Mithraism was a “mystery cult” invented in the Roman Empire. The cult’s rites and secret knowledge were only partially shared with non-members of the community. As a result, modern familiarity with Mithraism stems from a few highly problematic literary sources and the material remains has concentrated largely on the omnipresent stone reliefs and painted scenes showing Mithras slaying a bull. Our project seeks instead to focus on the practices of the community by examining the debris left by ritual events, and to connect this material to the inscriptions and relief sculpture found in the sanctuary.
Apart from the fact that ritual meals were a central feature of the cult, the nature of these meals, their frequency, and what others rites may have occurred within a Mithraic community is unclear; indeed, even how often and by whom mithraea were used remains uncertain. Although we have over a hundred mithraea from across the Roman world attested by their architecture and reliefs, past excavations of mithraea have focused almost exclusively these monumental and iconographic aspects of the cult to the detriment of ritual practice. And although several mithraea have been found and carefully excavated recently (e.g., Inveresk, Scotland; Hawarte, Syria), these were either destroyed or built over when they went out of use, limiting the availability of data related to Mithraeic ritual. The Apulum mithraeum represent a rare opportunity to excavate a site with 2nd-3rd century CE occupation layers.
While work at the mithraeum of Tienen (Belgium) has begun to correct the bias towards the monumental in studies of Mithraism by focusing on all of the pottery and faunal remains gathered into a ritual deposit adjacent to the temple (and seemingly related to a single event rather than regular practice), the lack of similarly-excavated sites has so far prevented meaningful comparison. With material related to Mithraic rituals at Apulum, we will be able to build a more complete and compelling account of the varieties (or not) of the Mithras-cult across the Roman world: an enquiry which has so far depended on similarities/differences in the bull-slaying rituals and painted iconographies.