- Jack L. Davis
- and Sharon R. Stocker
Mycenaean Pylos is identified with the prehistoric site of Epano Englianos, north-east of the Bay of Navarino. First excavated by Carl Blegen and Konstantinos Kourouniotis in 1939, continuation of explorations in the 1950s and 1960s by Blegen and Marion Rawson uncovered the complete remains of a Mycenaean palatial complex of the 13th century bce. Recent fieldwork has shed additional light on the earlier history of the settlement and its development as a Bronze Age state, as well as its mortuary landscape, including tholos tombs, chamber tombs, and the grave of the “Griffin Warrior.” The settlement at Epano Englianos is the most important Mycenaean site in the western Peloponnese and served as an important and early conduit for the introduction of goods and concepts to the Greek mainland from Minoan Crete. The palatial complex was destroyed by fire c. 1180 bce. Causes for the destruction remain undetermined. It was later remembered in the poems of Homer as the seat of King Nestor.
- Ancient Geography
- Greek Material Culture: Bronze Age
Updated in this version
Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship. Digital materials added.
The Search for Nestor’s Palace
Pylos was the classical name of sites in Elis, Triphylia, and the Pylia, all of which claimed to be the Pylos that is Nestor (1)’s capital in the Homeric poems. Strabo’s preferred candidate was the Triphylian Pylos (8.3.14), but many textual references to ‘sandy Pylos’ best suit the area around Navarino Bay in the Pylia, while references in the Odyssey (3.4–5, 386–7, 423–4; 15.215–16) also imply a site close to the sea. Pausanias records local tradition placing the house, tomb, and cave of Nestor, and the tomb of Thrasymedes, Nestor’s son, in the Pylia (4.36.1–2) on the rocky peninsula of Coryphasium, north of Navarino Bay, joined by a sand spit to the mainland. The cave can be identified as that beneath the Frankish castle there, and ‘the tomb of Thrasymedes’ was probably the nearby tholos tomb at Voïdokoilia, where there was a hero cult in late Classical times. Already at the time of the Greek Revolution, French scientists attached to the Expédition scientifique de Morée searched for Nestor’s palace near the Bay of Navarino, as did Heinrich Schliemann later in the 19th century. Both efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, although excavations and surveys in the 19th and 20th centuries identified much Mycenaean pottery in Nestor’s cave.
Nestor’s Palace Discovered
A low flat-topped hill at Epano Englianos, some 9 km (5.5 miles) north-east of Navarino Bay, preserves the Bronze Age remains likely remembered later as Nestor’s capital and palace. The site today is conventionally known as the Palace of Nestor. Epano Englianos sits at the highest point in a ridge that serves as a natural passage inland from the coast of the Ionian sea, ultimately leading to the valley of Kalamata. The existence of a Mycenaean site here, the most important in the western Peloponnese, was reported by a local representative of the Greek Ministry of Education early in the 20th century. Systematic investigations were begun in 1939 by Carl Blegen of the University of Cincinnati in partnership with Kostantinos Kourouniotis of the Greek Archaeological Service, discovering on the first day of excavation walls of a throne room of a 13th-century bce Mycenaean palace, the most completely preserved from Mycenaean Greece, as well as the first cache of clay tablets with texts written in the Linear B script ever found on the Greek mainland. A collaboration with Blegen had been proposed by Kourouniotis already in 1929, but in the 1930s Blegen became preoccupied with his expedition to Troy.
After Kourouniotis’ death and the end of the Greek Civil War, Blegen continued to excavate at Epano Englianos in the 1950s and 1960s, in partnership with the architect Marion Rawson. Their authoritative three-volume publication of their excavations focuses largely on the palatial remains of the 13th century bce and on cemeteries of various dates associated with the site.
Investigations and Fieldwork, 1990–2014
In the 1990s the palatial architecture uncovered by Blegen and Rawson was re-examined by a team from the University of Minnesota. Stages in the architectural history of the site were clarified, demonstrating that several large mansions stood on the acropolis in early phases of the Late Helladic period. Also in the 1990s, the entire Englianos ridge was investigated by the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project (PRAP), its goal being to determine the size of the settlement there at particular points in time. Artifacts on the surface were collected, dated, and their distributions systematically mapped. PRAP documented archaeological materials of all dates, including Mycenaean, over large areas both west and east of Mt Aigaleon. After the completion of PRAP, a team from the University of Cincinnati re-examined unpublished finds from Blegen and Rawson’s excavations, resulting in the discovery, among other things, of new wall-paintings, and systematic study of human and animal bones.
