ScienceDaily reports on a new discovery (actually unearthed last summer) that adds detail to the beginnings of Greek culture:
ScienceDaily (Jan. 28, 2008) —The Greek traveler, Pausanias, living in the second century, CE, would probably recognize the spectacular site of the Sanctuary of Zeus at Mt. Lykaion, and particularly the altar of Zeus. At 4,500 feet above sea level, atop the altar provides a breathtaking, panoramic vista of Arcadia. “On the highest point of the mountain is a mound of earth, forming an altar of Zeus Lykaios, and from it most of the Peloponnesos can be seen,” wrote Pausanias, in his famous, well-respected multi-volume Description of Greece. “Before the altar on the east stand two pillars, on which there were of old gilded eagles. On this altar they sacrifice in secret to Lykaion Zeus. I was reluctant to pry into the details of the sacrifice; let them be as they are and were from the beginning.”
What would surprise Pausanias—as it is surprising archaeologists—is how early that “beginning” actually may be. New pottery evidence from excavations by the Greek-American, interdisciplinary team of the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project indicates that the ash altar—a cone of earth located atop the southern peak of Mt Lykaion where dedications were made in antiquity— was in use as early as 5,000 years ago—at least 1,000 years before the early Greeks began to worship the god Zeus.
Now… I am an American. I live in one of the older areas of the country, having moved here from a considerably younger area. Back in my old state, I used to be impressed by 100-yr-old buildings, which were few and far between. Now, just a few miles from me I can see cemetery headstones from the 1600’s, still-functional buildings from the 1700’s, and hundred-year-old houses are fairly common. I am having trouble wrapping my head around the concept of a structure in use 5 thousand years ago. Thousand. And I know that this site, old as it is, represents just under a tenth of the lifespan of our species.
Anyway, back to the report:
“Mt. Lykaion, Arcadia is known from ancient literature as one of the mythological birthplaces of Zeus, the other being on Crete,” noted Dr.Romano. David Gilman Romano is Senior Research Scientist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and a co-director of the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project. “The fact that the ash altar to Zeus includes early material dating back to 3000 BCE suggests that the tradition of devotion to some divinity on that spot is very ancient. The altar is long standing and may in fact pre-date the introduction of Zeus in the Greek world. We don’t yet know how the altar was first used, and whether it was used in connection with natural phenomena such as wind, rain, light or earthquakes, possibly to worship some kind of divinity male or female or a personification representing forces of nature.”
Actually, in a way, I find this report comforting. As much as I am boggled by the time spans involved, I can see that any concerns about mortality (and frankly, I am not that concerned about dying–I just want to focus on getting everything I can out of living first) are not mine alone. Even the gods, it seems, don’t live forever.
In Arcadia, Greece, high atop Mount Lykaion,
The weather is rough, but the view is quite nice;
It’s not a location for children to play on,
But rather, an altar for burnt sacrifice.
Mythologists tell us, before written history
Lykaion was seen as the birthplace of Zeus.
Archaeologists now have uncovered a mystery—
Clues, which have thus far been used to deduce
That a culture was here that predated the Greeks
And which worshipped, not Zeus, but an earlier god.
That god is forgotten, and now only speaks
Through the fragments of artifacts under the sod.
The earliest pieces are pottery shards
That date back to 3000 years BCE.
Which pushes the date back that history regards
As the date the beginning’s beginnings must be.
High atop “Wolf Mountain’s” rocky side
A culture’s history comes into view;
Where one god was born, another died—
Reminding us: gods are mortal too.