Recent Discoveries In Mithraic Archaeology

Some time ago I posted about the ancient Romano-Persian religion of Mithraism which is undergoing a modern revival. Over the last decade or so many ancient ‘Mithraea’ or temples of Mithra have been excavated- in places as far apart as Iraq and Hungary. Most of these temples were built in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. which is considered the golden age of Mithraism in the Roman Empire.  A chronology of excavations at these sites is listed below-

April 2010: After decades of controversy, a long-closed sanctuary of Mithras was finally reopened. This Mithraeum is located in the Rhodope Mountains in the town of Thermes on the border between Greece and Bulgaria. Because of the tensions between Communist Bulgaria and Greece in the 20th century, the site’s excavator, Bulgarian archaeologist–and eventual prime minister–Bogdan Filov, conducted no further enquiries into the site after his initial foray in 1915. So far, the findings merely consist of a sacred spring and a sculptured relief. Bulgarian officials have called for increased Greek involvement in a further investigation, which will lead to a planned tourist venture in the area. Interestingly, Bulgarian archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov identified the veneration of rocks as a cultic ritual that was part of this Mithraic complex, resonating with the story of Mithras’s rock birth.

April 2010: Archaeologists discovered the remains of a Mithraeum in Angers, northwestern France. First constructed in the 3rd century A.D., the temple is located inside a domus, or Roman house. The temple was probably destroyed in the 4th century, as evidenced by shattered statues and signs of burning. It contains remains of a relief depicting Mithras with torchbearers and of a worn head of the god, distinguished by his Phrygian cap. The offerings included about 200 coins. Other artifacts found include Nubian terracotta figurines, a brooch, and a deer-shaped pouring device with three holes in its throat, perhaps used in an unknown rite. Unfortunately, because the area is due to be razed for housing, archaeologists may not have much more time to excavate.

2009: A Mithraeum was found in Iraq in the northern province of Dohuk. The prayer space in this Mithraeum faces the sun, says Hassan Ahmed Qassim, Dohuk’s director of antiquities. Such a location seems apt, considering Mithras was a solar deity. Qassim says that the Mithraeum’s discovery is important in understanding the historical transformation of the region. While this area was never under official Roman rule, Dohuk may have come under its influence.

2009: An Italian farmer outside Rome discovered a giant marble relief of Mithras on his property. Dating from the 2nd century, the relief had been excavated illegally. Made of Tuscan marble, it originated in the Etruscan city of Veio, about 12.4 miles from Rome. At the time, Italian police believed thieves planned to smuggle it to Japan or China through the United Arab Emirates. Weighing more than 3,000 pounds, the relief was to be sold for 500,000 euros.

2008: A Mithraeum was discovered under a modern shopping mall in Szombathely in northwestern Hungary by archaeologist Peter Kiss. This temple is the first example for Mithraism in Szombathely, though evidence for the cult has appeared elsewhere in Hungary. Thus far, the excavated area consists of an outer room and an entranceway. The temple burned down in the 4th century, as evidenced by pieces of ceiling and wall paintings found on the floor. Currently, an artistic restorer is working to recreate the shattered paintings, which used expensive pigments in their construction.

003: A Mithraeum was discovered in Lugo, called “Lucus Augusti” in Roman times, in northwestern Spain. While examining a manor house, or pazo, in an area under consideration for building expansion, workers found the Mithraeum. As it turned out, the pazo was on top of an old Roman residence. Historian Jaime Alvar theorized that the temple’s cult niche was destroyed during the Mithraeum’s construction. The temple was most active in the 3rd and 4th centuries. A granite altar found was dedicated by one C. Victorius Victorinus, who calls himself a “centurion of the Seventh Legion” in the inscription. The inscription dubs Mithras “invictus,” or “unconquered,” allying him with Sol Invictus.

2000: Daniele Manacorda of Roma Tre University found another Mithraeum in Rome, located in the Crypta Balbi at the southern end of the Campus Martius. This Mithraeum was built in the early 3rd century and used until the late 4th century. The temple has the typical Mithraic structure, though the cult niche has not yet been found. A fragment of a third-century tauroctony was discovered.

1998: Archaeologists excavated a Mithraeum at Hawarti in Syria; initial forays were made into the building the 1970s, but not completed until the ’90s. Underneath what was a Christian basilica in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., the Mithraeum was revealed when the basilica floors collapsed. By dating date of coins, pottery, and lamps to the mid-4th century A.D., archaeologists have proposed that this Mithraeum is the latest constructed of those yet found. Roger Beck characterizes the iconography of the Hawarti wall paintings as “all over the place.” He adds, “There are these strange, strange figure[s] of Mithras holding…naked, black demonic figures by chains.” He suggests that this scene represents evil overcome by good, personified by Mithras.

1993: Construction workers were clearing an area in Martigny, southern Switzerland, for apartment buildings, when, to their surprise, they found a Mithraeum built between A.D. 150 and 200. A long room with benches on either side, this Mithraeum has a podium at the end for a tauroctony and other votive objects. Dedicatory offerings here ranged from coins to an earthenware vase bearing a Greek inscription from one Theodoros to the Greek sun god Helios. This offering reinforces the notions of Mithras’s worship under various epithets.

Source: Archaeology


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