Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.11.22

Maria Deoudi, Ithake: Die Polis-Höhle, Odysseus und die Nymphen.   Thessaloniki:  University Studio Press, 2008.  Pp. 389.  ISBN 9789601216959.  €30.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Jorrit Kelder, Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (
Word count: 1776 words

Ithaca in many ways can be seen as the birthplace of the study of Aegean Prehistory. As the home of one of Homer's most prominent heroes, it attracted a number of pioneers in the field, most notably Heinrich Schliemann himself. Before moving on to the sites that would bring him fame --Troy, the home of Hektor and Paris, and Mycenae, the city of Agamemnon-- Schliemann spent some time on the island of Thiaki, then generally seen as the Homeric Ithaca. During his first visit in 1868, he was shown a collapsed cave near the village of Stavros, in northern Thiaki, where the local landowner, Dimitrios Loisos (after whom the cave is officially named) had found a wealth of archaeological finds, including pottery and bronze objects, such as tripod legs.1 Schliemann was convinced that this had been the cave that Odysseus visited on his return to the island and, concluding that the nearby village of Stavros was, in fact, built over Odysseus' palatial city, excavated some trenches in the locality in 1878. But both he and his successor Dörpfeld, who briefly surveyed the area in 1897, failed to find the Homeric city and so they left, leaving the cave untouched. Apart from a small trench dug in 1904 by the German archaeologist Wilhelm Vollgraff, which yielded a quantity of Mycenaean pottery and clay figurines from the same era, the site remained essentially unexplored until the 1930s, when a British team headed by Sylvia Benton started the first systematic excavation of the cave, which would last for two seasons. The finds were of great importance, ranging from bronze tripod lebetes to scarabs and from Classical Greek (and Roman) coins to a wide variety of Greek pottery, including Attic, Laconian, Corinthian and Mycenaean vessels. Benton published the results of her excavations in two articles in the Annual of the British School at Athens (BSA 35: 45-73, (BSA 39: 52-64). However, these reports were very much a product of their time: most of prehistoric and dark age finds were analysed in a preconceived Homeric setting (interpreting the site as the very cave where Odysseus had left his Phaeacian tripods), whilst later material was essentially ignored.

A number of issues thus remained or had to be readdressed. Had the cave always been a ritual site and should the Mycenaean finds indeed be interpreted as votive offerings, as Benton had argued, or had the cave only in later times become a site of ritual importance? How should the Early Helladic finds be interpreted, and was there any evidence for continuous worship at the cave from the Mycenaean era down through the Early Iron Age (a question which has gained urgency in the light of present archaeological debate)? What happened to the cave in later (Classical and Roman) times? And--perhaps most importantly--what had been the focus of worship at the cave? These are the questions that Maria Deoudi set out to address in the book under review here.

There can be no doubt that this book deserves great praise, not only because of the very importance of the site it describes but also because of the meticulous way in which the finds are presented. The book consists of three sections: a short introduction (in which the history of research and the questions at hand are presented), a catalogue of finds and an analysis of the material. Brief summaries (in German and English) are included at the back of the book. Deoudi offers for the first time a full catalogue of the finds made by Benton in her 1930s excavations, providing good illustrations and clear descriptions for virtually every artefact. The catalogue includes a wide array of artefacts, including pottery (presented under separate headers: local, Corinthian, Laconian, East-Ionic, Attic, Argive, Campanian and Elian pottery), bronzes, terracotta objects, lamps, scarabs, seals, bone objects, stone objects, weaponry, jewellery, and coins, that had been deposited in the cave from the Early Bronze Age till the Roman era. With a total of 841 entries, it presents a very large and representative selection of the approximately 1500 objects discovered during the excavations in the cave (the non-published part of which, Deoudi writes, still lies in poor shape in the excavators' baskets in the museum at Stavros).

The catalogue is followed by a systematic analysis of the material. The first chapter of this part of the book deals with the 'Herkunft und zeitliche Stellung der Votive'. In this chapter, the scope, date and quality of the various groups of artefacts are reviewed. A small quantity of EH II objects has been found in the mouth of the cave. Apart from two stone weights and two stone axes, this includes some 36 pottery fragments, including kantharoi, jugs and at least one pithos. Stylistically, these EH II finds are clearly reminiscent to contemporary pottery from the island of Leukas and the Greek mainland, especially Thessaly. After EH II, the cave was apparently abandoned, though at least one sherd of a Grey Minyan kantharos might suggest occasional human activity during EH III. Only during LH IIIA is there evidence for renewed activity at the site, which is then visited regularly until the late first century AD. Deoudi argues that whilst the cave, in its earliest stages of use, received only locally produced pottery, increasingly larger amounts of imported material reached the cave in later periods (the first Corinthian and Attic pottery during Middle Geometric II, later also smaller groups of pottery from other regions, such as Laconia and East Ionia). From the Early Geometric period onwards, metal objects were amongst the imports dedicated in the cave. On the whole, however, the majority of the corpus of finds consists of Corinthian and Attic pottery; a situation paralleled at the nearby site of Aetos.

