Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project study season

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

Mt. Mainalon
Mt. Mainalon above the village of Kardara.

I spent the first three weeks of June in Greece, working with the Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project. Although the project last conducted fieldwork at the Sanctuary of Zeus Lykaios on Mt. Lykaion in western Arcadia in 2010, we have been busy every summer since then studying the excavated materials. In excavation years, we rent private houses in a village close to the site; during study seasons, we stay in an off-season ski resort in eastern Arcadia, in order to be close to Tripoli, where the artifacts are housed. From Kardara it’s a thirty-minute van ride to our apotheke, or storeroom, where we study the materials almost every day (but never on Sunday). The study seasons witness a wide range of scholars and specialists coming and going as their schedules permit; among others, we have experts in animal bones, roof tiles, coins, and numerous varieties of ancient pottery, including Neolithic, Early, Middle and Late Bronze Age, Iron Age, Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman. Of course, this study could not proceed without the heroic efforts of our registrar, who is responsible for the organization of the apotheke and all procedural matters relating to the artifacts, along with her team of assistants, who do whatever assisting needs to be done.

At work in the apotheke.

This season I have been assisting one of the project’s directors in the study of the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age pottery, as well as preparing a final report on the stratigraphy of one of the project’s trenches on the peak of Mt. Lykaion. One of my goals this season has been looking for matches or “joins” between the tens of thousands of broken pieces of pottery from the trench. Although it is inherently satisfying to find such joins, a successful outcome is by no means guaranteed; it’s like playing a puzzle without a box-top picture to compare to, and with most, if not all, of the pieces missing. Despite the frequent frustration, it’s an important activity; knowing if there are pieces of the same pot scattered in different parts of the trench helps us to understand the formation processes of the site. If ancient people deposited a whole pot on the mountaintop, but we find broken pieces of it in different areas of our excavation, we deduce that it must have been broken and had its pieces scattered by one or more subsequent events. These events might be later human activity, animal disturbance, natural phenomena like earthquakes or frost heaves, or some combination of these. Given that the altar where we excavated has evidence for human activity spanning some three thousand years or more, from the Neolithic to the Hellenistic period, or from before 3000 BCE down to the 1st century BCE, followed by the two thousand years from then to now, it’s not surprising that things got so mixed around!

Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project website:

Mt. Lykaion preliminary reports:

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.