Rare Roman altar stones uncovered in Musselburgh

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Two rare, carved altar stones found in East Lothian could shed new light about the Roman period in Scotland, it has been claimed.

The Roman stones are said to be of “exceptional quality” [Credit: BBC News]

The Roman stones were found during the redevelopment of a cricket pavilion in Lewisvale Park, Musselburgh.

Experts said they may help re-write the history books on the Roman occupation of Inveresk.

Although they were found in March 2010, it has only now become safe to fully inspect them. Archaeologists said the stones were of “exceptional quality”.

The experts from East Lothian Council, Historic Scotland and AOC Archaeology Group have been carefully removing the stones for the past year,

Only the backs and sides were visible until this month, when it was finally safe to make a full inspection.

The first stone has side panels showing a lyre and griffon as well as pictures of a jug and bowl, objects which would be used for pouring offerings on the altar.

The front face bears a carved inscription dedicating the altar to the god Mithras – the furthest north that such dedications have been discovered.

Mithraism was a religion in the Roman Empire from the 1st to 4th Centuries and the worshippers had a complex system of initiation grades.

Mithras is often shown slaying a bull with Sol looking on and there is often an association between both deities.

Face of God

The front face of the second stone shows female heads which represent the four seasons. All are wearing headdresses, spring flowers, summer foliage, autumn grapes and a shawl for winter.

The centre of the stone contains a carving of the face of a God, probably Sol, wearing a solar crown.

The eyes, mouth and solar rays are all pierced and the hollowed rear shaft would probably have held a lantern or candle letting the light shine through, similar to a Halloween pumpkin or turnip lantern.

An inscription on a panel beneath the four seasons is currently partially obscured, but experts said it was likely to bear the name of the dedicator – who is believed to be a Roman centurion – and the God to whom the altar is dedicated.

Traces of red and white paint are still visible beneath the inscription panel, which experts said suggested it was originally brightly painted.

Ruth Currie, East Lothian Council’s cabinet member for community wellbeing, said: “This is enormously exciting and its significance could be huge.

“These beautiful artefacts could reveal a whole new strand of East Lothian’s history and possibly even shed light on the way the Romans lived on an international scale.”

Dr Fraser Hunter, Iron Age and Roman curator at National Museums Scotland, said: “The quality of these sculptures is remarkable, and they will tell us an enormous amount.

“This is the first evidence for the god Mithras in Scotland, and changes our view of Roman religion on the northern frontier.”

Dr James Bruhn of Historic Scotland said: “The discovery of altar stones to the eastern God Mithras adds a fascinating new chapter to the story of Inveresk’s Roman past.”

Source: BBC News Website [March 17, 2011]

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