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Excavations reveal Roman altar stone in shrine or cult room

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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.”

ULAS

Header Image Credit : ULAS

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Archaeology

Archaeologists uncover tomb of Emperor Xiaomin of Northern Zhou

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In a press announcement by the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), archaeologists have discovered the tomb of Emperor Xiaomin of Northern Zhou near Xianyang City, China.

Emperor Xiaomin (birth name: Yuwen Jue), was the founder of the Xianbei-led Northern Zhou dynasty of China that lasted from AD 557 to 581. One of the Northern dynasties of China’s Northern and Southern dynasties period, it succeeded the Western Wei dynasty and was eventually overthrown by the Sui dynasty.

Rather than take the title of emperor, Xiaomin instead used the Zhou Dynasty title of “Heavenly Prince”, however, a power struggle occurred between Xiaomin and the his cousin, Yuwen Hu, who deposed Xiaomin and had him killed.

Archaeologists conducting excavations adjacent to the Airport Expressway in Xianyang City have uncovered the tomb of Emperor Xiaomin, designated Tomb M655.

Image Credit : CASS

Excavations have revealed a 147 long ditch, leading to a tomb oriented on a north to south axis. The tomb contains a single chamber at a depth of 10 metres, containing disturbed funerary offerings such as ceramic vessels and figurines depicting warriors, cavalry units, a camel, and indiscernible creatures.

The team also discovered an epitaph stone with an inscription loosely translated as: “Renshen in October of the second year of the tomb of Gongyu Wenjue, Duke of Lueyang, Zhou Dynasty” – referring to the birth name of Yuwen Jue.

According to the press announcement: “The archaeological discovery of Yuwen Jue’s tomb from the Northern Zhou Dynasty is of great significance. It is the second Northern Zhou emperor’s tomb that has been excavated after the Xiaoling Mausoleum of Emperor Wu of the Northern Zhou Dynasty.”

Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS)

Header Image Credit : CASS

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Archaeology

Viking trade connections stretched to Arctic Scandinavia

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An analysis by researchers from the University of York has revealed Viking trade routes between northern Scandinavia and the edges of continental Europe.

The study focuses on trade connections from the town of Hedeby, an important trading settlement during the Viking Age near the southern end of the Jutland Peninsula in Germany.

Hedeby is first mentioned in the Frankish chronicles of Einhard (who was in the service of Charlemagne), but was probably founded around AD 770.

Hedeby’s prominence as a primary trading hub can be attributed to its strategic geographical positioning along the pivotal trade routes connecting the Frankish Empire and Scandinavia in the north-south direction, as well as the Baltic and the North Sea in the east-west direction.

The town was also a major centre of antler-working, with 288,000 antler finds recorded to date, most of which are waste material from the production of hair combs.

A ZooMS analysis of the collagen in the combs has revealed that 85-90% of the combs were made from reindeer antler during the 9th century AD. The combs or antlers were imported from northern Scandinavia, indicating new evidence for contact between Hedeby and the northern outlands in central and northern Scandinavia.

Dr Steven Ashby, from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said: “The work at Hedeby is particularly interesting, as it tells us about connections between the mountains of upland or arctic Scandinavia and this large town at the gateway to continental Europe, and points to a window in the 9th Century when these northern links must have been particularly strong.”

The paper ‘In the footsteps of Ohthere: biomolecular analysis of early Viking Age hair combs from Hedeby (Haithabu)’ is published in Antiquity Journal.

University of York

https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2023.118

Header Image Credit : Mariana Muñoz-Rodriguez

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