The Palace of Nestor is an amazing monument, a testimony to ancient Greek knowledge and learning that has survived three thousand years. The fact that the palace is excellently preserved because it was destroyed by fire is a bit of a paradox. The fire, moreover, baked the clay tablets in the palace’s archives and these provide invaluable information about the language, religion, and economic and social life in the palace itself and the area surrounding it.
The palace is easily found just 4km south of the town of Chora on the road from Gialova, and there is ample parking just past the entrance to the archaeological site. The site has recently undergone extensive renovation, and now, near the entrance, there is a small visitors’ centre with interactive displays and friendly staff available to answer questions.
As is the case for many sites in Greece, the existence of Nestor’s palace was long thought to lie more in myth than actual history. Scholars had long been aware of references to ‘Sandy Pylos’ in Homer’s Odyssey, and in his Iliad, Homer lists Pylos as sending 90 ships to join the expedition to Troy. Schliemann looked for Pylos at Paleonavarino at the end of the nineteenth century without success. Luckily, however, the indefatigable Greek archaeologist Konstantinos Kourouniotis, having already excavated two nearby Tholos Tombs, formed a joint Hellenic – American expedition in 1939 and made the amazing discovery of the palace together with his friend and colleague Carl Blegen of the University of Cincinnati. The team also located and investigated several other prehistoric sites. Excavations continue today under the auspices of the University of Cincinnati, and recently Jack Davis and Sharon Stocker discovered a Bronze Age shaft grave dating to around 1450 BC, which they named “The Grave of the Griffin Warrior”. The rich finds from the grave include weapons, jewels, and silver and gold artefacts that are still being studied and it is hoped that these will be put on display sometime in the near future.
The palace dominates the ridge of Epano Englianos and offers sweeping views toward the coast, Voidokilia Beach, and the modern town of Pylos. New raised walkways enable visitors to walk above the finds and fully understand the palace’s floor plan without causing any damage to the site and, of course, to also appreciate the stunning views.
Excavations of the palace have uncovered stone walls, stucco floors, fragments of wall paintings, and Mycenaean pottery. Most importantly, hundreds of inscribed tablets were found in the archives and elsewhere. These bore texts in Linear B, a script first recognized at the Palace of Knossos in Crete. The tablets proved vital for the decipherment of the Linear B script and subsequently have provided important information about the day-to-day operations of the palace and the economic wealth of the surrounding area.
Whether Homer’s King Nestor was a real historical figure is still debated but it is undeniable that a prosperous, agriculturally advanced people ruled a kingdom from this palace and took advantage of the landscape and advantageous climate of the south-western Peloponnese to dominate a large area of Messinia.
Finds from the palace and the surrounding area can be viewed at the Archaeological Museum of Chora which, like the archaeological site, is also open Wednesday to Monday. It is possible to buy a joint ticket to visit both.