When the skeleton of a young son was found in an altar dedicated to Zeus, the discovery sent shockwaves through the world of archaeology. But it might be too good to be true.”>
On a mountain top in southern Greece, in a virtually 3,000 -year-old religion site, archaeologists have made a macabre discovery: human remains nestled inside an altar dedicated to Zeus. The burial is unprecedented. How did the bones of this adolescent boy end up in an altar made of sheep bones? Potentially, the discovery is evidence that the Greeks, like many other ancient societies, engaged in human sacrifice. This is shocking news for those who think of ancient Greece as the birthplace of civilization and culture.
The discovery was built on Mount Lykaion in southwestern Arcadia. We know from ancient authors like Thucydides and Plato that the site was associated with Zeus, the most illustrious of the ancient Greek deities.
But Mount Lykaion wasnt only famous for athletics, it has a more sinister history too. According to legend a young man would be sacrificed before both his and animal flesh were eaten together as part of the ritual. In Platos Republic , Socrates asks his dialogue partner Adeimantos if he had hear the rumors of human sacrifice and cannibalism at Lykaion, to which Adeimantos replies that he has. Pausanias, an ancient travelling novelist who lived some five hundred years later, seems to allude to the same legend where reference is writes, on this altar they sacrifice in secret to Zeus but says that he was reluctant to pry into the details of the sacrifice.
Archaeological investigations of the site have revealed that the site is much older than the classical period. A survey collectively undertaken by the Greek Archaeological services and the American School of Classics uncovered pottery from the fifth-fourth millennium BCE. There were no animal sacrifices( mostly sheep and goats) until the Late Bronze Age Mycenaean period( 15 th-1 3th BCE ).
In an article surveying the archaeological and literary history of Mount Lykaion, archaeologist Dan Diffendale, a member of the Mount Lykaion project observes that the burning of animal bones and wine-related pottery items into the classical period build Mount Lykaion one of a handful of religion sites that considered continuous activity despite political and social upheaval. In other words, its an ancient and important ritual location.
The altar itself are aware of modern archaeologists as an ash altar. Its named because the ashes of the sacrificed animals accumulated into a knoll that served as a platform for other sacrifices. The most famous example of an ash altar is found in the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia( of Olympic games) and is situated less than 25 miles northwest of Mount Lykaion. At Mount Lykaion the mound of ashes was almost five feet tall at its deepest point.
Diffendale notes when archaeologists first analyzed the composition of the ashes they discovered that between 94 and 98 percentage of the remains came from sheep and goats. The remainder received from cows and pigs. Almost all of the remains came from thigh and tailbones, key elements in ancient sacrificial rituals. The presence of these bones in particular are one of the ways that scholar know that they didnt stumble across an ancient BBQ site.
At the center of the ash altar, as they combed through the remains of livestock, archaeologists stumbled across something unexpected: the burial of a human being. Preliminary study been shown that the bones come from a young adolescent male and his remains( which were absent the cranium) were found in a stone-lined cist with his head facing the west. The same stones that lined the cist were found on top of his pelvis. Analysis of the site reveals that the young man was interred in the 11 th century BCE.
The burial is highly unusual. Diffendale shows that, even in cases of hero cults, when people came to offer sacrifices at the grave of people they thought were demi-gods, the heroes werent buried in the altar itself. Additionally, hero cults didnt emerge until several centuries after the young man was buried.
In light of the ancient legends about sacrifice at Mount Lykaion, its easy to insure why scholars think this is evidence of human sacrifice. This would be a sensational discovery; while there are plenty of ancient Greek myths about human sacrifice, up until now there hasnt been material evidence that it actually took place. And to find human remains in a location that ancient rumor preserves it took place? Well, as Jan Bremmer, professor emeritus of religious surveys at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, and author of numerous analyzes of human sacrifice, said, it nearly seems too good to be true.
Not everyone is convinced by the discovery. Archaeologist Ioannis Mylonopoulos, deputy prof of Art History at Columbia University, told The Washington Post that he believed perhaps the burial postdates the primary use of the altar. When the Daily Beast asked Dr. David Gilman Romano, prof at the University of Arizona and a participant in the excavation, about this argument he told us that the burial of the human remains is dated by pottery fragments found in the grave. These, he noted, date the burial to the 11 th century BCE.
Given the sensational and taboo nature of human sacrifice its easy to watch why scholars wouldnt wishes to hurry-up to the conclusion that the ancient Greeks were sacrificing their teenage boys. Accusations of human sacrifice and cannibalism are the common forms of slander that were levied against strangers and adversaries. And for many people, including the founding fathers, the Greeks are seen as the authors of republic, culture, and civilization. The knowledge that they killed( and maybe feed) children tarnishes that reputation. Anyone who has ensure 300 knows thatto us modernsthe Greeks are supposed to be the good guys.
Its too early to come to a definitive decision about these remains. As Francesca Stavrakopoulou, professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter and writer of King Manasseh and Child Sacrifice told me, The positioning of the corpse and its related objects indicates deliberate and even careful placement. But we cant know at this stage quite what why that might have been.
As to whether or not the Greeks practiced human sacrifice, Dr. Stavrakopoulou added, its very unlikely that it did not play a role in certain Greek cults at some point.
In the modern West, we have a romanticised opinion of the ancient Greeks as an intellectually- and culturally-enlightened people, from whom we have inherited a number of our own social values and preferences. But ancient Greek culture was as complex and contradictory as our own, and it shared much in common with other ancient societies in which human sacrifice was practised from time to time.
For those who are skeptical of the human sacrifice hypothesis, the question remains: How and why did the bones get to the center of the altar? As Dr. Gilman said Whether its a sacrifice or not, this is a sacrificial altar so its not a place where you would bury an individual. Its not a cemetery.
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