Pylos Regional Archaeological Project: 1994 Season.

The Pylos Regional Archaeological Project:

Preliminary Report on the 1994 Season


J.L. Davis, University of Cincinnati; S.E. Alcock, University of Michigan; J. Bennet, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Y. Lolos, Hellenic Institute of Marine Archaeology; C.W. Shelmerdine, University of Texas-Austin; M. Timpson, Northern Arizona University; and Eberhard Zangger, Heidelberg University

Hypertext version prepared by Sebastian Heath, University of Michigan,

Table of Contents


The third and final season of fieldwork for the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project (we call it PRAP) took place in 1994, under the auspices of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Geographic Society, the Institute for Aegean Prehistory, the Louise Taft Semple Fund, the Department of Classics of the University of Cincinnati, the Department of Classics of the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan, The Graduate Research Committee and Department of Classics of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and numerous private donors.

As we look back, Janus-like, over three seasons of fieldwork and ahead to a study season, this is an appropriate moment to put this summer's results in the context of the overall project, and to report on where we now stand in relation to its original goals. In 1994 intensive survey teams worked in three areas: in a coastal transect just south of the Langouvardos River valley, in the rugged uplands between Gargalianoi and Lefki, and east of the Aigaleon mountain range, which probably formed the provincial boundary of the Mycenaean kingdom of Pylos. The 10 square km they surveyed bring the total for the project to about 40 square km. PRAP has doubled the number of sites previously known in this total area; a dozen new sites were identified this year. For example, we covered virtually all of the valley where the modern village of Margeli is located. Only one site was known here previously, the large conical hill Koutsoveri (L1) that appears to have been occupied principally during the Middle Bronze Age. Our team located the remains of six additional sites chiefly of Historic date, one perhaps a Roman cemetery [Margeli Ayios Ioannis, L3. We also continued our inventory survey of sites already known, largely from the work of the Minnesota Messenia Expedition (MME). We have been able to investigate nearly all the sites within a 70 square km area, and to define and plot their spatial extent and identify their chronological components with greater precision. This year for the first time we employed a [Sokkia Set 5] Total Station electronic theodolite, which greatly improved our on-site mapping abilities.

Multi-Period Sites

An interesting feature to emerge from our work is the recognition of a number of rather large multi-period sites, with substantial surface remains of both Prehistoric and Historic date. In 1994 we identified Gargalianoi Ordines (K1) by the Langouvardos Valley as an especially interesting site of this type. This settlement had a long and complex occupational history, indicated by domestic pottery diagnostic of all periods from Neolithic to the Dark Age and Archaic through Roman, as well as a few Byzantine to Modern sherds. At about 6 hectares it is also three times larger than had previously been estimated. Impressive bedrock cuttings-for quarries or structural foundations of uncertain date-were noted and plans made of them using the Total Station.

Earliest Prehistory

PRAP has also begun to add to our knowledge of Western Messenia before the Neolithic. Last year we reported on the coastal site of Romanou Rikia (I18), whose lithics we tentatively dated near the transition betwen the Upper Palaeolithic and the Mesolithic periods. Project geologists Eberhard Zangger and Michael Timpson now suggest that the soil matrix at this site may be much older, at least 100-150,000 years old, so the artifacts too may reach back that far; but important questions of context remain to be clarified. An early presence of humans in the area is given stronger support by a small but dense assemblage of chipped stone found in 1994 at a new site by the coast north of Vromoneri (Vromoneri Vergina Rema, I28). These lithics are heavily patinated and of larger size than the norm, and preliminary analysis by Curtis Runnels and John Cherry suggests they include Levallois flakes and a core, Mousterian sidescrapers, and other items characteristic of the late Greek Mousterian. Another new site near Gargalianoi (Gargalianoi Kalantina (1), M1), on intensely red Pleistocene soil, yielded a mixture of EH pottery with a dense and heterogeneous collection of lithics. Few of these are diagnostic, although some probably predate the Bronze Age. This highland area [M] shows a much denser distribution of chipped stone than most other areas we have examined. Throughout the survey region, obsidian is uncommon; the many types of lithic raw material nearly all appear to derive from locally available chert cobbles. Well-known Bronze Age artifact types such as prismatic blades and cores, denticulates, and hollow-based arrowpoints are present, but by far the commonest finds are flakes with small areas of expedient edge-retouch or notching.

