Zeus’ altar drew early visitors

Long after his heyday as the head god of ancient Greece, Zeus has thrown a curveball rather than a lightning bolt at scientists. New excavations of the Sanctuary of Zeus at Greece’s Mount Lykaion indicate that religious activity occurred there as early as 5,000 years ago, at least a millennium before the Greeks began to worship Zeus.

Last year, a team led by David G. Romano of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia excavated 5,000- to 3,200-year-old pottery fragments from the site’s ash altar, a cone of earth situated atop Mount Lykaion’s southern peak. Ancient Greeks conducted ceremonies at Zeus’ ash altar, but until now evidence of such activity dated to no more than about 2,700 years ago.

Also on the ash alter, Romano’s team found a lens-shaped seal of rock and crystal bearing a carved depiction of a bull. This find dates to roughly 3,500 years ago, Romano says. It suggests that an early connection existed between the Minoan island of Crete, where similar bull images originated, and ancient Greece.

It’s not clear how people used Mount Lykaion’s ash altar before the emergence of Zeus worship, Romano says. He described the new discoveries at a university-sponsored lecture on Jan. 30.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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