BMCR 1999.07.05

Sandy Pylos: An Archaeological History from Nestor to Navarino

, , Sandy Pylos : an archaeological history from Nestor to Navarino. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998. xliii, 342 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780292715943. $24.95 (pb).

Is Sandy Pylos a book about Pylos? Well, yes, but what does “Pylos” mean? This is certainly not a tightly focused guidebook on the Ano Englianos site, where the Mycenaean “Palace of Nestor” is located, nor the spit of land near the ancient town of Koryphasion so memorably fortified by Demosthenes in the Peloponnesian War, nor the modern town of Pylos at the south end of the Bay of Navarino. Rather, the book examines the entire area around the Bay of Navarino, where “Pylos” in its several and shifting manifestations over time existed; the book also extends its coverage in places to most of Western Messenia. Although Sandy Pylos is a publication of the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project, which from 1991-1995 conducted a campaign of intensive archaeological survey in Western Messenia, it is not the final publication of the project, as the lack of footnotes and other academic impedimenta makes clear. It is perhaps best to let the editor explain how and why the book was written: “The result is a book that we think is unique. It is the first presentation to a nonspecialist audience of the results of the investigations sponsored by PRAP. At the same time, because we have integrated our own findings with those of other specialists, (most of whose research has itself not been extensively discussed outside academic circles until now), we may justifiably claim that this volume constitutes the first complete history of the Pylos area, from before the days of King Nestor until the Battle of Navarino in 1827. We also regard Sandy Pylos as a guidebook for informed travelers in Greece. The general public needs a greater familiarity with the sort of archaeological research that is being conducted in the Mediterranean today. It is, however, highly unusual for an archaeological team to present a synthesis of its synthetic results to a nonspecialist audience before they have been fully documented in arcane and largely inaccessible scholarly venues. That we have taken such a radical step is a reflection of our commitment to make the history of Pylos and the products of our studies comprehensible to all. In doing so, we gladly fulfill a promise made through the National Endowment for the Humanities specifically to the American people that we would soon present a synthesis of our research in a public forum.” (p. xxiii) The book is divided into an introduction and ten chapters, arranged chronologically. Each chapter begins with a synthetic section outlining the major issues and general conclusions of the authors concerning the particular period; two or three shorter independent sections, each called a “Focus,” then follow in each chapter. The “Focus” sections explore particular topics or problems confronted by the researchers, or explain various aspects of archaeological methodology.

The first three chapters set the stage for the discussion of the archaeological and historical record. In the introduction, J. Davis discusses the geography of Messenia, mentions descriptions of the area by ancient travelers, and preaches the importance of regional studies embracing the whole range of archaeological, historical, and other evidence. In Chapter 1, E. Zangger, a geomorphologist, provides a concise overview of changing land use in Messenia, with special attention to the effects of erosion in the Pylos area. In an accompanying “Focus” section, Zangger explains the role of physical scientists in archaeological investigations; in another “Focus,” S. Yazvenko describes the use of palynology in reconstructing the environmental history of the Pylos area. One wishes that the included pollen diagram from cores taken in the Osmanaga lagoon were discussed at greater length, as it seems to show very clearly the major episodes of clearance, cultivation, and regeneration. In Chapter 2, N. Spencer provides a brief history of archaeological investigations in Messenia. In the two “Focus” sections for this chapter, Davis describes Carl Blegen’s discovery of the Palace of Nestor and Y. Lolos adds a brief tribute to Spiridon Marinatos, who made great contributions to Messenian archaeology.

The next three chapters are largely concerned with the Late Bronze Age and the Mycenaean palace. In Chap. 3, Davis provides a chatty and personal introduction to the palace site proper and discusses the outlying area and sites around it. In a very interesting “Focus,” Zangger discusses the detection of an artificial harbor he calls the “Port of Nestor,” created in the Late Bronze Age by partially diverting the Selas River. One could hardly ask for a better example of how geomorphological research can provide important (and unexpected) results in archaeological investigations. In a separate “Focus,” Lolos discusses Mycenaean burial practices at Pylos, bringing in evidence from Routsi, Volimedia, Tragana, and other local sites in addition to that from the tombs close to the palace. In Chap. 4, C. Shelmerdine provides a short description of the palace itself, and how the Linear B tablets recovered from it have allowed various aspects of the palace’s operations to be recovered; in a separate “Focus,” she discusses the manufacture of perfumed oil at the palace, a subject she treated at length in her book The Perfume Industry of Mycenaean Pylos. In another “Focus,” C. Griebel and M. Nelson treat activity on the palace site after the destruction of the palace. Blegen’s publication minimized occupation of the palace site after the Late Bronze Age, allowing only for an olive-crushing work area during the Geometric Period. Griebel and Nelson’s study largely confirms the suspicions of some scholars, e.g., M. Popham [ OJA 10 (1991) 315 ff.], that there was in fact fairly extensive occupation of the palace area during the Greek Dark Age. In Chap. 5, J. Bennett provides a more global perspective on the political entity called here the “Kingdom of Nestor,” with discussion of the relation between core and periphery of the polity, the administrative divisions of the kingdom revealed by the Linear B tablets, and the economy. Some of the latter chapter may be difficult for a nonspecialist to follow, although the points made are cogent and interesting.

