Medieval Material from the Palace of Nestor at Pylos

This past issue of Hesperia was a good one for people interested in field survey and Late or post Ancient material. Not only did it feature a wide ranging and provocative article by Hamish Forbes on manuring and off-site pottery scatters, but it also included an article by Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker on Medieval pottery from the Palace of Nestor

The Palace of Nestor is not, of course, known as an important Medieval site in Greece, but for the excavated remains of an important Late Bronze Age administrative center and the largest assemblage of Linear B tablets. It was also the central feature in two important survey projects, the Minnesota Messinia Expedition and the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project that sought to contextualize the Bronze Age site as well as the later activities in this region. In other words, these sherds exist in a larger archaeological context developed over 6 decades of excavation and survey.

The deposit of Medieval material was careful excavated by Carl Blegen and Marion Rawson. The artifacts seem to be associated with a small, tile-roofed building near the Northeast Gateway. The article is particularly interesting for a few reasons:

1. Dating the Assemblage. Joannita Vroom dated the assemblage to the late 12th or early 13th century on the basis of cooking pots, but the overall date of the assemblage and the duration over which it was formed remains unclear. It is nevertheless important that these kinds of assemblages are published to provide a context for later work. Too often, excavators hold back problematic materials until they can clarify the dates or until they can fit into established typologies. These kinds of assemblages are important to advancing our understanding of Medieval society in Greece and the massive, color catalogue with copious profiles continues in Hesperia’s (and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens’) long and impressive tradition for documenting artifacts. Providing XRF data for some of the artifacts in this assemblage makes it even more valuable source of comparanda. 

2. Non-Monumental. Davis and Stocker point out that this site is remarkable because it is not monumental or elite. It is not a church, a palace, or a fortification, but seemingly a more modest building with a tile roof and a tile floor. The presence of cooking pots in significant quantities and table wares perhaps suggests a domestic structure. While there was not enough preserved of the building to allow for any analysis of architecture, we can surmise that it was made of mud brick, had a tile roof, and was simple in design. 

3. Modest Structures and Survey. One of the most important contributions of this article is the observation that a large percentage of the unexcavated area of the Englianos ridge where the Palace of Nestor stood underwent intensive pedestrian survey. This survey produced very few sherds datable to the 12th and 13th century. Davis and Stocker suggest that this probably reflected absence of a Medieval settlement in the area and noted that in the later Ottoman period the ridge fell under the control of a nearby village. While this would certainly account for the absence of any substantial quantities 12th and 13th century material, we should not overlook the possibility that a modest, short-term settlement, featuring relatively humble structures like that revealed in Blegen’s and Rawson’s excavations, would have left only the faintest signature on the surface. The  significant quantities of Medieval tile that appeared in the brown level of topsoil may have represented a rather undiagnostic assemblage had the excavators not revealed the more clearly Medieval material in the black ashy level beneath. 

This article will no radically redefine how we understand Medieval settlement in the Peloponnesus or even tell us much about Medieval life on the Englianos ridge, but it does represent a substantial and perhaps even definitive first step toward a more conscientious effort to document Medieval life in the Eastern Mediterranean. If more scholars presented significant finds from earlier excavations in such a careful and thorough way, our understanding of the Medieval period would be greatly increased. 

(This, of course, got me thinking about whether Blegen’s excavations at Gonia and Yeriza in the Corinthia from the 1930s produced Medieval material. The Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey documented Medieval and Early Modern material in the vicinity of Gonia, perhaps associated with an Early Modern church to the north of the hill.)

3 Comments

  1. I don’t think it is correct to say that the survey produced little or no pottery from the 12th or 13th century. Most of the pottery recovered by the survey was not diagnostic and it was very difficult to narrow dates to centuries or, in some cases, even cultural phases. I agree with you that this assemblage represents a house.

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  2. Ioanita Vroom said the cooking wares “could be” 12th century but then they “could be” anything since no parallels were given. I told them that the lack of over glaze on the fine wares would be late 13th + in Corinth and can cite numerous examples. The presence of glass makes it 14th century and very. Glass lamps – a church was there.

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