© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

St. Louis archaeologist unearths Ancient Greek palace

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 5, 2009 - Michael Cosmopoulos, the endowed professor of Greek archaeology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has uncovered an ancient Greek palace at Iklaina, a village near the town of Pylos in southwest Greece. He believes this site may reveal evidence of civilization's first foray into federalism.

Not only is it the sole example of a local capital in an early federal government, the site can be linked to Homer's epic poems, the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey." It's a rare convergence of archaeology, mythology and ancient literature.

'The Palace of Nestor'

Pylos, home-base for the Iklaina excavation, also plays a role in the opening of the "Odyssey," Homer's epic poem about Odysseus and his 10-year journey home after the Trojan War. At the beginning, the goddess Athena sends Odysseus' son Telemachus to "sandy Pylos" to seek word of his father. There, Telemachus is hosted by King Nestor, who welcomes him and helps him in his search.

Today, about four miles from the dig at Iklaina lies the "Palace of Nestor." These ruins were discovered by archaeologist Carl Blegen in 1952. He named it for Homer's King Nestor because of its location at present-day Pylos. It is believed to be the central seat of power that ruled over a number of smaller cities or towns.

Within "Nestor's Palace" at Pylos, Blegen found 1,000 clay tablets inscribed in Linear B, an early form of ancient Greek. It was a language of accounting used to track things like trade and taxes between the main capital at Pylos and the nine smaller districts under its control. Homer wrote of the "Nine Cities of Nestor." Michael Cosmopoulos believes he has found one of the nine.

"Nine is the number of major capitals mentioned in the Linear B tables," Cosmopoulos wrote in an email from Greece. "Interestingly enough, the name of one of those nine cities in Homer -- Aipy -- is phonetically close to the name of our site in the Linear B tablets -- Aphy or Asphy." An eight-year survey before the main excavation began established it as the only major site in the region. "Which is what you would expect from a district capital," wrote Cosmopoulos.

The Dig

Telemachus' warm welcome at Pylos is familiar to Dale Tucker, undergraduate student in anthropology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Tucker has worked on the dig for the past two summers and marvels at both the ancient treasures emerging from the sun-drenched earth of the Peloponnese and the warmth and hospitality of the people of Pylos and Iklaina.

"The community is so welcoming, kind and grateful for everything that we're doing," he said. "A priest from the Greek Orthodox church would give us ice cream when we were working in the blazing hot sun. (At the end of) the last season, the mayor of Pylos thanked us for the work we did and explained how important it was to the community."

The work, though hot and tiring, is not without reward. "It seems like every day we were pulling up something that was just amazing," Tucker said.

Over the past two years, the archaeologists, trench supervisors, students and volunteers have unearthed pottery, platters, two-handled drinking cups, animal and human figurines, a piece of a terracotta bathtub, a system of drains, terracotta pipes, pieces of fresco and a large terrace with evidence of a building -- or palace -- that may have served as the district capital itself.

'The Cyclopean Terrace'

Dubbed the "Cyclopean Terrace" because of the large limestone blocks involved, it clearly supported an important building. According to the 2009 season report, the terrace's northwest corner overlooks the Ionian Sea and provides a direct visual line to the "Palace of Nestor." Five shallow steps that were uncovered, along with the terrace's sturdy construction, suggest that the building had two stories.

Excavation will continue next year, but already the group has found important artifacts including kylikes (shallow, stemmed, two-handled drinking cups), bowls, goblets, storage vases, a piece of a clay offering table and fresco fragments depicting part of a woman's hand and two male figures on a ship.

Lisa Smith helped excavate the Cyclopean Terrace and remembered that Cosmopoulos would encourage them to reflect on the pieces of history they found.

"Michael said each new rock that you uncover, each piece of broken pottery has not seen the light of day for 3,500 years. You're the first one to set eyes on it," she said. Smith, who teaches ancient civilization at Saeger Middle School in St. Charles, said her experience and her photographs help make the history real for her students.

A Mysterious Burial

In 2009, the group finished uncovering the body of a 12-year-old girl. Tucker worked on it in 2008, when the skull was first found. "As we were digging around the skull, I found some arm bones -- the radius and ulna," Tucker said. The girl suffered from severe physical stress, but whether this was the cause of death remains unknown.

"We suspect that it was because of harsh living conditions," Cosmopoulos wrote. But he admits that they will likely never know for sure. That the girl was buried alone, and not with others in a graveyard, for example, is another mystery to be solved.

"If you find human remains, you usually think there will be more," Tucker said. "We didn't find any other human remains in the vicinity."

Tucker points out that these people and places they are uncovering were ancient to Homer himself. The stories of the Iliad and the Odyssey, set in Mycenaean Greece, a period from roughly 1600 to 1100 BC, were passed down by oral tradition during the Greek Dark Ages, after the fall of the militaristic Mycenaeans. Not until the Classical period, about 400 years later, did Homer write them down.

And Homer himself remains the subject of debate, with scholars disagreeing over whether the epic poems could have been written by one person. The line where history ends and mythology begins remains elusive. But that's the reason for these digs.

"As we go on, starting with the Palace of Nestor and now this current dig, they're finding a lot that matches with the Iliad and the Odyssey," Smith said.

The End of an Era...

One place where mythology matches reality is the sand and sea. Every afternoon, after a hot and dirty day of digging in the Mediterranean sun, the group goes swimming at the beaches of "sandy Pylos."

"It's world renowned, even in ancient times, for having the best beaches," said Tucker. "We go to a different beach each time. And they're absolutely beautiful."

But beautiful beaches can also provide an opening to invaders from the sea. The site gives clues to destruction by fire, perhaps from enemy attack. "There is no evidence for earthquake, at least not yet," wrote Cosmopoulos. "The Palace of Nestor was also destroyed by fire at about the same time, 1200 BC," he explained.

Regardless of how this community met its final end, it remains an important place to study the society of ancient Greece, the process of state formation, and reflect on the ancient people who still influence the modern world through art, architecture, mythology and government.

Cosmopoulos calls it both exhilarating and touching to unearth such pieces of ancient history. "It connects us to a real life story of someone who lived more than three millennia ago."

... but Just the Beginning

Cosmopoulos predicts the project will continue for another 10 to 15 years because of the site's large size and the small fraction of total area excavated thus far. The work is funded by UMSL, the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute for Aegean Prehistory, the Loeb Foundation and private donors. The discoveries from the recent seasons have uncovered many questions that could be answered in the years to come.

Tucker hopes to return next year -- and the year after that. "I would like to stay involved with this dig as long as Michael will have me," he said, laughing. "It's that awesome."

Julia Evangelou Strait is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. She was raised on the stories of Odysseus and has spent time in Greece. Her family is Greek on her father's side. 

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.