Blegen at Pylos*

Pylos in Messenia, in the western Peloponnese, had a rather brief existence—according to tradition, no more than four kings were its rulers from its founding to its destruction. It was Neleus, the father of Nestor, who built the city, having come from Iolcus when his brother Peleus expelled him, and settled there a mixed population of his own followers.1

Neleus brought great renown to Pylos; but later in his reign, when his sons were still only young men, some unexplained disaster overtook the city, remembered in tradition as the destruction of Pylos by Heracles.2 A large part of the population perished: of Neleus’ twelve sons Nestor only survived; but the people of Pylos rebuilt the city on an even grander scale, including a spatious palace for Nestor, who followed Neleus on the throne. Afterwards the city became involved in bitter warfare with neighboring Elis, and Nestor distinguished himself at the head of the Pylian forces.3 But by the time of the Achaean expedition against Troy Nestor’ s age no longer permitted him to lead his warriors in battle. Homer tells in the Iliad that this king of Pylos had seen two generations of men pass—“those who had grown up with him, and they who were born to these in sacred Pylos, and he was king in the third age.”4 From this we can judge that some four or five decades separated the time of the disaster which overtook Pylos in Nestor’s youth from the siege of Troy. Of those who came to Troy with Agamemnon, Nestor’s was one of the few safe returns; once again he seated himself upon the marble bench in his palace, “scepter in hand, a Warden of the Achaean race.”5 Homer describes the visit of Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, to Nestor at Pylos, ten years after Troy’s fall—the prince from Ithaka found a prosperous city at the head of a peaceful realm, unruffled by any whiff of danger. Yet it is worth noting that Nestor took care to placate Poseidon the “earthshaker” with frequent sacrifices.6

The end of Pylos came in the second generation after Nestor: “After the end of the war against Ilium, and the death of Nestor after his return home, the expedition of the Dorians and return of the Heracleidae two generations afterwards drove out the descendants of Neleus from Messenia.”7 That there was an influx of Doric-speaking peoples into the Peloponnese after the downfall of the Mycenaean centers is certain—the distribution of Greek dialects in classical times attests to this; but the old view that they were the cause of the widespread catastrophe that marks the end of the Late bronze Age in Greece now finds few supporters. The Dorian bands descended on the weakened Mycenaean kingdoms, taking possession of a depopulated land.8 The Heraclids, as their name shows, were worshippers of Mars. Having been expelled from the Peloponnese one or two generations before the Trojan War, they settled in northern Greece. However, the dislocations and upheavals which marked the eighth and early seventh centuries uprooted them once again and brought them back to claim possession of their ancient homeland. But this was no mass displacement of populations; as Pausanias records, only the royal family, “the descendants of Neleus” were expelled. “The old Messenians were not turned out by the Dorians, but agreed to Cresphontes being their king, and to the partition of the land among the Dorians. And they were brought over to this compliance by suspicion of their former kings, because they were Minyae who had originally sprung from Iolcus.”9

The route by which the Heracleidae reached Pylos appears to have been this: They were advancing from the north towards the Peloponnesos, but were dissuaded from crossing the Corinthian Isthmus;10 instead they took to the sea, directing their ships westward through the Corinthian Gulf, and disembarked on the unprotected northern coast of Achaia. Thence they advanced south through Arcadia towards Elis, and then on to Pylos. The unprotected palace of Nestor was seized and put to the torch.11 The conquest completed, Pausanias relates, the Heraclid king who received Messenia as his share did not establish himself at Pylos, but “changed the royal residence to Stenyclarus.”

Thus Pylos was abandoned and remained deserted—even the knowledge of the site of Nestor’s palace was lost; it became a matter of discussion already in antiquity. Most ancients and moderns, however, have agreed in placing Nestor’s palace somewhere in the vicinity of the Bay of Navarino in western Messenia.12 This was also the conviction of Carl Blegen when in 1939 he came to Messenia to search the countryside for any sign of the ancient city of Pylos with Nestor’s famous palace, celebrated bv Homer.

Blegen selected for his first dig a prominent hilltop, a short distance from the sea, which seemed to him eminently suitable to be the site of a royal palace; and really, as soon as he began to lift the earth from his first trench, extensive structures began to appear, and much pottery of Mycenaean time. Here, without doubt, was Nestor’s great palace. The excavations at Pylos were hardly even started when war intervened; it was not until 1952 that Blegen was able to return with a team from the University of Cincinnati and organize a thorough campaign of excavation—he was to stay for a dozen years.

Already in 1939 in the very first trench he dug Blegen unearthed scores of tablets written in Linear B—and soon there were hundreds of them. Such profusion made the archaeologists question whether the script was Minoan or had its origins on the mainland of Greece; and when subsequently more tablets inscribed with these characters were found at other sites on the Greek mainland—at Mycenae and at Thebes—the name “Mycenaean” came rather regularly to be applied to the script.