Chap. 6 (A. Harrison and N. Spencer) is concerned with the history of Pylos from the Dark Age to the 4th century BC. The authors recount the conquest of Messenia by the Spartans, and provide the general reader with some helpful background on Spartan society and the role of the Messenian helots. An important result of PRAP’s archaeological survey is that it seems to show that the Spartans employed a strategy of concentrating the helot population in a relatively few centers, since the survey detected few isolated farmsteads or hamlets during the Archaic and Classical Periods. Such a strategy would have allowed the small number of Spartiates to police the activities of the helots more closely than if they were dispersed throughout the countryside. This chapter includes three “Focus” sections: in the first, Harrison provides a short overview of ceramic studies that is designed to show the general reader how and why archaeologists use pottery in their studies. It might have been better to work this into an earlier chapter in the book, as it seems out of place here. In the second focus, Spencer discusses the Dark Age occupation of the site of Nichoria, certainly the best known and published site of this time period; his treatment is based largely on the University of Minnesota’s publication of the site. The third “Focus,” by Spencer, reviews the Battle of Sphacteria.

In Chapter 7, S. Alcock examines the period from the liberation of Messenia by the Boiotians through the Roman period, placing most of her attention on the site of Messene and Pausanias’ description of Messenia. Three “Focus” supplements accompany this chapter. In the first, D. Stone and A. Kampke discuss a Roman villa at Dialiskari near Marathoupolis, which dates from the 4th through 7th centuries AD: what is particularly interesting about this section is the clarity with which the authors explain the reasoning behind how the site was in fact identified as a villa and not a town or other settlement. In the second, Alcock takes up the question of tomb cults in post-liberation Messenia, which certainly stands as a good example of how the past can be used and modified to construct political and cultural identities. In the final section, Harrison describes the PRAP survey’s discovery of a site called Bouka dating to the Hellenistic period, and how, without excavating, a magnetometer was used to determine the line of a domestic structure’s robbed-out walls.

S. Gerstel in Chapter 8 examines medieval Messenia (defined here as lasting from the 5th/6th centuries to the 16th century), providing a historical outline and integrating examples of Byzantine architecture from the area into her discussion. Three “Focus” sections, all by Gerstel, examine a range of evidence used by the PRAP researchers in investigating medieval Messenia. The first one is an example of textual evidence in the form of an inventory compiled in 1354, detailing the holdings of the Florentine banker Niccolo Acciaiuoli in the village of Cremidi: some additional commentary/context would be helpful in interpreting the significance of this document; the second, a compilation of testimonia concerning Methoni under the Venetians; and the third, a brief treatment of Byzantine sgraffito ware.

Chapter 9, by J. Davis, reviews the Ottoman period and the Greek Revolution, with emphasis (for obvious reasons) on the Battle of Navarino. This is primarily a historical survey, with little mention of any PRAP research. In an accompanying “Focus,” however, S. Alcock briefly discusses the results of the PRAP survey at the presumed site of Hasanaga, a small village mentioned by travelers and census documents during the Ottoman period. C. Watkinson adds another “Focus” on the Battle of Navarino. As with the previous “Focus” on the Battle of Sphacteria, the aficionados of military history will want considerably more discussion, but what is provided will probably be sufficient for the general reader.

In Chapter 10 Davis offers some reflections on PRAP and provides some modest advocacy for the utility of interdisciplinary, intensive surveys. The case of the Gargaliani-Lefki uplands, which lie to the north of the Palace of Nestor, is offered as a case study. Those familiar with Greek topography will recognize the terrain, shrouded with dark green, prickly maquis and carpeted with ankle-turning rocks and rough outcrops of bedrock. PRAP did not find, unsurprisingly, any apparent settlements in this wasteland, but found substantial evidence of human activity extending as far back as the Palaeolithic period. Archaeological survey can show how humans employed the entirety of the landscape and how such areas, despite their unpromising appearance, could provide important resources and areas for various activities. A “Focus” section by S. Heath discusses the use of computer-generated maps; M. Antoniou and K. Kaloyerakou complete the book with a “Focus” on their personal experiences as PRAP fieldwalkers. The final chapter is followed by a timeline of major events in Messenian history, references to the sources for quotes in the text, and some suggestions for additional reading about the periods treated in the book.

The strengths of this book for the general reader are its consistent readability, the broad historical sweep, and the manner in which it shows how an interdisciplinary research project is conducted in contemporary archaeology. It is particularly praiseworthy that Davis and his colleagues have directed a book to the general public: as the cost of research and publication soars, archaeologists need the public on their side, and not only for their financial support. Public-oriented and public-spirited works such as Sandy Pylos will do far more good for the discipline than snarling about the philistinism of the taxpayer and funding agencies. The professional will find the summarized preliminary results of the PRAP project interesting: nearly every chapter contains at least one discovery or insight from the project that will make one want to read the final publication. The weaknesses of the book are largely the weaknesses of any collection with so many authors: a certain amount of unevenness, abrupt transitions in places, and the need for additional commentary or explanation in some of the “Focus” sections. It is clear that the authors wanted to work various aspects of their methodology into the book in several places, but combining some of the “Focus” sections (particularly the ones on pottery, which are very short) into a separate chapter on techniques would have been more straightforward. It is also advisable, even though the editor describes the book as a “guidebook,” that tourists arm themselves with a separate road map or atlas, as the maps in the book may be too schematic for easy navigation on Greek roads. On balance, however, Sandy Pylos can be recommended unreservedly for travelers, general readers, and especially students interested in interdisciplinary archaeological research.