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Jack Davis, University of Cincinnati
Susan E. Alcock, University of Michigan
John Bennet, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Yannis Lolos, University of Ioannina
Cynthia Shelmerdine, University of Texas-Austin
Eberhard Zangger, Geoarchaeological Reconstructions, Zurich
From 1991 to 1996 team members of the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project (PRAP) conducted an intensive archaeological surface survey in Messenia, in the southwestern part of the Greek Peloponnese. Observation and collection of surface finds, such as potsherds, roof tiles, and stone tools, allowed a reconstruction of the region's changing human occupation and utilization. The project's summer campaigns covered approximately 40 square kilometers (notionally centered around the Bronze Age administrative center known as the Palace of Nestor). Fieldwork doubled the number of sites previously known in this area and produced significant evidence for past human activity in the region, from its first occupation around 10,000 BC to the 19th century AD.
Thanks to surviving textual sources, scholars knew something of this region before the work of PRAP began. Linear B archives provided information about Bronze Age palatial life; the Greek historian Thucydides spoke of the "helots" — Messenians conquered and exploited by their neighbors, the Spartans, from the 8th to the early 4th century BC; the Roman traveler Pausanias recorded the region’s myths, legends, and monuments in the 2nd century AD. Major archaeological excavations, especially projects at the Palace of Nestor and the well-fortified site of Messene — both popular tourist sites today — also contributed to our knowledge of the area.
Yet many questions remained unanswered. Where did the people live in the countryside? Where did they cultivate their fields and how intensively? Where did they worship their gods in the countryside? How did all these patterns in the landscape alter through time, and with changing social and political circumstances?
PRAP can now offer answers to many of these questions. For example, it can be demonstrated where the people ruled by the Palace of Nestor (and who owed goods and services to it) dwelled and farmed, as well as the impact they had on the surrounding natural environment. A different pattern of settlement and of cult practice has been traced for the period of Spartan control, giving some unique insights into how helots survived their centuries of oppression. Significant changes — more cities, more villages, more farms, more shrines — appear in the years following Messenian liberation in 370 BC. The Roman period witnessed a growing interest in coastal settlement, as people increasingly looked west to the Italian peninsula. PRAP team members discovered, for example, a large coastal villa site, complete with a bath, mosaics, and fishpond — all mapped by the PRAP survey team.
It should be emphasized that PRAP was a multidisciplinary project, involving not only archaeologists but also anthropologists, historians, archivists, geologists, hydrologists, and botanists. Throughout the course of the project, many sources of evidence were used to supplement what was discovered in the field. The presence of a "port" for the Palace of Nestor has been argued through geological and hydrological studies. Pollen analysis has demonstrated a noteworthy increase in olive cultivation, apparently coinciding with the archaeologically documented increase in settlement following the region's liberation from Sparta. Finally, archival work on tax records in Istanbul and Venice has been coordinated with archaeological evidence to illuminate Messenia's history under Ottoman and Venetian rule.