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Digging the Trojans

The Palace of Nestor at Pylos in Western Messenia: Vol. I, The Buildings and Their Contents

by Carl W. Blegen, by Marion Rawson
Princeton, Part 1, 470 (text) Part 2, 484 illustrations pp., $40.00

Defending his acceptance of the legendary history of Britain, John Milton wrote, “Yet those old and inborn kings, never to have been real persons, or done in their lives at least some part of what so long hath been remembered, cannot be thought without too strict incredulity.” No historian of Britain takes such an argument seriously today, nor does anyone solemnly repeat that English history began with Brute (or Brutus) the Trojan, or Roman history with another Trojan, Aeneas. But suggest, as I and others have done, that on present evidence it is an open question whether the legendary history of Bronze Age Greece isn’t also unhistorical, that as individuals even Agamemnon and Nestor may be as fictitious as Brute and Aeneas, and down come torrents of scorn, anger, and sometimes pity. Study the work of several generations of archaeologists, is the crushing reply, and you will find all the proof a reasonable man could ask for.

No one would dream of denying that since Schliemann a fascinating lost world has been brought to light. That is not at issue. Since Schliemann, furthermore, archaeologists have raised their methods of excavation and analysis to remarkable heights. None more so than Professor Carl Blegen, who, in his eighty-first year, is the Olympian among Greek archaeologists, as coolly precise in his work as ever, with an unrivaled ability to publish his results rapidly, clearly, and with the utmost reliability. Thirteen successive seasons at Pylos ended on July 31, 1964, and we already have the first volume of the final publication. (Three further volumes are planned: one on the frescoes; a second on the pre-palace finds, the ruins of the lower town below the acropolis, and tombs in the neighborhood; and a third on the Linear B tablets.) Anyone who has consulted Professor Blegen’s Troy volumes or his earlier publications of lesser known sites in the Peloponnese will know what to expect, and will not be disappointed. Anyone who has not should be told in advance that this is a book for the specialist, apart from the concluding five-plus pages on the “character, date and identification of the palace.”

THE “PALACE,” with more than one hundred rooms, corridors, and courtyards, occupied a ridge, 170m. at its longest, 90m. at its broadest, at Epano Englianos, some five miles north-north-east of the Bay of Navarion in western Messenia. Built about 1300 B.C., it was burned about 1200 and the site was abandoned, so that in time it was not even identifiable as an ancient ruin (unlike Mycenae). In general design and scale it is similar to Mycenae or Tiryns, except for the remarkable fact that it was wholly unfortified. It is also remarkable that, among the many bones recovered, there is “not a single identifiable human element.” Thus far, no comparable building complex has been found in the western Peloponnese, and the conclusion therefore seems logical that Homer’s Pylos has been rediscovered. Confirmation comes from the fact that the name “Pylos” has been read on more than fifty of the Linear B tablets found on the site. This much supporting information Professor Blegen and Miss Rawson give us, and little more. One side of his Olympianism has been his unwillingness for some years, at least in public, to acknowledge or discuss alternative historical interpretations. He simply puts down, in the fewest possible words, the conclusions he has come to, not always troubling to distinguish between fact and possibility or probability in a field where that distinction is usually a blurred one anyway.

The identification of the citadel at Englianos as Nestor’s Pylos surely requires no long argumentation or discussion” is typical. Apart from the not insignificant point that one ought not to call an unfortified complex of rooms a “citadel,” especially when the very lack of fortification is a major puzzle, the name of Nestor is quietly sneaked in. Not even by manipulating the flexible rules of spelling which are required to make sense of the Linear B tablets has anyone found the name of Nestor on any object at Pylos, just as Agamemnon has not been found in Mycenae. Professor Blegen ought to have reported that. He ought also to have reported that the time gap of fifty or sixty years which he places, by bald assertion, between the destruction of Troy VIIa and the destruction of Pylos, is rejected by many experts. There is much support for the view, summarized by Professor Emily Vermeule, that

it must be emphasized that the general character of the pottery in all these destruction levels is similar, whether at Troy or Ugarit or at Mycenae and Pylos. There is real difficulty in making any distinctions of date among them.

Pottery, it must be remembered, is what all this dating is based on.

These disagreements, not very interesting in themselves, acquire major significance the moment it is appreciated that the whole Greek tradition of the Trojan War in an Heroic Age is at stake. Even Professor J. L. Caskey, who worked closely with Blegen at Troy and who is not one of the “skeptics,” has recently agreed that,

if the sack of Settlement VIIa is ever shown to have occurred after the fall of Mycenae and Pylos, or at the same time, we shall indeed have to reject most of the Homeric tradition. An army other than that of Agamemnon will have been the conqueror.

That prospect fills him with “despondency,” and, contrary to what some archaeologists seem to think, it doesn’t particularly fill me with joy either. Though Professor George Mylonas believes that what he and others have found at Mycenae reveals an age “as brilliant in its way as the Periklean Age in historic times,” it is arguable that without Homer and the Greek Tragedians, without the Greeks and what they have meant to western civilization, the Bronze Age palaces would rank in intensity of interest with, say, the Aztec or Maya ruins. I do not mean to be invidious or partisan, but the Iliad and Odyssey are still read by millions and for good reason.

