Follow by Email

Thursday, October 16, 2008

'The Odyssey' and 'The Iliad'

Hidden histories
'The Odyssey' and 'The Iliad' are giving up new secrets about the
ancient world
By Jonathan Gottschall
September 28, 2008

NEARLY 3,000 YEARS after the death of the Greek poet Homer, his epic
tales of the war for Troy and its aftermath remain deeply woven into
the fabric of our culture. These stories of pride and rage, massacre
and homecoming have been translated and republished over millennia.
Even people who have never read a word of "The Iliad" or "The Odyssey"
know the phrases they have bequeathed to us - the Trojan horse, the
Achilles heel, the face that launched a thousand ships.
Heinrich Schliemann thought he had found King Priam's treasure, but
his claims were discredited. (Hulton Archives/Getty Images) Heinrich
Schliemann thought he had found King Priam's treasure, but his claims
were discredited.

Today we still turn to Homer's epics not only as sources of ancient
wisdom and wrenchingly powerful poetry, but also as genuinely popular
entertainments. Recent translations of "The Iliad" and "Odyssey" have
shared the best-seller lists with Grisham and King. "The Odyssey" has
inspired works from James Joyce's "Ulysses" to a George Clooney movie,
and an adaptation of "The Iliad" recently earned more than $100
million in the form of Wolfgang Petersen's "Troy" - a summer
blockbuster starring Brad Pitt as an improbable Achilles.

The ancient Greeks, however, believed that Homer's epics were
something more than fiction: They thought the poems chronicled a real
war, and reflected the authentic struggles of their ancestors. But
modern scholars have generally been more skeptical. The poems describe
a culture that thrived hundreds of years before Homer was born, and
which would have seemed legendary even to him. Scholars have allowed
that a kernel of historical truth might be tucked beneath the layers
of heroic hyperbole and poetic embroidery, but only a small kernel. In
the last 50 years, most scholars have sided with the great classicist
Moses Finley, who argued that the epics were "a collection of fictions
from beginning to end" and that - for all their majesty and drama -
they were "no guide at all" to the civilization that may have fought
the Trojan War.

But thanks to evidence from a range of disciplines, we are in the
middle of a massive reappraisal of these foundational works of Western
literature. Recent advances in archeology and linguistics offer the
strongest support yet that the Trojan War did take place, with
evidence coming from the large excavation at the likely site of Troy,
as well as new analysis of cuneiform tablets from the dominant empire
of the region. Insights from comparative anthropology have transformed
studies of the society that created the poems and allowed us to
analyze the epics in a new way, suggesting that their particular
patterns of violence contain a hidden key to ancient Greek history -
though not necessarily the key that Homer's readers once thought they
were being given.

"The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" are our most precious artifacts of early
Greek culture. Aside from the dry and voiceless remains of
archeological sites, the poems are the last surviving impressions of
the society that created them - what the people hoped for, what they
despaired of, and how they managed their social and political lives.
The poems are time machines - imperfect, surely - that show us people
who were so like us, and so different, too. And they are still
revealing new truths about the prehistoric civilization that has
exerted such a strong formative influence over the art, the history,
and even the psychology of the West.

. . .

The desire to find truth in Homer has a long and checkered history,
and no figure looms larger than the German businessman and self-taught
archeologist Heinrich Schliemann. In 1870 he landed on the western
coast of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) with a copy of "The Iliad" in
his hand. On the plain before him, an unimpressive mound of grass and
stone and bushes swelled 100 feet into the air. Tradition had long
identified this mound, called Hisarlik, as a possible site of the
historical Troy.

Schliemann soon reported to the world, breathlessly, that he and his
diggers had found the charred remains of a grand citadel destroyed in
prehistory by hostile men - that he had found Troy just where Homer
said it would be. The news was a worldwide sensation, and Schliemann's
view that the Homeric epics were fairly accurate chronicles of Late
Bronze Age history - that is, the Greek world of around 1200 BC -
dominated scholarship for more than 50 years.

