Uncovering the Past: altar of Zeus, Germanic battle, skulls and more

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As some Pagans and Heathens attempt to revive ancient or indigenous religions they often rely on the work of historians, primary texts and archaeologists. For this reason, when something new pops up that challenges long held academic ideas on cultural or religious practice, we pay attention. Here are some of the new(er) finds making waves in archaeological circles.

Altar of Zeus at Lykaion

MOUNT LYKAION, Greece — This mountaintop in the Peloponnese, and Mount Ida in Crete, are both claimed to be the birthplace of Zeus. Archaeological teams have excavated at Mount Lykaion for over a decade. The Greeks called the Zeus born at this site Zeus Lykaios. Cult activity occurred here from 1500 to 100 B.C.E. but gradually shifted to the city of Megalopolis on the plains below Mount Lykaion. Megalopolis was much easier to reach than a mountaintop. Dedications on the mountaintop ceased after 200 B.C.E. A hippodrome, stadium, and the altar of Zeus remain on this site, as well as other buildings.

Ash altar and column bases at Lykaion [Wikimedia commons]

The site contains two sanctuaries. Worshipers created the upper sanctuary from 1499 to 600 B.C.E., and the lower sanctuary from 699 to about 50 B.C.E.

The upper sanctuary lies atop of the mountain’s 4,534-foot (1,382 meter) southern peak. Just below the peak, a spring gives forth water. Thunderstorms frequently occur. Eagles soar. It contains the sacred precinct and the altar of Zeus.

Most people think of an altar as some version of a table. This altar of Zeus, however, consists of a mound of ash and pulverized bone, where priests placed the offerings onto the fire. With a diameter of 100 feet (30.5 meters), this altar has an area of 7,500 square feet. In some places, it reaches five feet (1.52 meters) in depth. Sheep and goat bones comprise about 98 percent of the remains. Almost all bones were kneecaps, thighbones, or tailbones. The Greek writer Pausanias reported that two columns flanked this altar, and eagles crowned each column.

Archaeologists have found a variety of votive offerings at this site., including more than 50 Mycenaean drinking vessels, human and animal figurines, and a miniature double-headed ax. In addition, archaeologists found a human skeleton, buried in a shallow grave. Several writers from antiquity had alluded to human sacrifice at this site. Analysis revealed the skeleton to be that of an adolescent, buried sometime between 1099 to 1000 B.C.E. Among thousands of animal remains, archaeologists have only found this one human skeleton.

The lower sanctuary lies in a meadow below the peak. It contains the buildings associated with the Lykaion games. Like the Olympics, these games occurred every four years. Evidence dates the earliest games at this site to 699 to 600 B.C.E. The Olympic games, by comparison, began according to tradition in 776 B.C.E. Local villagers have recently restarted the Lykaion games.

Evidence of major battle in ancient Germany

TOLLENSE, Germany — Archaeologists have found evidence of a major battle involving about 2,000 warriors here. This battle occurred around 1200 B.C.E, along the Tollense River, between Berlin and the Baltic Sea. This may be the most significant battle of the Bronze Age in north central Europe, as no one had expected warfare on this scale in the absence of large population centers.

Skeletal remains covered a mile of the river. The bogs on the riverbank preserved the bodies. Evidence suggests that a causeway across the Tollense may have formed part of a trade network and been the critical factor in the battle.

DNA analysis of the remains indicates genetic relationships with today’s southern Europeans, Poles, and Scandinavians. Analyses of bones indicate scarring from previous battles. In short, north central Europe may have had a specialized warrior caste at the time.

Mesopotamian influences found among Tut’s artifacts

EGYPT — A German-Egyptian team has analyzed hundreds of fragmented gold pieces from King Tut’s tomb. These pieces have been in storage since the tomb was first opened. At entombment, workers would have fixed these pieces to “quivers, bow cases, and arrows.” While made in Egypt, these pieces show strong Mesopotamian influence in Egypt around 1323 B.C.E.

Funerary garden discovered

EGYPT — Jose Manuel Galan found a funerary garden in front of a rock-cut tomb of a 12th dynasty court official from Thebes. Historians were familiar with literary and visual representations of funerary gardens, but no one had previously found material evidence of their existence. These gardens would produce fresh offerings of fruits and vegetables for the deceased.

Turkish skull cult

GOBEKLI TEPE, Turkey — Archaeologists have found evidence of a human skull cult at here, at a site that dates from 9999 to 7000 B.C.E. Bone fragments at the site indicate postmortem skill carving and alteration. These alterations would allow people to suspend skulls from the stone slabs at this site.

Aztec wolf sacrifice

MEXICO CITY — Excavations at the Aztec Great Temple in here found evidence of a possible sacrifice of a juvenile wolf. Its body was adorned with gold ornaments for the chest, ear, and nose. The head of the wolf faced west, toward the setting sun. This burial dated from the period 1486 to 1502 C.E.

Below are some resources for Pagans interested in archaeology.

Archaeology Magazine

Interactive dig for field reports of current archaeological excavations

Realm of History At this site, people can sign up for daily emails about world history.