A structure interpreted as a possible Roman shrine or cult room, containing an altar stone, was recently discovered during excavations at Leicester Cathedral, suggesting that the site’s religious use dates back nearly 1,800 years.
Excavations by University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) have been ongoing since October 2021, with previous discoveries including over 1,100 burials ranging from the 11th to the mid-19th century (see CA 389), as well the first Anglo-Saxon coin to be found in Leicester in nearly 20 years. It was only in the final stages of the excavation earlier this year, though, that archaeologists uncovered a sturdy structure approximately 3m below modern ground level, during investigations of the Old Song School site at the eastern end of at the cathedral. Measuring 4m by 4m, the chamber is believed to have been built in the 2nd century AD and would have been semi-subterranean, with brightly painted stone walls and a concrete floor. This decoration could indicate that it was a reception room located within a larger building such as a townhouse. After a century or two of use, though, the room appears to have been deliberately dismantled and infilled sometime between the late 3rd or early 4th century.
Within this space, a broken altar stone measuring 25cm by 15cm was found placed face-down. It is the first such object from the Roman period to be found in Leicester, and appears to have been carved from local Dane Hills sandstone. Three sides have decorative moulding, while the back of the stone is plain, possibly suggesting that it had originally been placed against the wall.
Commenting on the discovery, Mathew Morris, Project Officer at ULAS, who led the excavations, said: ‘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. 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. Sadly, no evidence of an inscription survived on the altar, but it would have been the primary site for sacrifice and offerings to the gods, and a key part of their religious ceremonies.’