Archaeologists Think They’ve Discovered the Oldest Greek Copy of Homer’s Odyssey: 13 Verses on a Clay Tablet

The Home­r­ic epics are thought to have been com­posed in the 8th cen­tu­ry BCE. In the case of these ancient poems, how­ev­er, “com­posed” is a very ambigu­ous term. While archae­o­log­i­cal and lin­guis­tic research dates Homer’s ver­sions of the poems to some­where between 650 and 750, BCE., a schol­ar­ly con­sen­sus agrees these tales exist­ed hun­dreds of years before, in oral form, trans­mit­ted by wan­der­ing bards and mod­i­fied often in the telling. While they are thought to have been writ­ten down in Homer’s age, “any glimpse into Homer before medieval times is rare,” notes the Smith­son­ian, “and any insight into the com­po­si­tion of the epics is pre­cious.”

Before the medieval man­u­script tra­di­tion, begin­ning in the 10th cen­tu­ry CE, the largest extant copies of the Ili­ad and Odyssey come from what is known as the “Home­r­ic papyri,” frag­ments such as the Bankes Papyrus dis­cov­ered in Egypt in the 19th cen­tu­ry. Now, it’s being report­ed in news sites all over the web that the old­est writ­ten copy of the Odyssey has been found—or rather 13 vers­es of it, carved into a clay tablet and dis­cov­ered in the ancient city of Olympia in south­ern Greece. While the dat­ing has not been ful­ly con­firmed, experts believe the arti­fact comes from the Roman era, some­time before the 3rd cen­tu­ry CE.

While the dis­cov­ery may be sig­nif­i­cant, we should be care­ful to qual­i­fy the many claims made for its sta­tus. Like the poem itself, the sto­ry of this dis­cov­ery has seemed to change in its retellings. The tablet is the old­est find in Greece, not in the world. “Find­ing a bit of Homer in home soil,” says Mal­colm Heath, pro­fes­sor of Greek lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at Leeds Uni­ver­si­ty, “will obvi­ous­ly give the Greeks a warm glow.” But, as The Times reports, “the ear­li­est sur­viv­ing frag­ments of the Odyssey” are actu­al­ly “bits of graf­fi­ti scratched into clay by school­boys at Olbia on the Black Sea coast of what is now Ukraine.” These frag­ments are “at least 600 years old­er than the Olympia tablet.”

Fur­ther­more, the Der­veni papyrus, dis­cov­ered in Egypt, which may include a quote from the poem, has been dat­ed as far back as 340 BCE. Nonethe­less, the new dis­cov­ery is still unusu­al, not only for its place of ori­gin, but also because of the medi­um. As Cam­bridge University’s Tim Whit­marsh notes, “It’s rare to find con­tin­u­ous text of Homer writ­ten out at such length in clay.” The tablet includes a notable word sub­sti­tu­tion that will cer­tain­ly be of inter­est to schol­ars, par­tic­u­lar­ly those at work on the “Homer Mul­ti­text project.”

That project, Smith­son­ian writes, is gath­er­ing all the frag­ments togeth­er “so they can be com­pared and put in sequence to pro­vide a broad­er view of Homer’s epics.” A view that shows us, as the project explains, “that there is not one orig­i­nal text that we should try to recon­struct,” but rather an unknown num­ber of vari­a­tions, tran­scribed and altered over the course of hun­dreds of years and scat­tered all over the ancient world. All of these frag­ments are fas­ci­nat­ing exam­ples, writes Sci­ence Alert, “of the way writ­ten texts can sur­vive through the cen­turies, or even mil­len­nia,” just as the sto­ry itself shows how oral tra­di­tions can sur­vive just as long with­out any need for writ­ten lan­guage at all.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

One of the Best Pre­served Ancient Man­u­scripts of The Ili­ad Is Now Dig­i­tized: See the “Bankes Homer” Man­u­script in High Res­o­lu­tion (Cir­ca 150 C.E.)

See The Ili­ad Per­formed as a One-Woman Show in a Mon­tre­al Bar by McGill Uni­ver­si­ty Clas­sics Pro­fes­sor Lynn Kozak

Emi­ly Wil­son Is the First Woman to Trans­late Homer’s Odyssey into Eng­lish: The New Trans­la­tion Is Out Today

Hear What Homer’s Odyssey Sound­ed Like When Sung in the Orig­i­nal Ancient Greek

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.