In the third century BCE, the Greek poet Callimachus wrote a 'Hymn to Zeus' asking the ancient, and most powerful, Greek god whether he was born in Arcadia on Mt. Lykaion or in Crete on Mt. Ida.
A Greek and American team of archaeologists working on the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project believe they have at least a partial answer to the poet’s query. New excavation evidence indicates that Zeus' worship was established on Mt. Lykaion as early as the Late Helladic period, if not before, more than 3,200 years ago. According to Dr. David Gilman Romano, Senior Research Scientist, Mediterranean Section, University of Pennsylvania Museum, and one of the project’s co-directors, it is likely that a memory of the cult's great antiquity survived there, leading to the claim that Zeus was born in Arcadia.
New evidence to support the ancient myth that Zeus was born on Mt. Lykaion in Arcadia has come from a small trench from the southern peak of the mountain, known from the historical period as the ash altar of Zeus Lykaios. Over fifty Mycenaean drinking vessels, or kylikes, were found on the bedrock at the bottom of the trench along with fragments of human and animal figurines and a miniature double headed axe. Also found were burned animal bones, mostly of goats and sheep, another indication consistent with Mycenaean cult activity.
“This new evidence strongly suggests that there were drinking (and perhaps feasting) parties taking place on the top of the mountain in the Late Helladic period, around 3,300 or 3,400 years ago,” said Dr. Romano.
In mainland Greece there are very few if any Mycenaean mountain-top altars or shrines. This time period — 14th-13th centuries BC — is approximately the same time that documents inscribed with a syllabic script called Linear B (an archaic form of the Greek language) first mention Zeus as a deity receiving votive offerings. Linear B also provides a word for an 'open fire altar' that might describe this altar on Mt. Lykaion as well as a word for a sacred area, temenos, a term known from later historical sources. The shrine on Mt. Lykaion is characterized by simple arrangements: an open air altar and a nearby sacred area, or temenos, which appears to have had no temple or other architectural feature at any time at this site.
Evidence from subsequent periods in the same trench indicate that cult activity at the altar seems to have continued uninterrupted from the Mycenaean period down through the Hellenistic period (4th – 2nd centuries BCE), something that has been documented at very few sites in the Greek world. Miniature bronze tripods, silver coins, and other dedications to Zeus including a bronze hand of Zeus holding a silver lightning bolt, have been found in later levels in the same trench. Zeus as the god of thunder and lightning is often depicted with a lightning bolt in his hand.
Also found in the altar trench was a sample of fulgurite or petrified lightning. This is a glass-like substance formed when lightning strikes sandy soil. It is not clear if the fulgurite was formed on the mountain-top or if it was brought to the site as a dedication to Zeus. Evidence for earlier activity at the site of the altar, from the Final Neolithic and the Early and Middle Helladic periods, continues to be found.
The Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project is a collaboration between the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia, the University of Arizona, and the Greek Archaeological Service in Tripolis, Greece. Project directors are Dr. Romano, Dr. Mary Voyatzis of the University of Arizona, and Dr. Michalis Petropoulos, Ephor of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquties of the Greek Archaeological Service in Tripolis. The project is under the auspices of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. Investigations at the Sanctuary of Zeus also include excavations and survey of a number of buildings and monuments from the lower sanctuary where athletic contests were held as a part of the festival for Zeus in the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods. These include a hippodrome, stadium, stoa, bath, xenon (hotel building) and fountain house. The Project, which began in 2004, will continue in the summer 2009.
Support for the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project comes from a number of foundations including the Karabots Foundation, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the 1984 Foundation, the Niarchos Program for the Promotion of the Hellenic Heritage at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as from numerous individual donors.
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