BMCR 2017.10.23

The Minnesota Pylos Project. 1990-98. BAR International series, S2856

, , The Minnesota Pylos Project. 1990-98. BAR International series, S2856. Oxford: BAR Publishing, 2017. 426. ISBN 9781407315348. £66.00​.

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[Authors and chapter titles are also listed at the end of this review.]

From 1990 until 1998, a team sponsored by the University of Minnesota returned to the Palace of Nestor at Pylos in order to produce an actual state plan of the architectural remains excavated by Carl W. Blegen between 1939 and 1969. The project was directed by the late Frederick A. Cooper, a senior architectural historian, a Mellon Professor at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, and a researcher highly regarded for his work at Ancient Messene and for his monumental publication of the Temple of Apollo Bassitas.1

The initial goal of Cooper’s project was admirable. Blegen had not commissioned an actual state plan of the palace, relying on more schematic plans, although measured drawings had been prepared by several archaeologists who were competent surveyors, among them Dimitris Theocharis and George Papathanassopoulos. Cooper hoped for greater accuracy than the ± 25 cm. that he found was typical of the plans published by Blegen, and he achieved that end with the assistance of Michael C. Nelson. Nelson, a professional architect, art historian, and archaeologist, examined the architectural history of the Palace of Nestor and its predecessors in a landmark thesis.2 That work remains the crowning achievement of the Minnesota Pylos project. The thesis has long been referenced in scholarly publications, and a version of it (revised in 2008) is reproduced here as Part II (“The Architecture of the Palace of Nestor”).

Nelson’s study deserves the respect of every student of Aegean prehistory, and in it he unravels many Pylian mysteries. We now understand that the system of xylodesia proposed by Blegen, in which walls of the palace were supposedly built with a framework of wooden horizontal and vertical beams enclosing rubble stonework, is not entirely correct. Instead, Nelson proposes that craftsmen dumped a kind of primitive limestone cement into wooden plank moulds, similar to the methods of modern builders who work with concrete. He also shows how several building systems (among them, ashlar, pseudo-ashlar, orthostate, and ashlar-shell) evolved at Englianos roughly in the same chronological order as on Crete, whence the styles derived their inspiration.

Cooper, however, did not stop with the production of an actual state plan and Nelson’s architectural analysis. Instead, in 1998, he changed the original objectives of the project, feeling the need to write a new history of the site, one radically different from that of Blegen and Rawson.3 Promotional literature for the present volume thus announces “startling new conclusions about the structure of the palace and the history of the site.” In addition, Cooper in his introduction and elsewhere in the volume implies that Blegen intentionally gave readers a skewed picture of his discoveries, suppressing evidence for post-Bronze Age activities, particularly those of the Early Iron Age..4

Part I (“New Studies at the Palace of Nestor”) consists of ten contributions that discuss the architectural history of the palace and describe a selection of pottery and other artifacts that were discarded by Blegen’s team after initial study or were missed by workmen. It is in this part of the book that the problems lie.

In Chapter 1 Cooper provides an overview of the objectives of the project. In Chapter 2 he discusses prehistoric drainage systems at the site and claims that two Minoan-style palaces pre-dated the final Palace of Nestor. Their existence is at best an unsupportable hypothesis, one that cannot be reconciled with reconstructions proposed by Nelson in Part II. Furthermore, to speak of palaces dating from the end of the Middle Helladic period raises the question what is meant by a palace, since there is no evidence for centralized administrative functions of any sort on the Englianos acropolis in the Middle Helladic or Early Mycenaean periods, or elsewhere on the Greek mainland.