NONE OF THIS absolves us from being strictly rigorous in our historical analysis. Insofar as history matters at all, Nestor and Agamemnon have to be looked at as coldly as Brute the Trojan. The Iliad and Odyssey will survive no matter what the final answer on historicity may be. Indeed, they are subject to more danger from some of the treatment they receive at the hands of their “defenders,” as when Professor Myloans writes, “Interestingly enough, tradition has not preserved any hint of the building of fortification walls by Neleus [Nestor’s father]; and none has been found.” As if the poets and other carriers of “tradition” were compilers of a Guide Bleu. And what about Gla? “Tradition” has not even preserved the ancient name, let alone anything else, of the citadel found at the eastern end of Lake Copais in Boeotia, at a place now called Goulas or Gla. Yet the walls of this stronghold, Mylonas himself points out, encompass “nearly seven times as much space as that enclosed by the walls of Mycenae and ten times as much as that of Tiryns.” Playing with silences, like shifting the date of the destruction of Troy VIIa to fit a particular reconstruction of events, can prove anything; hence it proves nothing.

On the chronology Professor Mylonas paints himself into a corner. He rejects Blegen’s early dating of the Trojan War in favor of the 1200 date, and he argues the point at some length. In his chronological table we then find the following successive entries:

ca. 1200 B.C. The Trojan War and the Fall of Troy (Agamemnon).

ca. 1200-1190 B.C. Destruction of the Palace of Nestor at Pylos.

Now there is one rule a reader of archaeological books must never overlook. Whenever he sees such a date as “ca. 1200-1190 B.C.” he must seek the ulterior purpose. No one can pinpoint Bronze Age pottery fragments within ten years. Why not simply Blegen’s ca. 1200 B.C.? The answer is that Mylonas has to get Nestor back from the fall of Troy to his throne in Pylos and then keep him there nine or ten years so that he may be visited by Odysseus’s son Telemachus. Then he can be swept away without further delay, bones and all, but not one minute earlier. (There is a touching paragraph on page 58, in which Telemachus is imagined having his bath in Room 53 on the plan of Pylos, passing through Lobby 58, and so on.) I don’t find this one of the better exemplifications of the irreproachable prefatory statement: “The Mycenaean Age should no longer be an exercise for the imagination, but the subject of serious study based on precise and clearly established evidence.”

Professor Mylonas has had long experience as a field archaeologist, notably at Eleusis and Mycenae and for a time with Blegen at Pylos (for which he is warmly thanked by the latter). He keeps abreast of the excavations and the publications and he writes a great deal, mixing in archaeological reporting with chitchat and argumentation as ideas come and go. In 1957 he published Ancient Mycenae, based on a course of public lectures given at the University of Virginia. That book is out of print and it is now “supplanted” by a much larger and more ambitious work, in which the older version has not only been revised and brought up to date (in a rather spasmodic and incomplete fashion) but it has also been supplemented by a survey of other areas of Greece in so-called Mycenaean times. He has much of interest to report on the newer excavations and there are good and interesting ideas, for example, in his rejection of the thesis that the Mycenaean rulers were priestkings or “divine kings,” or in his older polemic now republished (at too great length) against the idea of a Bronze Age cult of the dead. But the book seems to have been rushed into print. It is repetitive and disjointed, at times approaching the chaotic, and there are surprising gaps in the information. Granted that no one can keep up with the flood of archaeological reports, it may still be legitimately asked that on the central questions a survey should not fall too far behind. The failures are curious, as in the introductory paragraphs, on the first entry of “Greek-speaking, Indo-European tribes” (not good phrasing) into the mainland of Greece, which are no longer accurate. In particular, Professor Mylonas has overlooked at this point the new evidence found by Caskey at Lerna in excavations which he in fact cites in a very different context later on.

It is also his bad luck that Professor Marinatos, whose unease about the sweeping generalizations being made about Pylos has been a matter of record, has now found at Peristeria, less than fifteen miles north of Epano Englianos, a strong hilltop fortification with a thick Cyclopean wall, a number of “beehive” tombs, one of which ranks as the fourth largest so far known in Greece, and shaft graves, rich in gold, enclosed in what seems to be a circular wall reminiscent of the grave circles of Mycenae. These finds, announced in the Illustrated London News for December 4, 1965, came too late for either Mylonas or Blegen to incorporate in their books, and it is still much too early to assess Marinatos’s judgment that Peristeria (not Pylos) was the “most prominent center of Mycenaean culture in the western Peloponnese.” But there can be no doubt that much of the interpretation of the Pylos finds remains wide open—a heavily fortified Peristeria puts a new light on the otherwise mysterious defenselessness of Pylos for one thing—and that much that was thought settled (little as that is) about Mycenaean grave circles will have to be reopened.

