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The Minnesota Pylos Project, 1990–98

April 2018 (122.2)

Book Review

The Minnesota Pylos Project, 1990–98

Edited by Frederick A. Cooper and Diane Fortenberry (BAR-IS 2856). Pp. 426. BAR Publishing, Oxford 2017. £80. ISBN 9781407315348 (paper).

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This volume presents the results of the University of Minnesota Pylos Project, which ran from 1990 to 1998, and it is written for scholars focusing on Aegean prehistory in general and Mycenaean and post-Mycenaean Messenia in particular. The volume is divided into two major sections; the first covers the project’s studies of the Palace of Nestor as a whole and is written by several different authors, while the second, written by Michael Nelson, focuses on palace architecture.

The volume contains a great deal of useful information that was not included in the initial publication of the Palace of Nestor. The calculation of Universal Transverse Mercator coordinates and the elevation above sea level were not considered to be essential at the time of Blegen’s original excavations but have since become common practice. The architectural illustrations, both plans and section drawings, fill a substantial gap. A complete state plan is an extraordinarily valuable addition to our knowledge of the site. When the palace was initially excavated, the illustration of sections was in the process of becoming standard practice, so while some sections were recorded, the decision to use them seems largely to have been left to the individuals supervising different trenches. The inclusion of color photographs facilitates the comprehension of the architecture in the vicinity of the palace, though these images appear to have higher contrast than the original features do, drawing the eye to the vegetation rather than to the architecture. Many of the black-and-white photographs are presented at a substantially larger scale than those published in the original excavation reports, and numerous aerial views are included.

Unfortunately, the volume is also characterized by some unevenness due to the number of contributors, the range in their levels and types of expertise, the fact that some sections were completed well before the date of publication, and the presence of numerous factual and typographic errors. Insufficient attention was given to copyediting, beginning with the copyright page and continuing throughout. One name in the acknowledgments is misidentified, and many others are misspelled, sometimes badly. Cooper’s discussion in the preface of the drawbacks to using photogrammetry for surveying a site already looks dated (18), given that many project architects now use a combination of photogrammetry and direct observation to create state plans. When Fortenberry, in her editorial note, describes this volume as revealing details that are “potentially controversial” (23), she understates the case.

Cooper’s assertion in his overview chapter that Blegen treated the structural remains as “little more than containers” for the objects within is hyperbole (29); Rawson, who worked with Blegen, was a trained architect, and her interests were the impetus for the carefully drawn architectural images, particularly those of doorways, in the initial 1966 publication. Cooper identifies plaster floors as being “painted blue” (35); however, if these are like the floors elsewhere at the palace, the color probably comes from having been burned rather than from paint (S. LaFayette, “The Destruction and Afterlife of the Palace of Nestor at Pylos: The Making of a Forgotten Landmark,” Ph.D. diss., University of Cincinnati [2011] 109).

Cooper’s iconoclastic interpretation of the phasing of the site will not convince skeptics. He uses novel interpretations before he makes systematic arguments for them, which may lose readers who are not already intimately familiar with the site. While the site was clearly important long before the Late Helladic (LH) IIIB palace was built, the evidence for defining the scarce Middle Helladic architectural remains as a palace is too thin to be credible. The use of sealings to date the Wine Magazine has become highly problematic (41), given the possibility that at least some of the sealings may predate the building’s construction (C. Shelmerdine, “Pylos Sealings and Sealers,” in Études mycéniennes 2010: Actes du XIIIe Colloque international sur les textes égéens. Sèvres, Paris, Nanterre, 20–23 septembre 2010. Pasiphae 10 [Pisa and Rome 2012] 392). Similarly, the “griddle” that he would define as representing post–Bronze Age material has numerous Bronze Age parallels (J. Hruby, “Finding Haute Cuisine,” in J. Hruby and D. Trusty, From Cooking Vessels to Cultural Practices in the Late Bronze Age Aegean [Oxford 2017] 17). Additionally, Cooper’s discussion of the stratigraphy of the northwest area relies on the notebooks of Kittredge and Papathanasopoulos but strangely omits work done by Hubbe. Similarly, the evidence for archaic temples requires the reader to use a great deal of imagination; the patterns of walls are not unique to temple architecture, nor are the types of finds associated with other archaic sanctuaries (extensive deposits of miniature vessels, bronze or ceramic human or animal figurines, beads, or other datable offerings) among the objects discovered here (J. Davis and K. Lynch, “Remembering and Forgetting Nestor: Pylian Pasts Pluperfect?” in S. Sherratt and J. Bennet, Archaeology and Homeric Epic. Sheffield Studies in Aegean Archaeology [Oxford 2016]).

