For centuries it has been rumored that Leicester Cathedral was built on the site of a Roman temple.
Now the source of the folklore may have been revealed.
Archaeologists working in the cathedral have found evidence of a Roman sanctuary hidden beneath the structure, which may have been used by worshipers of a fertility or mystery cult.
The small chamber, 13 feet by 13 feet, was painted and contained an altar stone where sacrifices to the pantheon of Roman gods may have taken place.
This means that the Christian site may have been chosen because it was already a holy place for the pagans and that worship had been taking place at that site for 1,800 years.
Matthew Morris, project officer at the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), who led the dig, said: “Given the combination of an underground structure with painted walls and the altar that we found, one interpretation that seemed to be gaining ground highly, until we excavate more, it may turn out that this is a room associated with the worship of a god or gods.
“For centuries there has been a tradition that a Roman temple once stood on the site of the current cathedral. This folktale gained widespread recognition in the late 19th century when a Roman building was discovered during the restoration of the church tower.
“The origin of this story has always been unclear, but given that we found a potential Roman sanctuary, along with burials deliberately buried on top of it after it had been demolished, and then the church and its cemetery on top of that, we see Is there a memory of this place that was special in the Roman period that has survived to this day?”
Archaeologists believe the room was a private place of worship for a family or a cult room where a small group gathered.
Similarly, subterranean chambers such as this were often associated with fertility and mystery cults and the worship of gods such as Mithras, Cybele, Bacchus, Dionysius and the Egyptian goddess Isis.
There is no surviving evidence of an inscription on our altar, so it is not clear which gods were worshipped. Excavations continue ahead of the construction of a new heritage center in the cathedral gardens.
In the final stages of the excavation, when the team was three feet down, they found evidence of a well-made semi-subterranean structure with painted stone walls and a concrete floor.
The sunken room was probably built in the 2nd century AD, when Leicester was the Roman city of Ratae Corieltavorum, and was deliberately dismantled and filled in, probably in the late 3rd or 4th century.
In this space, lying broken and turned down among the rubble, they also found the base of an altar stone, hewn from the local sandstone of the Dane Hills, and measuring approximately ten inches by six inches, with decorative moldings on three sides.
The back is plain, indicating that it would be placed against a wall. Archaeologists believe it was originally about 2 feet tall, but it was broken in the middle and top of the pedestal and the capital is missing.
Their excavations also revealed over 1,100 burials dating from the 11th century to the mid-19th century.
John Thomas, Deputy Director of ULAS, said: “These excavations have produced a remarkable amount of archaeological evidence from a modest area. The project allowed us to venture into an area of Leicester that we rarely get the chance to explore, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
“Fortunately, the archeology was very well preserved and although there is still much work to be done to analyze, we are confident that we will be able to answer all our questions and more.”
“We will have a much clearer idea of what happened at the site during the Roman period, when the parish church of St. Martin, and a unique insight into Leicester’s history through its residents who have been buried here for over 800 years.”