Department of Archaeology and Ancient History

Gunnel Ekroth

My research mainly concerns the ancient Greek world and in particular various aspects of Greek religion.

My dissertation dealt with hero-cults during the Archaic to the Early Hellenistic periods (ca 700-300 BC), i.e. mythical or historical persons who had lived and died and received a cult after death ( The aim was to define the type of rituals performed and explore why there were variations in the ritual practices, as well as question the traditional interpretation of these cults which has dominated scholarship since the 19th-century. By analysing all epigraphical and literary evidence for sacrifices to heroes as well as criticizing the traditional view of Greek religion as divided into an Olympian and a chthonian sphere, it can be shown that ritually speaking hero-cults are very close to the cults of the gods.

Animal sacrifice concluded by meals (thysia) was the most common ritual, while libations of blood and total destruction of the offerings by fire (holocausts) can only be evidenced in particular instances and for particular reasons. The fact that the heroes were dead does not seem to have affected the rituals to any greater extent and the origins of hero-cults are not to be sought in the cult of the dead. I have later explored specific aspects of hero-cults at individual sites or monuments, but the heroes are more or less a concluded chapter in my research.

Present work

Aspects of the Geometric-Archaic Argolid

I have participated in a number of field archaeological projects in Greece, ranging from the Bronze Age to the Roman period. At present I am involved in the publication of two excavations. The first concerns a Geometric-Archaic cult-place at Berbati, located next to a Mycenaean tholos tomb. The study and publication of this deposit of ceramics and figurines will greatly increase our knowledge of Argive Archaic pottery production and also contribute to the understanding of how the Iron Age population reacted and interacted with traces of the past visible in the landscape where they were active. The second project concerns the publication of Geometric finds from the excavations at Mycenae undertaken by the British School at Athens. Later periods at this major Bronze Age site have received less interest and an analysis of the pottery as well as the extant Geometric remains will hopefully clarify our view of the situation in the 9th and 8th centuries BC.

Greek sacrificial ritual in practice, belief and theory

Since a few years back my research has mainly been focused to the project “Greek sacrificial ritual in practice, belief and theory”, previously funded by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond. The project aims at mapping the concrete, practical ritual reality and analysing the interaction between practice and theory as well as practice and theology. The study of Greek sacrifice can be said to be “over-theoretizied” considering our imprecise empirical knowledge. My basic perspective is that we first have to know what the Greeks did to be able to ask why and try to grasp the theoretical and theological structure.

The method consists of an integration of all possible evidence from ca 700-200 BC: texts, inscriptions, iconography, archaeology and osteology. The combination of different sources is a prerequisite as different categories of material reflect different “realities”. Of particular interest are the instances when the evidence does not concur and then try to understand the reasons why. The animal bone evidence from Greek sanctuaries, which has not been fully explored previously, is of great importance and in combination with inscriptions, texts and images the bones can clarify the Greek sacrificial terminology and how the animals were butchered and distributed.

I have worked extensively with the handling of blood, meat and bone within sacrificial ritual, as well as different aspects of altars. Greek sacrificial ritual evolves around negotiating the fact that men and gods in the distant past actually ate together as equals, but that mortals and immortals now are separated but still can come close by animal sacrifice in particular. To make the gods come near, though not too close (with involves real danger) constitutes the core of sacrifice and the rich variations within the rituals express the possibilities of this intricate interaction. What you eat, how it is cooked or not, where you eat and together with whom are essential aspects in this context.


Planned studies

At present I am working on the iconography of meat, the surroundings of altars and the handling of garbage in sanctuaries, the role of pigs in cult and animal husbandry, to what extent meals eaten in domestic setting where surrounded by rituals or considered as holy in contrast to meals consumed in sanctuaries. I also want to investigate the relation animal sacrifice and hunting, the presence and use of weapons in sanctuaries, the handling and attitudes to fat within cult (there are around ten terms for “fat” in ancient Greek), why and how offerings were completely or partially burnt, as well as the fact that the same action, to burn, did not always have the same meaning. I am also planning a conference together with a colleague on the castration of gods, men and animals to explore the ritual aspects of this bodily transformation (working title: Gain through loss).