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“Birthplace” of Zeus found?

Feb. 9, 2009
Courtesy Penn Museum
and World Science staff

In the third cen­tu­ry B.C., the Greek po­et Cal­lim­a­chus wrote a “Hymn to Zeus” ask­ing the an­cient king of the Greek gods where he was born. Now, some Greek and Amer­i­can ar­chae­o­lo­gists think they have at least a par­tial an­swer.

Ev­i­dence from new ex­cava­t­ions is so­lid­i­fy­ing a the­o­ry that the god’s wor­ship was es­tab­lished on Mt. Lyka­ion in Ar­ca­di­a—a dis­trict of the Pel­o­pon­nese pen­in­su­la of Greece—by 3,200 or more years ago, ac­cord­ing to the group.

Co­lumn bases by what re­search­ers be­lieve to the site of Zeus' altar on Mt. Ly­ka­ion. (© David Gil­man Ro­mano)


Centuries-old tradition in art and lit­er­ature links Ar­ca­dia with early, sup­pos­edly un­cor­rup­ted ori­gins of Greek cul­ture. The land has of­ten ap­peared in paint­ing and poet­ry as an idyl­lic set­ting.

A mem­o­ry of the Zeus cult’s great an­ti­qu­ity probably sur­vived on Mt. Lykaion, lead­ing to a leg­end that he was born there, said Da­vid Gil­man Ro­ma­no of the Uni­ver­s­ity of Penn­syl­va­nia Mu­se­um, co-director of the Mt. Lykaion Ex­cava­t­ion and Sur­vey Proj­ect. Ro­ma­no pre­sented the find­ings from the proj­ect at a lec­ture Jan. 27 at the mu­se­um. 

Ev­i­dence to sup­port the an­cient myth has come from a small trench from the south­ern peak of the moun­tain, his­tor­i­cal­ly known as the ash al­tar of Zeus Lykaios, Ro­ma­no said. 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, al­so con­sist­ent with My­ce­nae­an cult ac­ti­vity. 

All this sug­gests “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 Ro­ma­no. 

Main­land Greece has very few if any My­ce­nae­an moun­tain-top al­tars or shrines, Ro­ma­no not­ed. This time per­i­od — 14th-13th cen­turies B.C. — is about when doc­u­ments bear­ing an ar­cha­ic form of Greek, Lin­ear B, 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, Ro­ma­no said. The Mt. Lykaion shrine fea­tures sim­ple ar­range­ments: an open air al­tar and a near­by sa­cred ar­ea.

Ev­i­dence from sub­se­quent per­i­ods in the same trench sug­gests cult ac­ti­vity at the al­tar con­tin­ued straight through the Hel­len­is­tic per­i­od in the 4th to 2nd cen­turies B.C., some­thing doc­u­mented at very few sites in the Greek world, Ro­ma­no said. 

Min­ia­ture bronze tripods, sil­ver coins, and oth­er dedica­t­ions to Zeus in­clud­ing a bronze hand hold­ing a sil­ver light­ning bolt, have turned up in lat­er lev­els in the same trench, ac­cord­ing to Ro­ma­no. Zeus is of­ten de­picted clutch­ing a light­ning bolt. Al­so found in the al­tar trench was a sam­ple of ful­gu­rite, a glass-like sub­stance formed when light­ning strikes sandy soil, Ro­ma­no re­marked, but it’s un­clear how this got there.


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In the third century B.C., the Greek poet Callimachus wrote a “Hymn to Zeus” asking the ancient king of the Greek gods where he was born. Now, some Greek and American archaeologists think they have at least a partial answer. Evidence from new excavations is solidifying a theory that the god’s worship was established on Mt. Lykaion in Arcadia—a district of the Peloponnese peninsula of Greece—by 3,200 or more years ago, according to the group. The idea that Arcadia is linked to the roots of Greek civilization is nothing new. Arcadia has been a frequent subject of literature and painting over centuries, usually depicted in idealized fashion as the setting of the most ancient, supposedly uncorrupted beginnings of Greek civilization. A memory of the Zeus cult’s great antiquity probably survived on Mt. Lykaion, leading to a legend that the god was born there, said David Gilman Romano of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, co-director of the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project. Romano presented the findings from the project at a public lecture Jan. 27 at the museum. Evidence to support the ancient myth 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, Romano said. 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, also consistent with Mycenaean cult activity. All this suggests “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 Romano. Mainland Greece has very few if any Mycenaean mountain-top altars or shrines, Romano noted. This time period — 14th-13th centuries B.C. — is about when documents bearing a syllabic script called Linear B, an archaic form of Greek, 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, Romano said. The Mt. Lykaion shrine features simple arrangements: an open air altar and a nearby sacred area. Evidence from subsequent periods in the same trench suggests cult activity at the altar continued uninterrupted through the Hellenistic period in the 4th to 2nd centuries B.C., something documented at very few sites in the Greek world, Romano said. Miniature bronze tripods, silver coins, and other dedications to Zeus including a bronze hand holding a silver lightning bolt, have been found in later levels in the same trench, according to Romano. Zeus is often depicted clutching a lightning bolt. Also found in the altar trench was a sample of fulgurite, a glass-like substance formed when lightning strikes sandy soil, Romano remarked, but it’s unclear how this got there.