1,800-year-old Roman religious site found beneath Leicester Cathedral

The discovery raises a possibility that the space served as a shrine or cult room.
Nergis Firtina
Works in Leicester Cathedral
Works in Leicester Cathedral

Archaeologists from the University of Leicester have been excavating for the Leicester Cathedral and surprisingly found that The Leicester Cathedral site has been utilized for worship and religious observance for around 1,800 years.

As stated by the University of Leicester, discovering an altar stone during excavations raises the possibility that the space served as a shrine or cult room.

The area within the Cathedral Gardens, previously part of St Martins' churchyard, is being transformed into a new heritage and learning space as part of the Leicester Cathedral Revealed project, enabled by a £4.5 million ( nearly $5 million) from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, made possible thanks to National Lottery players.

Around 1,100 burials from the 11th century to the middle of the 19th century were found during their investigations. Once the renovation is done, the remains will be reinterred with care and sensitivity by Leicester Cathedral. Rare Anglo-Saxon artifacts have also been discovered, including a possible building and the first Anglo-Saxon coin discovered in Leicester in nearly 20 years.

When the archaeologists finally descended to the level of the Roman era, some 3 meters below the surface, they discovered signs of a well-built semi-subterranean structure with painted stone walls and a concrete floor.

"Individuals shared in private worship"

The colorful paintwork gives the chamber, which is roughly four by four meters, the appearance that it would have been used as a reception area rather than as a storage area, possibly inside a bigger structure like a townhouse, but that may never be proven.

Built most likely in the second century AD, the sunken room was purposefully demolished and filled in, most likely in the late third or early fourth century. They also discovered the foundation of an altar stone there, lying broken and face down amidst the debris. 

The altar, made of native Dane Hills sandstone, is 25 cm by 15 cm and features beautiful moldings on three sides. It would have been placed against a wall because the back is plain. Its original height would have been around 60 cm taller than it was wide, but it is fractured in the middle, and the upper portion of the pedestal and the capital are also gone.

“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. 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," Mathew Morris, Project Officer at ULAS who led the excavations, said.

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