Zeus' altar of ashes
News from the Archaeological Institute of America's annual meeting in
By Bruce Bower
ANAHEIM, Calif. — Excavations at the Sanctuary of Zeus atop Greece’s
Mount Lykaion have revealed that ritual activities occurred there for
roughly 1,500 years, from the height of classic Greek civilization
around 3,400 years ago until just before Roman conquest in 146.
“We may have the first documented mountaintop shrine from the ancient
Greek world,” says project director David Romano of the University of
Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Ritual ceremonies were conducted in a part of the open-air sanctuary
called the ash altar of Zeus. It now consists of a mound of ash, stone
and various inscribed dedications to Zeus, the head god of Greek
mythology. Romano’s team has found no evidence of a temple or
structures of any kind on Mount Lykaion.
Work conducted over the past two years at the ash altar of Zeus has
unearthed material from many phases of Greek civilization. Finds
include pottery of various types, terra cotta figurines of people and
animals, and burned bones of sheep and goats.
Chemical analyses have revealed traces of red wine on the inside
surfaces of some pottery fragments, Romano says.
His team reported initial evidence of ritual activity at the ash altar
of Zeus in 2007. The new discoveries indicate that ancient Greeks kept
returning to the sacred site for a remarkably long time.
So, in short, it is an open-air altar, the only one found so far on a mountaintop, and the material remains indicates that goats and sheep were sacrificed (slaughtered and burned) there alongside votive offerings and libations. It would be interesting if the article discussed what was found in what phases--were sheep sacrificed at the same time as goats, etc.--to trace the development of sacrificial practices over 1500 years on one site and see how it matches other sacrificial practices throughout Greece, both in the immediate surrounding areas and places further afield. Just so not to be confused, 3400 years ago would place the (traceable) origins of this site to about the Mycenean period (Bronze Age Greece), before even the legendary date of the Trojan War. It just goes to show how persistent sacred spaces are!