Neolithic - Bronze Age

Finds of Neolithic and Early Bronze Age date are especially welcome, because these periods have been poorly represented in Messenia. A few Neolithic sherds have been recognized by their distinct fabric at several sites, including the Palace. The best evidence for the Early Helladic period comes from the site of Vromoneri Nozaina (I20). This yielded a remarkably homogeneous collection of coarse pottery, with diagnostic EH II shapes including T-rim and conical bowl rims and a possible sauceboat rim. EH pottery is also present at the multi-period site of Ordines (K1) and in the town which surrounds the Palace of Nestor. Some pieces, including Bass bowl rims and crescent lug handles belong to EH III. This phase has conventionally been thought to be absent from Messenia, but it has recently been recognized in the earliest pottery from Nichoria in Eastern Messenia. Our work in 1994 establishes it in the West of the province as well. More material of this date comes from the threshing floor [aloni] of the Deriziotis family, 500 m southwest of the Palace. Lord William Taylour excavated this small site in 1958 and published his results in volume III of The Palace of Nestor. PRAP member Shari Stocker received permission this year to restudy this material. She reports that the pottery forms a homogeneous group and has parallels with the early Groups A and C from Nichoria and with Lerna IV/V transitional and early Lerna V pottery. This confirms Taylour's suggested late EH III to early MH I date.

Middle and Late Helladic remains came to light in much of the area surveyed in 1994. One interesting discovery was a concentration of bones and Mycenaean pottery at Valta Kastraki (K3). They appear to belong to a grave, and the mayor of Valta reported that a child's skull was found in a grave here some years ago. We were pleased, therefore, to discover among the sherds collected the complete profile of a LH IIIA2/IIIB1 child's feeding bottle. Only the spout was missing, and the Minnesota Messenia Expedition reported finding a feeding bottle spout at this site 25 years ago [AJA 73, 1969, 146]. The greatest concentration of Mycenaean material, of course, came from around the Palace of Nestor, where the gridded collection of surface artifacts was completed this year. Remains of LH IIIA-IIIB were very common and included many fragments of plaster, several with painted decoration. In addition to surface collection, a program of magnetometric prospection was carried out by Dr. Falko Kuhnke and his geophysical team from the University of Braunschweig. Preliminary analysis suggests that substantial remains of large structures are preserved in the area of the Lower Town trenches dug by Blegen southwest of the palace, and on a terrace farther to the west. By contrast, coring and magnetometric prospection last year showed much worse subsurface preservation to the Northeast of the Palace.

Over the three years of the project this combination of artifact collection and geophysical and geomorphological investigation has given us a much better picture of this important settlement. As well as learning about subsurface conditions, we have found that the town is both larger and longer-lived than previously reported. Analysis of the pottery is not yet complete, but it is already clear that habitation extended over some 20 ha. around the Palace, four times the size of earlier estimates, and continued from Neolithic times through the Bronze Age, with some pockets of Geometric through Byzantine material as well.

Dark Age through Roman Periods

Turning to the post-palatial era, we have observed that southwestern Messenia followed a historical trajectory quite different from other regions surveyed in Greece. Elsewhere a cyclical pattern of settlement nucleation and dispersion is the norm. Messenians, by contrast, tended to congregate in relatively large, often very long-lived settlements, probably due to unusual historical circumstances. Nevertheless the volume of surface remains does vary over time. After three seasons of fieldwork, the Dark Age to Geometric periods are still very poorly attested in our survey area, though a few isolated sherds were identified. Activity increased somewhat in the Archaic and Classical era; a large concentration of Laconian rooftiles was found this year at Ordines. (These distribution maps, prepared on the computer by Sebastian Heath, are preliminary, and include only firmly dated material.) But the Hellenistic and Roman periods provided the lion's share of data this season, as in previous years: several new sites were located this year in the Margeli Valley alone. The prevalence of Roman finds in particular runs counter to survey patterns elsewhere.

