In the English city of Leicester, excavations in the cathedral grounds have uncovered a sunken room with the remains of a Roman stone altar, a sign that religious activity at the site stretches back almost 1,800 years.
Because of this broken altar and the decorative paintwork also found in the cellar, it has been suggested that the space is a private place of worship, perhaps a family shrine or cult room. It was probably constructed in the 2nd century AD and filled in around the late 3rd or 4th century. Other underground chambers are known from the Roman world as places devoted to the mystery cults of deities like Mithras, Cybele, Isis, and Bacchus. No inscription has survived on the incomplete altar to help identify the god honoured here.
Matthew Morris of University of Leicester Archaeological Services, who led the dig, said, ‘For centuries there has been a tradition that a Roman temple once stood on the site of the present cathedral. This folk tale gained wide acceptance in the late 19th century, when a Roman building was discovered during the rebuilding of the church tower. The origins of this story have always been unclear, but given that we’ve found a potential Roman shrine, along with burials deliberately interred into the top of it after it’s been demolished, and then the church and its burial ground on top of that, are we seeing a memory of this site being special in the Roman period that has survived to the present day?’
The discovery was made in the final stages of excavations as part of the Leicester Cathedral Revealed project, which is building a new heritage and learning space in this area of the cathedral gardens. Over the course of the excavations between October 2021 and February 2023, archaeologists uncovered more than 1,100 burials from the 11th to the mid-19th century (which will be reinterred), a possible Anglo-Saxon building, coins, and a sherd of Roman Samian ware with the mark of Justus, a late 1st-century AD potter from La Graufesenque in southern France.
At another English cathedral, that of Exeter, excavations have also revealed Roman remains during work as part of a project to replace the medieval cloisters (demolished in 1656) with a new cloister gallery. The new finds from Roman Isca Dumnoniorum include the remains of a street and timber buildings dating from c.AD 50-75, which cathedral archaeologist John Allan says were probably part of a long barrack building within a legionary fortress.
Meanwhile, in Paris, work is still under way to restore Notre-Dame after the Gothic cathedral was devastated by fire in April 2019, with plans to reinstall the spire (a 19th-century addition by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc) by the end of 2023, and for the church to open again in December 2024. Alongside the ongoing reconstruction work, researchers have been investigating different aspects of the site. Early in 2022, archaeologists from Inrap excavated the crossing of the transept, where they found two lead coffins and fragments of the 13th-century rood screen. One of the burials, studied at Toulouse University Hospital, may belong to a nobleman who died aged 25-40 and who appears to have been buried with a crown of flowers.
Researchers have accessed previously concealed parts of the cathedral, allowing them to gain new insights into its construction. In a study led by Maxime L’Héritier of Université Paris 8, 12 iron staples used to join stones in the building were analysed, showing the staples are contemporaneous with the building phases of the mid 12th and early 13th centuries, as recently published in PLOS ONE (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0280945). ‘Notre-Dame is now unquestionably the first known Gothic cathedral where iron was massively used to bind stones as a proper construction material,’ the authors conclude. Thousands of staples were used, and this architectural innovation allowed the medieval builders to erect the 32m-tall structure.
While work continues, visitors can explore a free exhibition on the building (Notre-Dame de Paris: at the heart of the construction site) in an underground space in front of the cathedral (https://rebatirnotredamedeparis.fr).