Image:Arcadian League coins
Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project, Summer 2008
These Arcadian League coins, from the 5th century B.C., show Zeus at rest. They were excavated along with several other archaeological artifacts at Mt. Lykaion in 2008.|
updated 1/26/2009 1:03:07 PM ET 2009-01-26T18:03:07

Burnt animal bones, petrified lightning and a bronze male hand grasping a silver lightning bolt have all been unearthed at the mountaintop site of a Mycenaean Greek cult whose members gathered around an "open fire altar," according to University of Pennsylvania Museum archaeologists.

The evidence suggests the cult worshiped Zeus, the "king of gods" in Greek mythology, more than 3,200 years ago at the top of Mt. Lykaion in Arcadia.

Getting to the site is a challenge, even now.

"It was most certainly a pilgrimage and a trek," project field director David Gilman Romano told Discovery News. "It still feels like that to us today."

Romano, who also is a senior research scientist in the museum's Mediterranean Section, added that "Zeus was a sky god, and the lightning bolt was one of his important emblems."

Romano and his team dug a trench at the high-altitude site and uncovered a trove of artifacts, including burnt bones — mostly from goats and sheep — human and animal figurines, drinking vessels, miniature bronze tripods, silver coins and a small double-headed axe known as a labrys, a motif incorporated into labyrinths found elsewhere in Greece and around the world.

Although the excavation is ongoing, a paper on the first three years of the project is in the works for Hesperia, the journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

The bronze male hand holding the silver lightning bolt likely represents Zeus, according to the archaeologists. It was found near a sample of glass-like fulgurite, otherwise known as petrified lightning, which is formed when lightning strikes sandy soil. It is not clear if the fulgurite was formed on the mountain or elsewhere.

"The altar would have been situated on top of the hill and may have been represented by a ring of stones," Romano said, adding that it was flanked by a nearby sacred area known as a temenos, which appeared to have no temple or other structure.

Early writings suggest that Mycenaean cult members sacrificed animals — and possibly even humans — before feasting. Romano and his colleagues haven't found any human bones at the site, but indicated they would not be surprised if they did.

The mountaintop site "is quite different in nature" from other lower elevation cult locations throughout Greece. In terms of the Mycenaean culture, marked by epic conquests dramatized by the poet Homer, cult meeting places were usually rooms or buildings connected to palaces. They often contain frescoes, statuettes and votive offerings.

The recent discoveries support the writings of Pausanias, a second century B.C. Greek historian who described "the birthplace of Zeus" at Arcadia in his multi-volume Description of Greece. Other early historians claimed it was in Crete on Mt. Ida.

Pausanias wrote, "On the highest point of the mountain is a mound of earth, forming an altar of Zeus Lykaios, and from it most of the Peloponnesos can be seen. Before the altar on the east stand two pillars....On this altar they sacrifice in secret to Lykaion Zeus."

In addition to searching for human remains on the mountaintop, the archaeologists continue to look for a shrine to Pan — god of mountain wilds — that historical texts suggest might be nearby.

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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