Burning Questions: An Investigation into Ash Altars
May 15, 2013
What was ancient Greek sacrifice really like? How did thighbones wrapped in fat burn? Did the tail always curl on the altar? How long did each step in the sacrificial process last and how did each affect the sensory experience of the participant? How does one build an ash altar and how long does it take for burned debris to accumulate and develop into a formalized place for ritual?
After continually discussing the practical realities of ancient sacrifice and ash altars during the course of the four Fall trips, we realized that our inquiries could only be answered through experimental archaeology. So we proposed to build an altar in the lower garden behind the Blegen to try to answer our questions through the repeated performance of thysia sacrifice, picking up a trail blazed by Michael Jameson.
Thysia sacrifice consists of several formalized steps including removing the thighbones of the animal and wrapping them in fat to be burned on the altar, burning the tail on the altar in the hope that it curl auspiciously, and quenching the fire with wine and water when the burning is complete. Such sacrifice is attested in Homer, but archaeological evidence of the practice from the sanctuary of Zeus on Mt. Lykaion predates written testimony.
To build the altar and to guide our experiments, we drew on the evidence from Mt. Lykaion as well as from Greek vase painting, sacred laws, Homer and other written sources, and comparative anthropology. Dan's experience excavating the ash altar at Mt. Lykaion and Jake's background as a professional chef trained in butchery were invaluable in planning and executing this project.
With these data and questions in mind, we began our experiments. Each week we purchased lamb legs with tails attached and butchered them. While constantly measuring the temperature of the fire, recording observations, and photographing every step, we burned the fat-wrapped thighs and the tail (which has always curled!) on an olive wood pyre built on top of the previous weeks' remains in our altar and give the holy smoke-smell, knise, to the gods. When the rite is finished, we quench the embers with wine, which smells amazing. The ash and bones accumulate each week, slowly building up the ash altar.
A highlight has been a visit by Nancy Bookidis and Gunnel Ekroth, prominent scholars of ancient sacrifice, to witness our experiments. We, along with members of the ASCSA scholarly community, then held an exciting all-day investigation and discussion about sacrifice culminating in our weekly ritual of eating the sacrificial meat.
We hope that weekly sacrifices at the same altar over two years and its subsequent excavation will help us understand biases in the archaeological record of ancient altar sites. Jake will continue these weekly experiments next year during his advanced student membership year and Dan will return next spring to excavate the accumulated debris that composes our ash altar. We plan to write up our method and present our findings at future international conferences.
We could not have done this without the enthusiasm and financial support of the Mellon Professor, Margie Miles, or the use of Director Jim Wright's entire woodpile!
— Jacob Morton
PhD Candidate in Ancient History
University of Pennsylvania
— Daniel Diffendale
PhD Candidate in Classical Art and Archaeology
University of Michigan
Photos by Dan Diffendale unless noted otherwise.