A newly discovered Mithraeum in Scotland

A correspondent writes to tell me of the discovery of a Mithraeum in Scotland, at Inveresk.  There is an announcement in Epistula 1 (PDF), page 5, the organ of the Roman Society, from John Gooder (AOC Archaeology Group) and Fraser Hunter (National Museums Scotland):

Excavations on the eastern edge of the fort complex of Inveresk in East Lothian have revealed the first evidence for the cult of Mithras in Scotland. The excavations, for East Lothian Council by AOC Archaeology Group, preceded the rebuilding of the cricket pavilion after it was burnt down. The findspot is over 750 m from the fort, in an area where little Roman activity was previously known.

Excavations exposed part of a sub-rectangular sunken feature 6.1 m long, at least 4.1 m wide and 0.65 m deep. Buried face-down at its north-west end were two intact altars, both offered by the same person, C Cassius Fla[vianus?], a centurion.

One is dedicated to Sol and bears a bust of the god, his pierced eyes and radiate crown allowing light to shine through from a recess carved in the rear; the capital carries busts of the four seasons.

The other is dedicated to Mithras, with imagery linked to Apollo (lyre, plectrum and griffin) and sacrificial implements carved on the sides. Traces of pigment survive on both altars. Close by was an altar base.

Inveresk was only occupied in the Antonine period … Was the sunken feature a timber-built mithraeum?

All this is immensely interesting.  I wish we could see the inscriptions!  I wish we could see photos of the altars!

AOC refers to these as the “Lewisvale Roman Altars“:

In March 2010 AOC Archaeology Group was undertaking routine archaeological investigations in advance of the erection of a new cricket pavilion in Lewisvale Park, Inveresk, East Lothian, when two large sandstone slabs were uncovered.

It soon became apparent from the ornately carved side panels that these two slabs were significant remains relating to the Roman occupation of Inveresk, and by the end of the day it had been confirmed that they were in fact Roman altars. Wider excavation revealed that they had been deposited in a pit also containing an altar base and an area of paving.

In addition to the altars and altar base the artefact assemblage includes nails, fragments of lead, Roman ceramic (including Samian, fine ware and black burnished ware sherds), and later prehistoric ceramic. …

The two rare carved Roman altars, one dedicated to the Roman God Sol and the other to Mithras are amongst the most important Roman finds ever to be made in Scotland both for the quality of the carving and the importance of the inscriptions. The Mithraic altar is the first dedication to Mithras known from Scotland and the most northerly example to date.

The discovery of Roman altars from within a secure Roman context, presents a unique opportunity to investigate a purposeful Roman-period event. The wider artefact assemblage of both Roman and local objects, along with ecofacts recovered during soil sample processing provide the opportunity to investigate activities within the pit from whence the altars were recovered, and from the adjacent area.

The AOC archaeology site also has a blog — confusingly called Diary — with photographs and details of the whole process!!!  I deeply approve of this.  Well done, AOC archaeology!  Snippets:

Today we have uncovered all of the inscription on the Mithras altar. It reads DAEO/INVICT[.]MY/C CAS/FLA, which may mean “To the invincible god Mithras” followed by the dedicators name…

Here are a couple of preliminary laser scan images of the Sol altar, there will be more to follow…

The sides of the altar have been carved with laurel wreaths. It has been suggested that these wreaths represent Sol Invictus, the unconquered Sun. …

Today we have uncovered the inscription “SOLI.C.CAS.FLA >”….  The capital is characterised by a row of four figures with an inscribed panel beneath that bears traces of red and white pigment. The figures most likely represent the four seasons.

Spring and Summer have been fully cleaned using soft brushes and wooden skewers. As can be seen Spring, on the left, has more flowers in her hair than Summer.

The final figures on the capital of the Sol altar have now been cleaned. We believe that they represent autumn and winter;  Autumn with grapes in her hair and Winter with a shawl covering her head.

Today we have finished cleaning the Mithras altar. There is a carving of a beautiful winged mythical creature on the side that we have just finished, as well as a patera (handled bowl). It is possible that the creature is a Griffin. What do you think.?

On the side of the Mithras altar you can see a finely carved lyre, a plectrum (small flat tool used to pluck or strum a stringed instrument) and a jug. Specialists have indicated that the jug is a standard vessel of sacrifice and the lyre with a plectrum are typical attributes of Apollo.

We will start with the Mithras altar….


I’ve linked to the original images, rather than copied them here.

This is only a tiny selection of the materials in the diary, which is very, very interesting and includes UV examination.   This blog is really a model of how material should be presented online.  Truly it is!


13 thoughts on “A newly discovered Mithraeum in Scotland

  1. Wow. Amazing pictures. The Four Seasons are very evocative, particularly Winter.

  2. Interesting that the 2nd century head of Sol Invictus pre-dates Constantine’s Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. This gives even more weight to the suggestion that the Battle of Athelstaneford is based on Constantine’s Vision of the Cross, since it is possible that the Christianisation of Sol into the Saltire was also supported by the existence of Sun liturgies in Scotland.

  3. The Gazetteer of Scotland 1836 states that Mary Queen of Scots originally discovered and funded protection of this Roman discovery at Inveresk. Her royal decree is linked to a note by the Treasurer in April 1565. Of course once she was imprisoned her work was forgotten much like her founding and funding of the University of Edinburgh and other works. U of E was not founded by her son, King James VI he simply re-issued her decree when he got himself firmly on the throne. She was also the 1st by royal decree to establish an Army Medical Corp much like the later Red Cross. And many other accomplishments rarely discussed.

  4. I have just watched the bbc Ancient Rome programme.
    This Roman feature was mentioned.
    Is the Inveresk site open to the public.

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