Human burial at altar to Zeus spurs speculation of Greek human sacrifice
On a mountain peak in southern Greece, archaeologists have made an unusual discovery: a human burial within an ancient altar dedicated to Zeus. The find was recently reported by the Greek Ministry of Culture.
Located in the mountains of southwestern Arcadia, in Greece’s Peloponnese, the archaeological site of Mt. Lykaion is impressively situated in its landscape. From the peak of the mountain, where the altar is located, one can see to the plain of Elis to the northwest and the Messenian gulf to the south on a clear day. Greek texts of the Classical period, including Pindar, Thucydides and Plato, attest that the site was sacred to Zeus, the principal god of the Greek pantheon, and played host to athletic competitions as part of the god’s festivals.
Archaeological investigation at the site, however, has shown that human activity on Mt. Lykaion far predates the Classical era. Excavation of the mountaintop altar undertaken by the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project, under the auspices of the Greek Archaeological Service and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, between 2007 and 2010 turned up pottery dating back as far as the Final Neolithic period (c. fifth–fourth millennium B.C.E.), with Early and Middle Bronze Age remains also recovered. During the Late Bronze Age Mycenaean period (c. 15th–13th c. B.C.E.), however, the rate of ceramic deposition on the peak greatly increased, and it is also during this period that burnt and unburnt offerings of sacrificed animals—sheep/goat, cattle, and pig—are first attested.
The site continued in use following the gradual collapse of the Mycenaean palatial system during the course of the 13th century B.C.E., and into the Early Iron Age (c. 12th–8th century B.C.E.), as attested by both ceramics and C14 dates on burned animal bones. The remains of this Iron Age activity are significant in placing Mt. Lykaion among a small number of Greek sites at which there is possible evidence for a continuation of ritual practice from the Mycenaean period into historical times. The deposition on the altar of burned bones and pottery related to wine-drinking continued into the Archaic and Classical periods (c. eighth–fourth centuries B.C.E.); the latest artifacts that archaeologists have found on the peak of Mt. Lykaion date to the early Hellenistic period (late fourth century B.C.E.), following the reign of Alexander the Great.
The repeated burning and deposition of animal bones on the peak of the mountain resulted in the accumulation of a mound of ashes that served as a platform for yet more sacrifices. The fullest ancient account of this kind of altar, termed an “ash altar” by modern archaeologists, is given by the second-century C.E. Roman writer Pausanias in his description (5.13.8–10) of the famous sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia, which lies just 23.6 miles NW of Mt. Lykaion:
It has been made from the ash of the thighs of the victims sacrificed to Zeus … The first stage of the altar at Olympia, called prothysis, has a circumference of one hundred and twenty-five feet; the circumference of the stage on the prothysis is thirty-two feet; the total height of the altar reaches to twenty-two feet. The victims themselves it is the custom to sacrifice on the lower stage, the prothysis. But the thighs they carry up to the highest part of the altar and burn them there. The steps that lead up to the prothysis from either side are made of stone, but those leading from the prothysis to the upper part of the altar are, like the altar itself, composed of ashes.
Micromorphological analysis undertaken during previous work by the Mt. Lykaion team has shown that the sediment of the altar is largely composed of the remains of wood ash and calcined bone. Analysis of the bones recovered during the first four years of excavation, from 2007 to 2010, showed that sheep/goat made up the majority of the sacrifices, accounting for between 94 and 98 percent of the remains, with the additional presence of domestic pig and cow; no human remains were identified. Crucial in identifying sacrificial practice is the composition of the animal remains—these are almost entirely thighbones and tailbones, known from other sources as key elements of Greek animal sacrifice. Repeated animal sacrifices on the altar over centuries created a deposit of sediment that today measures from one to almost five feet at its deepest point.
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It was in the center of the vestiges of this ash altar that the Mt. Lykaion team discovered the inhumation burial of an individual, whose remains were found articulated within a stone-lined cist oriented east–west, with the head toward the west. Stones similar to the lining of the cist were preserved covering the individual’s pelvic region. The individual’s cranium was not recovered, though ruling out post-depositional disturbance as a possible culprit for the missing element must await a full publication of the excavation stratigraphy.