For over a decade after their discovery the tablets were neither published nor read;13 but when read, they were found to contain no literary text: they were regularly archive notes, dealing with taxation or conscription, or human and animal census or storage inventory. Nevertheless, interesting parallels could be drawn with the Homeric epics: Pylos is mentioned at the head of nine towns that profess allegiance to it—in Homer and on the tablets—even some of the names of the towns are the same in both sources.14 And to Blegen’s great satisfaction Pylos was found repeatedly mentioned on the tablets retrieved from the palace he identified as Nestor’s.15 Nestor’s name, however, was not found.

The tablets, originally not fired but only dried, would have disintegrated long ago, were it not for the fire that destroyed the palace and baked the tablets. A great conflagration raged over the structure; it came rather suddenly, since neither furniture, nor pottery, nor the contents of the storage rooms and archives were removed, nor were the animals led away: but humans all fled.16 Blegen placed the destruction not long after the Trojan War, at the close of the Mycenaean age.17 However, no signs of warfare, siege, occupation by people of another culture or occupation in general were found.18

The palace and the temple next to it, a sanctuary of Hera, presented Blegen and his collaborators with problems not unlike those that had already occupied him at the cemetery of Argos and then at Troy. The time of the destruction of the palace of Nestor was determined by the Mycenaean pottery found in the ruins, sealed by the layer of ashes and debris of the final conflagration. Comparing the designs on the pottery in use at the time of the palace’s destruction with the established stylistic sequence of Mycenaean pottery, calibrated according to the Egyptian time-scale, the excavators decided that the end of Pylos came ca. the year -1200.19 But this date was reached at the cost of ignoring the evidence of other pottery pointing to a much later time. In the main building of the palace, among sherds from Mycenaean vases “a not inconsiderable number stood out as of a different character: from this material it was possible to reconstruct in whole or in part four pots which may be assigned to a late geometric phase . . .”20 Nor was this an isolated case—such finds were common throughout the palace: “in some places . . . in the upper black layer [the level of burning] . . . were found, along with the usual Mycenaean pottery, a few glazed sherds of Late Geometric Style as in so many parts of the site, where similar deposits were encountered.”21 If Late Geometric sherds were found next to Mycenaean ones in the level of burning, the question must arise: When was the Palace of Nestor destroyed, ca. -1200 or in the seventh century? To escape this dilemma Blegen postulated “fairly widespread activity on the site in late geometric times”22 after five centuries of abandonment—this despite his assertion that the conflagration marked “the end of human occupation of the site.”23 But such an explanation is hardly tenable in the light of the stratigraphic situation. If the Late Geometric pottery had been left by new occupants of the hill five hundred years or more after the burning of Nestor’s palace, the remains of these vases would not have been found mixed with the ware used by the occupants of the palace at the time of its destruction. The exact position of the Late Geometric pottery merits a closer examination. The pavement of the court was covered by a thin “yellowish-white clayish deposit” ; immediately above it was an “extremely black layer” less than a foot deep. In “the yellowish-white stratum /which/ unquestionably represents the latest phase of occupation of the palace” were found, besides fragments of Mycenaean pottery “also some pieces of glazed Geometric ware.”24 But how could fragments of seventh-century Geometric ware have come to rest on the floor of Nestor’s palace? They “must somehow have penetrated from above.” How they could possibly have achieved this, however, finds no easy answer. After the palace’s destruction “vegetation spread its mantle over the whole area.”25 To penetrate to the floor of Nestor’s buried palace the sherds would have had to find their way not only through the layer of earth and vegetation but also through the black stratum of the final burning, “a compact layer of smallish stones closely packed in blackish earth.”26 These small stones within the burnt stratum were clearly remains of the roof and walls which had collapsed in the conflagration and covered whatever deposit was left on the floor at the time. A stratigraphic situation such as this allows only one conclusion: the Geometric ware belonged, as did the Mycenaean, to the last occupants of the palace and was left behind when they fled. The collapse of the building in the course of the raging conflagration sealed the deposit in place.

Most of the smaller towns in Messenia suffered a similar fate, and only a handful survived into the subsequent. Archaic age.27


*The passages marked in red are by Velikovsky. The section on Pylos is one of several that were written as a collaborative effort between myself and Velikovsky; Velikovsky wanted to highlight the work of Blegen and the chronological problems this archaeologist faced at each site where he dug. The sections on Blegen’s excavations at the Argive Heraion and at Troy were also parts of that collaborative effort, although the actual writing is entirely by me. The collaboration involved my writing of certain passages based on research by Velikovsky, Schorr and myself, Velikovsky’s editing of those writings, subsequent rewritings, etc. In 1980, at the request of Velikovsky’s Estate, I separated out the parts written by myself from the rest of the manuscript. However, some Velikovsky passages are integral and inseparable from my own work; I have therefore kept them and marked them in red letters in the html text I have submitted to the archive editors. —Jan Sammer

  1. Diodorus IV. 68. 6; Pausanias IV. 36. 1.

  2. The Iliad XI. 689; “Heracles” may be an allusion to the planet Mars (Hyginus, Fabulae II.42: “Tertia est stella Hartis quam alii Herculis dixerunt.” Cf. Macrobius, Saturnalia III.12.5-6, reporting the opinion of Varro). The excavators of Nestor’s palace found also remains of an earlier settlement whose violent destruction they attributed to Neleus’ occupation of the site (C. W. Blegen and M. Rawson, The Palace of Nestor in Western Messenia, vol. I, pt. I., Princeton, 1966, p. 423). However it is more likely to represent the city of Neleus destroyed by “Heracles”. Diodorus differs from Pausanias in asserting that Neleus was the founder of Pylos.

