From a small trench on a Grecian mountaintop, more light has been shed on the shadowy myth that chronicles the birth of Zeus, king of gods. David Gilman Romano Gr’81, a senior research scientist at the Penn Museum, has found additional evidence to complement the objects his team previously unearthed from an ancient altar site on Mount Lykaion, in the Peloponnesus region of Arcadia [“Gazetteer,” Mar|Apr 2008].
While legend often pinpoints Mount Ida—on the island of Crete—as Rhea’s chosen hideaway for the birth, Romano’s findings challenge that notion. The latest artifacts include over 50 Mycenaean drinking vessels, fragments of human and animal figurines, and the burned bones of animals, which are indicative of cult activity.
“The new evidence strongly suggests that there were drinking (and perhaps feasting) parties taking place on the top of the mountain in the Late Helladic period, around 3,300 or 3,400 years ago,” said Romano. He posits that memories of the cult’s antiquity planted the seeds of Arcadia’s long-standing, though contested, claims to Zeus’ birthplace, and that this evidence confirms their assertion.
The time period from which the objects derive also lines up with the first mention of Zeus as a deity receiving votive offerings in documents inscribed with Linear B, an archaic form of the Greek language. Additionally, Linear B provides words for “open-fire altar” and “sacred area,” which could describe the shrine on Mt. Lykaion.
More recent strata from the same trench have yielded artifacts such as miniature bronze tripods, silver coins, and other dedications, including a bronze hand holding a silver lightning bolt—most likely a representation of Zeus himself, who, as the ruler of the sky, enjoyed command of thunder and lightning. The stratigraphic continuity of archaeological evidence for cult activity on Mt. Lykaion suggests that it occurred uninterrupted well into the Hellenistic period—a rarely documented phenomenon in the Greek world.
—Emily Kohlhas C’09
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Left: Miniature bronze tripod, circa 700 BCE,
from the ash altar of Zeus trench.