Mithraism in Roman Scotland

Posted: 2011-03-21

In early 2010 a cricket pavilion at Musselburgh, Lothian, needed repairs. Lewisville Park, site of the pavilion, is in a scheduled ancient monument area, so the firm working on the pavilion hired archaeologists to survey the site before proceeding with their renovations. It is just as well that they did, for the archaeologists turned up a pair of Roman altar stones, as well as other evidence of Roman habitation associated with the nearby fort of Inveresk.

Historians at first thought that one of the altar stones was dedicated to the God Jupiter. Due to the fragile nature of the altars, they were transported off-site under carefully controlled conditions before they were fully examined. Now that both sides of the altars have been examined, the archaeologists have a rather exciting discovery to reveal.

The stones, which show fine carving around the edge and on one face, are in fact dedicated to Mithras and the sun god Sol, and constitute the first evidence of Mithraism in Scotland. They date to the late 2nd century, and are the most northerly evidence of Mithraic worship in Britain. The altar stones are carved with likenesses of lyres, a griffon, the four seasons, the god Sol, as well as several Latin inscriptions.

The cult of Mithras was a 'mystery religion', and was very popular with Roman legionnaires from the 1st-4th century. By the 3rd century, the cult of Mithras had begun to merge with that of Sol, the sun deity, so it is not surprising to see the figure of Sol on the Mithraic altar stone.

There is a very interesting description and photos of the altar stones on the History Blog.

The altar stones are still being studied, and once the study is finished a panel from the Crown Office will decide what to do with them - hopefully they can be put on public display in a museum setting.

Roman Britain history
History Blog
East Lothian Courier news story on the altar discovery

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