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10 February 2008
An altar beyond Olympus for a deity predating Zeus

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 BCE, 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. 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 world."
     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. "We certainly know that Zeus and a female version of Zeus were worshiped in prehistoric times," Dr. Davis continued. "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.
     At Lykaion, Dr. Romano's 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. 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. So the pottery, she added, was presumably there as part of ceremonies at the altar.
     Gullog Nordquist of Uppsala University in Sweden 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. 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 BCE, or whether it was used in connection with natural phenomena, 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."

Source: New York Times (5 February 2008)

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