BMCR 2021.05.02

The archaeology of Mithraism

, , The archaeology of Mithraism. Babesch supplements, 39. Leuven: Peeters, 2020. Pp. 226. ISBN 9789042943520 €78,00.

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Worship of Mithras is exceptionally well attested by its physical remains, inscriptions, and even, dare one say it, references in texts. With this evidence, the two generations of scholars since the publication of Vermaseren’s Corpus Inscriptionum et Monumentorum Religionis Mithriacae (1956-60) have investigated and debated, at length, the origins of the cult, the “meaning” of its iconography, and whether it is possible to establish how cult followers thought about their god and what they believed (theology, ideology, doctrine). And yet for all this wealth of evidence and strenuous efforts to interpret it, we are still unable to answer these questions, let alone come to agreement about the issues they raise.

In this collection of 19 papers (authors and titles appear below), more than 30 scholars refocus the discussion by concentrating primarily on the data from 10 mithraea in the UK, Europe and the Near East that have been excavated since 1990, but also by re-examining previously excavated mithraea at Ostia, Dura Europos and Caesarea. These papers continue the trend established by the landmark publication of the 2001 conference in Tienen, Belgium, by focusing on small finds (faunal and ceramic remains, specialised cult objects, jewellery, gems, statuettes and the like) and the wealth of information that these convey about cult practice.[1] The volume is aimed at specialists and anyone with a keen interest in archaeological data, faunal remains, and other material finds. Some of the conclusions are tentative, since work is ongoing, and others are speculative, in the face of slender evidence. The contributors sometimes ask more questions than they answer, but they do so in a way that is thought-provoking, insightful, and indispensable for the future study of this sub-field.

The introduction by Matthew McCarty and Mariana Egri achieves three goals with clarity and brevity. First, it summarizes the nature of the evidence, its limitations, and issues arising from previous scholarship that have hindered rather than promoted understanding. These include over-emphasis on texts that are only excerpts and quotations in the work of other authors, tardy recognition that “ritualized practices” equate to “belief” in Mithraic worship,

and creating a false dichotomy of “oriental cults versus Roman religion.” Second, it synthesises the data and finds from the mithraea under study, in particular highlighting previously undetected features that emerge only when proper scientific excavation and rigorous analysis are undertaken. This leads naturally to the third goal, which is to signpost new lines of inquiry that are addressed in the volume: the “dialogic relationship between commonalities and variations” across the Empire, the way in which the “social connectivity”, “nodes” of worshippers, and movements of particular individuals or groups might account for the spectrum of similarities that emerge from the archaeological record in disparate locations, “special effects” embedded in cult architecture and equipment, and finally, evidence for the end of certain mithraea.

Faunal remains analysis, primarily the province of zooarchaeology, has transformed what we know about Mithraic cult practice. In recent decades, proper analysis of faunal and ceramic remains, and the soil in which they lay, has revealed much about the contents of cult meals and banqueting practices. Many recently excavated sites have produced tens of thousands of fragments attesting domesticated pig, chicken, ovi-caprids and bovids, plus the remains of many other birds, fish and molluscs. The most surprising revelation is the menu: at most sites pork and chicken were consumed far more than beef. The remains are found in deposits inside the mithraeum (e.g. under the central aisle), and outside the mithraeum, either intentionally buried in pits or as part of rubbish heaps. In this volume, four contributions—for the mithraea at Tienen, Belgium (Martens, Ervynck and Gordon), Angers, France (Brodeur), Kempraten, Switzerland (Ackermannn et al.) and Apulum, Romania (El-Susi and Ciută)—focus specifically on banqueting attested by remains.

Alongside faunal remains, ceramic remains reveal how much activity related to cooking, eating and food storage occured on site. This material is reassessed for the Tienen mithraeum and contributes to a revised (earlier) date in the first quarter of the third century CE. For the mithraeum at Martigny, Switzerland, Wiblé reports a kitchen area in the outer entrance hall, as attested by several ashy layers and by fragments of cookware. At Apulum III (Drağan) the situation is more complicated, with remains found both inside the mithraeum (primarily cookware) and outside in a large scatter of fragments relating to cooking, consumption and storage/transport. For the Mithraeum of the Coloured Marbles in Ostia, installed into a building previously used as a caupona, David discusses ceramics relating to the use of the proposed mithraeum from two of the four layers of a filled-in “ritual well”. These include amphorae of a fifth-century CE type and table and cooking ware dating to the third and fourth centuries CE. These remains help date the later phases of the building, but not with the identification of the room in question as a mithraeum, which is based solely on  an unspecificed number of Mithraic graffiti and monograms.

