Burning Questions about Greek Sacrifice

BY DAN DIFFENDALE, PhD student, Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology, University of Michigan


Archaeologists study the (often-broken) material remains of human behavior in hopes of answering questions about human life in the past. We cannot directly access the past; we are constrained to form hypotheses and narratives on the basis of materials that exist in the present and are observable through excavation or surface survey. One category of hypothesis creation and testing is that of experimental archaeology (sometimes included among “actualistic” approaches). Archaeologists attempt to replicate past human behaviors in order to observe the resulting material signature, which can be compared with the archaeological record.

As a member of the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project in Greece, I helped to excavate an ancient Greek mountaintop altar. This “ash altar” was built up over centuries by the accumulation of many thousands of animal bones burned by Greek worshipers in honor of the god Zeus. Although specialist studies of the bones and of the altar sediments have told us a great deal about the sacrificial practice at Mt. Lykaion in antiquity, many questions remain open.

Since 2012 I have collaborated with Jacob Morton of the University of Pennsylvania to create an experimental ash altar in Athens, Greece, built up out of the remains of dozens of sheep thighbones and tails, burned according to current hypotheses about Greek sacrifice. In mid-May we will carefully excavate the accumulation of one and a half years of experimental burning, in order to compare the material record of these processes with the observed archaeological record at Mt. Lykaion. In addition to this goal, the “Burning Questions” project, as we call it, includes observation of the sensory experience of the burnt offering part of Greek sacrificial ritual as well as the behavior of burning tails, which the Greeks observed as omens.

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