Week 4 Lab Summary: Ritual

by Bee, Ellie, and Will

This week in Experimental Archaeology, we took a deep dive into Dr. Morton’s experimental research on rites done at the altar during ancient Greek religious sacrifices. Evidence of ritual animal sacrifice has been found in the archaic cult images of a series of vase paintings. We burned bovine thigh bones (the femur) that has been twice wrapped in omentum fat (the layer of fat over the abdomen of mammals that protects organs). Alongside the wrapped thigh bone, we burned an oxtail on the altar and roasted the splanchna (internal organs). These three pieces comprise the gods’ portion of the sacrifice, and burning them releases the knisa (κνῖσα) that the gods partake in (Homer Il. 1.38-49; 1.545-566). While the thigh and oxtail are inedible after the sacrifice, the splanchna could be enjoyed by the festival-goers after roasting, often to specific people such as the priestess or priest. Groups C and D used an in-ground fire pit and groups A, B, E, F used raised fire pits that closely emulated the tools used at a Bronze Age site (Figure 1a, 1b).

This week in no way deviates from the class focus of shepherds. Shepherds played an integral role in raising many of the animals used for sacrifices. Although we burned bovine femurs and tails, the most common animals sacrificed in ancient Greece were sheep and goats. Large festivals happened at key times of the shepherding year: for example, after culling but before moving back to summer pastures secluded in the mountain. These festivals connected the shepherds to the plains communities they were a part of while in winter pastures. 

We had the distinct pleasure of performing the ritual in the rain. Truly, it was incredible to see and experience the ritual outside of perfect conditions. Certainly, rain clouds have gathered on the days of festivals in the ancient world, and the ancient people did not have rain dates to reschedule the festival. It was cold and wet, but as soon as the first group got their fire going, we were all in good spirits. 

students in high spirits and rain coats (photo by Amalia)


Gathering and Weighing Materials

The first step in the ritual process was gathering the materials and weighing the sacrificial portions of the animal. We obtained the separate animal parts first: the beef femur, oxtail, omentum fat, and the splanchna (one heart, ½ a liver, ½ a kidney). Then, we got the two packages of Fatwood, fire tools (poker, tongs, industrial oven mitts), the splanchna sticks, half a bottle of wine, and a gallon of water. Each group split a liver and a kidney with another group, so we ended up with ½ a liver and ½ a kidney.

We then weighed the femur, heart, liver and kidney individually. Then, after weighing the femur by itself, we wrapped the femur in omentum so that the bone was concealed. The intention was to “wrap the femur twice in omentum” in accordance with the descriptions of rituals in Homer’s epics, but there was a limited amount of omentum to share among the groups so we did the best we could. Then we weighed the omentum-wrapped femur as a unit to obtain the weight of the omentum. All of the weights are listed below (see figure x with averaged weights from all groups). As for staking the splanchna, Group D opted to pierce all three organs on one skewer (Figure 2), but other groups sliced their splanchna into smaller pieces, causing them to roast faster and more evenly (Figure 3). Some groups started with the lower quality, skinny and circular Menards sticks, and found these to be somewhat difficult to roast the organs with. Thus, we switched to the flatter roasting sticks, which made it easier to turn the sticks around in our hands and roast the splanchna more evenly.

Building the fire
After we gathered all the materials for the fire, we began constructing the fire itself. Groups C and D used an in-ground fire pit and groups A, B, E, F used raised fire pits that closely emulated the tools used at a Bronze Age site (Figure 1a, 1b). Fatwood was laid to construct a box-like structure that could serve as a stable “altar” for the sacrificial elements (Figure 4). We used a total of ten logs of Fatwood: three on the bottom, three in the middle, and four on top, with each layer resting perpendicular to the one beneath/above it, creating a cube-like structure. Atop of this cube-like structure we placed a pyramid of smaller pieces of Fatwood (Figure 5).

