On a mountain top in southern Greece, in a nearly 3,000-year-old religious site, archaeologists have made a macabre discovery: human remains nestled inside an altar dedicated to Zeus. The burial is unprecedented. How did the bones of this adolescent boy end up in an altar made of sheep bones? Potentially, the discovery is evidence that the Greeks, like many other ancient societies, engaged in human sacrifice. This is shocking news for those who think of ancient Greece as the birthplace of civilization and culture.
The discovery was made on Mount Lykaion in southwestern Arcadia. We know from ancient authors like Thucydides and Plato that the site was associated with Zeus, the most illustrious of the ancient Greek deities.
But Mount Lykaion wasn’t just famous for athletics, it has a more sinister history too. According to legend a young man would be sacrificed before both his and animal flesh were consumed together as part of the ritual. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates asks his conversation partner Adeimantos if he had heard the rumors of human sacrifice and cannibalism at Lykaion, to which Adeimantos replies that he has. Pausanias, an ancient travel writer who lived some five hundred years later, seems to allude to the same legend when he writes ,“on this altar they sacrifice in secret to Zeus” but says that he was “reluctant to pry into the details of the sacrifice.”
Archaeological investigations of the site have revealed that the site is much older than the classical period. A survey jointly undertaken by the Greek Archaeological service and the American School of Classics uncovered pottery from the fifth-fourth millennium BCE. There were no animal sacrifices (mostly sheep and goats) until the Late Bronze Age Mycenaean period (15th-13th BCE).
In an article surveying the archaeological and literary history of Mount Lykaion, archaeologist Dan Diffendale, a member of the Mount Lykaion project observes that the burning of animal bones and wine-related pottery items into the classical period make Mount Lykaion one of a handful of religious sites that saw continuous activity despite political and social upheaval. In other words, it’s an ancient and important ritual location.
The altar itself is known to modern archaeologists as an “ash altar.” It’s named because the ashes of the sacrificed animals accumulated into a mound that served as a platform for other sacrifices. The most famous example of an ash altar is found in the sanctuary of Zeus at Olympia (of Olympic games) and is located less than 25 miles northwest of Mount Lykaion. At Mount Lykaion the mound of ashes was almost five feet tall at its deepest point.
Diffendale notes when archaeologists first analyzed the composition of the ashes they discovered that between 94 and 98 percent of the remains came from sheep and goats. The remainder came from cows and pigs. Almost all of the remains came from thigh and tailbones, key elements in ancient sacrificial rituals. The presence of these bones in particular are one of the ways that scholar know that they didn’t stumble across an ancient BBQ site.
At the center of the ash altar, as they combed through the remains of livestock, archaeologists stumbled across something unexpected: the burial of a human being. Preliminary study suggests that the bones come from a young adolescent male and his remains (which were absent the cranium) were found in a stone-lined cist with his head facing the west. The same stones that lined the cist were found on top of his pelvis. Analysis of the site reveals that the young man was interred in the 11th century BCE.
The burial is highly unusual. Diffendale shows that, even in cases of hero cults, when people came to offer sacrifices at the grave of people they thought were demi-gods, the heroes weren’t buried in the altar itself. Additionally, hero cults didn’t emerge until several centuries after the young man was buried.
In light of the ancient legends about sacrifice at Mount Lykaion, it’s easy to see why scholars think this is evidence of human sacrifice. This would be a sensational discovery; while there are plenty of ancient Greek myths about human sacrifice, up until now there hasn’t been material evidence that it actually took place. And to find human remains in a location that ancient rumor maintains it took place? Well, as Jan Bremmer, professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of Groningen, Netherlands, and author of numerous studies of human sacrifice, said, “it nearly seems too good to be true.”
Not everyone is convinced by the discovery. Archaeologist Ioannis Mylonopoulos, assistant professor of Art History at Columbia University, told The Washington Post that he thought perhaps the burial postdates the primary use of the altar. When the Daily Beast asked Dr. David Gilman Romano, professor at the University of Arizona and a participant in the excavation, about this argument he told us that the burial of the human remains is dated by pottery fragments found in the grave. These, he noted, date the burial to the 11th century BCE.
Given the sensational and taboo nature of human sacrifice it’s easy to see why scholars wouldn’t want to rush to the conclusion that the ancient Greeks were sacrificing their teenage boys. Accusations of human sacrifice and cannibalism are the common forms of slander that were levied against strangers and enemies. And for many people, including the founding fathers, the Greeks are seen as the authors of democracy, culture, and civilization. The knowledge that they killed (and possibly ate) children tarnishes that reputation. Anyone who has seen 300 knows that—to us moderns—the Greeks are supposed to be the good guys.
It’s too early to come to a definitive judgment about these remains. As Francesca Stavrakopoulou, professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter and author of King Manasseh and Child Sacrifice told me, “The positioning of the corpse and its associated objects suggests deliberate and even careful placement. But we can’t know at this stage quite what why that might have been.”
As to whether or not the Greeks practiced human sacrifice, Dr. Stavrakopoulou added, “it’s very unlikely that it did not play a role in certain Greek cults at some point.
“In the modern West, we have a romanticised view of the ancient Greeks as an intellectually- and culturally-enlightened people, from whom we have inherited a number of our own social values and preferences. But ancient Greek culture was as complex and contradictory as our own, and it shared much in common with other ancient societies in which human sacrifice was practiced from time to time.”
For those who are skeptical of the human sacrifice hypothesis, the question remains: How and why did the bones get to the center of the altar? As Dr. Gilman said “Whether it’s a sacrifice or not, this is a sacrificial altar… so it’s not a place where you would bury an individual. It’s not a cemetery.”