Tuesday, March 15, 2016


Richard Hope Simpson, Mycenaean Messenia and the Kingdom of Pylos. Prehistory monographs, 45. Philadelphia, PA: INSTAP Academic Press, 2014. Pp. xviii, 84; 12 p. of maps and plates. ISBN 9781931534758. $60.00.

Reviewed by Claudia V. Alonso Moreno, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (claudia.alonso@uam.es)

Version at BMCR home site


This book is one of a number of studies on the political geography of the Mycenaean kingdom of Pylos, a topic that has aroused considerable interest.1 In the Introduction (pp. 1–2) the author takes great care to make the objectives of the book clear, which is very useful when considering the work as a whole, to present what we today know of Mycenaean settlements in Messenia, and to estimate which territory was under the control of the kingdom of Pylos. With regard to his methodology, Hope Simpson works with both archaeological and textual data. One of the great challenges of Mycenology is combining these two sets of evidence. It is commendable that, although Hope Simpson describes himself as an archaeologist making use of the interpretations of Linear B specialists, he is still able to achieve his objective. In short, Hope Simpson synthesizes, in less than 100 pages, over 50 years' worth of research on Mycenaean Messenia, bringing our knowledge on one of the core areas of this culture up to date.

Mycenaean Messenia and the Kingdom of Pylos is divided in three parts. The first is a short chapter on the history of archaeological research in Messenia (pp. 5–14). It makes special mention of the survey projects: the University of Minnesota Messenia Expedition (UMME), which was an extensive survey, and the Pylos Regional Archaeological Project (PRAP) and the Iklaina Archaeological Project (IKAP), both intensive.

Chapter Two, 'Mycenaean Sites in Messenia' (pp. 15–43), provides a discussion of land use in Messenia (pp. 14-17) and the known Mycenaean sites by geographic area: the district of Pylos, Messenia, the north end of the Pamisos valley and the Soulima valley (pp. 17-43). The land use discussion is a brief but very interesting part, necessary to understand the rest of the chapter. The author uses personal observations from the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1970s to present modern land use in Messenia in order to explain why surface survey is so difficult to carry out in the region (p. 16). Moreover, he also considers ancient land use, using information provided by pollen cores and the Pylos Linear B tablets (pp. 16–17).

A lengthy table (pp. 20–29) provides location numbers, names, IDs assigned by the excavation projects, chronologies, and site characteristics. Lastly, the distribution of the Mycenaean sites in Messenia and the evolution of the settlements from the Neolithic to the Dark Ages is analysed (pp. 29-43). The peak of settlement is established to have taken place during Mycenaean times (LH IIIA2–IIIB2). Hope Simpson estimates the population of LH IIIB Messenia as between 50,000 and 60,000 inhabitants. He addresses a fundamental issue, that of the site record. As shown in his table, each site may have at least four different numeric designations, depending on the four major publications 2 (identification could become even more confusing if the numbering assigned to these sites in other publications were also taken into account). Hope Simpson correlates each site with its corresponding designation and, in addition, pinpoints a number of them on the maps found at the end of the book (Maps 1 and 2). Although the author does not offer new criteria, the table is specially useful when working with all the major publications at the same time. (One wonders whether it would be possible to unify the criteria and create a single register for the whole of Messenia.)

Chapter Three, 'The Political Geography of the Kingdom of Pylos' (pp. 45–70), focusses on the territorial organization of Mycenaean Messenia, drawing on both textual evidence and excavation and survey data. This section seeks to demarcate the territorial expanse of the "Hither" and "Further" provinces of the Pylian kingdom. Hope Simpson tries to determine which regions within the two boundaries correspond to the fiscal groups described by Cynthia Shelmerdine 3. Special attention is paid to geographical features and how these can be of use in demarcating spaces. The chapter closes with conclusions, an epilogue and postscript in which the discovery of a Linear B tablet in Iklaina (Traganes) in 2010 is discussed (p. 70). Since there is mention of the fiscal groups, it was surprising to find that no mention is made of Massimo Perna's views on the matter.4 Similarly, the discussion on the relationship between the districts of the kingdom and the economy only briefly mentions da-mo (p. 51), even though Susan Lupack has demonstrated how important this administrative unit was within this context.5 Hope Simpson suggests that Mycenaean leaders divided their territory into fiscal units more or less equally.6 Hope Simpson's remarks on some the geographical location of the district names that appear in the Pylos tablets are interesting and original.7

The book ends with a comprehensive bibliography (pp. 71–77), a site index (pp. 79–82), a general index (pp. 79–84), six maps, and seven black-and-white plates; there is no general conclusion.

