In the 2nd century A.D., the ancient traveler Pausanias scaled Mount Lykaion in the Peloponnese region of southern Greece and found a mound of earth fronted by a pair of Doric columns that were once topped by golden eagles. “On this altar they sacrifice in secret to Lykaion Zeus,” he wrote. “I was reluctant to pry into the details of the sacrifice; let them be as they are and were from the beginning.”
In spite of his reluctance, however, Pausanias did record a gruesome story passed down from antiquity in which a king sacrificed a human baby upon the altar and transformed into a wolf after pouring the slain child’s blood on the shrine. Other ancient Greeks, including Plato, also wrote that Mount Lykaion was the scene of human sacrifices to honor Zeus, who according to Greek mythology was born atop the remote mountaintop.
Most scholars have considered the stories of human sacrifice at Mount Lykaion to be legends. However, the announcement by Greece’s Ministry of Culture and Sports that a human skeleton has been unearthed amid the ashes of sacrificial animals offered to honor Zeus might shatter that thinking. Prior to the discovery, nearly all of the bones that had been found at the altar had belonged to sheep and goats, which suggests the selection of animals offered up for slaughter remained constant over the course of centuries. Nearly every one of the patellas, femurs and other bones unearthed had been burnt.
The human skeleton, which had the upper part of its skull missing and stone slabs covering its pelvis, was discovered amid a 100-foot broad ash altar adjacent to a man-made stone platform. The bones were found in a supine position and aligned on an east-west axis parallel to two lines of stones. Pottery found near the skeleton that date to the 11th century B.C. at the end of the Mycenaean era place the age of the bones at 3,100 years old. Archaeologists believe the skeleton is likely that of a male teenager.
The discovery was made by archaeologists participating in the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project, a collaboration between the Ministry of Culture and Sports and the University of Arizona. The team of Greek and American archaeologists, which is seeking to learn more about the origins of the Greek cult of Zeus, excavated the site between 2007 and 2010 and resumed work again earlier this summer.
“Several ancient literary sources mention rumors 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,” David Gilman Romano, professor of Greek archaeology at the University of Arizona and part of the research team, 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.”
The archaeologists have found fragments of animal and human figurines, vases, cups and coins on Mount Lykaion, but the discovery of the human skeleton has the potential to be the most important find yet. As the Associated Press reported, human sacrifice has never been confirmed on mainland Greece. While archaeologists caution that it’s too early to draw conclusions about the circumstances surrounding the teenager’s death, the prominent place of the skeleton in the middle of the altar and its orientation suggest a special significance.
According to scholars, Mount Lykaion is the earliest known site where the ancient Greeks worshipped Zeus. For more than 1,000 years starting in the 16th century B.C., the cult of Zeus sacrificed tens of thousands of animals in honor of the omnipotent Greek god of sky and thunder.
The Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project is also studying the Lykaia, an athletic and religious festival to honor Zeus that was staged every four years in a lower meadow of Mount Lykaion. The Roman author Pliny wrote that the athletic competitions at Mount Lykaion—which featured nude athletes squaring off in events including wrestling, boxing, horse racing and running—predated the ancient games held 22 miles away at Olympia. In that lower meadow, the archaeologists have unearthed the floor of the hippodrome’s race course as well as a stone staircase leading to a large stone archway dating to the 4th century B.C. in which the athletes descended into the stadium.
Much archaeological work remains to be done at Mount Lykaion. According to the Associated Press, only seven percent of the altar has been excavated. Work is expected to continue through at least 2020.