These are groups of burnt lower jaw, upper arm and thigh bones of mostly cattle and a few red deer bearing cut marks indicating dismembering -- the separation of these bones from the rest of the carcass, and filleting - the stripping of the meat -- before burning...These patterns are made clearer by comparison with the much larger quantities of unburnt bone from various parts of the palace. Those comprise a mixure of species - with sheep and pig commoner than cattle - plus all body parts and bone which is mostly broken, in part at least, for marrow, and rarely burnt."

Halstead also said that simple cooking of the animal parts has been ruled out because the bones are far too burnt for that. Such burning would render the meat inedible. Also the bones had been stripped of meat before burning, as would be the case in a burnt sacrifice of the sort described in "The Odyssey," he explained.

The scholars studied the bones using fairly low-tech means. "The bones were identified as to part of body, species and side of body by macroscopic comparison with modern reference specimens of the same species. We used a hand lens to search for and examine details such as butchery marks," Halstead said.

The Musuem of Hora is located in the Province of Messenia in southwestern Greece, about five hours southwest of Athens by car.

The storeroom reorganization is funded by a grant from the Institute of Aegean Prehistory.


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