1,800 year-old evidence of Roman worship found in Leicester Cathedral dig

Image: ULAS

Excavations by University of Leicester archaeologists for the Leicester Cathedral Revealed project have uncovered evidence that the site of Leicester Cathedral has been used for worship and religious observance for nearly 1,800 years.

The excavations have revealed the cellar to a Roman building within which was the base of an altar stone, leading to suggestions that the room could have been a shrine or cult room.

Archaeologists and other experts from University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) have been leading excavations on the site of the Old Song School, at the eastern end of Leicester Cathedral, from October 2021 to February 2023.

The area within the Cathedral Gardens, previously part of St Martins’ churchyard, is being transformed into a new heritage and learning space as part of the Leicester Cathedral Revealed project, enabled by a £4.5 million grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, made possible thanks to National Lottery players.

Their excavations uncovered over 1,100 burials ranging in date from the 11th century through to the mid-19th century. Once the project is completed, the remains will be reinterred with care and sensitivity by Leicester Cathedral. There is also rare evidence from the Anglo-Saxon period, including a potential building and the first Anglo-Saxon coin found in Leicester in nearly 20 years. 

In the final stages of the excavations, when the archaeologists reached the level of the Roman period, approximately 3m below the ground, they uncovered evidence of a well-made semi-subterranean structure with painted stone walls and a concrete floor. The decorative paintwork suggests that the space, measuring about four by four metres, would have been used as a reception room rather than as a place of storage, potentially within a larger building such as a townhouse though that may never be confirmed.

The sunken room was probably built in the 2nd century AD, and was deliberately dismantled and infilled, probably in the late 3rd or 4th century. Within that space, lying broken and face down amidst the rubble, they also found the base to an altar stone. Carved from local Dane Hills sandstone and measuring 25cm by 15cm, the altar has decorative mouldings on three sides. The back is plain, showing that it would have been placed against a wall. Originally, it would have stood higher than it was wide, perhaps around 60cm tall, but it is broken mid-shaft and the upper part of the pedestal and the capital are missing.

Mathew Morris, Project Officer at ULAS who led the excavations, said: “Given the combination of a subterranean structure with painted walls and the altar we have found, one interpretation, which seemed to grow in strength as we excavated more, could be that this was a room linked with the worship of a god or gods. 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 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?”

Leicester is one of the most excavated cities in Britain and much is known about the Roman town that preceded it, named Ratae Corieltavorum. This latest dig aimed to examine a cross section of the City’s history and learn more about the early foundation of the Cathedral – formerly a parish church. Experts will be able to track the history of this part of Leicester from the Victorian period back through Medieval, Saxon, Roman and perhaps even to early Iron Age settlement.

John Thomas, Deputy Director at ULAS, said: “This excavation has produced a remarkable amount of archaeological evidence from a modestly sized area.  The project allowed us to venture into an area of Leicester that we rarely have the opportunity to investigate, and it certainly did not disappoint. 

“When we began the project, we had several key research questions, but we were not sure how much of an impact the Song School foundations would have had.  Fortunately, the archaeology was very well-preserved and whilst there is still a lot of analysis work still to do, we are confident that we’ll be able to address all of our questions and more.  

“We’ll have a much clearer idea of what was happening on the site in the Roman period, when the parish church of St. Martins was founded, and a unique insight into the story of Leicester through its residents who were buried here for over 800 years.”

Simon Bentley, Project Director for Leicester Cathedral Revealed said: “The archaeological excavations at Leicester Cathedral are an integral part of the project and we are grateful to ULAS for their expertise and professionalism in carrying out the works and to National Lottery players and The National Lottery Heritage Fund for making the project possible."

Image: ULAS

Image: ULAS