But, in fact, Schliemann hadn't found Homer's Troy. Hisarlik was
occupied from 3000 BC until 500 AD, and subsequent archeological
excavations showed that the civilization Schliemann chipped from the
mound actually ended more than 1,000 years before the Trojan War could
realistically have been fought. When the German archeologist Carl
Blegen examined the proper layer of the Hisarlik mound, the settlement
he found seemed like a wretched and insignificant place. Schliemann's
amateurism, wishful thinking, and instinct for self-glorification had
led him into serious error, and ended up discrediting his claim that
Homer's poems were historically based.

But the newest digging at Troy is tipping the consensus again, perhaps
this time for good. Schliemann and Blegen, it now appears, had only
discovered the tip of the iceberg. The mound at Hisarlik thrusts up
from the plain, but most of its ruins are concealed beneath the
surface. In a project that has now been underway for 20 years, the
German archeologist Manfred Korfmann and hundreds of collaborators
have discovered a large lower city that surrounded the citadel. Using
new tools, such as computer modeling and imaging technology that
allows them to "see" into the earth before digging, Korfmann and his
colleagues determined that this city's borders were 10 to 15 times
larger than previously thought, and that it supported a population of
5,000 to 10,000 - a big city for its time and place, with impressive
defenses and an underground water system for surviving sieges. And,
critically, the city bore signs of being pillaged and burned around
1200 BC, precisely the time when the Trojan War would have been

In his influential book, "Troy and Homer," German classicist Joachim
Latacz argues that the identification of Hisarlik as the site of
Homer's Troy is all but proven. Latacz's case is based not only on
archeology, but also on fascinating reassessments of cuneiform tablets
from the Hittite imperial archives. The tablets, which are dated to
the period when the Late Bronze Age city at Hisarlik was destroyed,
tell a story of a western people harassing a Hittite client state on
the coast of Asia Minor. The Hittite name for the invading foreigners
is very close to Homer's name for his Greeks - Achaians - and the
Hittite names for their harassed ally are very close to "Troy" and
"Ilios," Homer's names for the city.

"At the very core of the tale," Latacz argues, "Homer's 'Iliad' has
shed the mantle of fiction commonly attributed to it."

But if the Trojan War is looking more and more like a historical
reality, there is still the question of whether the poems tell us
anything about the motives and thinking of the people who actually
fought it. Do the epic time machines actually take us back to the
Greek culture of the Late Bronze Age?

It is almost certain that they do not. Homer's epics are a culmination
of a centuries-long tradition of oral storytelling, and extensive
cross-cultural studies of oral literature have established that such
tales are unreliable as history. Homeric scholars believe that the
epics were finally written down sometime in the 8th century BC, which
means that the stories of Achilles and Odysseus would have been passed
by word of mouth for half a millennium before they were finally
recorded in what was, by then, a vastly changed Greek culture. Facts
about the war and the people who fought it would have been lost or
grossly distorted, as in a centuries-long game of "telephone."
Scholars agree that the relatively simple and poor culture Homer
describes in his epics is quite sharply at odds with the complex and
comparatively rich Greek kingdoms of the Late Bronze Age, when the war
would have taken place.

But even if the epics make a bad history of Greece in 1200 BC - in the
sense of transmitting names, dates, and accurate political details -
scholars increasingly agree that they provide a precious window on
Greek culture at about the time the poems were finally written down.
Moses Finley, who believed that the epics were "no guide at all" to
the history of the Trojan War, did believe they were guides to Homer's
own culture. And by turning an anthropological eye to the conflicts
Homer writes about, we are now learning far more about what that
culture was really like.

. . .

Reconstructing a prehistoric world from literary sources is rife with
complications. But there are aspects of life in the Homeric era upon
which most scholars agree. Homer paints a coherent picture of Greek
attitudes, ideology, customs, manners, and mores that is consistent
with the 8th century archeological record, and holds together based on
anthropological knowledge about societies at similar levels of
cultural development. For instance, we can trust that the Greeks'
political organization was loose but not chaotic - probably organized
at the level of chiefdoms, not kingdoms or city-states. In the epics
we can see the workings of an agrarian economy; we can see what
animals they raised and what crops, how they mixed their wine,
worshipped their gods, and treated their slaves and women. We can tell
that theirs was a warlike world, with high rates of conflict within
and between communities.