  3. Iliad., XI. 682, 698-701.

  4. Iliad., I. 250-252.

  5. Odyssey III.

  6. Odyssey III. 3f. For evidence of the cult of Poseidon at Pylos see also M. Ventris and J. Chadwick, Documents in Mycenaean Greek, second ed. (Cambridge, 1973), p. 279.

  7. Pausanias IV, 3.

  8. See above, section “A Gap Closed,” n.6.

  9. Pausanias III. 3. The exile of the Neleids to Attica is mentioned in numerous ancient sources. For an evaluation of these traditions in the context of recent archaeological evidence, see Ch. Sourvinou-Inwood, “Movements of Populations in Attica at the End of the Mycenaean Period” in Bronze Age Migration’s in the Aegean (1974) pp. 215-222.

  10. Pausanias, Elis I, iii.6. The massive wall built across the Isthmus of Corinth in late Mycenaean times may have been a factor in forcing the Heracleidae to put to the sea. Cf. o. Broneer, Hesperia 28 (1959), pp. 298ff.; G. Mylonas, Mycenae and the Mycenaean Age (Princeton, 1966), pp. 219-220.

  11. The conflagration in which Nestor’s palace perished preserved many clay tablets with inscriptions in Linear B, dating from the palace’s last days; they have been interpreted to indicate preparations for an enemy attack from the sea (L. Palmer, Minos, vol. IV, d. 22; idem, Mycenaeans and Minoans (London, 1962); Ventris and Chadwick, Documents in Mycenaean Greek n. 138) but this view has been questioned (D. Page, History and the Homeric Iliad, pp. 193ff.; V. R. d’A. Desborough, The Last Mycenaeans and Their Successors Oxford, 1964, p. 223). Blegen’s team found no traces of any fortifications, in contrast to strongholds such as Mycenae, Gla and Tiryns which were heavily fortified. The lack of defence preparations within the palace has been noted by several authors: F. J. Tritsch, “The Women of Pylos” in Minoica (ed. E. Grumach) 1958, pp. 406-410; L. Palmer, The Inter pretation of Mycenaean Greek Texts (Oxford, 1963), pp. 116-120; L. Deroy, Les leveurs d’impôts dans le royaume mycénien de Pylos (Incunabula Graeca 24) (Rome, 1968); R. Schmitt-Brandt, “Die Oka-Tafeln in neuer Sicht,” Studi Micenel ed Egeo-Anatolici, 7 (Incunabula Graeca 28) (1968), pp. 69-96. On balance the evidence does not necessarily imply destruction by a human agent, and seems consistent with the effects of some natural cause.

  12. The major dissenter was Strabo who placed Pylos farther north in Triphylia, and his case was taken up in modern times by Wilhelm Dörpfeld. But Blegen’s excavations in Messenia re-soved the debate in favor of the southern Pylos. Cf. Blegen and Rawson, The Palace of Nestor, I, pt. I, pp. 3ff.; w. A. McDonald, Progress into the Past (Indiana University Press, 1967), pp. 229-242.

  13. They were published in 1951 (The Pylos Tablets; A Preliminary transcription) and the decipherment was completed by 1953. See below, section “Linear B Deciphered.”

  14. Iliad II. 591-594; Blegen & Rawson, The Palace of Nestor, vol. I pt. 1, p. 419.

  15. The Palace of Nestor, loc. cit.

  16. Ibid., p. 424.

  17. Ibid., p. 422.

  18. Ibid., p. 422.

  19. Ibid., p. 421.

  20. Ibid., p. 124. Blegen dates the style “perhaps to the turn from the seventh to the sixth century.” The date may have to be revised upwards by a few decades on the basis of the work of J. N. Coldstream (Greek Geometric Pottery, London, 1968; p. 330) who dates the Late Geometric Style to between -750 and -680. However the workmanship of the vases is very rough with hardly any design distinguishable; they are not given to precise dating.

  21. Palace of Nestor, p. 300.

  22. Ibid.. p. 294.

  23. Ibid., p. 424.

  24. Ibid., p. 294.

  25. Ibid., p. 422.

  26. C. W. Blegen in American Journal of Archaeology 61 (1957).

  27. Imre Tegyey, “Messenia and the catastrophe at the end of Late Helladic III B” in Bronze Age Migrations In the Aegean, pp. 227-232.