Roman shrine found under Leicester Cathedral

The base of a Roman-era altar stone has been discovered under Leicester Cathedral, the first Roman altar stone ever found in Leicester. The area was previously believed to be a garden space in the Roman city, but archaeologists from the University of Leicester Archaeological Service (ULAS) uncovered the remains of a Roman building in the northwest quarter of the site. Inside the cellar of this building was the base of an altar stone.

This was not a plain subterranean storage room. The floor is concrete and the stone walls were painted. The quality of construction materials, the decorative paintwork and the presence of the altar indicates the room was a private shrine or otherwise devoted to religious worship. The room dates to the 2nd century A.D. and was accessed by an external passageway with timber walls and a flagstone floor. The cellar was demolished and filled deliberately in the late 3rd or early 4th century.

The altar was found toppled face-down into the rubble layer. It was made of local sandstone from a quarry just one mile away and was decorated on three sides. The back is plain, so it was probably originally placed against a wall. About half of it survives. Archaeologists estimate it would originally have been about two feet tall.

Mathew Morris, who led the dig, said the discovery of the Roman altar – the first to be found in Leicester – was “amazing”.

He added: “For centuries, there has been a tradition that a Roman temple once stood on the site of the present cathedral. This folktale gained wide acceptance in the late 19th century when a Roman building was discovered during the rebuilding of the church tower.” […]

“Underground chambers like this have often been linked with fertility and mystery cults and the worship of gods such as Mithras, Cybele, Bacchus, Dionysius and the Egyptian goddess Isis. Sadly, no evidence of an inscription survived on our altar, but it would have been the primary site for sacrifice and offerings to the gods, and a key part of their religious ceremonies.”

Leicester Cathedral was built in the heart of the medieval city at least as early as the 12th century and likely earlier than that. The current building mostly dates to the 19th century when the church was extensively restored, but Leicester was a seat of a bishopric from 680 A.D. until the Saxon bishop was chased out of town by invading Danes in 870 A.D., so it’s likely there was a Saxon church predating the Norman cathedral.

As part of an ambitious restoration program complete with construction of a new Heritage Learning Centre, the old churchyard and gardens have been undergoing a comprehensive excavation since October 2021. The excavation unearthed more than 1,100 burials dating from the end of the Saxon period in the 11th century to the middle of the 19th. Radiocarbon dating of the earliest skeletal remains will narrow down the date range, and also confirm that the original parish church of St. Martin’s was founded in the late Saxon period.

The remains are currently undergoing examination that archaeologists hope will shed new light on the lives and deaths of Leicester’s inhabitants over nearly 1,000 years. When the research project is concluded, all of the individuals will be respectfully reinterred by Leicester Cathedral.

Archaeologists have also discovered the remains of a structure believed to be from the Anglo-Saxon period. If the date is confirmed, this will be the first Anglo-Saxon structure ever found in this area of Leicester. It will expand the known map of Anglo-Saxon occupation of the town after the end of Roman occupation. A silver penny from the period (880-973 A.D.) found near the structure is the first Anglo-Saxon coin found in Leicester in almost two decades.

Roman-era sphinx found at Dendera

A limestone sphinx from the early Roman Imperial era has been unearthed near the Temple of Hathor in Dendera, 300 miles south of Cairo. The small sphinx was discovered inside a Roman-era shrine. A limestone stele with an inscription written in both hieroglyphics and demotic was found next to the sphinx.

Located just east of the Temple of Dendera, the shrine was a two-level platform carved in limestone with stairs leading down to the foundation layer. At the bottom is a Byzantine-era water storage basin made of mudbrick. The sphinx and stela were inside the basin.

The human face on the lion body of the sphinx wears a placid archaic smile with dimples on each side of his lips. He dons the nemes headdress — the striped cloth headdress worn by Egypt’s pharaohs — with the uraeus — the upright cobra that symbolized royal authority — on his forehead. Traces of yellow and red paint have survived on his face.

