Off on a tangent

Remember the too exciting descriptions of pottery from the last post? If the answer is no, I don’t blame you. But something that stood out for me is the fact that there were seven mortarium found at Carrawburgh.

In case you don’t know what a mortarium is, think mortar and pestle and you’re golden. A typical Roman mortarium had grit on the inside to assist in breaking down whatever was being ground, and a spout for pouring out the finished product. The pestle took the form of a sturdy, rounded on the bottom stick.

From TW Museums. Samian ware moratorium decorated with a lion motif from Carrawburgh Phases II C. CIMRM 851

I frankly find nothing significant in the number, though it would be bewitching if there were indeed one per Grade (I always thought it would be awesome if the twelve apostles were each one of the astrological signs, but I digress.) The remains of four were found inside the mithraeum and three were outside in the garbage tip. No, I think there just happened to be remains of seven, just as there were however many remains of jars or cups. What interests me is the item itself.

Over breakfast this morning, the wife and I were having one of our usual conversations; manga scanlations and elevating a common kitchen item to ritual use. I really lead the best life.

Assigning ritual significance to things is nothing new. She immediately pointed out that cauldrons are used in Wiccan ritual, and the apothecary/alchemical imagery of a mortar and pestle taking plant and/or mineral matter and making something entirely new from it are age old. My mind flew to the Chinese myth of the rabbit of the moon pounding the elixir of immortality, and of Baba Yaga and her mode of transportation. These examples help make it okay to think of something pedestrian as important.

Couldn’t find an artist on this awesome image, but will happily add it when I find it.

But there’s more. The Carrawburgh mortarium pictured above is Samian ware. I said to the wife, it’s like my cast iron frying pan made of Lenox. And the quote that prompted this post comes from Eating and Drinking in Roman Britain, p 44, discussing the various sizes this pottery form takes: The large examples tend to be of the late first to mid-third centuries, and are apparently missing in the late third and fourth centuries. These must have been used in a different way from most mortaria as they are far too heavy to hold, and it has long been suggested that they had some specialised culinary or commercial use. Samian mortaria are similar in size to the average coarse pottery ones, but the colour-coated copies are noticeably smaller.

Her spellings, not mine. 😉 So, Seder plate like, a common kitchen item somehow found its way into a ritual. Kind of like making gravy in a pot on the stove, but then serving it in your Lenox gravy boat. I won’t say for ritual use, but having a dressed up mortarium present in a mithraeum was important at some point. In what capacity we can only imagine.


Dragging my feet

The next section of the book (The Temple of Mithras at Carrawburgh, for anyone new to the blog) is ‘The Background of Mithraism”. This was written in 1951 when the Persian theory still held sway. As you may or may not know, things didn’t start falling apart for this theory until the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies, in 1975 (Just called the library about getting copies of the two volumes. I’ll, of course, report back. And FTR, Stirling Memorial has a copy. -__-) Never having been a fan of this theory, I’m not looking forward to wading through it again. So, I went looking for a distraction!!

Welcome to the distraction!

Things I did not know about Carrawburgh: the floor was paved in places by both stone and wood, as well as a thick carpet of heather. Through the three distinct building phases of this mithraeum the floor level rose pretty steadily. So much so, in fact, that in Phase III only the tops of the pedestals Cautes and Cautopates stood on in previous phases were visible!

The statue of the Mother Goddess was not made for the mithraeum but shows signs of exposure to the elements and erosion. Interestingly, there is a Mother Goddess statue in the mithraeum of Dieburg, and She is likewise in the antechamber and not in the chapel proper.

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Mother Goddess from the narthex at Carrawburgh. CIMRM 850

Cautes and Cautopates had originally been placed elsewhere in the temple before coming to rest on the floor at the foot of the benches. The reason we know this is because their backs are not finished, meaning they were meant to be standing against a wall, not seen in the round. Moreover, the current statue of Cautes does not fit on the earlier pedestal. A replacement Cautes then? Or were there two pairs, and the others are now lost? Like the tauroctony.

But my favorite bit of new-to-me info is the supposition that there were a pair of recumbent, three and a half feet long, lion statues guarding the altars! I’ve circled the places they would have stood (one is behind the curtain) in the line drawing below. I must admit, I never noticed them, and frankly, would have assumed they were artistic license. I told the wife that I imagine the lions currently adorning someone’s garden, and the owners having no clue where they came from or their importance.

I also circled the ordeal pit, for those who might have missed it. You can just make out the dressed stones along the one side. The Mother Goddess statue is across from the pit… sorry I didn’t think to circle Her, too.