Equally problematic is Cooper’s unfounded assertion that after the destruction of the palace a subterranean hero cult was established. He argues that the so-called “Chasm” left after removal of the northeastern wall of the Archives Rooms of the palace was not a robbing trench, as Blegen and Rawson believed, but a chthonic shrine of the Early Iron Age. But Blegen and Rawson found no post-Bronze remains in the “Chasm” other than a ducat of Ludovico Manin, Venice’s last doge, and not a single Iron Age sherd. Cooper claims that burnt cattle bones and miniature kylikes from the floor of Archives room 7 are remains of sacrifices of the Archaic period, mistakenly comparing the kylikes to miniature skyphoi found by Natan Valmin in the shrine of the Pamisos River divinity.5 But the finds in room 7 are Mycenaean and cannot be dated later.6

Todd Brenningmeyer in Chapter 3 (revised in 2009) examines patterns of movement and use of space within the final palace; many of his observations have now been eclipsed.7 Brenningmeyer argues that, as circulation in the Main Building became more restricted in the course of the palace’s final LH IIIB phase, circulation in the Southwestern Building was less so — but this is a conclusion reached by others without the need for GIS.8

Cynthia Shelmerdine suggested forty years ago that courts 42 and 47 were likely locations for the production of perfumed oil.9 Chapter 4 (submitted 2002), by Anne Hollond, argues instead that they were palatial gardens. She suggests that irregularly spaced conical holes (the apex of the cone at the top) in the thick plastered floors of these courts were intended to receive flowerpots in which plants, perhaps even exotic spices, were grown. No archaeobotanical evidence is adduced in support.

Joshua Distler in Chapter 5 (revised 2013) proposes that the stone used for ashlar blocks ( angonaria, not anganaria) was brought from Gargalianoi, a town 15 kilometers to the north of the palace. There is no real proof of this hypothesis but there is a good deal of circumstantial evidence.

The remaining chapters concern the study of finds retrieved from Blegen and Rawson’s backdirt and discard piles. In Chapter 6, George Otto Marquardt documents a hundred chipped stone artifacts, all of which are drawn. The chapter is a useful supplement to John Cherry and William Parkinson’s publication of chipped stone from the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project.10 Eleni Kostantinidou-Syridi in Chapter 7 describes several terracotta, stone, and metal small finds, but also a few shells and animal bones.

The final three chapters are more troublesome, since they appropriate Cooper’s vision, claiming to provide support for the notion that there had occurred significant post-Bronze Age cultic activities at the site.

Brenningmeyer in Chapter 8, a distillation of his 2004 Ph.D. thesis (revised 2016), argues that there was an Archaic temple to the northwest of the Main Building with three successive roofing systems, two Corinthian and one Laconian, and that there was a circular altar in front of it. The idea that there was a sanctuary there rests on two dubious claims: first, that Blegen’s team mistook roof tiles for pithos sherds; and, secondly, that pits containing cremated cattle bones found nearby represent sacrifices of Archaic rather than Bronze Age date.11

In Chapter 9, Shawn Ross presents a selection of pottery that he dates to the Early Iron Age and later. His identifications are frequently wrong. This is particularly clear in the case of his fig. 9.2, where sherds said to belong to Coulson’s Dark Age II are actually from LH I cups and closed vessels with ripple-patterned decoration, while a supposed Late Classical-Hellenistic lamp in fig. 9.6 is actually a false spout from a coarse Mycenaean stirrup-jar. The few Byzantine sherds add little to what we know already.12

Finally, in an equally problematic Chapter 10 Caitlin Downey tries to build a case that several terracotta fragments derive from a mould for a life-sized bronze Archaic cult statue. The object in question has no metal or metallic products adhering to it. Nor can we even be certain that it was found on the acropolis of the Palace of Nestor, since the artifacts among which it was recovered represent the collective discards from excavations by Blegen’s team on the Englianos Ridge and elsewhere over two decades.

After the Bronze Age destruction of the Palace of Nestor by fire, large parts of the palace remained standing, though no longer functioning as such. The gradual collapse of the structure has been studied now in detail by several scholars.13 The existence of post-Bronze occupation in the ruins of the palace is, of course, indisputable and Blegen and Rawson never denied it. Pottery and other finds from stratified excavation contexts in the Chora Museum have recently been studied by myself and Kathleen Lynch, together with Susanne Hofstra, and Sharon Stocker’s and my current excavations add to the picture.14 The evidence is clear: Iron Age finds are meager, and among them is nothing of the sort one expects to find in a ritual deposit (e.g., miniature votive skyphoi or votive plaques).

In addition to factual mistakes and misinterpretations, chapters in Part I are marred by clumsy preparation of illustrations and lack drawings of pottery. Inconsistencies abound, most annoying of which is that the numbering system for catalogued artifacts changes from chapter to chapter. The text is riddled with typographical and editorial errors. The exception is Part II, which contains the essentials of Nelson’s original dissertation.