This ebb and flow of settlement from Prehistoric through Roman times can be traced at several multi-period sites. Ordines has already been mentioned; Romanou (I4) is another good example. See here a field by field distribution map of activity in Late Helladic times, a downturn in the Geometric period, an increase in the Archaic and Classical era, then significant settlement in Hellenistic and Roman times.

Another large site is Marathoupolis Dialiskari (G1), which we have established as a Roman villa complex. The main period represented is Late Roman (4-7 cy. AD), marked by African Red Slip and Late Roman 'C' wares, though some traces of earlier occupation were also noted. We concentrated this year on the planning and drawing of architectural features, including remains of a villa with mosaic floor, a hypocaust system, coastal quarries and cuttings for salt pans. Among the finds were two Late Roman Corinthian capitals with "spiky acanthus" decoration, glass window and vessel fragments, and coins. The site also yielded a four-line inscription, probably of the first or second century AD, which may be related to cult activity in this area. Dialiskari thus emerges as an impressive Late Roman coastal villa site; in general there is a notable coastal emphasis in the distribution of our material from this period.
The small site of Romanou Glyfadaki (E1) is an exception to our rule of relatively large settlements. It produced a nice collection of Late Hellenistic and Early Roman pottery, including fine wares such as moldmade bowls (E-93-91411-11 and E-93-91411-12) as well as other domestic material. These fine wares and the small size of the site suggest the presence of an elite residence. The results of coring and magnetometry support this conclusion. The remains of what appears to be a large building (over 40 meters in one dimension) were recognized through the detection of magnetic anomalies. However, cores taken from several holes drilled into the anomalies suggest that the walls of the building themselves are not preserved and that magnetic prospections have recognized their bedding trenches. Ann Harrison, our Hellenistic expert, is currently analyzing the surface distribution of tile and pottery in relation to this subsurface feature.

Byzantine to Early Modern Periods

One of our objectives this season was to round out the picture of Byzantine and later periods in this part of Messenia. In 1994 we added two cemeteries, tile graves at Gargalianoi Koutsoveri (K4) and tumuli at Lefki Kaldamou (I-23-27), and continued our investigation of settlements like Metamorphosis Aliartos (A4) at the base of the Metaxada valley. [This site has two principal and discrete period components (Roman and Byzantine). The focus of settlement here seems clearly to have shifted through time to a copious spring near the present day church. Also discovered and mapped was a water channel linking the spring with foundations identified by local residents as a Turkish bath.] Our Byzantine specialist Sharon Gerstel reports that Byzantine cookwares and coarse wares found by the survey have good parallels from Nichoria and Sparta. Fine wares include diagnostic sherds with glazed and sgraffito decoration, and lamp fragments such as the stem of a Middle Byzantine double suspension lamp. A single Venetian tornesello from the reign of the Doge Antonio Venerio (1382-1400 AD) marks the Venetian occupation of this region.

More recent sites of interest were also collected in 1994 and studied by Kim Shelton. Floka Panitsa (I22) is a good example of an early 19th century Messenian site. The pottery is mostly of local Greek manufacture, inspired by both Turkish and European wares. The latter type includes "blue design" plates with flower or other patterns near the rim, which are quite frequent among surface finds throughout our area. Similar material from Tragana Hassan Aga (C4) also dates to the early 19th century, but an adjacent house and walled enclosure may have Turkish antecedents. In addition to the collection of archaeological evidence, research on the medieval and early modern periods is being undertaken in state archives in Istanbul and Venice.

