Famous Roman ‘Tomb’ May Have Actually Been A Temple

Roman, CarmonaAt the Roman necropolis in Carmona, Spain, visitors are led to the popular “Elephant’s Tomb,” a large underground chamber that gets its name from a crude sculpture of an elephant found there.

Now archaeologists are saying it may not be a tomb at all, but rather a temple to one of the ancient world’s most mysterious religions. A team from the University of Pablo de Olavide, Seville, has analyzed the structure and says it was once a mithraeum, an underground temple for the god Mithras.

Mithraism centered on secret rites centered on the mystical slaying of a bull was one of the most popular faiths in the last years of paganism. Several mithraeums are scattered about Europe, including in London, Mérida, and along Hadrian’s Wall.

The archaeologists point out that its general shape, with a columned, three-chambered room leading to an area for altars, is the same as other mithraeums. They also found astronomical alignments. Sunlight would hit the center of the chamber during the equinoxes, and during the winter and summer solstices, the sun would light up the north and south walls respectively. As the sun shines through the window during the spring equinox, Taurus rises to the East and Scorpio hides to the West. The opposite occurred during the autumn equinox. Taurus and Scorpio figure prominently in the religion’s astrological symbolism, with the God Mithras slaying a bull as a scorpion stings the animal’s testicles.

It was only later that the temple was turned into a burial chamber, researchers say.

Carmona is less than 20 miles from Seville and is a popular day trip from there.
Roman

[Top photo courtesy Daniel Villafruela. Bottom photo courtesy Henri de Boisgelin.]

London’s Temple of Mithras is moving back to its original location

Mithras, London
London got its start as the Roman city of Londinium in the first century AD. Back then the so-called “mystery religions” were very popular in the Roman Empire. These cults, with their personal connections to the divine and secret rites, gave believers a more personal experience than the giant temples to Jupiter, Mars, and the rest of the standard pantheon. One of the most popular mystery religions was that of Mithras, an eastern deity whose worship appears to have been open only to men, mainly soldiers.

Since Mithraic rites were secret, not much is known about their beliefs, but there are many similarities between Mithraism and Christianity, such as Mithras being born on December 25 to a virgin, and having died and been resurrected for the salvation of mankind. Both faiths practiced baptism and communal meals. The similarities were so numerous that early Christian writers claimed the older religion was invented by the Devil as a cheap imitation of Christianity before Jesus was even born!

Temples to Mithras, called mithraea, have been found all over the Roman Empire, including one in the heart of London. The mithraeum in Roman London was discovered in 1952 and moved 90 meters away and set up on Queen Victoria St. The restoration wasn’t a completely accurate one. One major problem was that it was put on a podium when mithraea were generally underground.

Now the site has been bought by Bloomberg LP, which plans to build its European headquarters there. Bloomberg LP is going to dismantle the temple and put it back in its original location, according to a press release from the Museum of London Archaeology. The temple will be dismantled starting on November 21 and the corporation says the new reconstruction will be much more accurate. There’s no word yet on when this whole project will be completed. Such a large and delicate process will probably take several years.

More Roman heritage from Mérida, Spain

Roman, Spain, MéridaIn the Extremaduran city of Mérida, it feels like at any moment you’re going to turn a corner and meet an ancient Roman. Sometimes that almost happens.

This fellow was at the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, a world-class museum featuring Roman statues, mosaics, and other artifacts. Built by the famous architect Rafael Moneo Vallés, it looks like an old Roman basilica, with lofty arches, wide corridors, and lots of natural light. This allows each artifact to have plenty of space so it can be viewed from all angles. My five-year-old son loved this place. With the crowds dispersed in such a large area, he didn’t have to keep close to my side all the time. He could wander at will (within my sight, of course) and examine the chariot races on the mosaics all by himself. He also liked the basement, which included a Roman road and several crypts.

While the museum is one of the best I’ve seen, the whole city is actually a museum. Behind a cafe I saw spare chairs stacked under a Roman arch. The local church incorporates parts of a temple to Mars. The main pedestrian bridge across the Rio Guadiana, dating to about 25 BC, is the longest surviving Roman bridge in the world.

Last time I talked about the Roman theater and amphitheater at Mérida. These are the two most popular sights in town, but perhaps more impressive is the Casa del Mitreo. This Roman mansion is located near the subterranean temple of Mithras, a mystery religion that was the main competitor with Christianity for the hearts and minds of the Romans in the late Empire. It’s not clear if the house was actually associated with the temple, but a beautiful, complex mosaic on the library floor suggests it was. It shows the divine principles of sky, earth, and sea in a vast interconnected group. These aren’t gods, but ideas, such as Copiae, the riches of the sea; Aestas, the summer; and Chaos. The whole mansion has been excavated and protected under a modern roof, so you can stroll around on a modern walkway and look down the bedrooms, patios, and wall paintings. My wife voted this the best attraction in town. Near the house is a rather spooky Roman graveyard.

%Gallery-112140% On the edge of town you can see one of the best preserved Roman hippodromes in the world. Chariot races were even more popular than gladiator fights or plays. Like the theater this was an institution that the early Christians disapproved of. But like the Mérida theater, it got a major face lift courtesy of the early Christian emperors in the years 337-340 AD. It took some time for the Christians to enforce their strict morality on the Roman populace. Walking along the 440 meter (481 yard) long racetrack you can easily imagine cheering crowds and crashing chariots. Thirty thousand people could be seated here. Nearby are the remains of one of Mérida’s two aqueducts.

Mérida protected the crossing of the Guadiana river, and so even after the Roman Empire crumbled it was an important spot. The Visigoths, a Germanic tribe, built an imposing city wall and fortress here. Little of that period remains, but the next rulers of Mérida, the Moors, built a sprawling fortress called the Alcazaba next to the bridge. When we visited we had the place pretty much to ourselves. My son got to walk the ramparts and look out over the river, imagining what it would have been like to live in those times. He especially liked exploring the dark tunnels under the main tower, which lead to a cistern that provided the soldiers with water. The upper story of this same tower was once a mosque.

“Fun for the whole family” is a horrible travel writing cliché, but it does apply to Mérida! While the modern town isn’t much to look at, it’s full of ancient surprises. The food and wine are great too. More on that in another post.

Don’t miss the rest of my series on Exploring Extremadura, Spain’s historic southwest

Coming up next: The Visigoths: Spain’s forgotten conquerors!

Roman village discovered in London suburb

Roman London Archaeology
Archaeologists working in the west London suburb of Brentford have discovered a Roman village.

The 2,000 year-old village was along a road leading out of London (called Londinium back then) to Silchester, another Roman settlement. Archaeologists found several houses, a stretch of the original road, plus numerous burials and artifacts. The site is located on the grounds of Syon House, the stately home of the Duke of Northumberland.

This isn’t the first find on the Duke’s property. For the past six years an archaeology team has been excavating a medieval abbey there.

The excavation that found the Roman site was done to clear the way for a new Waldorf Astoria hotel. Some of the artifacts will be on display at the hotel once it opens later this year.

Despite being a massive city that’s been built, burned, rebuilt, bombed, and rebuilt again, London has managed to retain some remnants of its Roman past. A mithraeum, a temple dedicated to the god Mithras, is right downtown at the corner of Queen St. and Queen Victoria St., as you can see in the above picture. There are stretches of Roman wall nearby and an excellent display of artifacts in the Museum of London.

Strangely, the announcement of this discovery came at the same time as an announcement by Egyptologists of a discovery of a sphinx-lined road under an apartment complex in Luxor, Egypt. Makes you wonder what’s underneath your basement.