Pylos in Messenia, on the western coast of the Peloponnese, was the capital of Nestor, the elderly statesman in the league headed by Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, against Priam, king of Troy, and his allies.1 In 1939 Carl Blegen came to Messenia to search the countryside for signs of the ancient city of Pylos with Nestor’s famous palace, celebrated by 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 in fact, as soon as he began to lift the earth from his first trench, extensive structures began to appear, and much pottery of Mycenaean time. He soon arrived at the conclusion that the palace was Nestor’s : the building he excavated had been occupied, in his estimate, in the second part of the thirteenth century before the present era—the preferred time for the Trojan War.2

Already early during the work of excavation Blegen unearthed scores of tablets written in the Linear B script, and soon there were hundreds of them. Linear B had been first discovered on Crete by Sir Arthur Evans, who found tablets with incised signs of two scripts, which he termed Linear A and Linear B. The profusion of tablets found in Pylos made the archaeologists question whether the script was Minoan or had its origin on the mainland of Greece; and when subsequently more tablets inscribed with these characters were found in other sites of the Greek mainland—at Mycenae and at Thebes—the name Mycenaean became rather regularly applied to the script.

For over a decade after their discovery the tablets were neither published nor read;3 but when read—and the story will be told on subsequent pages—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 other towns that profess allegiance to it—both in Homer and on the tablets;4 again, a seven-town coastal strip mentioned in the Iliad finds a parallel in a strip of seven coastal settlements referred to on one of the tablets. And to Blegen’s great satisfaction Pylos was found repeatedly mentioned on the tablets retrieved from the palace he identified as Nestor’s .5

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 most furniture, pottery, the contents of the storage rooms and archives were not removed: but humans all fled.6

Blegen placed the destruction not long after the Trojan War, at the close of the Mycenaean Age.7

However, no signs of warfare, siege, re-occupation by people of another culture or occupation in general were found.8

The palace presented Blegen and his collaborators with problems not unlike those that were to occupy him later at Troy. In the report of the excavations Blegen wrote: “In some places . . . in the upper black layer . . . were found, along with the usual Mycenaean pottery, a few glazed sherds of Late Geometric Style, as in so many other parts of the site, where similar deposits were encountered.”9


  1. Iliad XI. 689. Odyssey III.3f.

  2. C. W. Blegen and M. Rawson, The Palace of Nestor at Pylos in Western Messenia, vol. I (Princeton, 1966) vol. I, pt. 1, pp. 3ff.

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

  4. Iliad II. 591-94; Blegen and Rawson, The Palace of Nestor, vol. I, pt. 1, p. 419.

  5. The Palace of Nestor, loc. cit.

  6. Ibid., p. 424.

  7. Ibid., p. 422.

  8. Ibid., p. 422.

  9. The Palace of Nestor, p. 300.