Foundational, ritual and other deposits containing votive altars, inscriptions, statuary and other cult objects have long been recognized for several mithraea, but careful excavation, including soil sampling, has provided more detailed information. At Inveresk, the first mithraeum found in Scotland, Coombe and Henig report that the two altars dedicated to Sol and Mithras, respectively, were found face down, but carefully buried. Intentional burial of cult objects is also attested for the Kempraten mithraeum between the second and third phases. At Martigny a square pit lined with tiles in the central aisle contained charred wood and burnt bone. It is unclear whether this was sealed after a single use, suggesting a foundation pit, or was opened and reused as needed. Similarly, at Mariana, the first mithraeum discovered on Corsica, Chapon reports several deposits. In a phase predating the mithraeum, at the edge of the later sanctuary, 130 rolled lead sheets (defixiones) and lamps were placed in a container of some perishable material. In the central aisle of the mithraeum was a pit lined with tile and containing a sword lacking its tip. Another pit lined with pebbles and filled with sterile soil was also recovered, as well as a lamp and a bent sword buried near one of the podia. At Apulum III (McCarty, Egri and Rustoiu), an undisturbed small, tile-lined box was found in the middle of the central aisle containing burned and unburned animal bones, including adult chickens and pigs up to 16 months, and carbonized seeds in an ashy soil.  These attest either offerings or the remains of a special meal.

Like the two swords mentioned above, some of the most intriguing finds are those that are most difficult to explain, beyond ascribing a purpose that was ritual, votive or “special effect”. At Martigny over 2000 coins were recovered from outside the mithraeum and the floor of the mithraeum. Apart from their use in assigning dates and phases, the sheer number suggests a votive practice. Two bronze bells were found at Mariana. At Kempraten 500 coins, 34 clay balls incised with numbers between 1 and 100, over 50 pieces of rock crystal, and over 60 boar tusks were found scattered over the floor of the mithraeum. Kaczor discusses “snake pottery” from Hawarte and other European mithraea, where a snake is sculpted from the clay in such a way that boiling liquid inside the jar can spurt out the snake’s mouth. Study of all these objects is ongoing.

Rituals included lighting effects, which have long been attested by lamps found at most sites. Numerous lamps were recovered from around the site at Mariana, from a niche in one of the podia at Martigny, and from Angers. Ratzlaff argues that the Caesarea mithraeum had an exceptionally well-constructed cultic enviroment to support ritual, which included the carefully placed hole in the roof, presumably intended to illuminate the altar at the time of the summer solstice.

More accurate chronology—based primarily on coins, ceramic fragments, and architectural remains—is yet another aspect of the cult that has benefitted from scientific excavation. Nearly every paper in the volume discusses evidence for dates and phases, with greater or lesser conviction. Dirven and McCarty revisit the evidence from the Dura-Europos mithraeum, which has never been published in final form, but whose well-preserved paintings occupy a central place in the study of Mithraic iconography. From a close analysis of the “three” originally identified construction phases, and the phases of wall painting, they propose just two mithraea: I installed in 169 CE and II installed 209-211 CE. Three papers discuss evidence that extends the absolute chronology of the cult into the fifth century CE: at Martigny, Ostia and Hawarte.[2]

Local versus regional variation, in iconography, architecture, and ritual has received considerable scholarly attention in recent years, and with it, interest in social connectivity and groups.[3] Several papers take up this subject, but these discussions are sometimes more hypothetical than substantial, either because of insufficient space to make the argument, or a lack of evidence. Mastrocinque’s map (Fig. 8.8) of the 52 sites in Etruria, Umbria and northern Latium where Mithraic evidence has been found is useful. However, he proposes, without argument or evidence, that the extensive interest and investment in the cult in this area might be attributed to retired imperial administrators and senior military officers (p.92). At Apulum III, McCarty, Egri and Rustoiu observe that the inscribed dedication to the Transit of the God (transitus dei) occurs more frequently among members of the Publicum Portorium Illyrici and only rarely outside that group. On this basis they propose first that the dedicator, Vitalis, an ark(arius), was a member of the Portorium Illyrici, then that there was a portorium office associated with the castrum at Apulum, and finally, that Vitalis “replicates a cult practice that he must have learned while based in another portorium office.” (p.129) The paintings at Hawarte (Syria) are famous for an otherwise unattested motif, a camp wall with a line of black, grimacing detached heads being hit by rays of light from above. Gawlikowski proposes that the painting cycle, while largely using common motifs from the classical Greek and Mithraic repertoire, recombines them to promote Zoroastrian ideas. (p.190) These are just a few examples of conjectural interpretations, none of which is necessarily wrong, but all of which could benefit from more in-depth discussion and a larger evidence base. Nevertheless, their value lies in the way it might shape future thinking.

