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


Prehistoric Unity In Diversity

I find it heartening that recent research suggests Neanderthals and modern humans interbred It is a wonderful image of ‘unity in diversity’ unlike previous theories of conflict between the two groups. It brings to mind the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Consider the flowers of a garden. Though differing in kind, color, form and shape, yet, inasmuch as they are refreshed by the waters of one spring, revived by the breath of one wind, invigorated by the rays of one sun, this diversity increaseth their charm and addeth unto their beauty. How unpleasing to the eye if all the flowers and plants, the leaves and blossoms, the fruit, the branches and the trees of that garden  were all of the same shape and color! Diversity of hues, form and shape enricheth and adorneth the garden, and heighteneth the effect thereof.

‘The Art Of Music Is Divine (And Ancient)’

A report from National Geographic News suggests that prehistoric peoples chose caves with naturally good acoustics in which to create their cave paintings. This is according to research conducted by Iegor Reznikoff, an acoustics expert at the University of Paris. The suggestion being that music may have been used in the religious ceremonies of our ancestors. I find this to be a fascinating confirmation of the Bahá’í view of the spiritual nature of humanity. It brings to mind these words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

‘The art of music is divine and effective. It is the food of the soul and spirit. Through the power and charm of music the spirit of man is uplifted’.

‘The Flowers Of One (Iron Age) Garden’

National Geographic News reports that that Scandinavians of 2,000 years ago were more genetically diverse than previously thought. A DNA test of the remains of an Iron Age man found in Denmark suggests he may have been a descendant of female slaves transported from the Middle East or a Roman soldier serving on the Empire’s northern frontier. All of which shows that we humans have been been mixing together for thousands of years .In the words of Bahá’u’lláh addressed to humankind-

“Ye are all fruits of one tree, the leaves of one branch, the flowers of one garden.”

‘Love Which Kings Might Envy’

 “The face of him on whom I gazed I can never forget, though I cannot describe it. Those piercing eyes seemed to read one’s very soul; power and authority sat on that ample brow…. No need to ask in whose presence I stood, as I bowed myself before one who is the object of a devotion and love which kings might envy and emperors sigh for in vain!”

Such was the description of Bahá’u’lláh by a Cambridge University Professor,  Edward Granville Browne who visited the ‘Blessed Beauty’ in Palestine in 1890, a description which never fails to move me…

Who Were The Spiritual Teachers Of The Early Archaic Period? reports the discovery of two stone artifacts in the ancient rock quarry known as the Topper Site in South Carolina. It is thought that these items may have been arrowheads or blades crafted 11,000 years ago during the Early Archaic period. This evidence of ancient civilisation is fascinating. I find it even more fascinating to consider the spiritual development of ancient humanity. Who were the spiritual teachers of the Early Archaic Period? From the Bahá’í perspective there has been an unbroken chain of divine educators stretching back into the pre-historic past. Each ‘Manifestation of God’ beginning a ‘universal cycle’ in world history. In the the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

‘Briefly, we say a universal cycle in the world of existence signifies a long duration of time, and innumerable and incalculable periods and epochs. In such a cycle the Manifestations appear with splendor in the realm of the visible until a great and supreme Manifestation makes the world the center of His radiance. His appearance causes the world to attain to maturity, and the extension of His cycle is very great. Afterward, other Manifestations will arise under His shadow, Who according to the needs of the time will renew certain commandments relating to material questions and affairs, while remaining under His shadow’.

We are in the cycle which began with Adam, and its supreme Manifestation is Bahá’u’lláh

Some Answered Questions: US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1990 reprint of pocket-size edition

Fromelles-Echo of the Past or Prediction of the Future?

Maev Kennedy reported yesterday in ‘The Guardian’ that the final resting place of soldiers killed in the battle of Fromelles has been excavated by archaeologists. More than two thousand soldiers lost their lives within a few hours in 1916, as part of what was by all accounts a futile assault. Abdu’l-Bahá said of the First World War that-

‘This recent war has proved to the world and the people that war is destruction while Universal Peace is construction; war is death while peace is life; war is rapacity and bloodthirstiness while peace is beneficence and humaneness; war is an appurtenance of the world of nature while peace is of the foundation of the religion of God; war is darkness upon darkness while peace is heavenly light; war is the destroyer of the edifice of mankind while peace is the everlasting life of the world of humanity; war is like a devouring wolf while peace is like the angels of heaven; war is the struggle for existence while peace is mutual aid and cooperation among the peoples of the world and the cause of the good-pleasure of the True One in the heavenly realm’.
Bahá’í World Faith—Selected Writings of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Section Only) US Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1976 edition

How much more ‘proof’ does the world need of the futility of war? When will the voice of the peacemakers finally be heard above of the sound of gunfire?