Myth, legend and Homer in Lefkada


William Dörpfeld (1853 - 1940), a German archaeologist, started his study as an assistant to the famous German archaeologist, H. Schliemann, noted for his excavations on Ithaka and his attempts to prove that this island was indeed the home of Odysseus... Dörpfeld, however, had a different theory: for him, Homer's hero was a native of Lefkada, or, in other words, that Lefkada was the original Ithaka.

Dörpfeld's hypothesis was based on his study of the Odyssey, with particular reference to the verses where the shipwrecked Odysseus describes his beloved homeland to the King of the Phaeacians, Alkinous. He began excavations on Lefkada in 1900 and continued until 1910 during which time his discoveries, ideas and opinions caused something of a schism in the world of archaeology: some fellow experts thought he was on to something, others considered him a "heretic".

His initial excavations focused on the site and cave of Choirospelia, Evgiros, near the bay of Afteli, to the south of the island. Here he found pyrite blades, animal bones, etc. which were the first indications of life during the Neolithic age (middle of the 4th millennium BC). The cave, he surmised, could have been the home of the pigs who met Odysseus in Sivota bay.

Continuing his excavations in other parts of the island, Dörpfeld identified the valley between the villages of Frini and Nidri as the possible site of Odysseus' ancient palace and shipyards. At first, excavations produced further findings of the Neolithic period but then the remains of a large town were revealed, believed to be that of ancient Nericos. The town dates back to the Helladic period (around 1000 – 2000 BC) and was populated by a highly civilized race that was at the height of its prosperity. Actual finds included the walls of a long building, one measuring some 40 metres, the ruins of a pre-Roman theatre, 33 round graves and many tombs in which gold and silver jewellery were found. Dörpfeld named these “The Royal Tombs”. Evidence pointed to an elaborate Achaic form of burial whereby corpses were partly burnt and the remains preserved.

Other discoveries included stones from ancient temples, a drainage system of water pipes, vases, bronze arms, statuettes and much more. Dörpfeld stored all his finds in a museum near to the site, which was subsequently destroyed by fire. All surviving relics are now kept in a small museum in Lefkada town.

In 1927, Dörpfeld published a book of his many theories based on Homer's epic and on his groundwork, though there is still no absolute proof that King Odysseus was a native of Lefkada. The world of archaeology remains divided and today, unfortunately, the great German's work remains something of a curiosity gathering dust.

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