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Food and politics at ancient site

PHILADELPHIA – Bones, vessels and writings found at an ancient site in the Peloponnese suggest the historical accuracy of the huge feasts Homer described centuries later in «The Odyssey,» archaeologists said. The feasts at the Palace of Pylos, which gathered thousands of people and offered vast quantities of alcohol and beef, served a purpose similar to inaugural balls, community banquets and other modern-day events, the scholars said. «Providing a feast is a powerful way to expand political and geographic power – one not lost on modern-day politicians and lobbyists,» Mary Dabney, a research associate at Bryn Mawr College, said Saturday at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America. «The Odyssey» was written about 750 BC, when massive feasts and ritual sacrifices are known to have taken place, but the story is set in about 1,200 BC. The remains suggest that Homer’s account of the feasts at what he called the Palace of Nestor in Pylos, while fictional, accurately reflect the era, scholars said. The remains unearthed from one feast show that it celebrated the inauguration of a magistrate, while others probably repaid laborers for bringing in the harvest, according to James Wright, a Bryn Mawr professor who organized the symposium on the topic. «People are much more willing to join your organization or your unit if it’s fun, and feasting is fun. Feasting is a way in which people get to participate,» Wright said. He said similar rituals are held in some communities today, when friends help with farm chores or a barn raising and are treated to a big meal. «In contemporary African communities, feasting and providing beer is a way to mobilize labor to harvest or plant crops,» Wright said. In the past few years, scholars have been re-examining remains unearthed at Pylos in 1952 by archaeologist Carl Blegen, but were never fully studied. Based on drawings, written tablets, and the number of pieces of pottery and cattle bones found, they have concluded that some feasts may have served more than 8,000 people – far more than lived within the palace walls. «It’s also a way in which rulers get to show their beneficence, to show how wealthy they are, and how powerful. And it’s much more effective than using the sword,» Wright said. Dabney’s research into another, later site near Mycenae also shows evidence that rulers held feasts for people in smaller, secondary villages, perhaps to build their power base. «The social implications of these feasts, based on the evidence of the cattle and the ceramics, might have been that they would then take their material wealth from a major development into a smaller development, to solidify some sort of government relationship,» Dabney said. If the feasts served thousands, not everyone sat at the same table. According to Lisa Bendall, a research fellow at Cambridge University, utensils, bowls and other remains found at Pylos show three separate eating areas at one feast. The minions ate outside the palace gate, where the cheapest ceramics were found; the semi-privileged ate inside; and the elite few supped from gold and silver in the throne room. «Banquets were one of the major arenas for social manipulation,» said Bendall, who is studying written tablets found at Pylos, some of which show who brought what to the affair. «They were used as both a way of showing off wealth.. . and, in some ways, creating reciprocal obligations.» The Archaeological Institute of America can be reached on the Internet at http://www.archaeological.org