Archaeologists have made a sinister discovery at the top of a Greek mountain which might corroborate one of the darkest legends of antiquity: human sacrifices. Excavations this summer on Mount Lykaion uncovered the 3,000-year-old skeleton of a teenager amid a mound of ashes built up over a millennium from sacrificed animals. In the ancient Greek region of Arcadia in the southern Peloponnesos, the sanctuary of Zeus on Mt. Lykaion stands out for its great fame, mysterious rituals and wide-ranging significance. It was once worshiped as the birthplace of god Zeus.
Greece’s Culture Ministry announced on Wednesday that the skeleton, probably of an adolescent boy, was found in the heart of the 30-meter broad ash altar, next to a man-made stone platform.
The length of the tomb together with the plates is 1.52m. According to the preliminary study, the skeleton belongs to person – probably a man – in adolescence. The ceramics found in the excavation dated mainly at the end of the Mycenaean period, suggesting that the burial belongs probably to the 11th century BC, after collapse of the Mycenaean palaces, i.e. in the transition period from the late bronze age to the early iron age, at a time when the altar was in operation.
Excavators say it’s too early to speculate on the nature of the teenager’s death but the discovery is remarkable because the remote Mount Lykaion was for centuries associated with the most nefarious of Greek cults: Ancient writers — including Plato — linked it with human sacrifice to Zeus, a practice which has very rarely been confirmed by archaeologists anywhere in the Greek world and never on mainland Greece.
According to legend, a boy was sacrificed with the animals and all the meat was cooked and eaten together. Whoever ate the human part would become a wolf for nine years.
“Several ancient literary sources mention rumours that human sacrifice took place at the altar, but up until a few weeks ago there has been no trace whatsoever of human bones discovered at the site,” said excavator David Gilman Romano, professor of Greek archaeology at the University of Arizona and co-sponsor of the project.
“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,” Romano told The Associated Press. A very unusual detail, he said, was that the upper part of the skull was missing, while the body was laid among two lines of stones on an east-west axis, with stone slabs covering the pelvis.
The mountaintop in the Peloponnese region is the earliest known site where Zeus was worshipped, and even without the possible human sacrifice element it was a place of massive slaughter. From at least the 16th century B.C. until just after the time of Alexander the Great, tens of thousands of animals were killed there in the god’s honour.
Human presence at the site goes back more than 5,000 years. There’s no sign yet that the cult is as old as that, but it’s unclear why people should otherwise choose to settle on the barren, exposed summit.
Pottery found with the human remains dates them to the 11th century B.C., right at the end of the Mycenaean era, whose heroes were immortalized in Greek myth and Homer’s epics, and several of whose palaces have been excavated.
Mt Lykaion Site Plan – This site is located to the west of Megalopolis in southwestern Arcadia on the mountain of Agios Elias.
Mt. Lykaion was investigated about 100 years ago by the Greek Archaeological Service under K. Kontopoulos, briefly in 1897. Kontopoulos dug a few trial trenches in the area of the hippodrome and in the altar. A few years later, archaologist Kourouniotes excavated a portion of the altar and the temenos a few years later. He found that the altar consisted of a mound of blackened earth, 30 meters in diameter at the top and approximately 1.5 meters high. The earth of the altar contained burnt stones, many small animal bones, tiny fragments of 5th and 4th century BC pottery, iron knives, clay figures, coins from Aegina, a clay figure of a bird, and two small bronze tripods. Kourouniotes found no evidence of human bones, only animal bones (mostly cow and pig). In the eastern part of the temenos, he excavated some trenches and found a number of bronze human figurines, some iron objects and roof tiles. He also excavated the two bases towards the east of the altar.
In 1909, Kourouniotes excavated the area to the east and below the summit of Lykaion, where the hippodrome, stadium, xenon, stoa, monuments and bathhouse were located. Based on the finds recovered activity at the altar can be dated as early as the late seventh century BC. The site appears to have reached its peak of activity in the Classical period.
So far, only about 7 percent of the altar has been excavated, between 2007-2010 and again this year.