Sacrificing (Burning)

After we were satisfied with the shape of our altar, our trusty lab TA Noah came and lit it at the top. We waited until the second, lower layer of wood caught on fire, or about 10 minutes. Group D had the opportunity of using the ground-level fire pit (which had, as Jake put it, more of an “inferno” than the above-ground pits), whereas the other groups used the above-ground fire pits (Figure 6). After we had a sufficient blaze going (Table 1), each group had one of three options for roasting their animal parts:

  1. Place the wrapped femur on the altar. When it has burned out, place the tail on the altar. When it has burned out, roast your splanchna over the altar
  2. Place the wrapped femur and the tail on the altar at the same time. When they have burned out, roast your splanchna over the altar
  3. Place the wrapped femur and the tail on the altar at the same time, and while they are roasting, roast your splanchna over the altar.

Most groups opted for either the second or third option, or a combination of both (i.e. putting the femur on first, and about halfway through the burning, putting the oxtail on second). 

(FIGURE 6) Ground-level fire pit (photo by Amalia)

After observing the sacrifice (discussed below), each group quenched their fire with wine poured over the thigh bone. This often caused the thigh bone to shatter and produced a “blueing” effect. “Blueing” happens when the heat is quickly removed from the bone (Figure 7). The wine poured onto the bone created a plume or wine-smelling smoke off of the fire (Figure 8). The smell was amazing, and this experience may explain why knisa (an airborne substance consumed by the gods) is linked to smoke.


So what exactly were we looking for? The thigh bone was meant to create a burst of flame that is depicted on vase paintings (Van Straten 1995). The lab manual told us to quench the fire with wine once the femur was “burnt,” which was interpreted by the class as either a crack in the bone or being completely black with char (Figure 9). As for the oxtail, we waited to see that symbolic, skyward curl as described by Van Straten (1995) (Figure 10). The splanchna was burned until it was a suitable eating temperature.

Table 1. Time spent burning

Amissing data
B36 min.35 min.8 (heart) 9 (kidney) 11 (liver) min.
C41 min.34 min. 17 min. 
D41 min. 41 min. 11 min. 
E48 min48 min. 11 min. 
F58 min. 36 min. 19 min. 
*Groups D & E placed their thighbone and oxtail on the flame at the same time. 

Table 3. Data Summary of the Oxtail burning:

Group:How long it took to curl:Comments on the curl:Weight of Oxtail:
Amissing data
B8 minutes“[The] tail could be described as having curved appropriately and resembling the images that we have seen on ancient vases.” snapped in 35 minutes0.85 kg
C6 minutes“A slight curl in its base that gave it the appearance of the stem of a tobacco pipe, with the large, meaty side of the oxtail being the bowl.”1.23 kg
D11 minutes“We readjusted the tailbone a couple of times to make it more stable”0.98 kg
E9:35 minutes0.63 kg
F2:30 minutes1.06 kg

Thankfully, for all groups, the oxtail curved as Jake promised during class. Nevertheless, there seems to be a large degree of variance concerning when the oxtail curved amongst the groups, ranging from as short as 2 and a half minutes to as long as 11 minutes! Group F’s 2 and a half minute time till curling can not be necessarily explained by the available data; however, their pictures do suggest that their fire was far more powerful than that of Group B and Group E. Group D’s 11 minute time till curling may be explained by the fact that the flame was not burning a great portion of the tail’s end until it was readjusted to become more stable and take in more heat. With regards to the manner in which the tail curled, the groups experienced some variance. Group’s B, C and F experienced roughly the same curve which can best be described by the data recorder in Group C who wrote that the curl resembles the “stem of a tobacco pipe.” Group D’s tail did not produce that second curve at the top and remained flexed, possibly due to the lack of flame over that portion of the tail. Lastly, Group E’s tail resembled how the tail looked before being introduced to the flame; one long curl throughout the whole thing.

Table 2. Data Summary of the Splancha temperatures in Fahrenheit:

Group:Heart Temp:Liver Temp:Kidney Temp:`
Amissing data
B125 degrees140 degrees140 degrees
Cno temperature data on splanchna
D135 degrees125 degrees130 degrees
E120 degrees120 degrees120 degrees
F160 degrees145 degrees180 degrees

As we can see from the data recordings from all of the groups, the temperatures of the various organs corresponds to the time in which they were left on the flame to an extent; yet, nevertheless, the manner in which these organs were placed on the fire also determined their temperature. Group F held their organs over the fire for the longest time and this resulted in their temperatures being demonstrably higher. Even though Group B held their organs over the flame for the shortest amount of time, their temperatures registered at a higher degree than both Groups D and E. I think this is due to the fact that Group B, as referenced in their photos, placed their splanchna directly over the flame while Groups D and E were more willing to place their splanchna farther away from the flame and keep them arranged together. Groups B, C and F were willing to separate their organs onto three separate spits which may explain why Groups B and F were able to achieve higher temperatures, and, even though Group C did not report temperature, they mention how they blackened their organs to such a degree that they were inedible. Groups D and E organized their organs all onto one spit which may explain the lack of extreme variance in the temperatures reached as well as the colder temperatures achieved.

Table 4: Data Summary of the Weights in kilograms:

ThighboneOxtailOmentumWrapped ThighboneHeartKidneyLiverSplanchna
Amissing data
B3.20 kg0.85 kg0.40 kg3.84 kg0.29 kg0.20 kg0.18 kg0.67 kg
C2.15 kg1.26 kg0.23 kg2.58 kg0.77 kg
D4.14 kg0.98 kg0.27 kg4.41 kg0.31 kg0.22 kg0.19 kg0.72 kg
E3.06 kg0.63 kg0.42 kg3.48 kg0.63 kg
F3.12 kg1.06 kg0.49 kg3.60 kg0.25 kg0.20 kg0.24 kg0.69 kg

The different groups experienced varying weights in both their thighbones and oxtails. Groups B, E and F had thighbones that weighed remarkably similar, while Groups C and D had thighbones that were extreme outliers at 2.15 kg and 4.24 kg respectively. Even though both of these groups burnt their bones for exactly the same duration of time, 41 minutes, based on the thorough data collected by both groups, it seems that Group C’s thighbone snapped only 13 minutes on the wooden structure, while Group D’s held incredibly strong, even as the oxtail snapped through the charred wooden structure. Scanning through the available data it seems as if weight played a relatively minor/ unrecognizable role in the way the ritual proceeded in other regards. Weight seems to have not mattered when it came to how long it took for the oxtail to snap; weight played little to no role in the duration of the curling as well as the manner in which the tail curled; and weight did not seem to play in part in how long it took to cook the splanchna.


About halfway through the lab, we got to munch on some delicious lamb stew and bread, courtesy of Jake and our lab TA Noah. The soup was just pure lamb, one onion, some salt and pepper, and a bunch of wine, and it was one of the most simple, yet delicious meals we’ve had in a long time. We also ate the splanchna that groups had roasted. After each group has completed the sacrifice, Jake burned an unwrapped thigh bone as a control to demonstrate that the characteristic burst of flame would not occur in the thigh bone was not wrapped in fat.

(Figure 11) Unwrapped thighbone burning

The next day, we collected the bones from the fire pit and took them into the lab to analyze. In some cases, the thigh bones had burnt from end to end. In these cases, it was possible to age the animal based on whether or not the epipheses (the ends of the thigh bone) were fused to the bone shaft or not. The epipheses would fuse to the bone shaft at about 3 and a half years old for a cow. Partial fusion occurred shortly before that time. We had several epipheses come completely off the bone shaft and some that only partially came off (Figure 12a and b). Thus, we can age these animals to be between 3 and 3 and a half years old. The bones we collected will be buried and then re-dug by the Archaeological Methods and Lab course as a part of the ongoing Archaeology in the Arb project.


In sum, the ritual lab allows the students to experience the practicalities of ancient religion. From this lab, we could see the shepherds and cowherds who raised the animals, the religious officials performing the ritual, the wine-maker, the animals themselves, and, perhaps most importantly, the festival participant. By standing in the shoes of the ancient people, we were able to strengthen our own class community through ritual and communal eating. We succeeded in emulating the Bronze Age ritual and in analyzing the bones that would be left behind from it. Next, it will be great to see what the bones look like after being buried. Overall, the ritual was a success, we were seen and heard by the universe, and we successfully experienced what ancient ritual might have been like.

Lab Data by Group:

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