A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
How long have pilgrims worshiped at the sanctuary of Zeus?
The view from Zeus's altar on
Mt. Lykaion, where new finds include a crystal seal, ca. 1400 B.C., and a 5th-century B.C. silver coin depicting Zeus on a throne, both below.
On his second-century A.D. tour of the monuments of Greece, the writer Pausanias visited Mount Lykaion (Greek for "wolf") in Arcadia. He knew that for 1,000 years people had been coming to the site to worship Zeus, the supreme god of the Greek pantheon. In fact, when Pausanias arrived, an animal sacrifice was underway. But what he could not have known is that there may have been religious activity on Mount Lykaion as early as 3000 B.C. New archaeological discoveries are pushing back the chronology of this important sanctuary by 2,000 years.
Excavations led by David Gilman Romano of the University of Pennsylvania, Michaelis Petropoulos of the Greek Archaeological Service, and Mary Voyatzis of the University of Arizona focus on the southeast section of the site's ash altar, a large area of the summit covered in the remains of dedicatory offerings. The team was surprised to find Early Helladic (ca. 3000-2100 B.C.) pottery mixed in with artifacts from later periods. "We were stunned to find this early material," says Voyatzis.
Romano and Voyatzis are making the bold suggestion that the Early Helladic people who lived in the area before the Greeks arrived may have used Mount Lykaion's peak to worship a weather god. They think the deity might be a precursor to Zeus, god of sky and thunder, who is first mentioned in Linear B tablets around 1400 B.C. "Certainly we are not claiming anything like continuity of cult here," says Romano. "But what we are thinking now is that this was a place of worship at an early date."
Along with the Early Helladic material, excavators found offerings from later periods--bronze tripods and rings, silver coins, and burned animal bones--confirming that the sanctuary flourished from the eighth century B.C. onward as a destination for pilgrims. Spectators and athletes were also drawn to the sanctuary's games, which rivaled those of nearby Olympia.
Another tantalizing discovery was a rock-crystal seal with the image of a bull. Zeus is said to have two birthplaces, one at Mount Lykaion and the other on Crete, home of the Minoans. The seal, dating from 1500 to 1400 B.C., likely came from Crete, where bull iconography was popular, suggesting a connection between the worship of Zeus in both locations. Romano's team has yet to determine how the artifact came to the site, but together with the potential evidence for early rituals on the mountaintop, the bull seal is helping them understand the long tradition of worship on Zeus's sacred mountain.