Odysseus Unbound - The Search for Homer’s Ithaca


A major research partnership was announced in March 2007 between FUGRO (provider of geotechnical, survey and geoscience services), the authors of Odysseus Unbound: The Search for Homer’s Ithaca (Robert Bittlestone, Professor James Diggle and Professor John Underhill) and IGME (Greece’s national geological survey).

The location of the island of Ithaca that is described in Homer’s Odyssey has been an enigma for nearly 3,000 years, but the radical new solution proposed by the authors in late 2005 was looking increasingly supportable as a consequence of some preliminary scientific findings. FUGRO’s multi-year sponsorship brought industry-scale geophysical techniques to the project, enabling the team to conduct a ‘full body scan’ of the 6-kilometre long isthmus on the Greek island of Kefallinia that is believed to contain a buried ancient marine connection.

FUGRO (www.fugro.com) is a world leader in the offshore, onshore and airborne collection and interpretation of data about the earth’s surface and the soil and rocks beneath. The company provides advice primarily to the oil and gas, mining and construction industries. Headquartered in the Netherlands outside The Hague, FUGRO employs about 10,000 staff in over 50 countries. It is listed on the Euronext exchange in Amsterdam and included in the Amsterdam Midkap-Index.

ODYSSEUS UNBOUND (www.odysseus-unbound.org) is an ongoing project launched by Robert Bittlestone, Professor James Diggle and Professor John Underhill in 2005. Its aim has been to test the proposition that the island of Ithaca described as the homeland of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey is a real place, but that it is not located as previously thought on the island now called Ithaki. Instead the authors have proposed that Homer’s Ithaca was the westernmost peninsula of the island of Kefallinia (Paliki). They believe that Paliki was formerly separated from the rest of Kefallinia by a narrow marine connection (“Strabo’s Channel”) that has now been infilled and turned into a land-locked isthmus by catastrophic rockfall and landslides triggered by earthquakes.

IGME (www.igme.gr) is the Athens-based Greek Geological Institute founded in 1976, and by legislation it is the Greek State's technical adviser in geoscientific matters. Its fundamental aim is the geological study of the country and the exploration and evaluation of mineral raw materials (except hydrocarbons) and groundwater resources. Professor John Underhill has worked closely with IGME and with the authority of their geological research permits since he completed his own PhD on the Ionian Islands tectonic area in 1985.

Fugro RESOLVE airborne electromagnetic survey system

For this special project FUGRO undertook to facilitate the mapping of the subsurface of the target area and, in collaboration with the partners, to reconstruct how it may have looked 3,000 years ago. The main objective of the geophysical tests was to obtain an accurate 3-dimensional image of the subsurface, which in turn necessitated gaining an understanding of the processes that shaped the landscape prior to that period. The company anticipated using a variety of techniques including drilling and drill-hole diagnostics in order to determine the physical characteristics of the soil, rock and sediment. Precise measurements of the existing topography were to be acquired using the latest mapping technology. Geophysical and survey techniques which are normally carried out from the air, land or water for oil or mineral exploration were to be used to investigate the structure and composition of the sub-surface. Detailed stratigraphic, tectonic, sea level and fossil expertise were then to be brought to bear on the collected data to build a model of the regional topography and how it has changed over time.

Fugro PantherPlus remotely operated vehicle

An important benefit of the research partnership lay in FUGRO’s willingness to sponsor a full-time geology PhD student on the project, a position which was undertaken by Dr Kirsten Hunter at the University of Edinburgh under the NERC CASE scheme (the Natural Environment Research Council’s Co-operative Awards in Science & Engineering). The sponsorship was essential in enabling a continuing programme of research to be supported instead of the periodic site visits and tests which had hitherto taken place.

As well as research into the expected route of Strabo’s Channel, an additional asset of the partnership involved FUGRO’s expertise in groundwater assessment. It is to be hoped that some aspects of the output from this work may also prove to be of practical benefit to the islanders of Kefallinia and their own need for reliable local fresh water supplies.

Fugro research vessel

Earthquakes are believed to have triggered the infilling of Strabo’s Channel and also the uplifting of the whole island, so the research could potentially contribute to a fuller understanding of the historic ‘dates and rates’ of such events in the Ionian Islands over the last few thousand years. The results of this research, if applicable, will be communicated to the Greek authorities at local, regional and national level to enable them to take this into account as a part of their existing natural hazards awareness and damage limitation initiatives.

View a short video compilation of the survey work carried out by Fugro.