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Excavations prompt a rethink on Leicester Cathedral’s history

08 March 2023

Underground Roman pagan chapel discovered by University of Leicester archaeologists


Archaeologists from the University of Leicester excavate early medieval burials interred in the top of the backfilled Roman cellar at Leicester Cathedral

Archaeologists from the University of Leicester excavate early medieval burials interred in the top of the backfilled Roman cellar at Leicester Cathed...

UNTIL now, Leicester Cathedral, originally one of the city’s parish churches, was thought to date back to the 10th or 11th century.

But a new archaeological discovery has raised the possibility that it may be much older, dating back to the immediate post-Roman or early Anglo-Saxon periods (i.e., sometime in the fifth or late seventh centuries) or even to Roman times.

The excavations have been carried out by University of Leicester archaeologists for the Leicester Cathedral Revealed project (News, 7 January 2022). The area within the Cathedral Gardens is being transformed into a new heritage and learning space as part of the project, enabled by a £4.5 million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

ULASWith the archaeological excavations at Leicester Cathedral completed, construction of the new heritage and learning centre begins

Archaeologists have discovered an underground Roman pagan chapel adjacent to where the medieval parish church stood. The chapel or shrine was probably a semi-subterranean part of a substantial temple, the colonnaded front of which was discovered in the mid-19th century.

It is thought that the first church on the site may have been built on the remains of that temple in order to Christianise the site.

The new discovery, together with a series of previous finds, suggests that the entire area in which the current cathedral stands, may originally have been a pagan or even mixed pagan/Christian “temple quarter”.

Nearby finds include the remains of another subterranean chapel, a probable temple of a Persian-originating god, a votive figurine of the goddess Venus (probably from a now-lost temple), several Egyptian religious amulets, and part of a special ritual bowl used to make votive offerings.

The newly discovered underground chapel was a four-metre square room with a cobbled floor and painted plaster walls, which appears to have housed the statue of a deity on a sandstone base.

It is not yet known which pagan deity was venerated in the newly-discovered Roman underground chapel — but one god frequently worshipped in subterranean shrines was the Greco-Egyptian underworld deity, Serapis. If that was the case here, the main temple above it may well have been dedicated to another Egyptian deity, the mother-goddess Isis.

There have been other Egyptian finds in Leicester that date back to Roman times, including amulets venerating the goddesses Isis and Taweret, and the Greco-Egyptian god of secrets, Harpocrates, all of which were found near the cathedral.

Leicester Cathedral, and the medieval parish church it replaced, is dedicated to St Martin of Tours — a fourth-century Roman cavalryman-turned-Bishop who is known for systematically destroying Roman pagan temples. It is possible that the cathedral church was given the dedication by early Christians who had followed St Martin’s example and destroyed the Roman temple that almost certainly stood on the site.

ULASThe Roman stone found during archaeological excavations at Leicester Cathedral

The excavations have also uncovered more than 1100 burials ranging in date from the 11th century through to the mid-19th century. Once the project is completed, the human remains will be reinterred with “care and sensitivity” by Leicester Cathedral. There is also rare evidence from the Anglo-Saxon period, including a possible building.

John Thomas, Deputy Director of University of Leicester Archaeological Services, said: “This excavation has produced a remarkable amount of archaeological evidence from a modestly sized area. The project allowed us to venture into an area of Leicester that we rarely have the opportunity to investigate, and it certainly did not disappoint.”

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