Lions at carrawburgh
A study in learning to pay attention!!

End of distraction. =D Back to reading.

To the unconquered god Mithras

Today you’ll be following along on a typical day in the life of unemployed Pattie. I’ll spare you the ADHD bits and focus on the next section of The Temple of Mithras at Carrawburgh: The Prefects and their altars, by Eric Birley.

Eric begins: “I propose to take the three altars in what seems to be their chronological order…”

Frankly, I’m very excited to explore the three altars in detail, but a priori Eric is assuming a level of knowledge I lack. So, before delving into this chapter, I need to know which altar is which. The best place to figure this out is on the Roman Inscriptions of Britain. A blessing on the heads of the creators of this site!

And BOOM, we’re good:

In reverse chronological order from the left; newest, middle aged, and oldest on the right. CIMRM 845, 846, 847

Below is a picture of my father’s take on these altars, created for MithraCon 2015, and while the middle aged one carries over to my mithrauem, the Habitus inspired one is actually the youngest of my trio. But I digress.

Middle aged and youngest on right.

Before tapping the RIB, I googled the dedicator, A. Cluentius Habitus, which landed me on a wiki article regarding a family feud, a poisoning, and Cicero. Since the timing was so clearly off, (the court case being heard in 66 B.C.E. and this altar being dedicated between 198-211 C.E.) I concluded that MY Habitus was sharing a name and headed for RIB. Imagine my surprise when I found they are related. Eric seemed just as bewildered and tried to back into the abbreviated name with a few possible variations. In the end, however, it remains a puzzle.

Onto the middle altar!

When you watch the video reconstruction of the Carrawburgh mithraeum, the narrator is the man who dedicated this middle altar. Estimated to have been set up between 213-222 C.E., this altar’s on-site replica is still in use today.  Ah, does my heart good.

I have it on very good authority that coins left as offerings are donated to the North East Air Ambulance Service.

Eric finds the most interesting part of this altar’s inscription the fact that Antoninianae was not abbreviated. He suggestions that the novelty of the recently created title was such that no common abbreviation was yet in use. When I dedicated a votive altar to Coventina, my name was likewise written out, as A) I had the space and B) I had no idea if there was a “correct” abbreviation! (Today will go down in Pattie history was the day I typed abbreviation the most.)

Deae Coventinae Patricia v(otum) p̣(osuit) l(aeto) ạ(nimo)
To the Goddess Coventina, Pattie joyously set up this votive offering.

And finally, the most impressive of the trio! Mithras as Sol, dedicated by Marcus Simpicius Simplex, a name which Eric says betrays its owner as coming from the Rhineland.


When this altar was discovered, the top had been broken off and lay about 7 feet from its base. Traces of red paint were present in the lettering, hair and cape, but were quickly lost when exposed to the air. Likewise, Mithras’ face had traces of gesso, suggesting the whole was painted. I could never ask daddy to make something like this, but I have to admit it would be an awesome addition to my lineup.

Possible paint


“…formally desecrated a Mithraic temple…”

…leaving me to wonder what an informal desecration looks like.

Still reading The Temple of Mithras at Carrawburgh. Still learning lots; for instance, three water vole (Arvicola amphibia) bones were found on site (a humerus, partial skull and femur.) I had no idea what a water vole was, so googled it. I came up with this image:


Knowing the size of a typical red fox, I have to wonder if vole was being used as a substitute for something Roman that they couldn’t get on the frontier, à la stuffed dormouse. (Before you say anything, I know you can get dormouse in England.) Though, three bones do not a meal make, IMO. Offerings? Wandered in, died and was a meal for something larger? We’ll never know.

However, Appendix V in the text had a lot of what I was after, giving a detailed list of the “mammalian bones” found on site.  The happy news (for the purposes of this project,) is that they ate a lot of young pork. Pig bones were found in building phases II and III. There were also bones from oxen, veal, sheep (or goat), and lamb/kid. The fowl on site took the form of older, male birds (Gallus bankiva var. domestica) with at least six bodies accounted for. Goose bones were also found, from two different birds.

Fowl was apparently sacrificed in the dedication of the building, and the text (p. 24) says: “…the appropriate nature of the offering is emphasized by the Greek designation of the cock as “the Persian bird”.” There is no footnote on this statement, so where the designation was seen, I have no clue. But, that doesn’t stop my brain from haring off to an article I recently  read which was extremely convincing in its Mithras = Perseus argument. Ulansey was the first, I believe, to put this theory forward, and while I knew of it, I never really bought into it. (And, at the moment I can’t put my hands on the article, but will link to it as soon as I find it.)