The facial features are similar to those on statues of the Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54 A.D.), pharaonic name Tiberios Klaudios Kaisaros Sebastos Germanikos Autokrator, who was titled in a hieroglyphic inscription on the exterior wall of the Temple of Isis at Shanhur 30 miles south of Dendera as “Son of Ra, Lord of the Crowns, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the Two Lands.” Archaeologists hope the stele’s inscription may identify the pharaoh being depicted on the sphinx.

With the death of Cleopatra VII, the dynasties of Egyptian pharaohs came to an end. Augustus absorbed Egypt into the Roman Empire but the emperors retained the traditional accoutrements of pharaohs to lend cultural legitimacy to their rules. Roman emperors continued to be styled as Egyptian pharaohs into the 4th century. These iconographic associations were all the more important because most emperors, including Claudius, never visited Egypt in person.

Colchester Vase was gladiator sports memorabilia

New analyses of the Colchester Vase, a 2nd century clay vessel decorated with scenes of gladiatorial contests, has confirmed that it was locally made, decorated and inscribed. It was not an import or an object modified with later inscriptions. It was a high-quality piece commemorating a specific gladiatorial event that took place in Colchester.

The vase was discovered in a Roman-era grave in West Lodge, Colchester, in 1853. Its format suggests it was more likely a drinking vessel rather than a pitcher or vase, but whatever its original usage, its final use was a cinerary urn. The vessel is nine inches high and is decorated on the outside with three scenes. There are two armed men facing off against each other, two men, one wielding a whip, the other a club, baiting a bear and lastly a hunting dog chasing two stags and a hare. These scenes represent the three types of encounters staged at the arena: men fighting other men, men fighting animals and animals fighting other animals. It is one of the most intricately decorated Roman-era pots ever found in Britain.

The armed men fighting each other can be identified as gladiators by their armature. The one with a short sword (gladius), large rectangular shield (scutus), greaves and a large helmet covering his entire face was a secutor. His opponent, wearing the tall shoulder guard (galerus), arm guard (manica) and loin cloth, is a retiarius or “net fighter.” His trident is on the ground under the secutor’s feet and his finger is raised in the “ad digitum” gesture to acknowledge defeat and request that the munerarius (game director) grant him “missio” (reprieve).

Four names are incised on the vase: Memnon over the secutor, Valentinus over the retiarius, Secundus and Mario above the bear baiter with the whip. Next to Memnon’s name are the initials SAC and the numeral VIIII, recording that he fought nine times and lived. Next to Valentinus’ name is inscribed LEGIONIS XXX, indicating the retiarius was a soldier in the 30th Legion. This legion was never stationed in Britain.

The uniqueness of the decoration and the reference to a legion that never stepped foot in Britain has spurred debate as to its origin. The clay it was made from was local, but the inscription seemed to point to a foreign hand.

New tests prove the Colchester Vase was made of local clay around AD 160-200 and that an inscription bearing the names of two featured gladiators was cut into the clay before firing, rather than afterwards, as previously assumed. It was therefore an intrinsic part of the vessel’s original design rather than a later addition to a generic arena representation.

That means the vase was the ultimate in sports memorabilia, perhaps commissioned by a gladiator trainer or owner, or someone else involved with such contests.

Frank Hargrave, director of Colchester and Ipswich Museums (CIMS), which owns the vase, told the Observer the research has led to “startling new conclusions”, showing its true significance in recording a real spectacle in Colchester, known to the Romans as Camulodunum.

“It’s the only evidence of a Roman arena gladiator combat actually being staged in Britain,” he said. “There are no written descriptions. The vase is such high quality that there’s been a bit of snobbery, an assumption that it couldn’t possibly have come from Britain, whereas all the analysis has now put that to bed.” […]

Although no amphitheatre – the usual arena for gladiatorial combat – has yet been discovered, Colchester has two Roman theatres where such an event could have been staged. Pearce said: “With our re-analysis of the Colchester Vase, we can be confident that this was an event that took place here.”

