Archaeologists baffled by ‘mystery cult’ discovery at ancient UK Vindolanda site

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The Roman conquest of Britain began almost 2,000 years ago under the leadership of Emperor Claudius. Soldiers from present-day Italy, Spain and France travelled from the continent and piled onto the island. They brought with them a whole range of foreign foodstuffs, culture, music, religion, as well as art.

Much of this has since left the UK.

Some historical residue of the Romans does remain, mostly in the form of ancient forts and structures.

Perhaps the best-known relic from the Empire’s time in Britain is Hadrian’s Wall.

A mammoth 73 miles long, it spans from the banks of the River Tyne near the North Sea, to the Solway Firth near the Irish Sea.

Many forts and barracks would once have been found within Hadrian’s Wall, like Vindolanda.

It is situated around 11 miles south of Hadrian’s Wall in Hexham, Northumberland, and actually predates its sister structure.

After the Wall’s construction – thought to have been carried out by the first Cohort of Tungrians who landed in Britain around 85 AD – it would have served as an auxiliary fort.

While the Romans had no set religion, Pagan faiths from around the Empire filtered throughout the different lands and flourished, often melding together to create a new religion.

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During History Hit’s documentary, ‘Vindolanda: Jewel of the North’, the site’s director of excavations, Dr Andrew Birley, revealed his team’s discovery of an ancient and mysterious “Eastern” temple.

It is believed to have originated from the Middle East, in what would have been the Empire’s easternmost corner.

The cult manifested itself into an altar at an underground location.

Dr Birley explained: “Unlike Mithras (a Roman cult) this cult is really inclusive.

“Anybody can become a member – you don’t just have to be male, wealthy or part of the elite, slaves could join this cult.

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“That makes it a little bit different to most of the cults at the time that came from an Eastern origin.”

The mystery cult shares some symbolism with Mithras and the other cults that were prevalent across the Roman Empire.

In 2009, the temple was covered by a grass mound and out of sight.

Excavators found a drain in a corner of the fort wall and believed it was the exit passage of a Roman toilet block.

Dr Birley explained: “Up until that time, nobody had ever found a temple inside the walls of an auxiliary fort – so it wasn’t even on the list of things we thought could be possible.”

Yet, further excavations revealed a heated dining room – an odd addition to a toilet.

Making their way across the site, archaeologists found the remains of a sand-coloured shrine and the top of an altar sitting in its original position.

Dr Birley said the significance is the fact it was found inside the barracks.

It meant that the cult had the patronage of the commanding officer, somebody with high enough authority to say: “We are going to worship this god or goddess in this space.”

The presence of an altar in the fort also represents the beginning of a new way of thinking.

It was one of the first instances of a Roman community bringing the “power of Heaven and the power on Earth” together, a medieval concept that wouldn’t be seen again for hundreds of years – yet this was going on at Vindolanda in the third century.

The altar is dedicated to the god Jupiter Dolichenus who came all the way from the Hirians and Hittites in present-day Iran and Turkey; a weather god associated with metal working.

Dr Birley said: “We don’t have anything quite like it.

“At the moment, we don’t have another properly understood or identified temple in an auxiliary fort anywhere in the Roman Empire.”

Roman presence at Vindolanda is generally viewed as having faded from 370 AD.

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