Archaeologists have unearthed evidence that suggests Romans once worshipped on the site of Leicester Cathedral.
The project – which started in October 2021 – has revealed a potential “shrine or cult room”, bearing an altar stone, buried underneath the modern day buildings.
The Leicester Cathedral Revealed project saw experts from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) dig on the site of the Old Song School, at the eastern end of the cathedral.
Prior to the latest discovery, archaeologists also revealed a “reception room,” potentially belonging to an ancient townhouse, that dates back to the 2nd Century AD. The subterranean structure had painted stone walls and a concrete floor, and still maintained decorative artwork. It also contained an altar stone, leading scientists to suggest the space was used as a private worship space.
Following the find, Mathew Morris, Project Officer at ULAS who led the excavations, said: “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 our altar, but it would have been the primary site for sacrifice and offerings to the gods, and a key part of their religious ceremonies.”
“The discovery of a Roman altar at Leicester Cathedral, the first to ever be found in Leicester, is an amazing find for the Leicester Cathedral Revealed project. 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?”
A new heritage and learning space, funded by the National Lottery, is being built in the Cathedral Gardens to help visitors learn more about Leicester’s fascinating history. The spot was once home to St Martin's Parish Church. Excavations in the area unearthed 1,100 burials, some of which date back as far as the 11th Century.
The cathedral has promised to reinter the bodies following the completion of the project.