Brenningmeyer’s discussion of movement through the palace is potentially useful but has two major drawbacks. First, some of the LH IIIB plans he uses conflate different parts of the LH IIIB period, creating rooms that appear not to have had any entrance at all. Second, he seems unaware that a remarkably similar project had already been completed by Thaler (“Narrative and Syntax: New Perspectives on the Late Bronze Age Palace of Pylos, Greece,” in A. van Nes, ed., Space Syntax: 5th International Symposium Proceedings. Vol. 2 [Delft, Netherlands 2005] 323–39) well before this chapter was revised.

Hollond’s assertion that Mycenaean gardens have received far less attention than Minoan or Theran ones is accurate, but her argument for the identity of courts 42 and 47 as gardens is weakened by three problems. First, she takes Rawson’s references to “flowerpot ware” literally. Rawson named vessels based on familiar modern counterparts, but she expected their names to be taken figuratively; for example, Rawson did not mean that “teacups” were used for drinking tea, only that they looked like modern teacups. The second drawback, inherent in the project because of the date of the original excavation, is a lack of supporting paleoethnobotanical data. The third is that Hollond’s assertion that aromatics for the production of perfumes may have been grown here misses the opportunity to think about the yields of various plants used for the production of perfumes; the amounts listed on the tablets are far greater than what could have been grown in these spaces.

Distler’s attempt to recognize quarries for the limestone blocks in the palace again points to a shortcoming in the literature. His stable isotope analysis and discussion of the logistics of transporting architectural stone advance his argument that the palatial building stone originated in quarries near Gargaliani. He seems to have been unaware of Zangger et al.’s previous discussion (“The Pylos Regional Archaeology Project, Part II: Landscape Evolution and Site Preservation,” Hesperia 66 [1997] 549–641), although admittedly brief, of quarries in the same region.

Marquardt publishes the lithics recovered from Blegen’s dumps. While he uses some terminology in nonstandard ways (e.g., “crested blade”), the careful pencil drawings of the distal and ventral surfaces suffice to illustrate most types of tools and debitage. However, caution should be applied to his identifications of stone types; in Messenia, black chert and obsidian tools are difficult to differentiate visually, and while he does not include Mohs hardness for most, one tool identified as having a Mohs hardness of 3.5 is listed as obsidian (which should have a hardness of about 5). He also seems to be unaware that jasper and chalcedony are typically considered to be varieties of chert.

Konstantinidi-Syvridi’s publication of the small finds recovered from Blegen’s dump is informative. It suggests, among other things, that there may have been more textile production at the site than had previously been thought. The function of pierced ceramic disks as spindlewhorls has since been problematized; Papadopoulos has suggested that at least some later examples might have been used for a range of other purposes, including wiping oneself (“Παίζω ἢ χέζω? A Contextual Approach to Pessoi (Gaming Pieces, Counters, or Convenient Wipes?)” Hesperia 71 [2002] 423–27), with context as a critical determinant. However, the systematic itemization of small finds here does make it clear that there were an additional two biconical whorls as well as a few previously unknown items of iron. The level of textile production at the palace still seems to have been far below the amount suggested by the tablets, implying that textile production may have occurred elsewhere nearby.

Brenningmeyer’s argument for archaic temples at Pylos is unconvincing. One acroterion fragment looks more like an irregular rim of a pithos or other large vessel (fig. 8.22; rims that are not particularly round are common in antiquity and especially at Pylos); another is insufficiently clearly illustrated to identify (fig. 8.23). Because modern mudbrick structures in Messenia use flat ceramic spacers, often recycled, between bricks, and because we have no known context for these large sherds, it is equally possible that the “acroteria” and “roof tiles” come from a modern mudbrick building that had disappeared by the time Blegen first saw the site. Also, Brenningmeyer’s failure to publish clear illustrations of more than a few of the tiles makes it impossible for a reader to evaluate the hypothesis that they represent roof tiles rather than drain tiles or parts of large vessels.