This violence, in fact, opens an important window onto that world.
Patterns of violence in Homer are intriguingly consistent with
societies on the anthropological record known to have suffered from
acute shortages of women. While Homeric men did not take multiple
wives, they hoarded and guarded slave women who they treated as their
sexual property. These women were mainly captured in raids of
neighboring towns, and they appear frequently in Homer. In the poems,
Odysseus is mentioned as having 50 slave women, and it is slave women
who bear most of King Priam's 62 children. For every slave woman
working a rich man's loom and sharing his bed, some less fortunate or
formidable man lacks a wife.

In pre-state societies around the world - from the Yanomamo of the
Amazon basin to the tribes of highland New Guinea to the Inuit of the
Arctic - a scarcity of women almost invariably triggers pitched
competition among men, not only directly over women, but also over the
wealth and social status needed to win them. This is exactly what we
find in Homer. Homeric men fight over many different things, but
virtually all of the major disputes center on rights to women - not
only the famous conflict over Helen, but also over the slave girls
Briseis and Chryseis, Odysseus's wife Penelope, and all the nameless
women of common Trojan men. As the old counselor Nestor shouts to the
Greek hosts, "Don't anyone hurry to return homeward until after he has
lain down alongside a wife of some Trojan!"

The war between Greeks and Trojans ends in the Rape of Troy: the
massacre of men, and the rape and abduction of women. These events are
not the rare savageries of a particularly long and bitter war - they
are one of the major points of the war. Homeric raiders always hoped
to return home with new slave-concubines. Achilles conveys this in his
soul-searching assessment of his life as warrior: "I have spent many
sleepless nights and bloody days in battle, fighting men for their

Historical studies of literature are sometimes criticized for
ignoring, or even diminishing, the artistic qualities that draw people
to literature in the first place. But understanding how real history
underlies the epics makes us appreciate Homer's art more, not less. We
can see Homer pioneering the artistic technique of taking a backbone
of historical fact and fleshing it over with contemporary values and
concerns - the same technique used later by Virgil in "The Aeneid," by
Shakespeare in his history plays, and by Renaissance painters
depicting the Bible and classical antiquity.

And understanding Homer's own society gives us a new perspective on
the oppressive miasma of fatalism and pessimism that pervades "The
Iliad" and, to a lesser but still palpable extent, "The Odyssey."
While even the fiercest fighters understand that peace is desirable,
they feel doomed to endless conflict. As Odysseus says, "Zeus has
given us [the Greeks] the fate of winding down our lives in hateful
war, from youth until we perish, each of us." A shortage of women
helps to explain more about Homeric society than its relentless
violence. It may also shed light on the origins of a tragic and
pessimistic worldview, a pantheon of gods deranged by petty vanities,
and a people's resignation to the inevitability of "hateful war."

Jonathan Gottschall teaches English at Washington & Jefferson College.
He is the author of "The Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence, and the
World of Homer," and he is currently at work on a novel of the Homeric
age called "Odysseus, A True Story."


Egalitarian Revolution In The Pleistocene?

Egalitarian Revolution In The Pleistocene?

ScienceDaily (Oct. 3, 2008) — Although anthropologists and
evolutionary biologists are still debating this question, a new study
supports the view that the first egalitarian societies may have
appeared tens of thousands of years before the French Revolution,
Marx, and Lenin.

These societies emerged rapidly through intense power struggle and
their origin had dramatic implications for humanity. In many mammals
living in groups, including hyenas, meerkats, and dolphins, group
members form coalitions and alliances that allow them to increase
their dominance status and their access to mates and other resources.
Alliances are especially common in great apes, some of whom have very
intense social life, where they are constantly engaged in a political
maneuvering as vividly described in Frans de Waal's "Chimpanzee

In spite of this, the great apes' societies are very hierarchical with
each animal occupying a particular place in the existing dominance
hierarchy. A major function of coalitions in apes is to maintain or
change the dominance ranking. When an alpha male is well established,
he usually can intimidate any hostile coalition or the entire

In sharp contrast, most known hunter-gatherer societies are
egalitarian. Their weak leaders merely assist a consensus-seeking
process when the group needs to make decisions, but otherwise all main
political actors behave as equal. Some anthropologists argue that in
egalitarian societies the pyramid of power is turned upside down with
potential subordinates being able to express dominance over potential
alpha-individuals by creating large, group-wide political alliance.

