The American School of Classical Studies at Athens
ASCSA

David Romano at excavations at Mt. Lykaion

08/17/2016

David Romano Reflects on Mt. Lykaion Discovery

Moira Lavelle

When we last spoke to Dr. David Gilman Romano about the excavations at Mt. Lykaion, an ancient sanctuary of Zeus, he mentioned his interest in researching Neolithic pottery and burnt animal femurs that had been found in area of the altar.

But over the past week Mt. Lykaion has been covered by news sources all over the world for a very different kind of discovery at the altar: human skeletal remains.

“Archeologists' bone-chilling discovery may confirm dark Greek legend” reported the Toronto Star, “Did the Ancient Greeks Engage in Human Sacrifice?” asked a Smithsonian headline, and The Guardian went so far as to claim “Skeletal remains 'confirm ancient Greeks engaged in human sacrifice'.”

“We had been expecting something like this ever since we began excavating at the altar in 2007,” Admitted Romano.

Mt. Lykaion

Ancient sources from Pausanias to Pliny to Plato mention rumors of human sacrifice at Mount Lykaion. In mythology Lycaon, the first king of Arcadia, fed his son to the god Zeus and was turned into a wolf as punishment. Ancient worshippers at Mt. Lykaion would reportedly sacrifice a young boy to the god and mix his remains with the animal remains for a feast—whoever ate the human parts was allegedly turned into a werewolf.

Until this summer however, there had been no archaeological evidence to corroborate these stories. “We were fully prepared in 2007 for this kind of discovery,” said Romano, “We had with us Ethne Barnes, a specialist in human osteology, and Art Rohn, a specialist in human graves. We were well prepared but we didn’t find anything like it in those excavation years from 2006-2010. So this excavation season, six years later, we knew there was still a possibility, but we weren’t thinking as much about this possibility.”

What makes this find especially exciting is the location of the skeleton: “This burial was found right in the middle of the ash alter and adjacent to a man-made platform of stones, that seems to be a place where dedications were made, leading us to think this is a significant burial.” explained Romano. “This is not a cemetery, it is a sacrificial altar and we’ve found thousands and thousands of animal remains. But this is the first human remain, which lends an air of significance.”

And in fact it may not be the only human remain—the Mt. Lykaion team has only excavated 7 percent of the altar so far, and with antoher four years of excavation ahead more may be unearthed.

David Romano and Jim Wright at Mt. Lykaion

If this skeleton is in fact evidence of human sacrifice it would bear out the mythology and change understandings of Ancient Greek religion and culture. Romano explained that “there are many stories of sacrifice, especially of young women, probably going back to the Mycenaean period,” that could be seen in a new light with this discovery.

But first we have to wait on the physical anthropologists to verify that this is in fact human sacrifice. “It’s very important that the human bones are studied by our physical anthropologist and we have a full report of the skeleton,” explained Romano. “We don’t know the nature of the death of this individual, so it will be studied in the Wiener Lab at the ASCSA. The bones are there now, and once they're analyzed we’ll know more about the nature of death, the date, and where the individual came from.” Before this analysis, any claims that Ancient Greek human sacrifice are confirmed, are, while compelling, a little premature.

“We’re very excited about all this of course,” said Romano, “We’re very grateful to all the students that have assisted us and our colleagues and friends. It’s been absolutely a fantastic season.”