In 2012–2013 a collaboration between the Greek Ministry of Culture and the University of Cincinnati explored layers beneath the palace when a new protective roof was built to replace that erected in 1960. Excavation of pits to hold support pylons for the new roof documented the existence of cut-stone masonry and wall-paintings as early in date as the end of the 17th century bce. Evidence for feasting rituals in the 15th century bce was also revealed.
New Excavations 2015–Present
In 2015 new excavations by the University of Cincinnati began on and around the acropolis in areas not fully investigated by Blegen or inaccessible to him. The focus of work has been on fields north-east of the acropolis. Surface remains there had been documented by PRAP, although geomorphological studies suggested that the latest archaeological deposits were very eroded. In addition to the grave of the Griffin Warrior, found in 2015, two previously unknown tholos tombs were discovered in 2018. Deeply buried Middle Helladic levels and walls of Mycenaean domestic structures were also found, as well as a cult building of the 14th century bce.
History of the Epano Englianos Settlement
The site at Epano Englianos was first occupied at the start of the Middle Helladic period and grew in size in subsequent centuries as populations were drawn to it from elsewhere. Prior to this, occupation was concentrated nearer the coast, in areas north of the Bay of Navarino, including Voidokoilia and Romanou. The latter is now exposed as one of the largest Early Helladic sites in the Peloponnese. By the end of the Middle Helladic period, the monumental tholos tomb IV had been built at Epano Englianos. Houses with painted walls and incorporating cut-stone blocks were rising on the acropolis, in a style inspired by Minoan Crete, and imported objects from Crete were commonly employed as grave goods. By the 15th century bce, contemporary with the later shaft graves at Mycenae, a centre of regional Mycenaean power had arisen at Epano Englianos (see Mycenaean civilization). The acropolis was then fortified. The dead of elite families were at that point being buried in a grave circle and tholos tombs III (on the lower Englianos Ridge), VI, and VII, in addition to the older IV, all accompanied by rich grave goods. Amidst these monumental burials, the so-called grave of the “Griffin Warrior,” perhaps the interment of an early Mycenaean ruler (wanax in Linear B), stands out. Tholos tombs IV, VI, and VII seem aligned with each other, along an ancient road leading north-east from the acropolis. In addition to tholos tombs, several subsidiary cemeteries on the Englianos Ridge contained chamber tombs. Analysis of ancient DNA preserved in skeletons from these tombs has established familial relationships among the individuals buried in them.
The Mycenaean State of Pylos
The settlement at Epano Englianos continued to grow in size in the 14th and 13th centuries bce, ultimately becoming the capital of a state called Pylos (pu-ro in Linear B) that controlled much of Messenia, including Hither and Thither provinces divided by Mt Aigaleon. Each province was divided into districts, two capitals of which have been excavated, one at modern Nichoria, near Kalamata (probably ti-mi-to a-ko in Linear B), the other at Iklaina, near modern Pylos (probably *a-pu2 in Linear B). There was a total of sixteen or seventeen districts, each headed by a governor and a vice-governor who reported to the centre at Epano Englianos. About 1,100 inscribed clay tablets preserved in the ruins on the Epano Englianos acropolis provide a detailed picture of the workings of a Mycenaean state (see pre-alphabetic scripts [Greek]) and its economy in the 13th century bce. The overwhelming majority were recovered from an archives room and its annex. Nearly all of the tablets date to the final year of the palace, and none was baked on purpose or intended to be part of a permanent archive. The wanax mentioned in these texts appears to have been concerned, among other things, with the production of perfumed oil, and controlled an area of about 2,000 square km in the south-west Peloponnese. He oversaw a work force that comprised various forms of dependent labour, among them slaves. Feasts that involved sacrifices are recorded on the tablets, as offerings to the gods, many of them the same as those worshipped in historical Greece (e.g., Zeus, Poseidon, Hera, and Dionysos).
