Visiting the Palace of Nestor at Pylos

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Road sign outside the palace

For the last year and a half or so, I’ve been working on a research project about the scribes who wrote the Linear B tablets from one particular Mycenaean site, the ‘Palace of Nestor’ at Pylos in Messenia, south-western Greece (so-called because in the Iliad Nestor was the king of Pylos). I’m interested in how these scribes actually went about writing tablets, or learning to write tablets — lately I’ve been looking mostly at the way they spell particular words or sequences, and why even an individual scribe’s spelling can vary, as well as at issues to do with how and why scribes erase parts of their documents and make changes. Pylos is a particularly good site to start studying this because almost all of its Linear B tablets are contemporaneous — made of unfired clay, they were all baked and so preserved by the fire that destroyed the palace around 1200 BCE — so it’s possible to study the 25 scribes who have been identified by handwriting analysis as an inter-related community of writers who must have been trained and worked together. But although I’ve been studying the tablets from this site for some time, I’d never been able to actually visit it before now – so it was incredibly exciting to finally get the chance to see it in person.No amount of reading about a site or looking at plans or pictures can really make you understand it in the way that visiting it can — being able to walk around it, see how the rooms all interconnect, what size they are, what the surrounding landscape is like. The part of the palace I was most interested in was, of course, the ‘Archives Complex’ — two rooms next to the main entrance porch where most of the Linear B tablets were found. The term ‘Archives Complex’ comes not just from this, but also from the evidence for filing and storage of tablets (e.g. clay labels that were attached to wicker baskets of tablets – the baskets don’t survive, but the impressions they made on the backs of the labels do).

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Entrance porch (to left), inner porch and courtyard (to right), Archives Complex (back)

The main thing I appreciated much better about the Archives Complex (AC) after seeing it was just how small it is (for scale, the thing to its left is a small lift that you could just fit one wheelchair or a couple of people standing in), especially once you consider that at least 25 people were writing documents in the palace. We know that some tablets, at least, were written in other places, such as storerooms, and then later transferred to the AC, but seeing it in person renewed a suspicion I’ve had for a while (due to the difficulty of reading tiny incised signs even under electric light, let alone with lamps or candles) – namely that if you had to read or copy a tablet from the AC (as we also have evidence for – sometimes one scribe will write summary documents based on another’s initial tablets), doing it outside in the courtyard or at the front of the palace, in the sunlight, would seem a much better option than actually inside the AC. Obviously, that’s speculation, but I think it helps to think about the kinds of circumstances in which these texts could have been written even if we can’t reconstruct them for certain.

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View over storerooms, with corridor to left and staircase to first floor in front

The other thing you’ll have noticed from the photo is the (relatively new) suspended walkway – this is part of some major works that were completed just a couple of years ago to protect the site with a new roof and walkway (and thanks to the lift, to make it accessible to wheelchair users or others with mobility difficulties). Having this view down over the palace also really helps to see how the rooms, courtyards, and corridors interconnect – the overall plan is much easier to understand than if you were at ground level.

I also think the information panels and the small information centre by the entrance have been very well done, with plenty of clear information about the excavations, the rooms, and the finds, as well as helpful images and reconstructions, plus a cast of a Linear B tablet. The actual tablets are all in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, but the local archaeological museum down the road in the town of Chora has more casts, as well as plenty of other finds from Pylos, including the other objects that were found in the Archives Complex as well as tablets — some miniature pottery cups, bronze hinges that seem to be from a box of some kind (also storing tablets?), and an enormous pithos (storage jar) – whose size, like that of the AC, is far easier to appreciate in person (and one more reason why there wouldn’t have been a lot of space left in the AC for people to work on tablets…). For contrast, here it is alongside a lovely, and tiny, fresco fragment with the head of a stag painted on it.

If any readers ever find themselves in the vicinity of Pylos (NB: modern Pylos is about 15km or so away, on the coast), both the Palace of Nestor and the Chora museum are well worth a visit (as also confirmed by the two non-Linear-B-researchers I was with – it’s not just exciting for people who study it, I promise), and having finally seen the site myself, I’m feeling re-inspired to carry on with my research on it now that I’m back in Cambridge!

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Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

6 thoughts on “Visiting the Palace of Nestor at Pylos”

  1. Also a potential! Pylos certainly had a second storey (there are stairs), I think roofs are usually shown as flat in reconstructions but I don’t know how much (or what) evidence there would actually be for that

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  2. Hello Anna, As you know I am also studying Linear B. I do have an advantage as I live in Crete just an hours drive away from Heraklion where they have some of the tablet displayed in the Museum there. I find your blog posts very interesting, in fact, very helpful in some respects. I am pleased you enjoyed your visit to Pylos which is a place I have not been yet but it’s on the list.

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  3. Thanks Rita, I hope you get to visit Pylos soon! (It’s also a lovely area to visit for a holiday – beautiful countryside and beaches!)

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