Geoarchaeological Research

The valuable contribution of magnetometric prospection to our results has already been referred to, especially in combination with coring. Another coring effort in 1994 yielded particularly intriguing results. Project geologist Eberhard Zangger engaged a local well-drilling team to investigate the unusually flat alluvial plain on the Kokkevis Estate at Romanou. Our goal was to determine if this plain represents a silted-up basin which may have been filled with water in the Bronze Age. Sure enough, the resulting cores show unequivocal stratigraphic evidence for the existence of a basin in this area; its flat bottom and other clues suggest that it was artifically constructed. Indeed it seems very likely that we have identified here the Bronze Age port of Pylos.

Soil scientist Michael Timpson also joined us to map soils and study exposures of buried soils in several 2 square km regions underlain by the various dominant geologic materials in the survey area. These included a coastal area near Dialiskari, two adjoining areas on the Englianos ridge, and another in the Metaxada valley. The objective of this research was to construct soil maps, based on landscape and geologic relationships, and compare them with archaeological data collected from the same areas. We wanted to see if a relationship existed between artifact/site density and the occurrence of natural soil-landscape units. No such correlation was apparent in the region of Dialiskari, but in the Metaxada valley, land use decreased dramatically on sideslopes with more than 35% slope. Analysis of the areas on the Englianos ridge confirmed other indications of severe erosion due to human agency. Indeed, the degree of erosion observed suggests that many sites may have been lost due to mass wasting, or covered by materials eroded from higher slope positions.

Finally, pollen analysis is beginning to produce exciting new results. Carbon-14 determinations have recently been released from coring samples taken from the Osmanaga Lagoon by Sergei and Gle Yazvenko. They suggest that the transition from Zone C to Zone B on this diagram, and with it a sharp increase in cultivation and human impact on the environment, may be dated near the end of the 4th millenium B.C. Zone B continues upward through the Bronze Age and Classical era to c. 125 cm.; a probable age range at 140 cm. is 537-400 B.C. A noteworthy peak and sharp dropoff in olive pollen occurs at about 175 cm.; this can now be dated to the Mycenaean era, for a sample at 198 cm. shows a Late Bronze Age range of 1270-1153 B.C.

Conclusions and Prospects

Thus in 1994, we were able to complete the field work bearing on the three major research goals that have defined this project from its inception: 1) the thorough investigation around the Palace of Nestor, 2) the discovery of new sites in a variety of terrains and subregions, and 3) improved understanding of the duration and extent of known sites of all periods. I have tried to outline some of our more important results here. It is already clear that we will be able to add information about several of the questions that capture the interest of scholars of both Bronze Age and later Messenian history. In the Mycenaean period, for example, we have observed that smaller satellite sites tend to cluster in the vicinity of larger sites, and that at least some older settlements, particularly in border areas, seem to have languished as the Palace gained in power. The relatively limited presence of Archaic and Classical material, together with few signs of the normal Classical pattern of dispersed farmstead settlements, is one of the most intriguing aspects of our historical results, and may be correlated with the annexation of Messenia to Spartan economic needs. Certainly, at this point it seems that there is an efflorescence of activity in the Hellenistic era following the liberation from Sparta and the founding of Messene. An even greater intensification of settlement marks the Roman era, again in contrast to survey patterns elsewhere. Our findings suggest that even in the Late Roman period Greece was not in the state of isolation and decline once ascribed to it. As for Byzantine and later eras, a combination of artifactual evidence with archival and ethnographic research will reveal new information about an important region that has received insufficient attention from Mediaeval archaeologists.

In 1984 a conference was held entitled Pylos Comes Alive at which the life of this Bronze Age palatial center was explored in great detail. It is encouraging to see, only 10 years later that the territory that supported the palace is now "coming to life" in similar fashion, and that we are learning much more about the periods before and after the palace's existence. We look forward to a study season in 1995 to continue our analysis of the material collected. This synthetic examination of Western Messenia will broaden our knowledge of a region which served over time as both center and periphery, a region described by documents Mycenaean and Mediaeval, a region rich in material remains, and offering provocative questions to be answered by the archaeologist.