Ross attempts a publication of post–Bronze Age ceramics from the site. It is a shame that so many of what he identifies as post–Bronze Age sherds are clearly from the Bronze Age. For example, those sherds with ripple decoration should date to the Early Mycenaean period rather than the Early Iron Age (referred to throughout the volume as the “Dark Ages,” presumably following the practice of the Nichoria publications).

Downey publishes what she identifies as ceramic waste from bronze casting, dated without evidence as post–Bronze Age. She notes that some ceramic fragments are burned, heavily vitrified, and apparently layered, and some have lower specific gravities than do most ceramics. However, the hypothesis is unnecessary given the likelihood that they came from a building that burned at extraordinarily high temperatures, given the number of bloated and otherwise pyroplastically deformed ceramic vessels and tablets from the building, and given the lack of any evidence for bronze adhering to these fragments.

In part 2, Nelson’s discussion of the architecture of the site begins with an overview in which he surveys the published palatial architecture and the chronology of the buildings composing it. He considers the various building materials used (rubble and fieldstone, poros limestone, other types of limestone, mudbrick, and wood) and the numerous methods used for the construction of foundations and walls, including the types of tools that left tool marks. Of particular interest is his examination of timber use for the palace’s northeast facade, where both mortises and bedding cuts indicate that substantial horizontal beams were located; as he notes, while horizontal beams may have served as lintels and window sills, the continuous course of beams here is sufficiently long that it must have had other purposes, such as tying together blocks within the wall or providing a decorative element.

Nelson also discusses the pier-wall construction used for the megaron and a few other architectural spaces, providing a different construction scenario than that identified by Blegen and Rawson. In their interpretation of the architectural remains, the gaps between segments of mud and rubble were packed with wood (xylodesia) that burned out at the time of the destruction and were replaced by migma, a concretelike mass of melted lime. Nelson points out that for limestone to melt it must reach 1339°C at 103 atmospheres and that this is unlikely to have been the situation at the palace. While 1339°C is not so impossible as he claims—there were ceramics in the fire with vitrification temperatures of  approximately 1100°C that did in fact vitrify and pyroplastically deform, and the fact that the site tends to be windy suggests that fires there could have been hotter than the fuel alone would indicate—the extremely high pressure seems much less likely. This situation, he suggests, implies that the hard, calcium carbonate–rich material between the piers represents original building material, and he recommends that the building technique be called “pier-wall” construction rather than xylodesia.

Nelson completes his discussion with a survey of the chronological development of construction materials and techniques used in the palace and its vicinity. He traces five phases: original cut ashlar masonry, pseudo-ashlar masonry, orthostate construction, (newer) ashlar masonry, and pier-wall construction. He compares the architectural style and techniques with those from Minoan Crete, including masons’ marks, orthostate and ashlar construction, bedding cuts for timber, and a system in which mortises are first cut into wooden elements and then cut into the stones that will support them. He is more circumspect in his analysis of the architectural elements from the Middle Helladic period, LH I–II, and LH IIIA than either Cooper or Blegen were. His discussion of LH IIIA palatial architecture seems prescient; when he was writing, Minoan-style palaces with central courts flanked by blocks of buildings were otherwise unknown from the Greek mainland, but the newly discovered palatial site at Ayios Vasileios in Lakonia appears to have had a comparable plan.

Nelson discusses the ceramic building elements, including the plaques from the kiln, the drain pipes, and the drain tiles in appendix A. In appendix B, he describes the dovetail clamp cuttings from three ashlar blocks. Appendix C reports the results of chemical tests to identify the contents of soil samples undertaken by Bob Munter at the University of Minnesota. There are 33 pages of plans, most of which are meticulously drafted state plans, and the book includes a detailed index. In short, the volume’s uneven character suggests that while some sections do have substantial scholarly value, all should be read and interpreted with care.

Julie Hruby
Department of Classics
Dartmouth College

Book Review of The Minnesota Pylos Project, 1990–98, edited by Frederick A. Cooper and Diane Fortenberry 

Reviewed by Julie Hruby

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 122, No. 2 (April 2018)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1222.hruby

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