The volume concludes with Steven Hijmans’ discussion of the role of art in Mithraic studies. He summarizes the problems that attend visual analysis in place of (non-existent) texts: such analysis fails to acknowledge the different ways in which words and images communicate, it is over-reliant on inductive reasoning, and visual evidence is frequently assessed out of context and is thus employed to answer the wrong questions. He suggests instead that we pay closer attention to style, material and the dynamic meanings of apparently consistent iconography.

This is an important, well-curated collection of articles that is relatively consistent in substance and quality, if not always in style. It succeeds admirably in communicating the recent trajectory of Mithraic studies, and in doing so opens up many new lines of inquiry. As the footnotes make clear, the 12 sites presented here are only a sample of a much larger group of mithraea. The numerous photographs, plans and charts communicate a prodigious quantity of information. Unusual for edited volumes, the whole is much greater than the sum of the individual parts.

Authors and titles

1. Matthew M. McCarty, Mariana Egri: Archaeologies of Mithras Worship
2. Marleen Martens, Anton Ervynck, Richard Gordon: The reconstruction of a banquet and ritual practices at the mithraeum of Tienen (Belgium). New data and interpretations
3. Penny Coombe, Martin Henig: The Inveresk Mithraic altars in context
4. Jean Brodeur: Le mithraeum d’Angers (France)
5. Regula Ackermann, Örni Akeret, Sabine Deschler-Erb, Simone Häberle, Sarah Lo Russo, Markus Peter, Christine Pümpin, Angela Schlumbaum: Spotting leftovers. The mithraeum at Kempraten (Rapperswil-Jona, Switzerland). An interdisciplinary analysis project and its initial results
6. François Wiblé: Quelques particularités du mithraeum de Forum Claudii Vallensium (Martigny, Suisse)
7. Philippe Chapon: La découverte d’un mithraeum à Mariana
8. Attilio Mastrocinque: Mithras in Tarquinia
9. Anna Danilova: The Mithras Cult and Collegia at Ostia: A Spatial Perspective
10. Massimiliano David: Some New Observations about the Mithraeum of the Colored Marbles at Ostia
11. Alessandro Melega: The Ostian Mithraea in Late Antiquity. New Archaeological Research on the End of Mithraism
12. Matthew M. McCarty, Mariana Egri, Aurel Rustoiu: Apulum Mithraeum III and the Multiplicities of Mithraism
13. Andreea Drăgan: Pottery from Apulum Mithraeum III. Preliminary results
14. Georgeta El-Susi, Beatrice Ciută: Reconstructing diet and practice in a ritual context. The case of Apulum Mirthraeum III
15. Alexandra Ratzlaff: The Art and Architecture of the Casearea Mithraeum. Reconstructing Evidence for Cult Ritual
16. Lucinda Dirven, Matthew M. McCarty: Rethinking the Dura-Europos Mithraeum. Diversifications and Stabilization in a Mithraic Community
17. Michal Gawlikowski: The Mithraeum at Hawarte in Syria
18. Artur Kaczor: Iconography or Function? “Snake Technique” Pottery in Mithraic Cult
19. Steven Hijmans: The Place of Art in Mithraic Studies Today


[1] M. Martens and G. De Boe (eds.) (2004). Roman Mithraism: the evidence of the small finds. Zellik and Tienen.

[2] D. Walsh (2018). The Cult of Mithras in Late Antiquity. Development, Decline and Demise ca. A.D. 270-430. Late Antique Archaeology (Supplementary Series), v.2. Leiden.

[3] S. Nagel, J. F. Quack, C. Witschel (eds.) (2017). Entangled Worlds: religious confluences between East and West in the Roman Empire: the cults of Isis, Mithras, and Jupiter Dolichenus. Orientalische Religionen in der Antike, v.22. Tübingen.