Deoudi's analysis of the material is thorough and allows for a number of important conclusions, which are presented in the next chapter. She points out that the EH material, with its locally made pottery and various shapes (including a pithos), traces of burning on the pottery, as well as a number of animal bones, indicates that the cave was used for domestic rather than cultic purposes. Only much later, from the LH IIIA period onward, is there evidence for cultic activity in the deeper recesses the cave. This second period, during which the cave served a cultic purpose, is examined in detail. Deoudi presents a full reconstruction of the interior of the cave, based on the reports of both Schliemann and Benton. The mouth of the cave, which had been inhabited during EH II, had originally (before it collapsed) measured approximately 2 by 0.4 m, and would have allowed an easy access to the interior of the cave. The entrance appears to have never been architecturally elaborated, though the situation inside the cave was different. Benton noted the presence of a 4th century temenos wall, which separated the cult area of the cave from the rest of the cave ('der vordere Bereich'). The majority of the most conspicuous objects, such as the bronze tripods (Deoudi argues for a Corinthian origin), bronze weapons and a large proto-Attic terracotta shield, were found in front of this wall. The presence of material of such an early date, Deoudi argues, may indicate the existence of an earlier (Geometric) wall. Since no remains of such an early wall have been recorded by Benton, its existence must, however, remain hypothetical. Access to the 'hinteren Bereich', the sanctuary proper, was gained through a flight of steps in the centre of the temenos wall, allowing the visitor to descend some 3 m before reaching what Benton described as 'Mycenaean pavement', but what Deoudi more plausibly interprets as an altar. It is in this space, past the temenos wall, that the vast majority of objects were found.

Whilst the predominance of cups and especially kylikes may be taken as evidence for Mycenaean cultic activity, and continuity of cultic activity in the cave from LH to EIA times may be deduced from the presence of conical shaped kylikes with ribbed stems,2 there can be no doubt that the cave became a major place of worship only during the Early Geometric period, when the extraordinary bronze tripods were dedicated. Consequently, Deoudi subscribes to Benton's argument that the cave was, indeed, used as a sanctuary from the Mycenaean era onwards, but, at the same time, she points out that Benton's identification of the Polis cave as Odysseus's cave is fraught with difficulties: the cave was clearly of importance well before the Homeric epic became widely known. Instead, Deoudi argues that votive epigrams and depictions of nymphs on various terracotta objects found in the cave strongly suggest that nymphs were the main deities worshipped at the cave, though texts suggest that the worship of two Olympians, Hera and Artemis, may have also taken place in the Polis cave. Worship at the cave, then, may well be seen in the light of a fertility cult. The finds at the site seem to support such a concept: the alabastra and aryballoi, generally seen as containers for perfumed oil, as well as jewellery, rings and fibulae may have been offerings from women rather than men. The cult at the site may thus have been a predominantly female affair. That is not to say that there was no room at all for men: the very inscription that prompted Benton to view the cave in a Homeric perspective, 'ΕΨΧΗΝ ΟΔΨΣΣΕΙ' on a first or second century BC terracotta mask, indicates that, at least towards the end of its cultic life, the cave was also associated with Odysseus.3

With this book, Maria Deoudi finally presents the archaeological community with a good synthesis of the finds made by Sylvia Benton in the Polis cave over 70 years ago. She presents her material in a clear and concise manner, not only offering a proper analysis of the prehistoric material, but also dealing extensively with the hitherto neglected later material (Geometric to Roman period). This reader noted only few typographical mistakes (e.g., cultic activity in the cave did not start at the beginning of LH, but at the beginning of LH III (page 325); after EH II, the cave was visited again in the LH III period, not the MH period (page 315)). The illustrations are generally of good quality, though they are on occasion too small to allow for details to be clear. Also, a clear map and /or a reconstruction of the cave, showing the position of architectural features such as the temenos wall, would have been welcome. These minor points aside, there can be no doubt that this fine book is a very welcome contribution to many fields of archaeology.


1.   Parts of at least 12 different tripods have been identified. Loisos is believed to have melted down at least one of the tripods. Cf. Robert Bittlestone, James Diggle, John Underhill, Ulysses Unbound, Cambridge 2005, 258.
2.   Although some fragments of kraters, amphoras and pithoi have been found, the marked preference for drinking vessels suggests that the cave was not used for domestic purposes, but more likely for cultic activities (ritual drinking parties or libations?). For discussions on LH III kylikes, cf. C. Souyoudzoglou-Haywood, The Ionian Islands in the Bronze and Early Iron Age, Liverpool 1999, 109-111; P. A. Mountjoy, Regional Mycenaean Decorated Pottery, Rahden 1999, 475-477. Eder has suggested that the survival of the kylix with ribbed stem may be due to continued use of that particular shape of pottery in ritual / ceremonial contexts from Mycenaean times down to the Early Iron Age (Cf. B. Eder, "Continuity of Bronze Age Cult at Olympia?" in R. Hägg / R. Laffineur (eds.), Potnia (Aegaeum 22), Liège 2001, 206-208); a situation that might be paralleled by the typological survival of bronze tripods from the Bronze Age to the EIA (B. Eder, "The World of Telemachos: Western Greece 1200-700 BC", in S. Deger-Jalkotzy and I. Lemos (eds.), Ancient Greece: from the Mycenaean Palaces to the Age of Homer, Edinburgh 2006, 567, note 10).
3.   But see J. L. Larsson, Greek Nymphs, Myth, Cult, Lore, Oxford 2001, 231-232, who argues that the presence of other deities, as well as the extraordinary quality of some of the votives (such as the tripod legs) is not paralleled in other nymph caves. The early worship of such an important hero as Odysseus, she argues, may explain the early occurrence of the high quality votives, such as the bronze lebetes, in the cave. See also F. Stubbings / A. J. Wace, A Companion to Homer, London 1962, 445.

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