Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Late Bronze Age Collapse, III: Sandy Pylos

I went looking for the edited collection of articles coming out of the University of Minnesota expedition to Pylos, a Middle Bronze Age--Later Bronze Age site on a ridge overlooking the western shore of the southern Peloponnese yesterday, which meant that I got to spend some time in the Koerner Library stacks. Which I love doing. Even if these days the experience all too often has me cringing in embarrassment for my alma mater, which really is getting to the point of shopping in the Adult Diapers section. (There's no Wifi in the stacks! If you're going to the trouble of installing campus-wide wifi on the one hand, and study space in the stacks on the other....I'm beginning to think that our civilisation is in decline. But where, or where, are our northern barbarians going to come from?)

But to come back to the stacks for a second, the virtue of shelf scanning is that it brings you in touch with the unexpected. In this case, Nino Luraghi's monograph on the history of ancient Messenia. I'm aware of Luraghi from shorter articles (as for example included here) that brilliantly apply the modern political/anthropological literature on ethnos formation to problematise ancient history. Well, here's the monograph that the shorter works promised. You know that class of historian who gets upset about how po-mo theory is all up in his narrative. Chances are that his supposed obvious interpretations of plain facts are just the constructions of old theories themselves. Historiographical progress isn't impeded by the theoretical deconstruction of these old narratives. It begins with that deconstruction!

Or something. Keynes managed to make this point more pithily, but what do I know about pithy?

So. Anyway: Pylos.

Google Maps makes it look a little sere, but it's actually one of the wetter and more fertile parts of Greece. That being said, all the young folk have gone to the city, and it's quite as much the backwater today as it was on that morning in April of 1939 when Carl Blegen* climbed the ridge to a farm jointly owned by a Leonidas and a Pericles to find 20 men and a local bailiff/archaeological assistant ready to earn American dollars. By the time the rain clouds rolled in at 4, they had found three intact tablets inscribed with texts in Linear B, and transformed Aegean prehistory. There was a period when Messenia was not a backwater, but rather, on the available evidence of monumental tomb density, the most heavily populated areas of mainland Greece. This requires explanation, since the tendency of population to abandon outlying areas for the bright lights isn't just a modern one, and Messenia has been marginal and depopulated before, agricultural potential notwithstanding. That the anomaly hasn't invited more explanation than it has might have something to do with the ways in which prehistory wasn't changed by Blegen's discovery.

Blegen himself was convinced that he had found the remains of an ancient palace destroyed when the "Dorians" invaded Greece, dislodging the Mycenaeans, per the billiard ball school of prehistory, to raid the Levant and bring an end to the Late Bronze Age. This would be where your Nino Luraghis of the world come in, to contextualise and critique, reconstruct chronologies and, in general, show us how much of what we think we know about the end of the Late Bronze Age is ultimately founded in the Athenian politics between the rise of the Peisistratids and the Peloponnesian War. (This being the era of the Alcmaeonidae, above all Pericles himself, who claimed descent from Nestor of Pylos. Which is probably as far as you actually need to take Luraghi's train to reach Cynic Station. In short, we are still stuck in a paradigm that requires destructive northern barbarians, in this case to move the "Ionians" to Athens and then Ionia in accordance with Periclean foreign policy.)

Actually, though, Nestor's Palace wasn't destroyed in the last year of occupancy attested in Blegen's trove of documents. It certainly burned down, but it now turns out that a less substantial structure was rebuilt over the foundations (the Activity Phase Nine) of the recent excavations, and that the final abandonment of the site as a residential area in favour of more productive uses came later, at some point after some characteristically Lakonian construction.  

What did happen? (Besides the fire.) Two recent focii of investigation suggest the answer. The first is in the coastal plain below the ridge. Eberhard Zangger notes that the fact that the Selas River that runs hard by the Palace now debouches into the Ionian Sea through the coastal sands via a cut in a bedrock outcropping rather than into the Bay of Navarino, where its prehistoric flood plain can still be found, has long suggested some heroic Mycenaean hydraulic engineering. Zangger and his colleagues finally discovered the reason for this, in the form of an artificial basin cut in the midst of the dunes and the remains of a lake just upstream. Together, in  LBA times, these formed a small and protected port just off the Ionian Sea, kept clear of tidal sedimentation by a trickle of water fed by a diversion stream from the Selas via the lake, which formed a natural settling pond. The point of the palace was its port: the "Port of Nestor."

It appears that construction on the ridge began some time around 1650BC, during the period of confused chronology associated with the Middle Bronze Age collapse. The work is surprisingly sophisticated, less in the brute force required (local bedrock is a soft marl) than in the effect achieved. On the other hand, it has its parallels in the Twelfth Dynasty's work at Lake Moeris, so there are immediate antecedents. Who knows? Perhaps it was Egyptian engineers who planned the work. Black Athena, are you still there?

Preceding this work, and still in line with the dominant paradigm of Messenia as a backwater, we have the pollen studies, which show that the forest clearances that characterised the Greek late Neolithic got to Messenia late. About 2000BC, the pine pollen tends to decline, to be replaced at first with pollen deposits appropriate to a macchia landscape suitable for ovicaprine grazing. As time goes on, however, oak pollen takes over, reflecting the rise of a mast forest more suited to pigs and pollarding, a practice at least compatible  with a Bronze Age marine-oriented economy, since it would supply timber in a form easily worked with stone and bronze tools compared with great chunks of wood.

After this work, notwithstanding recent discoveries at the Palace proper, the most interesting results are found at Nichoria in the hills to the east. Unlike other parts of Messenia where depopulation is confidently asserted on the basis of a decline in settled area, Nichoria seems to have done quite well. In particular, the recovery of deer and domestic bones from the refuse points to a meat-rich diet, in marked contrast to the preceding period --even at the Palace, where, per Homer, they ate well. The excavators conclude that a lack of traditional agricultural resources are driving people to this diet, as though venison were always available, but people just preferred to eat barley porridge instead. (And olives; but there's more to that story than I can get to here.)

I don't think so. This diet implies one thing to me, and one thing only. A browsing bonanza, as forest land is cleared in excess of what the flocks might require. The May number of Annales H.S.S. has a nice article by W. V. Harris on deforestation in the ancient Mediterranean, in the course of which he notes Greenland ice cap evidence for a major increase in metallurgical activity (of all kinds of ores) beginning in the 800sBC. Of course there was. Iron axes would have made charcoal cheaper and thus smelting. This makes at least a defensible hypothesis accounting for the browse bonanza: people are out clearing timber not previously economically viable.

These, then, are the brackets of LBA Pylos; an expensive artificial port on the Ionian shore about 1650BC; and extensive wood clearance, presumptively with iron tools, between, say, 1000BC and becoming noticeable in the ice cap record by 800BC. If tin must come from the west, than the story is of bronze giving way to iron.

Can I say anything more? Not right now. I've already made myself late for work.

*So Blegen joined the faculty of the University of Cincinnati in the same year as William Estabrook Chancellor.  I'm not sure I know what to say.

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