An Altar Beyond Olympus for a Deity Predating Zeus
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
Published: February 5, 2008
PHILADELPHIA — Before Zeus hurled his first thunderbolt from Olympus,
the pre-Greek people occupying the land presumably paid homage and
offered sacrifices to their own gods and goddesses, whose nature and
identities are unknown to scholars today.
But archaeologists say they have now found the ashes, bones and other
evidence of animal sacrifices to some pre-Zeus deity on the summit of
Mount Lykaion, in the region of Greece known as Arcadia. The remains
were uncovered last summer at an altar later devoted to Zeus.
Fragments of a coarse, undecorated pottery in the debris indicated
that the sacrifices might have been made as early as 3000 B.C., the
archaeologists concluded. That was about 900 years before Greek-
speaking people arrived, probably from the north in the Balkans, and
brought their religion with them.
The excavators were astonished. They were digging in a sanctuary to
Zeus, in Greek mythology the father of gods and goddesses. From texts
in Linear B, an ancient form of Greek writing, Zeus is attested as a
pre-eminent god as early as 1400 B.C. By some accounts, the
birthplace of Zeus was on the heights of Lykaion.
After reviewing the findings of pottery experts, geologists and other
archaeologists, David Gilman Romano of the University of Pennsylvania
concluded that material at the Lykaion altar "suggests that the
tradition of devotion to some divinity on that spot is very ancient"
and "very likely predates the introduction of Zeus in the Greek
As Dr. Romano remarked, quoting a quip by a friend, "We went from
B.C. to B.Z., before Zeus."
The discovery by the Mount Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project was
described last week in interviews and a lecture by Dr. Romano at the
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Penn. Mary E. Voyatzis, a
project co-director from the University of Arizona, discussed her
analysis of the telltale pottery. The project's third co-director is
Michaelis Petropoulos of the Greek Archaeological Service.
Other archaeologists familiar with the discovery tended to agree with
Dr. Romano's interpretation, though they said that continuing
excavations this summer and next should reach a more definitive
understanding of the altar's possible pre-Greek use.
"Evidence uncovered certainly points to activity at the altar in
prehistoric times," said Jack Davis, director of the American School
of Classical Studies at Athens, who visited the site several times.
The project was conducted under the auspices of the American school,
but he was not a participant.
"We certainly know that Zeus and a female version of Zeus were
worshiped in prehistoric times," Dr. Davis continued in an e-mail
message. "The trick will be in defining the precise nature of the
site itself before historical times."
Ken Dowden, director of the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity at
the University of Birmingham, in England, who was not involved in the
research, said that it was not surprising to find the migrating
Greeks adapting a sanctuary dedicated to gods of an earlier religion
for the worship of their own gods. "Even Christians would on occasion
reuse a pagan sanctuary in order to transfer allegiance from the
preceding religion to Christianity," he noted.
"You have some god being worshiped on a mountaintop, and the arriving
Greeks have translated the god as `Zeus,' their god of the sky,
lightning, weather and so on," Dr. Dowden said. "It's going to be
pretty close to what they found there, and given the site, it makes
very good sense."
The affinities of Roman gods and goddesses to earlier Greek ones are
well known. Jupiter, for example, is a virtual stand-in for Zeus. In
antiquity it was perhaps no heresy to have different names for the
same deity. The place of Mount Lykaion in practices venerating Zeus
is documented in literature and previous archaeological research.
The Greek traveler Pausanias, writing in the second century A.D.,
described the sanctuary of Zeus on the mountain, 4,500 feet above the
"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," Pausanias wrote. "Before the altar on the east stand two
pillars, on which there were once gilded eagles. On this altar they
sacrifice in secret to Lykaion Zeus. I was reluctant to pry into the
details of the sacrifice; let them be as they are and were from the
In "Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion," Jane Ellen Harrison,
a British scholar, wrote in 1903, "The Zeus of Homer demanded and
received the titbits of the victim, though even these in token of
friendly communion were shared by the worshipers."
The proximity of Mount Lykaion to Olympia, 22 miles northwest,
initially attracted Dr. Romano's attention. Another sanctuary of
Zeus, Olympia was a prominent site of the Pan-Hellenic athletic
competitions after which current Olympic Games are modeled, and Dr.
Romano is an authority on these ancient festivals of sports. His
colleagues point out that he is the only archaeologist they know to
have a master's degree in physical education.
At Lykaion, Dr. Romano began excavations of the hippodrome on a high
meadow, where Greek athletes competed in horse and chariot races and
other sports. Not far above, on the southern summit, meanwhile, the
research team mapped the altar site and dug a test trench, under the
direction of Arthur Rhon, emeritus professor of anthropology at
Wichita State University.
Bones, mostly goats and sheep, were collected. A few bronze artifacts
were recovered. Also a seal stone with an image of a bull, suggesting
influence at one time from Minoan Crete. Altar stones were burned and
cracked from the sacrificial fires.
A geological survey by George Davis of the University of Arizona
revealed an ancient fault bordering the altar site on three sides.
Could this fault be related to the selection of the site? The region
is prone to earthquakes.
Dr. Voyatzis said the potsherds were the most telling finds. Their
undecorated style, gray color, the feel of the clay and the way it
was fired, she said, were diagnostic of pottery 5,000 years ago.
"You wouldn't establish a settlement in a stark, fearful place like
this," Dr. Voyatzis said in an interview while visiting Penn. So the
pottery, she added, was presumably there as part of ceremonies at the
Like Dr. Voyatzis, Gullog Nordquist of Uppsala University in Sweden
was troubled by the jumbled nature of the potsherds in the trench.
She said it "raises questions of exactly how it came to be there."
In an e-mail message last week, Dr. Nordquist, who has visited the
site but was not a team member, said that the potsherds "may have
belonged to vessels found in graves by people in later times and
given to the gods as offerings." Or they could be remains from an
early Bronze Age settlement, although she, too, said "it would be a
very inconvenient place to live."
Dr. Nordquist said that she preferred the explanation that the
Lykaion site was indeed used as a cult sanctuary in the time before
Zeus. Little is known of the pre-Greek inhabitants, but some scholars
think they originated in what is now western Turkey.
"We do not yet know exactly how the altar was first used in this
early period, 3000-2000 B.C., or whether it was used in connection
with natural phenomena such as wind, rain, lightning or earthquakes,
possibly to worship some kind of divinity, male or female, or a
personification representing forces of nature," Dr. Romano said. "But
this is what we are thinking at this moment."