Archaeologists have uncovered a sunken Roman room on the grounds of Leicester Cathedral, UK. The discovery of the chamber believed to date to around 200 CE may confirm an old folktale about the cathedral and how the grounds were used for worship (and possibly sacrifice) long before the cathedral was erected.
The approximately 4-meter by 4-meter (13-foot by 13-foot) chamber was discovered during excavations ahead of a building project. While digging down to the level of the ground during the Roman era about 3 meters (9.84 feet) below the surface, the team found evidence of a "well-made semi-subterranean structure with painted stone walls and a concrete floor", according to a statement sent to IFLScience.
Inside the room, which was likely filled in during the 3rd or 4th century CE, the team found the base of a sandstone altar stone, lying face down in the rubble.
“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," Mathew Morris, Project Officer at ULAS who led the excavations, said in a press release. "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."
“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."
During excavations of the cathedral grounds, the team has uncovered over 1,100 burials, dating from between the mid-11th to mid-19th century, which will be re-interred by the cathedral following the work. The latest find, from prior to construction of the cathedral in 1086, may help confirm old rumors about the cathedral and its grounds.
"For centuries there has been a tradition that a Roman temple once stood on the site of the present Cathedral," Morris explained. "This folk tale gained wide acceptance in the late 19th century when a Roman building was discovered during the rebuilding of the church tower."
"The origins of this story have always been unclear but given that we’ve found a potential Roman shrine, along with burials deliberately interred into the top of it after it’s been demolished, and then the church and its burial ground on top of that, are we seeing a memory of this site being special in the Roman period that has survived to the present day?”
The team says that there is more analysis to do on the area before we know what was going on at the site in the Roman era. The city was one of the first Roman towns in Britain, after they invaded in 43 CE. The Roman town of Leicester was virtually abandoned after the Romans left Britain in the 5th century, before being revived again a few centuries later.