The Palace of Nestor in the 13th Century bce
The acropolis after the 15th century bce was reserved for the king of Pylos, and it was there that the 13th-century bce complex identified by Blegen and Kourouniotis as the Palace of Nestor was built. In the early 14th century bce, buildings on the acropolis burned, necessitating the construction of a new complex that stood until c. 1180 bce. The Main Building, as the name implies, was central to that complex and contained a three-roomed megaron, in form like those at Mycenae and Tiryns in the Argolid. It can be deduced from the presence of staircases that there was a second floor, although little remains of it other than fallen plaster. At the back of the megaron was a throne room, a depression in the floor indicating where a wooden chair would have stood. The throne would have been flanked by a lion, a griffin, and diners seated at tables, painted on the wall behind the seat of the wanax; a lyre-playing bard sitting on multicoloured rocks, sang to the diners. To his right, in the floor, was a shallow basin, connected by a narrow channel to a second; liquid offerings or libations were likely poured into it by the wanax. In the centre of the room was a plastered hearth, decorated with flame and spiral patterns, and surrounded by four fluted columns. The floor of the Throne Room was plastered and painted with geometric patterns (except for an octopus in front of the throne) arranged in a grid design. Large storage jars, built into plastered benches behind the Throne Room, were filled with olive oil, which would have fuelled the fire that destroyed the Main Building.
Pantries in the north-west part of the Main Building contained thousands of ceramic cups, bowls, and serving utensils, stored on shelves and intended for use in state-sponsored feasts. Meat from animal sacrifices was distributed to those in attendance in a manner similar to practices in Classical Greece. Burnt bones from cattle, the residue from a sacrifice apparently offered to the god Poseidon, were found on the floor of the archives annex. By the 13th century bce such ceremonial feasts had replaced displays of wealth in the mortuary arena as manifestations of elite power.
Access was provided to the megaron of the Main Building through a monumental propylon at the south-east, adjacent to the palace archives, and, at first, by another gateway at the north-east. Near that eastern gateway is a bathroom, with a tub and two large jars set into a plastered bench. The bathroom is adjacent to a spacious room that Blegen called the Queen’s Hall, its walls adorned with griffins and lions or lionesses, which, like the Throne Room, contained a central hearth. In the initial phase of the palace, a road led north-east from this gateway, descending from the acropolis by means of stairs through the Early Mycenaean fortification wall, before reaching the cemetery that contained the grave of the Griffin Warrior and tholos tombs IV, VI, and VII. In the final phase of the Main Building, the gateway was blocked and two courtyards added outside it, perhaps used for the production of perfumed oil. An aqueduct carried water there from a spring several kilometres distant.
The Southwest Building may have been the headquarters of the war-chief of the state (the lawagetas). The hall opening into it was decorated with depictions of warfare, including Mycenaeans battling men wearing animal skins. High on its walls, ships processed through a wine-dark sea. Such scenes, whether historical or legendary, clearly expressed the might of the state of Pylos both on land and at sea and likely made an indelible impression on those attending feasts hosted by the wanax.
Two subsidiary buildings stood on the acropolis in the 13th century bce. The Northeast Building probably served as an intake centre for requisitions imposed by the palace on its tributaries. Near its entrance was a plastered and painted limestone block, apparently an altar. North of the Main Building a Wine Magazine contained rows of large storage jars.
The contemporary settlement surrounding the 13th-century bce acropolis extended for a kilometre along the ridge and seems to have had a population of several thousand. Most of it remains unexcavated.
The End of the Palace of Nestor
The palatial complex was destroyed in a huge conflagration ca. 1180 bce, the traditional date of the Trojan War as given by Eratosthenes. Afterwards, the site ceased to serve administrative purposes, and was never again a major population centre, although evidence of human activity in the Early Iron Age and later has been found on the acropolis and in nearby tombs. The name of Pylos was detached from Epano Englianos, presumably after the destruction of the palace, and most recently was transferred to the modern town of Pylos (previously Navarino) in the 19th century.
Causes for the destruction of the Palace of Nestor are unclear. Some have suggested that the agents of this calamity were invaders who came from outside the kingdom, Dorian Greeks or the “Peoples of the Sea” known from Egyptian texts; others that the subjects of the wanax revolted. Little of value was found in its ruins at the time of excavation, nor were there human bodies in its remains. Pollen from the lagoon of Osmanaga, north of the Bay of Navarino, documents a retraction in olive cultivation in the 12th century bce, likely reflecting depopulation of the area. A short-lived decrease in rainfall recorded in stalactites during the century leading up to the destruction of the palace may have contributed to instability in the palatial agricultural system, while greater aridity in the succeeding century may have impeded any attempt to re-establish a central authority at Epano Englianos.
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