Ultimate responsibility for the problems must be placed on Fortenberry, who edited the volume, and on Cooper, who approved all the submissions before his death. Yet some blame must fall to the contributors, since two decades have passed since the completion of fieldwork. There has been plenty of time to take advice from others, even to restudy the material. Rigorous peer review would have provided a corrective, but that is not to be expected of British Archaeological Reports.

Authors and titles

1. The Minnesota Pylos Project: Investigations and Results, 1990–98 – Frederick A. Cooper
2. Hydraulic Engineering on the Englianos Ridge: Evidence for Pre-LH IIIB Palaces – Frederick A. Cooper
3. Modelling Movement and Use Patterns within the Palace of Nestor: A GIS/Space Syntax Approach – Todd M. Brenningmeyer
4. Enclosed Gardens in Courts 42 and 47 – Anne B. Hollond
5. Bronze Age Quarrying: A Provenance Study – Joshua N. Distler
6. Discarded Chipped Stone from the Palace of Nestor – George Otto Marquardt
7. Small Finds from the 1990–98 Excavations – Eleni M. Konstantinidi-Syvridi
8. Post-Bronze Age Architecture and Stratigraphy – Todd M. Brenningmeyer
9. Post-Bronze Age Pottery – Shawn A. Ross
10. Post-Bronze Age Industrial Waste and Bronze Casting – Caitlin Downey



1. F. A. Cooper, The Temple of Apollo Bassitas, Princeton 1992-1996.

2. M. C. Nelson, “ The Architecture of Epano Englianos,” diss. University of Toronto 2001.

3. C. W. Blegen and and M. Rawson, The Palace of Nestor at Pylos in Western Messenia I-III, Princeton 1966-1971.

4. See J. L. Davis and K. M. Lynch, “Remembering and Forgetting Nestor: Pylian Pasts Pluperfect?”, in Archaeology and Homeric Epic, ed. S. Sherratt and and J. Bennet, Sheffield Studies in Aegean Archaeology 14, Oxford 2017.

5. M. N. Valmin, The Swedish Messenia Expedition, Lund 1938, pp. 417-465.

6. Compare J. L. Davis and S. R. Stocker, “Animal Sacrifice, Archives, and Feasting at the Palace of Nestor,” in The Mycenaean Feast, ed. J.C. Wright, Hesperia 73 (2004) 179-195.

7. E.g., U. Thaler, “Constructing and Reconstructing Power: The Palace of Pylos,” in Constructing Power: Architecture, Ideology and Social Practice/Konstruktion der Macht: Architektur, Ideologie und soziales Handeln, ed. J. Maran, C. Juwig, H. Schwengel, and U. Thaler, 2nd ed. (Geschichte Forschung und Wissenschaft 19), Münster 2009, pp. 93-116.)

8. E.g., J. C. Wright and T. G. Palaima, “Ins and Outs of the Archives Rooms at Pylos: Form and Function in a Mycenaean Palace, AJA 89 (1985) 251-262.

9. C. W. Shelmerdine, “The Perfumed Oil Industry at Pylos,” in Pylos Comes Alive: Industry and Administration in a Mycenaean Palace, ed. C. W. Shelmerdine and T. G. Palaima, New York 1984, pp. 81-95.

10. W. A. Parkinson and J. F. Cherry, “Pylos Regional Archaeological Project, Part VIII: Lithics and Landscapes: A Messenian Perspective,” Hesperia 79 (2010) 1-51.

11. For the pits, see Davis and Stocker (note 6).

12. See J. L. Davis and S. R. Stocker, “The Medieval Deposit from the Northeast Gateway at the Palace of Nestor,” Hesperia 82 (2013) 673-731.

13. E.g., J. Hruby, “Mycenaean Pottery from Pylos: An Indigenous Typology,” AJA 114 (2010) 195-216; S. Lafayette-Hogue, “New Evidence of Post-Destruction Reuse in the Main Building of the Palace of Nestor,” AJA 120 (2016) 151-157.

14. Davis and Lynch 2017 (see note 4).