The epics of the Greek poet Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey, have been recited around campfires and scrutinized by students for 2,800 years, if not longer. You might think that ancient copies of these books are dug up in Greece all the time, but that’s not the case. The ancient papyrus these books were written on rarely survives, meaning that ancient copies of Homer from the lands he wrote about simply don’t exist. But now, reports the BBC, archeologists in Greece have found 13 verses from The Odyssey chiseled into a clay tablet dating to the third century A.D. or earlier, representing the oldest lines of the poet found in the ancient land.
The tablet was discovered near the ruins of the Temple of Zeus during three years of excavations in the ruins of the ancient city of Olympia on the Greek peninsula the Peloponnese. The verses are from the epic’s fourteenth book, in which Odysseus speaks to his lifelong friend Eumaeus, the first person he sees on his return from his decade away from home.
In a press release, the Greek Culture Ministry says that the preliminary date of the text has been confirmed. If verified, it will be a priceless literary and historical artifact.
In fact, any glimpse into Homer before medieval times is rare, and any insight into the composition of the epics is precious. It’s believed that The Odyssey and The Iliad come from an oral storytelling tradition. Whether the stories were composed by a blind poet named Homer is a source of debate, though many researchers believe Homer was probably not a historical individual but a cultural tradition that developed the stories over many decades or centuries, with scribes writing them down sometime around the 8th century B.C.
But it’s likely there were many different versions of each work transcribed throughout the ancient world. That’s because, as Harvard classicist Gregory Nagy points out, the oral tradition of these poems was not a matter of rote memorization. Instead, bards would have told slightly different versions of the epics each time they recited them, using a technique known as composition-in-recitation. Scribes transcribing the recitations would have heard different versions depending on the storyteller, so there were likely various versions of the Homer epics works floating around the ancient world.
The versions we know now come from medieval copies made of the complete works based on ancient sources that are now lost. After those texts were rediscovered during the Rennaissance, they became classics and have been translated endlessly, with each generation adding their own scholarly take or literary spin to the tales. In fact, just last year the first English translation of the story by a female classicist was published.
But not all of the earlier versions of Homer are lost. Archaeologists working in Egypt in the late 19th century began collecting scraps of papyrus containing lines, quotations and even complete chapters of the stories. Unlike in Greece, the dry conditions in Egypt mean some papyrus documents are preserved, including bits of Homer dating to the third century B.C. These scraps and chapters show that the medieval texts are not the only versions of the epics or even the authoritative versions—it turns out there is no one definitive Homer out there. That’s why the Homer Multitext Project is gathering all of those fragments together so they can be compared and put in sequence to provide a broader view of Homer’s epics. No doubt the new fragment of text from Greece will soon be added to that project, and hopefully there will be even more to sing about soon.