AND NOW back to Nestor. The great modern advance in archaeological techniques has not been accompanied by a comparable advance in methods of dealing with the only other possible source of information, the Greek “traditions.” Wrapping oneself in the warm glow of the word “tradition” is not a method of analysis. How did the Bronze Age genealogies, the tales of royal exploits, the wars and assassinations and travels get transmitted through centuries of total illiteracy? What controls have we (or the transmitters in, say, the fourth generation) over accuracy? How can we tell which statement is historical, which distorted, which invented? And why should anyone have wanted to transmit them accurately anyway? (I cannot go into this last, but I want to stress it because it raises the question of the purpose of carrying on this kind of tradition—as distinct from wearing white as a bride, which we also call a “tradition”—which must not be begged by assuming that the purpose was somehow historiographical.) These fundamental questions have not been seriously pursued to the best of my knowledge. There is, to be sure, a large and important anthropological literature on the subject, and I would make the relevant portions of such a book as S.F. Nadel’s A Black Byzantium compulsory reading for anyone who presumes to reconstruct Bronze Age history from “traditions.” But Greek archaeologists don’t read books about savages.

Let me try to justify these harsh statements first by quoting Professor Mylonas’s own general remarks on the problem, to which he returns briefly on several occasions:

Certainly legends should not be treated as historic facts, but their consideration should not be excluded entirely. They form the only pointers and guides we have to the Heroic Age of Greece and were built around a Kernel of fact which is most important to consider.

In spite of the fact that the scholar in using legends is open to attack from unsympathetic quarters, they have to be used, at least as pointers, since they are the only remnants we have from the Heroic Age of Greece. It would be difficult to maintain that they should be summarily rejected until their truth is proved by definite archaeological remains, although this may be preferable to the habit of rejecting some while adopting others with our temporary needs and predilections serving as the only guide.

It is hard to quarrel with these bromidic statements, but there is one point to consider. Is it certain that legends were always “built around a kernel of fact”? If so, how does one recognize the kernel?

Here is a summary of Mylonas’s own account of the genealogical legend of Mycenae which he pieces together from a variety of later Greek writers. “The building of Mycenae is attributed by the legends to the mythical Perseus, the son of Zeus and of Danaë, daughter of Akrisios, the king of Argos.” He had exchanged Argos for Tiryns, and from there he built Mycenae. “For the construction of its walls…Perseus is reported to have used the Cyclopes, the legendary builders of Tiryns….” The Perseid dynasty “was followed by the Pelopid dynasty established by Atreus, the son of Pelops. Tradition has preserved the story of the change but says little about the length of time during which Perseus and his descendants ruled over Mycenae.” But Mylonas somehow works it out at three or four Perseid generations and four Pelopid, a maximum of 280 years. The unconvincing calculation was rejected by a distinguished reviewer of the earlier books as “an invention ad hoc.” Professor Mylonas has stood his ground, without either acknowledging the objections or presenting new arguments. But he seems to have lost some confidence at the end and introduced changes in the relevant entries in the chronological table. For example, “Perseus becomes king of Mycenae and builds the first peribolos walls in the Cyclopean style” is converted to “First Cyclopean citadel of Mycenae (Perseus?).”

There are more serious questions to ask. Obviously Professor Mylonas does not accept as fact the paternity of Zeus or the construction work performed by the one-eyed monsters called the Cyclopes in the Odyssey or the great bulk of the Perseus “tradition” which he omits altogether, such as his slaying of Medusa, his marriage to the daughter of the king of Ethiopia, or his son Perses becoming king of Persia. What then is kernel and what invention? Is there any test visible other than the will to believe? We can see the mythmaking process at work under our eyes in classical Greek writings, not only what Euripides did with the Electra story for example, but, more to the point, how the Spartan Lycurgus myth was built up from nothing to the “biography” in Plutarch. Were we equally dependent for classical history on legend plus archaeology, one shudders to think what would emerge.

For the 1200 destructions, finally, another treatment is required. “We believe,” writes Professor Mylonas, “that the legends of Mycenae better than any other hypothesis explain the situation in Argolis revealed by archaeological research and excavation.” For Mycenae itself the legend is simple and well known. When Agamemnon returned from the Trojan War, he was killed by Clytaemnestra and her paramour Aegisthus. Orestes avenged his father and took the throne and he was succeeded by his son Tisamenus. That doesn’t seem to explain burnings and lootings and emigrations. Ah, says Mylonas, but these royal killings “must have caused an internal upheaval. People and officials throughout the domain must have sided with one faction…. The killings…must have weakened the political system…. Uncertain times and lack of safety must have resulted in the country.” Four “must haves” are four testimonies to the absence of evidence.

In reviewing another work with a similar tendency two years ago, Dr. H. W. Catling of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford concluded as follows: “Aegean scholars can now look back with amused superiority at Schliemann’s conviction that he had found the body of Agamemnon at Mycenae. But Schliemann’s approach to Mycenaean archaeology still survives; it is an open question whether this is to its ultimate advantage.” I myself wouldn’t have taken the risk of entitling a major archaeological report “The Palace of Nestor.”


Competent Authorities December 7, 1967

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