I’ve had a chat with Andrew Robertson, one of our Archaeology officers, about the recent exciting find of two well-preserved and beautifully carved Roman altars in Musselburgh – here’s a short version of his notes on the project. Thanks Andy!
In March 2010, when archaeologists were monitoring Lewisvale Park cricket ground in Musselburgh/Inveresk before allowing a new cricket pavilion to be built there, they uncovered something unusual. Although some remains were expected, what was uncovered exceeded all expectations, and in the words of the archaeologist who found them (John Gooder of AOC Archaeology), ‘It was a fantastic moment!’
The altar stones were found face down in a large pit, and as the archaeologists carefully brushed off the dirt they started to reveal ornate carvings on the sides and tops, and realised they had something special.
The stones had been slightly broken long ago, so had to be lifted and turned with tremendous care, but now, at last, it’s possible to read the inscriptions and clearly see the fronts of the stones. What is revealed has not only the archaeological community abuzz but has attracted worldwide interest.
One of the stones has an inscription on the front, which reads:
D A E O
Which roughly translates as:
‘To the Glory of the Invincible Mythras, Caius Cassius Flavius’
(Inscription/ dedication stone)
Its side panels show a lyre (a stringed musical instrument) and a griffon (a mythical beast which had a lion’s body and an eagle’s head and wings), along with pictures of a jug and bowl, objects which would have been used for pouring offerings on the altar.
The other stone has a circular hollow in the top, probably for oil or other offerings, and the side panels are decorated with wreaths. But along the front are four beautiful carved heads depicting the four seasons with headdresses of spring flowers, summer foliage, autumn grapes and a shawl for winter.
Beneath them is the face of a god – probably Mithras or Sol (his father) – wearing a ‘solar crown’ which looks remarkably like a halo. The eyes, mouth and solar rays are all pierced, and there is a hollowed-out shaft behind them which would have held a lantern or candle, to let light show through – a bit like a Halloween pumpkin today (but more awesome!).
There’s an inscription on this stone too:
SOL C(AIUS) CAS(SIUS) FLA(VIUS) >
‘To SOL, Caius Cassius Flavius, Centurion’
[the > symbol is a centurion mark]
There are traces of red and white paint on the inscriptions, so the altars were probably quite colourful when they were first put up. They’ve been very well preserved, and show a level of skill and detail not seen in other similar finds.
(Helen: I’m curious about the centurion who dedicated the altars – presumably he was based at the Roman Fort close by at Inveresk, but why did he dedicate these altars, and who was he? Andy: Hopefully it will be possible to trace his route through different postings in the empire.)
The really intriguing thing about these altars is that they seem to show that the Roman god Mithras was worshipped here in Scotland. Up until now, it was thought that the cult of Mithras never travelled this far north, so this would overturn a lot of what we thought we knew about the Romans here. Don’t you just love it when something like that happens?!
The cricket pavilion is now finished and the team is starting to conserve and analyse the altars, along with the other archaeological remains that were found with them. As Andy says, ‘This is one of the exciting things about archaeology – what starts off as an ordinary project can end up literally re-writing the history books!’
Andy asked me to mention that East Lothian Council paid for the work on this project, which the Council’s Archaeology Service designed, and Historic Scotland had the curatorial overview, since the site is just within a Scheduled Monument.
Some links with more info about the site and the Roman Fort: