Roman Altar Stone Supports Centuries-Old Leicester Cathedral Folktales
Excavations at Leicester Cathedral, a building constructed by the Normans over 900 years ago, have been under archaeological scrutiny since the digs began in October 2021. Long believed to be a site of worship since the Roman occupation of Britain , the most recent of these archaeological discoveries has yielded fruit and added substance to the legend.
An altar stone within the cellar or subterranean chamber of a Roman building is potentially the remains of a private shrine or cult room, speculate the archaeologists. Additionally, the team found rare artifacts from the Anglo-Saxon period, including a potential building, and the first Anglo-Saxon coin found in Leicester in almost 20 years.
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Mathew Morris, the leader of the excavation team of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), expressed his excitement at the discovery of the altar, stating that it was “amazing.”
This is the first such Roman altar to be found in Leicester. The altar base was found in the basement of a large Roman building, once located near the external wall of the modern-day cathedral. Most of what is seen above ground today was built in the Victorian period in the 19th century.
Roman altar stone found at Leicester Cathedral. ( ULAS)
Adding Substance to the Legend at Leicester Cathedral
Legends of a Roman temple having once stood on the site of modern-day Leicester Cathedral have been passed down for centuries. These claims gained wider acceptance in the late 19th century when a Roman building was discovered during the rebuilding of the church tower, according to a BBC report.
“For centuries, there has been a tradition that a Roman temple once stood on the site of the present cathedral,” explained Morris. “This folktale gained wide acceptance in the late 19th century, based on antiquarian discoveries, when a Roman building was discovered during the rebuilding of the church tower.”
Along with the altar stone, which measured 13 by 13 feet (3.96 by 3.96 meters), the team found evidence of more than 1,100 burials. These have been dated to between the 11th century and mid-19th centuries. After completing the project, the remains will be reinterred by Leicester Cathedral.
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Leicester Cathedral. ( dudlajzov / Adobe Stock)
Subterranean Chambers at Leicester Cathedral
In the gardens of Leicester Cathedral, which were previously part of St. Martin's churchyard, the team discovered a semi-subterranean chamber that was decorated too well to be a simple storage cellar. Inside, they found the base of an altar stone, which was broken and face down, though no inscription has been provided on this.
“Given the combination of a subterranean structure with painted walls and the altar we have found, one interpretation, which seemed to grow in strength as we excavated more, could be that this was a room linked with the worship of a god or gods. What we’re likely looking at here is a private place of worship, either a family shrine or a cult room where a small group of individuals shared in private worship,” said Morris.
The Roman altar stone found during archaeological excavations at Leicester Cathedral. ( ULAS)
These underground chambers have often been associated with fertility, mystery cults and the worship of various gods such as Mithras, Cybele, Bacchus, Dionysus, and the Egyptian goddess Isis. The altar stone would have been the primary location for sacrifices and offerings to the gods, making it a critical part of religious ceremonies, reported The Guardian .
“It's only a tiny little area of Leicester, but the material we've recovered from it, the burials, the Roman archaeology underneath, are going to be a key insight into the city,” concluded Morris when discussing the “significant” find excavated at Leicester Cathedral, a site whose sacral heritage of Leicester goes back to almost 2,000 years ago.
According to John Thomas, deputy director at ULAS, the well-preserved archaeology will allow a much clearer idea of the Roman period. This period coincides with the parish church of St. Martin’s being founded, whose cemetery has a record of over 800 years of burials of Leicester residents, who will provide a window into Norman life.
Top image: Archaeologists from the University of Leicester excavate a Roman cellar at Leicester Cathedral. Source: ULAS
By Sahir Pandey
Best, S. 2023. “Was Leicester Cathedral built on a Roman TEMPLE? Archaeologists discover a mysterious 'cult room' containing a 1,800-year-old altar stone beneath its graveyard” in The Daily Mail . Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-11830127/Evidence-Roman-shrine-uncovered-archaeological-dig-graveyard.html
Mackie, P. 2023. “Roman shrine discovered near Leicester cathedral graveyard” in BBC News . Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-leicestershire-64840494
Knapton, S. 2023. “Legend may be true as Roman shrine found under Leicester Cathedral” in The Telegraph . Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2023/03/07/legend-proves-true-roman-temple-found-leicester-cathedral/
Rawlinson, K. 2023. “Folktale becomes reality as Roman altar unearthed at Leicester Cathedral” in The Guardian . Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2023/mar/07/amazing-roman-altar-stone-unearthed-at-leicester-cathedral