Preliminary analysis suggests the individual was an adolescent male. The archaeologists have tentatively dated the burial to the 11th century B.C.E. on the basis of associated ceramic material.
The discovery of a human burial not just within a sanctuary, but within the center of the altar itself, is highly unusual. Although cases of hero cult, wherein sacrificial offerings are made on the grave of a deceased individual perceived as a divinized or semidivine hero, are known from elsewhere in the Greek world, such burials are not usually made within already existing altars. Nor are there unambiguous occurrences of hero-cult predating the eighth century B.C.E. If the 11th-century B.C.E. date for the Lykaion burial is correct, the insertion of the burial could suggest a shift in the nature of ritual practice between the Mycenaean and later use of the mountaintop.
The discovery has spurred speculation on the nature of the burial and the individual’s cause of death, with numerous, somewhat sensationalized, news reports looking to later stories of Greek human sacrifice for answers. In addition to the athletic competitions at the festival of Zeus, certain ancient Greek and Roman authors refer or allude to the practice of human sacrifice at Mt. Lykaion. The earliest such reference occurs in Plato’s Republic (8.565d–e), some seven centuries after the possible date of the Lykaion burial, when Socrates asks his interlocutor Adeimantos, “What, then, is the starting-point of the transformation of a protector into a tyrant? Is it not obviously when the protector’s acts begin to reproduce the legend that is told of the shrine of Zeus Lykaios in Arcadia? … The story goes that he who tastes of the one bit of human entrails minced up with those of other victims is inevitably transformed into a wolf. Have you not heard the tale?” Adeimantos replies, “I have.”
Half a millennium after Plato, the traveler Pausanias visited the sanctuary. Of the altar, he wrote, with somewhat more circumspection (8.38.7):
On the highest point of the mountain is a mound of earth, forming an altar of Zeus Lykaios, and from it most of the Peloponnesus can be seen. Before the altar on the east stand two pillars, on which there were of old gilded eagles. On this altar they sacrifice in secret to Zeus Lykaios. I was reluctant to pry into the details of the sacrifice; let them be as they are and were from the beginning.
Mt. Lykaion project director Dr. David Gilman Romano, Karabots Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Arizona, told the Associated Press, “Whether it’s a sacrifice or not, this is a sacrificial altar … so it’s not a place where you would bury an individual. It’s not a cemetery.” Archaeologist Ioannis Mylonopoulos, Assistant Professor of Art History at Columbia University, who was not involved with the excavation, shared with the Washington Post his suspicion that the burial could postdate the primary use of the altar.
The possible resolution of these and other questions awaits a full osteological analysis of the individual and a thorough publication of the excavation. Even once these studies have been completed, however, the sacrifice question could remain open; a violent death would not necessarily have left physical traces on the skeleton. Whatever the results of the osteological study, the discovery of a burial within the area of the ash altar on Mt. Lykaion is a significant discovery that will change our understanding of the development of the site.
In addition to the ash altar, a complex of structures further down the mountain makes up a further part of the sanctuary of Zeus Lykaios. The Mt. Lykaion Project team has also been working in this lower sanctuary. Among the discoveries in 2016 were further elements of a c. six-foot-wide stone-built corridor dated to the fourth century B.C.E., including a stone archway and staircase. Previous excavation within the corridor had established that this structure went out of use by the third century B.C.E., when it began to be used as a dump for vast quantities of pottery and animal bones, almost certainly the remains of banqueting and feasting in the sanctuary. This dumping continued until the end of the first century B.C.E.
The Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project expects to continue excavating through the year 2020.
Dan Diffendale is a Ph.D. candidate in Classical Art and Archaeology at the University of Michigan, with particular interests in the architecture and archaeology of Iron Age and later religious practice in the central Mediterranean. He worked at Mt. Lykaion from 2007 to 2010, but was not involved with the 2016 excavation.
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