Mt. Lykaion has long been known as the the birthplace of Zeus. Today it is the site of a collaborative excavation between the the Arcadian Ephoreia of Antiquities, and the University of Arizona under the auspices of American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA). We interviewed one of the directors of the project, Dr. David Gilman Romano, about his hopes for the excavations. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Romano: “We’re excavating the Sanctuary of Zeus at Mt. Lykaion in the Arcadian Mountains. It’s composed of an upper area, which is the altar and the temenos at the southern peak of the mountain, and the lower area which is the athletic complex: hippodrome, stadium, baths, stoa, administrative buildings, seats, and several fountain houses. Mt. Lykaion was known as the birthplace of Zeus in ancient literature; Callimachus and Pausanias give us that information.”
On the left of the sanctuary of the Mistress is Mount Lycaeus. Some Arcadians call it Olympus, and others Sacred Peak. On it, they say, Zeus was reared –Pausanias 8.38.2 English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A.
“This is our second five-year period of excavations. We know a lot more than we did ten years ago when we started excavating.”
“We’re interested in learning more about a number of different things we discovered. For instance we have discovered pottery going back to the Neolithic Period in the area of the altar. We’d like to know more about that. It’s very early material. Who was coming here in the Neolithic period? What were they doing? Did they use the mountaintop as an altar or for a different purpose”
There is on Mount Lycaeus a sanctuary of Pan, and a grove of trees around it, with a race-course in front of which is a running-track. Of old they used to hold here the Lycaean games. Here there are also bases of statues, with now no statues on them. On one of the bases an elegiac inscription declares that the statue was a portrait of Astyanax, and that Astyanax was of the race of Arceas. –Pausanias 8.38.5 English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A.
“Another question [we have] has to do with the cult of Zeus. How old is the cult of Zeus? We have burnt animal femurs from sacrifices that we have Carbon-14 dated to the sixteenth century BC, as well as continuity of cult through to the Hellenistic period. The cult was very likely alive and well in the sixteenth century. So we have wondered— does it go back further than that?”
“We’d like to know more about the Mycenaean shrine that we found on the altar. We found huge quantitites of Mycenaean pottery and we’d like to know more about the Mycenean cult.”
On the highest point of the mountain is a mound of earth, forming an altar of Zeus Lycaeus, and from it most of the Peloponnesus can be seen. 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 Lycaean Zeus. I was reluctant to pry into the details of the sacrifice; let them be as they are and were from the beginning. – Pausanias 8.38.7 English Translation by W.H.S. Jones, Litt.D., and H.A. Ormerod, M.A.
“And another question has to do with when the athletic games were associated with the cult on Mt. Lykaion, because this had to be very old. We have more or less continuous activity in the area of the altar from the fifth millennium BC, and we’d like to know how and when athletics became a part of the religious cult.”