British Archaeology, no 25, June 1997: News


Roman Lincoln `a centre for the cult of Mithras'

The possibility that Roman Lincoln was a centre of the exotic, eastern cult of Mithras in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD has been raised by the identification of a carved figure on a Lincoln church as the Mithraic god, Arimanius. Mithraism was popular with the Roman army across the empire, and evidence for the cult is known at a handful of Roman military sites in Britain.

The eroded figure, high up on an outside wall of the 11th century tower of St Peter-at-Gowts in Lincoln, has long been taken as a medieval carving of either Christ or St Peter. However, archaeologist David Stocker has identified close similarities between the Lincoln figure and other known Mithraic carvings. The seated figure appears to have the head of a lion, and is wearing a short tunic with a broad waistband; it seems to be winged, and to be holding a staff in one hand and a set of keys in the other.

In a paper in the forthcoming issues of both Lincolnshire History and Archaeology and Britannia, Dr Stocker writes that the only other statue with these attributes in Britain is one from York, identified as Arimanius - the Mithraic god of the dark, who held the keys to heaven. The York sculpture is headless, but an image of Arimanius with a lion's head is known from Castel Gandolfo near Rome. By contrast, he claims that no Christian image with these characteristics is known. `I have been unable to find an image of St Peter depicted in this way anywhere else in western art, and Christ . . . is never [depicted] wearing a short tunic, ' he writes.

Documented British devotees of the Indo-Iranian cult of Mithras, a form of Zoroastrianism, were all high-ranking army officers, and the few Mithraic temples known in Britain were associated with military centres - the Cripplegate fort in London, York, Hadrian's Wall, Caernarfon, Caerleon and possibly Leicester, Gloucester and Chester. Lincoln, as a colonia (like Gloucester and York) where army veterans retired, is therefore a plausible site for a Mithraeum.

According to Dr Stocker, the key-carrying figure may have been mistaken for St Peter in the 11th century and `reverently re-set in the new church tower of St Peter-at-Gowts'. Alternatively, it may have been recognised as antique and pagan, but was adopted as St Peter `to make the point that the Christian church was the direct successor of the Roman past'. Other pieces of Roman masonry were also reused in the tower.


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`Gladiators' arena' found near Edinburgh

The Roman army's fondness for gladiators and other forms of staged entertainment has been underlined by the discovery of a military amphitheatre at Inveresk near Edinburgh. Several military amphitheatres are now known in Britain, associated with the forts at Chester and Caerleon, London, Richborough, TomenY-Mur in Gwynedd and Newstead in the Scottish borders.

Evidence for the Inveresk amphitheatre - the most northerly yet found in the Roman Empire - was originally discovered by Edinburgh University's field archaeology unit in 1995, but was interpreted as a granary. The remains, consisting of a slightly curving grid of post-holes and a curving fence, have now been re-identified as a section of amphitheatre seating and part of the arena wall by Mike Bishop, a specialist in Roman military archaeology.

David Breeze, Chief Inspector of Ancient Monuments at Historic Scotland, said the site was far more likely to be an amphitheatre than a granary. `There were always problems with the original interpretation, but at the time [of excavation] no one could think what else it could be, ' he said.

The 2nd century auxiliary fort at Inveresk - some 10 miles east of the fort at Cramond, where a stone lion was discovered in the river last year - was built at the same time as the Antonine Wall, 21 miles to the north, and was occupied for only a few decades. Inveresk attracted the attention of the chief financial official in Britain, the procurator Q Lusius Sabinianus, who dedicated at least two altars there; but it has not previously been considered a site of exceptional importance. Whether the existence of an amphitheatre here suggests Inveresk was more important than has been thought, or that amphitheatres were simply a more common feature of the landscape than has been supposed, has not yet been settled.

