Frederick A. Cooper, University of Minnesota
Michael C. Nelson, University of Toronto
The palace at Epano Anglianos near modern Pylos ranks among the best preserved of Bronze Age monuments in Greece. Beginning in 1939, Excavations by Carl Blegen revealed the complete floor plan of a large palatial complex with decorated walls and floors, clay tablets inscribed in Linear B script, sealings, pottery and a variety of artifacts. In the course of Blegen’s campaigns at Pylos, a visiting architect plotted walls as they appeared during excavation. Blegen’s published account of the palace and outlying buildings depends upon thorough room by room descriptions of the architecture but illustrated with nothing more than simple schematic line drawings.
After twenty years of archaeological dormancy, a team from the University of Minnesota, directed by Professor Frederick Cooper and myself, resumes active field work at Pylos. With funds provided by the Institute for Aegean Prehistroy, the University of Minnesota and several private donors, a ten-year program of research, including excavation four to five years hence, has been underway since 1990. Our investigations in 1990 centered on a mapping of the physical remains of the palace proper using extensive surveyed measurements and elevations. The vast spread of physical remains on the acropolis deserve the intensive and multi-season effort which we are devoting to the task.
Construction techniques have been among our major concerns. Blegen describes the half-timber construction of the Palace as “short sections of heavy rubble fitted into a framework of large, upright, horizontal and transverse wooden beams.” Our centimeter-by-centimeter inspection of the extant walls and sampling of the building materials has produced an alternative method of engineering and building techniques. The walls are designed in a modular system having a base unit of approximately 105 centimeters, the standard thickness of the walls. Each module consists of a vertical pier 75 centimeters wide followed by a slot 30 centimeters wide.
According to a preliminary analysis of building materials, the slots are filled primarily with a loose silt. A high percentage of calcium carbonate in the pier samples indicates that the Mycenean builders at Pylos were familiar with and exploited the structural and adhesive properties of slaked lime (a form of cement) mixed with water in a clay and soil aggregate. This mixture, known today as grout, is used to increase the load-bearing strength of concrete and masonry walls. Tree roots from the olive grove that once set a top the site did not penetrate the pier construction, but did grow into the soft fill of the interstices. This growth created molds that Blegen may have mistaken as horizontal and transverse wooden beams built into the original construction.
The pier walls of the megaron rise above a stone footing. However, the pier walls of the southeast suite of rooms sit on top of ashlar walls which originally carried a previous and different superstructure. These two different forms of wall construction leads to the preliminary conclusion that the southeast suite of rooms pre-dates the megaron and had an architectural aspect quite like the Minoan exterior facades of ashlar masonry.
The gathering and testing of building materials also provides an additional means of associating walls of individual building programs. We have found that the compounds of soils used for rubble-wall construction of the same stretch of wall contain a consistent mixture; whereas, the mixture sometimes differs from one building to the next. This means that mixtures of mud mortar were standard throughout a building program but the formulas changed though time.
During the re-excavation of Blegen’s trenches and backfilled walls, necessary for mapping the extant remains, great care was taken to sift all removed soil, an unexpectedly time-consuming process which, however, resulted in the recovery of numerous fragments of fresco, pottery (including Middle Helladic and Geometric wares), and two certain and several other possible fragments of Linear B tablets. Professor Cynthia Shelmerdine has agreed to examine the Linear B tablet fragments from our excavations. Professor Shelmerdine reports that the largest fragment appears to be a new tablet having no obvious joins with know pieces. It seems that this example contained a list of names, starting somewhere above the first extant name of QO-W-PO. This table contains a single sign, that of the syllable for the letter A.
Our research goes beyond the fringes of the acropolis and currently embraces the entire Epano Anglianos ridge. We have commenced a detailed topographic survey that will take another season to complete. Last summer we re-located the regional tombs and burial grounds excavated by Blegen, which, over the years have become obscured or covered by vegetation. The challenge to relocate these monuments was assisted by a Trimble Pathfinder Global Positioning System, or more commonly known as GPS. This handheld receiver computes latitude, longitude and elevation by collecting ephemeris information emitted by NAVSTAR satellites operated by the US Department of Defense. Using the navigation mode, coordinates for the given location of tombs derived from Blegen’s descriptions along with the coordinates of our present position were entered into the Pathfinder which then provided information to get from one point to the other. Each tomb was given a locational fix, called waypoints, which was later down-loaded from the Pathfinder into computer mapping and data files incorporated in our various geodetic and topographic maps. By these means, we were able to quickly locate and accurately map tombs all but lost in the overgrowth of terrace slopes.
Our reconnaissance and topographic survey revealed an extensive terrace system on the Epano Anglianos ridge. The terraces are formed by tall retaining walls, often 3 meters in height and made of small-stone facings roughly laid in a polygonal pattern. Over the past decade, British botanists have formulated a means of dating the age of a hedge: each botanical species within a 30 m stretch represents approximately 100 years. At 38 to 42 species for several terrace hedges, and if the hedgerow rule applies to Greece and to this setting, then an approximate date for the earliest of these retaining walls is the Middle Bronze Age.
Satellite Remote Sensing
Minnesota’s research activities also include a macro-geographical reconnaissance of the Western
Peloponnesos using satellite remote sensing. Landsat satellites record electromagnetic radiation as
reflected by geophysical features of the earth’s surface. In this new science, it has been determined
that different classes and species of land cover, which otherwise appear identical when recorded by
photographic and other traditional means, have distinct spectral values or signatures. We ascertain
spectral signatures in three steps: first, accurate location in the field of a sampling of different classes
of natural and cultural resources; second, computer extraction and spectral analysis, classification;
and third, return to the field for verification.
Using a set of spectral signatures fixed by ground survey in 1990, we pinpointed several limestone quarries shown here in pink. This last season we concentrated our prospection to the vicinity of Pylos and guided by our Pathfinder GPS receiver, we located eleven sites classified as quarries: of which five proved to be ancient in date. Another major result of our prospection by remote sensing was the discovery of obsidian which lies within the limits of a major fault, approximately 12 km south of Olympia.
In the coming seasons, the Minnesota team will continue the re-excavation and mapping of the extant remains on the acropolis, sampling building materials, examination of construction techniques, and begin geoprospection of the Epano Anglianos ridge using remote sensing techniques.
© 1991 Frederick A. Cooper and Michael C. Nelson