The multidisciplinary research team also studied the cinerary remains found in the urn. Stable isotope analysis revealed the deceased was a non-local male possibly of European origin who was more than 40 years old when he died.

Mother and child buried holding hands

An excavation at the site of a future primary school in Marseille has revealed a cemetery from the Middle Ages that contains an unusual three double graves. The remains of an adult woman and a young child were found inside each of the graves, likely mothers and children. They died and were buried at the same time, and were laid to rest with tenderness and affection. In one of them, the child is holding the adult’s hand.

The cemetery was in use from the 7th to the 10th century A.D., but the double burials are from the earliest part of the range. The deceased were interred in shrouds and wore modest copper, bronze and iron jewelry typical of the Merovingian era. That dates the burials to the 7th or 8th century.

Archaeologists discovered almost 95 burials in the cemetery, many of them children. For the most part they were interred on their backs in simple graves. Some of the graves are tile burials in which the deceased was laid to rest on a bed of flat roof riles. A few of the graves are formed and lined by slabs of local stone. Neither the tile nor the cist burials have surviving roofs, but fragments found in the graves suggest some of them may have originally had covers. Wood fragments discovered in the some of the burials indicate the presence of wood planking.

The tombs were repeatedly reopened over the years, not by looters, but to make room for new bodies. After a decent interval to allow for the decomposition of soft tissues, a grave was opened and a newly-dead occupant added, often on top of the original occupant. The graves were likely visible on the surface in order for people to make these additions easily.

The site was occupied long before the Merovingian era. The excavation revealed a dozen or so pits and postholes dating to around 1400-1300 B.C., evidence of a Bronze Age occupation. One of the pits contained the remains of a child. One of the larger postholes contained a ceramic vessel that may have been used as cinerary urn for cremated remains. A large pit originally dug to extract clay for ceramics was later utilized as a temporary habitat. A plethora of stake holes point to it having been used as shelter by multiple people. Those were temporary structures, but a mudbrick wall points to the site having been used to erect more permanent dwellings later on in the Bronze Age.

Comb made from human skull found

A fragment of an Iron Age comb discovered during highway construction has been identified as a rare example of a bone comb carved from a human skull, one of only three known. The comb was unearthed at Bar Hill near Cambridge, the site of an Iron Age settlement where the unprecedented mass burial of 8,000 frog bones was discovered in the same archaeological excavation. In three years of excavation at Bar Hill, archaeologists recovered 280,000 remains and artifacts. Since the dig ended in 2018, Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) researchers have been going through the immense backlog of Bar Hill objects, which is why it has taken this long to analyze the comb and identify it as a carved piece of human skull.

It is an end piece of a rectangular comb with rounded edges and short, thick teeth roughly cut that they are separated from each other at the tips. There is no wear on the teeth on the comb, which there would have been had it been utilized as a tool, either for combing hair or in the manufacture of textiles. It did have a hole drilled in the middle (a semi-circular edge of the perforation is visible on the top left of the fragment), which suggests it may have been worn as an amulet instead of employed for practical purposes.

The  other two skull bone combs were discovered very close by: one in Earith, nine miles north of Bar Hill, the other at Harston Mill, 10 miles to the south. For the only three skull combs ever discovered to be located in such close proximity to each other suggests this have been a regional or local practice exclusive to the area.

Conversations between Michael Marshall and MOLA Osteologist (human bone expert), Michael Henderson, also sparked a new theory. It is possible the teeth of the comb could represent the natural sutures that join sections of the human skull.

Michael Marshall explains further:

“These carved teeth and lines would have highlighted the Bar Hill Comb’s origin, especially for local Iron Age communities who were familiar with skeletal remains. It’s symbolism and significance would have been obvious to anyone who encountered it.”

Instead of being just a practical tool, the Bar Hill comb may have been a powerful object for members of the local Iron Age community. Perhaps the skull belonged to an important person, who continued to play a role in the community even after their death.

When analyses of the Bar Hill Comb are complete, it will find a permanent home at the Cambridgeshire Archaeology Archive.