Although Pylos is frequently referred to in this kind of research thanks to the unique large Linear B archive found in the palace,8 the region of Messenia is not as well known as one might expect from an archaeological standpoint. Only three sites have been excavated thus far: Pylos, Malthi, and Nichoria, while a fourth, Iklaina, is currently under study.9 The rest of the data we owe to survey work, but as Hope Simpson points out, only UMME's was carried out extensively (pp. 11–13). In any case, many areas still remain to be explored (pp. 12, 41), such as eastern Messenia (p. 48). Hope Simpson also defends the methods employed by the UMME Extensive Survey (pp. 11–12).

The picture presented in this book of Messenia's population in LH IIIB, a key period for the Mycenaean world in general, is also worth noting. Hope Simpson shows how, judging by the number and size of the sites, the period spanning from LH IIIA2 to IIIB2 was "the time of maximum growth and prosperity in the region" (p. 39). In order to estimate the population of LH IIIB2 (p. 42), Simpson turns to Joan Carothers and William A. McDonald's classic study 10 and the information presented in earlier pages on the findings made by PRAP and IKAP. Unfortunately, the author fails to address the issue as to why this population increase took place; this a fundamental discussion point, and even more so if we assume that a large percentage of Messenian fertile land was left uncultivated during the LH IIIB period (pp. 42–43).

In short, Hope Simpson systematizes and summarizes the results of UMME, PRAP, IKAP, and others. All in all, this is a fundamental review work for all those studying the Mycenaean world and, specially, Mycenaean Messenia. It also reminds us of how little we know of what is, in theory, one of the best-known areas of this culture and why more excavations are needed.


1.   See, e.g., John Chadwick, "The Two Provinces of Pylos," Minos 7 (1963), 125–141; John Bennet, "The Linear B Archives and the Kingdom of Nestor", in J. L. Davis and J. Bennet (eds.), Sandy Pylos. An Archaeological History from Nestor to Navarino (Princeton 2008), 111–133; John T. Killen, "The Two Provinces of Pylos Revisited," in C. Varias (ed.), Actas del Simposio Internacional: 55 años de Micenología (1952–2007) (Barcelona 2012), 155–181.
2.   McDonald, W.A. and G.R.Rapp (eds.), The Minnesota Messenia Expedition: Reconstructing a Bronze Age Regional Environment (Minneapolis 1972); Hope Simpson and Dickinson, O.T. P.K., A Gazetteer of Aegean Civilization in the Bronze Age, Vol 1: The Mainland and Islands (Göteburg 1979); Hope Simpson, R., Mycenaean Greece (Park Ridge, NJ 1981); Davis et al., "The Pylos Regional Archaeological Project, Part 1: Overview and the Archaeological Survey," Hesperia 66 (1997), 301-494.
3.   "The Pylos Ma Tablets Reconsidered," AJA 77 (1973), 261–275.
4.   Recherches sur la fiscalité mycénienne (Paris 2004).
5.   "Redistribution in Aegean Palatial Societies. A View from Outside the Palace: The Sanctuary and the Damos in Mycenaean Economy and Society," AJA 115 (2011), 207–217.
6.   This contradicts the observation he makes on p. 49 following the hypothesis put forward by Shelmerdine (see n. 2, above): the districts of the Further Province bore a greater fiscal burden than those of the Hither Province.
7.   See, e.g., why Ordines is not pe-to-no (pp. 59–60), as is explained in John Bennet, "The Mycenaean Conceptualization of Space, or Pylian Geography (...Yet Again!)," in S. Deger-Jalkotzy, S. Hiller, O. Panagl, and G. Nightingale (eds.), Floreant Studia Mycenaea. Akten des X. Internationalen Mykenologischen Colloquium in Salzburg vom 1.-5 Mai 1995 (Vienna 1999), p. 145-146.
8.   Dimitri Nakassis, Individuals and Society in Mycenaean Pylos (Leiden-Boston 2013): 30–31.
9.   See e.g. Michael Cosmopoulos, "The Political Landscape of Mycenaean States: A-pu2 and the Hither Province of Pylos," AJA 110 (2006), 205–228.
10.   "Size and Distribution of the Population in Late Bronze Age Messenia: Some Statistical Approaches", JFA 6 (1979), 433–455.

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