What were the reasons for such a drastic change in the group's social
organization during the origin of our own "uniquely unique" species?
Some evolutionary biologists theorize that at some point in the
Pleistocene, humans reached a level of ecological dominance that
dramatically transformed the natural selection landscape. Instead of
traditional "hostile forces of nature", the competitive interactions
among members of the same group became the most dominant evolutionary
factor. According to this still controversial view, known as the
"social brain" or "Machiavellian intelligence" hypothesis, more
intelligent individuals were able to take advantage of other members
of their group, achieve higher social status, and leave more offspring
who inherited their parent's genes for larger brain size and
intelligence. As a result of this runaway process, the average brain
size and intelligenc e were increasing across the whole human lineage.

Also increasing were the abilities to keep track of within-group
social interactions, to remember friends and their allies and enemies,
and to attract and use allies. At some point, physically weaker
members of the group started forming successful and stable large
coalitions against strong individuals who otherwise would achieve
alpha-status and usurp the majority of the crucial resources.
Eventually, an egalitarian society was established. Although some of
its components are well supported by data, this scenario remains
highly controversial. One reason is its complexity which makes it
difficult to interpret the data and to intuit the consequences of
interactions between multiple evolutionary, ecological, behavioral,
and social factors acting simultaneously. It is also tricky to
evaluate relevant time-scales and figure out possible evolutionary

A new article in PLoS One makes steps towards answering these
challenges. The paper is co-authored by Sergey Gavrilets, a
theoretical evolutionary biologist, and two computer scientists, Edgar
Duenez-Guzman and Michael Vose, all from the University of Tennessee,

The researchers built a complex mathematical model describing the
process of alliance formation which they then studied using analytical
methods and large-scale numerical simulations. The model focuses on a
group of individuals who vary strongly in their fighting abilities. If
all conflicts were exclusively between pairs of individuals, a
hierarchy would emerge with a few strongest individuals getting most
of the resource. However, there is also a tendency (very small
initially) for individuals to interfere in an ongoing dyadic conflict
thus biasing its outcome one way or another. Positive outcomes of such
interferences increase the affinities between individuals while
negative outcomes decrease them. Naturally, larger coalitions have
higher probability of winning a conflict.

Gavrilets and colleagues identified conditions under which alliances
can emerge in the group: increasing group size, growing awareness of
ongoing conflicts, better abilities in attracting allies and building
complex coalitions, and better memories of past events.

Most interestingly, the model shows that the shift from a group with
no alliances to one or more alliances typically occurs suddenly,
within several generations, in a phase-transition like fashion. Even
more surprisingly, under certain conditions (which include some
cultural inheritance of social networks) a single alliance comprising
all members of the group can emerge in which resources are divided
evenly. That is, the competition among non-equal individuals can
paradoxically result in their eventual equality.

Gavrilets and colleagues argue that such an "egalitarian revolution"
could also follow a change in the mating system that would increase
father-son social bonds or an increase in fidelity of cultural
inheritance of social networks. Interestingly, the fact that mother-
daughter social bonds are often very strong in apes suggests
(everything else being the same) that females could more easily
achieve egalitarian societies.

The model also highlights the importance of the presence of outsiders
(or "scapegoats") for stability of small alliances. The researchers
suggest that the establishment of a stable group-wide egalitarian
alliance should create conditions promoting the origin of conscience,
moralistic aggression, altruism, and other cultural norms favoring
group interests over those of individuals. Increasing within-group
cohesion should also promote the group efficiency in between-group
conflicts and intensify cultural group selection.