The view that military amphitheatres were used for gladiator displays and wildanimal hunts - as well as for a more sober round of military ceremonies and parades - is gaining ground amongst scholars, according to Mr Bishop. Inscriptions indicating the presence of shrines to Nemesis, the patron goddess of gladiators, are known from the amphitheatres at Chester and Caerleon, and a series of glass beakers found at several 1st century military sites in Britain name the members of what seems to have been a gladiator troupe. `Pieces of gladiatorial equipment have also been recognised at military sites on the German frontier, ' Mr Bishop said.


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Bone-tests suggest monks preferred fish

Scientists have used bones from human skeletons to indicate approximately how much seafood was eaten by different groups of people in medieval north-eastern England. The results suggest that more seafood was eaten by religious communities than by layfolk - a reflection, perhaps, of the dietary rules of many monasteries which prohibited meat but allowed fish.

The work also showed, unsurprisingly, that more seafood was eaten in some coastal fishing ports than inland, but also that there was little variance in fish consumption between the busy trading centre of York and the remote village of Wharram Percy. The work, conducted by Simon Mays of English Heritage, will be published in the next Journal of Archaeological Science.

Seafood is richer in a certain stable isotope of carbon than the meat of land animals and vegetable crops, and this difference is transmitted through food to human bone. Measuring bone for the isotope can give a broad idea of how much seafood a person ate over the course of his or her lifetime.

A group of 12th-14th century burials, taken to be monks, from the Gilbertine priory at York Fishergate was compared with a contemporary group of lay people from the same site, and the monks were found to have a significantly larger proportion of the isotope than the lay group. They also had less dental caries, which previous research has suggested may be inhibited by eating sea fish. Exactly how much seafood was eaten by each group, however, as a proportion of total diet, cannot yet be calculated.

A group of 13th-16th century layfolk buried at Greyfriars in Hartlepool, and another group from Blackfriars in Newcastle - both fishing ports - seemed to have eaten similar amounts of seafood to the monks of York; but, strangely, a group of 11th-16th century lay burials from Scarborough, also a busy fishing port, showed a history of low fish consumption, perhaps because the cemetery served a wide catchment area inland as well as on the coast. Ten peasants from Wharram Percy, dating from the 10th-16th centuries, seem to have eaten as much seafood as the layfolk of York - perhaps surprisingly, as it would have been easier to buy non-local foods such as deep-sea fish in a major town than in the depths of the countryside.


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In brief

Damaged helmet

An Anglo-Saxon helmet, found with a sword, knife, hanging-bowl and parts of a skeleton in a shallow grave in Northamptonshire in April, had been struck several times and severely damaged by ploughing over recent years, according to the excavators from Northamptonshire Archaeology. The damage underlines the extent to which ploughing can harm important archaeological material underground.

The 7th century iron helmet with a wild boar on its crest is only the second of its type to be found in Britain. The boar was a Celtic motif, and may suggest an attempt by Anglo-Saxons to accommodate themselves to native British culture (see BA, April). The first boar-crested helmet was found at Benty Grange in North Derbyshire.

The Late Neolithic Rollright Stones in Oxfordshire have been put up for sale at an asking price of around £55,000. Some archaeologists fear a new owner may seek to commercialise the site, which at present lies quietly off the main tourist routes.

Ministers at DNH

New Ministerial appointments at DNH suggest the Government is in danger of taking an unfocused approach to heritage issues, with responsibilities split between different ministers. Under Chris Smith, the new Heritage Secretary, Tom Clarke takes over royal palaces and parks, tourism and local government issues, Mark Fisher gets museums and education issues, and Tony Banks gets the built heritage, the Millennium and the National Lottery. Worryingly, no minister has been given responsibility for archaeology.

Roman villas

An important Roman villa has been found in Kent. The villa, near Faversham, has been surveyed by English Heritage, and extends for over 200 yards with 42 rooms, including two with hypocausts. Evidence has been found for mosaic floors, painted wall plaster, gold and silver coins and jewellery, all perhaps indicating the country home of a high imperial official.

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison


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