Human burial found in the middle of sacrificial altar at Mt. Lykaion

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New and highly significant finds came to light during this year’s excavations at the sanctuary of Zeus at Mt. Lykaion, located in the southwestern tip of Arcadia, where local tradition held that Zeus, king of the gods, was born and raised.

Human burial found in the middle of sacrificial altar at Mt. Lykaion
View of the skeleton found at the center of Mt. Lykaion s altar
[Credit: Greek Ministry of Culture]

The ‘ash altar’, made to host animal sacrifices honouring Zeus, has been located on the Mountain’s southernmost peak, at an altitude of almost 1,400m offering panoramic views across the Peloponnesian mainland, while monumental buildings belonging to the ‘lower sanctuary’ have been located on a lower plateau, where athletic games called the Lykaia took place in antiquity.

The Greek-American collaborative archaeological research project taking place on the site since 2004, has yielded new important information about the altar. Pottery from within the excavation trenches attests to the fact that human activity on the hill dates back to the Neolithic period and throughout the Early and Middle Bronze Age. During the Mycenaean period the hill emerges as an important sanctuary and was to remain a place of worship well into historical times. The animal sacrifices in honour of Zeus, mainly goats and sheep, indicate continuous religious activity at the altar from at least the 16th century BC through to the Hellenistic period.

Human burial found in the middle of sacrificial altar at Mt. Lykaion
View of the skeleton found at the center of Mt. Lykaion s altar
showing the stone slabs covering the pelvic area 
[Credit: Greek Ministry of Culture]

In the summer of 2016, a human burial with an East-West orientation was found and excavated in the middle of the altar and next to a platform carved into the rock. The skeleton, in the supine position and in an excellent state of preservation, was deposited in a narrow trench some 1.52m in length, created within the embankments of the ash and burnt earth.

The skull of the deceased is missing, although the lower jaw is preserved. The narrow trench was lined with carefully carved stone slabs on the north and south sides, and the deceased’s pelvic area had also been covered with slabs. 

Human burial found in the middle of sacrificial altar at Mt. Lykaion
Monumental staircase at the end of lower sanctuary’s corridor at Mt. Lykaion
[Credit: Greek Ministry of Culture]

According to the preliminary study, the skeleton is probably that of an adolescent male. Pottery found during the excavation is dated mainly at the end of the Mycenaean period, indicating that the burial probably belongs to the 11th century BC, not long after the collapse of Mycenaean palatial society, during the transitional period from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age.

From the 4th century BC onwards, written sources mention human sacrifices at the altar of Lykaion Mountain but, till now, no human bones had ever been revealed during excavations in the area. The study of the skeleton is in progress but, despite the fact that it is still too early to draw conclusions as to the cause of death, the burial’s prominent position in the middle of the altar, and its orientation, clearly demonstrate its importance.

Human burial found in the middle of sacrificial altar at Mt. Lykaion
General view of the lower sanctuary with the administrative building, stoa, hippodrome, stadium and baths 
[Credit: Greek Ministry of Culture]

Excavations were carried out this year at the lower sanctuary also. Among the most important new findings worth mentioning are a monumental staircase and an impressive apsidal entrance flanking the two ends of a corridor dating to the 4th century BC, where athletes apparently entered the hippodrome and stadium.

In the administrative building – previously identified as a xenonas or guest-house – a large clay sima (ie., the upturned edge of a roof which acts as a gutter) was found. Within a circular natural formation (visible on Google Earth) which is been located West of the stoa and East of a fountain, the excavators brought to light two well-preserved clay water-pipes, one stone basin and traces of a wall, possibly from a sanctuary of Pan which is documented in sources but has yet to be located.

Human burial found in the middle of sacrificial altar at Mt. Lykaion
View of the southern peak of Mount Lykaion with the ash altar of Zeus at the top
[Credit: Greek Ministry of Culture]

Excavations in the hippodrome continued to expose the embankments that supported the seats, while investigation of the bath-house area also dating to the 4th century BC revealed the remains of earlier phases of construction.

Excavations at the sanctuary will continue until 2020.

The Mt. Lykaion research program is a Greek-American cooperation under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and Sport and the American School of Classical Studies. Co-director of the project is Dr. Anna Vasiliki Karapanagiotou, Head of Antiquities Arcadia, and Dr. David Gilman Romano and Dr. Mary E.Voyatzis from the University of Arizona.

Source: Greek Ministry of Culture [August 11, 2016]

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