"Our language probably emerged to simplify the formation and improve
the efficiency of coalitions and alliances," says Gavrilets. The
scientists caution that one should be careful in applying their model
to contemporary humans (whether members of modern societies or hunter-
gathers). In contemporary humans, an individual's decision to join
coalitions is strongly affected by his/her estimates of costs,
benefits, and risks associated as well as by cultural beliefs and
traditions. These are the factors explicitly left outside of the
modeling framework.

In humans, a secondary transition from egalitarian societies to
hierarchical states took place as the first civilizations were
emerging. How can it be understood in terms of the model discussed?
One can speculate that technological and cultural advances made the
coalition size much less important in controlling the outcome of a
conflict than the individuals' ability to directly control and use
resources (e.g. weapons, information, food) that strongly influence
the outcomes of conflicts.

Journal reference:

1. Gavrilets et al. Dynamics of Alliance Formation and the
Egalitarian Revolution. PLoS ONE, 2008; 3 (10): e3293 DOI: 10.1371/

Adapted from materials provided by Public Library of Science, via
EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.
Need to cite this story in your essay, paper, or report? Use one of
the following formats:

Public Library of Science (2008, October 3). Egalitarian Revolution In
The Pleistocene?. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 5, 2008, from


Prehistoric cave paintings took up to 20,000 years to complete

Prehistoric cave paintings took up to 20,000 years to complete
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 05/10/2008

It may have taken Michelangelo four long years to paint his fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but his earliest predecessors spent considerably longer perfecting their own masterpieces.

By comparing the ratio of uranium to thorium in the thin layers on top of the cave art, researchers were able to calculate the age of the paintings

Scientists have discovered that prehistoric cave paintings took up to 20,000 years to complete.

Rather than being created in one session, as archaeologists previously thought, many of the works discovered across Europe were produced over hundreds of generations who added to, refreshed and painted over the original pieces of art.

Until now it has been extremely difficult to pinpoint when prehistoric cave paintings and carvings were created, but a pioneering technique is allowing researchers to date cave art accurately for the first time and show how the works were crafted over thousands of years.

Experts now hope the technique will help provide a valuable insight into how early human culture developed and changed as the first modern humans moved across Europe around 40,000 years ago.

Dr Alistair Pike, an archaeologist at Bristol University who is leading the research, said: "The art gives us a really intimate window into the minds of the individuals who produced them, but what we don't know is exactly which individuals they were as we don't know exactly when the art was created. If we can date the art then we can relate that to the artefacts we find in the ground and start to link the symbolic thoughts of these individuals to where, when and how they were living."

Dr Pike and his team were able to date the paintings using a technique known as uranium series dating

Hundreds of caves have been discovered across Europe with elaborate prehistoric paintings and carvings on their walls. It is thought the designs, which often depict scenes of animals, like bison, grazing or hunting expeditions, were created up to 40,000 years ago – sometime after humans began moving from southern Europe into northern Europe during the last ice age.

Traditional dating techniques have relied on carbon dating the charcoal and other pigment used in the paintings, but this can be inaccurate as it only gives the date the charcoal was created not when the work was crafted.

"When you go into these caves today there is still charcoal lying on the ground, so the artists at the time could have been using old charcoal rather than making it fresh themselves," explained Dr Pike.

"If this was the case, then the date for the painting would be very wrong. Taking samples for carbon dating also means destroying a bit of these precious paintings because you need to take away a bit of the pigment.

advertisement"For carvings, it is virtually impossible to date as there is no organic pigment containing carbon at all."

The scientists have used their technique to date a series of famous Palaeolithic paintings in Altamira cave near Santillana del Mar, northern Spain. Known as the "Sistine Chapel of the Palaeolithic", the elaborate works were thought to date from around 14,000 years ago.

But in research published today by the Natural Environment Research Council's new website Planet Earth, Dr Pike discovered some of the paintings were between 25,000 and 35,000 years old. The youngest paintings in the cave were 11,000 years old.

Dr Pike said: "We have found that most of these caves were not painting in one go, but the painting spanned up to 20,000 years. This goes against what the archaeologists who excavated in the caves and found archaeology for just one period.

