Excavations reveal Roman altar stone in shrine or cult room
Archaeologists from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services have uncovered a 1,800-year-old altar stone from the Roman period during excavations in the grounds of Leicester Cathedral.
Leicester was called Ratae Corieltauvorum or simply Ratae during the Roman period. After the Roman conquest of Britain, a town was sited at an important river crossing along the Fosse Way, a major Roman road which linked Lincoln to the north-east with Exeter to the south-west.
Roman occupation seems to have developed as a continuation of the existing Iron Age settlement, emerging as a major Roman centre with a typical grid system and numerous public buildings such as a forum and basilica, the Jewry Wall Public Baths, and at least one temple identified as a Mithraeum (dedicated to the Persian god Mithras).
The altar stone was found in a cellar in the grounds of Leicester Cathedral, believed to be a shrine or cult room. The cellar measures four by four metres and is located 3 metres below the current ground level, or 1 metre below the contemporary Roman surface level. The cellar was built in the 2nd century AD, but was deliberately dismantled and infilled, probably in the late 3rd or 4th century.
Excavations of the cellar revealed the base of an altar stone lying broken and face down amongst the rubble. The altar, which measures 25cm by 15cm, is carved from Dane Hills sandstone quarried locally and is decorated with mouldings on three sides.
Image Credit : ULAS
Archaeologists from University of Leicester Archaeological Services suggest that the cellar was a private place of worship, either as a family shrine or 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.
In a press announcement, ULAS said: “The discovery of a Roman altar at Leicester Cathedral, the first to ever be found in Leicester, is an amazing find for the Leicester Cathedral Revealed project. For centuries there has been a tradition that a Roman temple once stood on the site of the present Cathedral.”
Header Image Credit : ULAS
2,000 ram heads uncovered at Temple of Rameses II in Abydos
An archaeological mission led by the University of York has uncovered 2,000 ram heads at the Temple of Rameses II in Abydos, Egypt.
Abydos is one of the oldest cities of Ancient Egypt following Upper Egypt becoming unified under Abydos rulers during the Naqada III period (3200–3000 BC).
The city was the site of many ancient temples, including Umm el-Qa’ab, a royal necropolis where early pharaohs were entombed, and the temple of Seti I, which contains an inscription known as the Abydos King List (a chronology of dynastic pharaohs of Ancient Egypt from Menes until Seti I’s father, Ramesses I).
During the 19th dynasty, Ramesses II, also known as Ramesses the Great, constructed a temple complex in dedication primarily to Osiris and Seti I. Ramesses II is often regarded as the most celebrated pharaoh of the New Kingdom, which itself was the most powerful period of Ancient Egypt.
The temple is decorated with several achievements from his rule, including scenes of the Battle of Kadesh where the forces of the New Kingdom of Egypt under Ramesses II, and the Hittite Empire under Muwatalli II, fought near the modern Lebanon–Syria border around 1274 BC.
Excavations at the temple complex by archaeologists from the University of York have uncovered 2,000 ram heads dating from the Ptolemaic period. The team also found the remains of ewes, wild goats, dogs, cows, gazelles and mongooses within a room in the temple complex, which are thought to be votive offerings in reverence to Ramses II 1,000 years after his death.
Image Credit : Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities
A large palatial structure was also discovered from the Old Kingdom’s 6th Dynasty, containing several statues, papyri, ancient tree remains, leather garments and shoes, in addition to parts of the northern wall that surrounded the Temple of Rameses II.
According to the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, the palace will greatly contribute to a new interpretation of how the site looked during the Old Kingdom and the activities that took place there.
Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities
Header Image Credit : Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities
The “Stonehenge calendar” shown to be a modern construct
Stonehenge is an astonishingly complex monument, which attracts attention mostly for its spectacular megalithic circle and “horseshoe”, built around 2600 BC.
Over the years, several theories have been put forward about Stonehenge’s meaning and function. Today, however, archaeologists have a rather clear picture of this monument as a “place for the ancestors”, located within a complex ancient landscape which included several other elements.
Archaeoastronomy has a key role in this interpretation since Stonehenge exhibits an astronomical alignment to the sun which, due to the flatness of the horizon, refers both to the summer solstice sunrise and to the winter solstice sunset. This accounts for a symbolic interest of the builders in the solar cycle, most probably related to the connections between the afterlife and winter solstice in Neolithic societies
This is, of course, very far from saying that the monument was used as a giant calendrical device, as instead has been proposed in a new theory published in the renewed Archaeology Journal Antiquity. According to this theory, the monument represents a calendar based on 365 days per year divided into 12 months of 30 days plus five epagomenal days, with the addition of a leap year every four. This calendar is identical to the Alexandrian one, introduced more than two millennia later, at the end of the first century BC as a combination of the Julian calendar and the Egyptian civil calendar.
To justify this “calendar in stone”, the number of the days is obtained by multiplying the 30 sarsen lintels (probably) present in the original project by 12 and adding to 360 the number of the standing trilithons of the Horseshoe, which is five.
The addition of a leap year every four is related to the number of the “station stones”, which is, indeed, four. This machinery was allegedly kept in operation using the solstice alignment of the axis and was supposedly taken from Egypt, much refining, however, the Egyptian calendar, which was of 365 days (the leap year correction was not present until Roman times).
This is the admittedly fascinating theory that has been subjected to a severe stress test by two renewed experts of Archaeoastronomy, Juan Antonio Belmonte (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias and Universidad de La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain) and Giulio Magli (Politecnico of Milan). In their paper, which is going to be published on Antiquity as well, the authors show that the theory is based on a series of forced interpretations of the astronomical connections of the monument, as well as on debatable numerology and unsupported analogies.
First of all, astronomy. Although the solstice alignment is quite accurate, Magli and Belmonte show that the slow movement of the sun at the horizon in the days close to solstices makes it impossible to control the correct working of the alleged calendar, as the device (remember: composed by huge stones) should be able to distinguish positions as accurate as a few arc minutes, that is, less than 1/10 of one degree. So, while the existence of the axis does show interest in the solar cycle in a broad sense, it provides no proof whatsoever for inferring the number of days of the year conceived by the builders.
Second, is numerology. Attributing meanings to “numbers” in a monument is always a risky procedure. In this case, a “key number” of the alleged calendar, 12, is not recognizable anywhere, as well as any means of taking into account the additional epagomenal day every four years, while other “numbers” are simply ignored (for instance, the Stonehenge portal was made of two stones). Thus, the theory suffers also from the so-called “selection effect”, a procedure in which only the elements favourable to a desired interpretation are extracted from the material records.
Finally, cultural paragons. The first elaboration of the 365 plus 1-day calendar is documented in Egypt only two millennia later than Stonehenge (and entered into use further centuries later). Thus, even if the builders took the calendar from Egypt, they refined it on their own. In addition, they invented on their own also a building to control time, since nothing of this kind ever existed in ancient Egypt – probably the Egyptians reflected the drift of their 365-day
calendar through the seasons in their architecture but this is far different. Besides, a transfer and elaboration of notions with Egypt occurred around 2600 BC and has no archaeological basis.
All in all, the alleged “Neolithic” solar-precise Stonehenge calendar is shown to be a purely modern construct whose archaeoastronomical and calendrical bases are flawed.
As occurred many times in the past – for instance, for the claims (shown untenable by modern research) that Stonehenge was used to predict eclipses – the monument returns to its role of the silent witness of the sacred landscape of its builders, a role which – as Magli and Belmonte stress – does not take anything away from his extraordinary fascination and importance.
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