November 9, 2017

Greek artifact’s “possible relevance to the Homeric epics is intriguing but elusive”


Homer (but not really).

While it would be “fun to believe” that an artifact recently discovered at an ancient gravesite in southwestern Greece is an early representation of the conflicts described in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, archaeologist Sharon R. Stocker says we should hold our horses.

The artifact, Nicholas Wade writes for the New York Times, is a small agate seal stone engraved with “a striking depiction of one warrior in battle with two others” and “carved in remarkably fine detail, with some features that are barely visible to the naked eye.”

It’s tempting to imagine that the scene’s hero is Achilles, for example. Scholars have long wondered what, if any, cultural memories may be preserved in the stories attributed to Homer, who was almost certainly not a real person, but rather an authorial name that got stamped, around 700 BCE, onto the written versions of two already-ancient traditions of oral poetry. As Wade writes, certain “scansion problems” in those poems could suggest that they date back to dialects as old as the gravesite (dating to 1450 BCE!) where this mysterious stone seal was found. Still, the connection feels pretty tenuous. That’s a lot of centuries. More likely, Stocker says, the image “is part of a cycle of stories” and not necessarily a tribute to Homer’s heroes.

Archaeologists can be such buzzkills.



Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.