"It is probably the case that people did not live in the caves they painted. It seems the caves they lived in were elsewhere and there was something special about the painted caves."

Bison on the ceiling of the polychrome chamber
in the Altamira cave in northern Spain

Dr Pike and his team were able to date the paintings using a technique known as uranium series dating, which was originally developed by geologists to date rock formations such as stalactites and stalagmites in caves.

As water seeps through a cave, it carries extremely low levels of dissolved radioactive uranium along with the mineral calcium carbonate. Over time small amounts of calcium carbonate are deposited to form hard layer over the paintings and this layer also traps the uranium. Due to its radioactive properties, the uranium slowly decays to become another element known as thorium.

By comparing the ratio of uranium to thorium in the thin layers on top of the cave art, the researchers were able to calculate the age of the paintings.

The researchers have also applied their technique to engravings found in rocks around Cresswell Crags in Derbyshire, which are Britain's only examples of ice age cave art. They proved the engravings were made at least 12,000 years ago.

Professor Pablo Arias, an expert on Palaeolithic cave art at University of Cantabria, Spain, said: "Until about ten years ago it was only possible to date cave art by using the style of the figures, but this new technique developed by Bristol allows that date to be accurately bracketed.

"We want to study how the people of the time behaved and how they felt and Palaeolithic art gives us a way of looking at the type of symbols that were important to them, so we need to know when the people who were making the art actually lived."


Stonehenge 'older than believed'

New findings at Stonehenge suggest its stones were erected much earlier than thought, challenging the site's conventional history.

A new excavation puts the stones' arrival at 3000 BC - almost 500 years earlier than originally thought - and suggests it was mainly a burial site.

The latest results are from a dig by the Stonehenge Riverside Project.

It is in conflict with recent research dating construction to 2300 BC and suggesting it was a healing centre.

The 2300 BC date was arrived at by carbon dating and was the major finding from an excavation inside the henge by professors Tim Darvill and Geoff Wainwright.

That dig was the subject of a BBC Timewatch documentary.

The latest theories, putting construction much earlier, result from an excavation at Aubrey Hole 7 - one of a circle of pits surrounding the stones - in August 2008. The researchers believe the pit probably held a standing stone.

The team suggests the 2300 BC date relates to the time when the stones were moved from the outer pits to the centre of the site.

The dig was directed by archaeologists Mike Parker-Pearson, Mike Pitts and Julian Richards for the Stonehenge Riverside Project.

The Aubrey Hole has already been excavated twice. The first time, when discovered in 1920, and again in 1935.

'Very exciting'

Mike Parker-Pearson, professor of archaeology at Sheffield University, revived an earlier theory that the holes had held bluestones as the evidence of crushed and compacted chalk had been recorded in 1920 in three of the pits.

Professor Parker-Pearson said: "It's very exciting that we have evidence for stones right from its beginnings around 3000 BC.

"That's almost 500 years earlier than anyone had thought.

"These stones were very closely associated with the remains of the dead. There were cremation burials from inside the holes holding the stones and also the areas around them."

The archaeologists suggest that very early in Stonehenge's history there were 56 Welsh bluestones standing in a ring - 87m (285ft) across.

The Stonehenge Riverside Project has been responsible for major excavation within the Stonehenge world heritage site over the past five years.


Pre-Clovis Discovery

Associated Press - October 11, 2008 7:34 PM ET

POCATELLO, Idaho (AP) - The Idaho Museum of Natural History is
displaying some of the nation's oldest archaeological discoveries --
ancient tools found in southeastern Idaho in 2006.

An archaeological team from Idaho State University dug up the
artifacts at Castle Rocks State Park. They include stone tools and the
rocks used to shape them. Skip Lohse, the director of the Idaho Museum
of Natural History and the lead member of the ISU team, says some of
the tools are believed to be nearly 16,000 years old, which means they
predate the Clovis culture until 13,000 years ago. The Clovis culture
was thought until recent years to mark the advent of humans in North

The tools are on display to provide a talking point for the Oct. 24
Idaho Archaeological Society meeting to be hosted at Idaho State

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This
material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.