I am nearing the end of the first section of the book and, on p. 42, we learn the fate of the temple. As we know, the three altars were left as they were, but the only trace of the tauroctony is a single bull’s horn. No mention is made (as yet) of the size of this find, but owing to the absence of this necessary scene, it must have been small enough to be physically carried out, rather than face desecration; or, more likely, was annihilated completely. Cautes and Cautopates were maimed where they stood, and the Mother Goddess in the narthex (building phase III) was knocked off Her pedestal, but was unharmed. The roof was stripped, and nature did the rest with her blanketing embrace of peat and water.


As for the quote that is the title of this post, I’m still on p. 42: “It was only in A.D. 377 that a Christian praefectus urbi Gracchus, formally desecrated a Mithraic temple in Rome.” And, so it seems that Carrawburgh suffered the same, if earlier, fate. There are no Constantinian coins on site, so we are left to conclude that the temple was abandoned and well under Mother Nature’s sway by A.D. 305.

A thing I learned today


So, remember I was driving up to Sterling Memorial Library to get my hands on a copy of The Temple of Mithras at Carrawburgh? Things mostly went as planned, the only hiccup being that I have never scanned a book before. I emailed it to myself, and once again we are indebted to my awesome wife who checked my mail and went page by page, telling me what to rescan. And there was a LOT to rescan. Note to all would-be scanners, do it as a pdf, not as a Word doc as the scanner is trying very hard to actually read and make sense of what it’s scanning. I have a ton of work ahead of me if I want to actually print this out, but at the moment, I am reading it off my email. I’m reading it aloud, as I’m alone, and was eager to share the first thing I learned:

p. 4-5

The long axis of this nave lies 15 inches east of the true axis of the building. The reason for this irregular plan seems to be offered by the provision, detected in later stages of the building, of space for initiation ceremonies to the left of the door and free of the opening. Too little space would have been available if the door had been placed in the middle of the building.

Please see the floor plan above. Frankly, I never paid attention to where the door was, even after having visited the site, I never noticed. Now I’m all jazzed and wanna look at other floor plans. Are other mithraea off-center? Do all tauroctonies line up with the front door?

My needs are simple and few.


I promised you food

In years past, friends can attest to my annual Spring possession by Mithras. It seemed that every January thru April Mithras took up residency in my head and for the first few months of the year He was all I thought about. April would dawn and He would vanish with the snow.

The year I decided to create the mithraeum (2014), He took up His annual residency and never left. I have only myself to blame, but it’s okay, I’m fine with Him there. I’m sure the reason He lingers is because of the entire year focused on the mithraeum and since I live with the altars still, it’s like it never ended and it’s all good.

Part of the annual residency included an overwhelming NEED to cook barley. Congratulations, I’ve never shared that before. This is one of the reason why I’ll put barley on my altars. It is also the reason that on one of my trips to MithraCon, I took the following dish. It’s an excellent recipe, though nothing about it is “ancient”. I never said it was going to be all Apicius. 😉

Herbed Barley with Pancetta

From The Philosopher’s Kitchen by F Segan.

(This commentary is from when I shared this recipe on a facebook page). I kinda halved the recipe (and am now kicking myself!). I didn’t have brown lentil and so used French green and didn’t have any leeks in the house and so skipped them. It was still amazing. The method calls for the barley to simmer for 45 minutes, the lentils to be added and simmered a further 15-20 minutes. I tried the barley with 20 minutes to go, and threw in the lentils. It was perfect, IMO.

Serves 6

4 ounces pancetta, diced

1 med onion, diced

1 garlic clove, minced

1 carrot, thinly sliced

1 celery rib with leaves, thinly sliced

1 leek, white and tender green parts, thinly sliced

1 bay leaf

1/2 t dried savory

1/4 C chopped fresh dill (I used dried) divided

1 C pearl barley

1 quart stock (I used chicken)

1/3 C lentils


Saute pancetta and onion in a large stockpot over medium heat until golden, about 10 minutes.

Add garlic, carrot, celery, leek, bay leaf and savory. Saute until the vegetables become tender, about 5 minutes. Raise the heat, add 2 T of dill, barley and stock. Bring to a boil, lower heat, cover and slow-boil for 45 minutes. Add the lentil and continue cooking until tender, 15-20 minutes.

Remove bay leaf, adjust seasonings, top with remaining dill and serve.

MithraCon 2011. The array of Romain is a landing pad for a roast chicken and the jug is full of posca. My barley dish was presented in 2013.

Offerings, of all kinds

In a delightful article about offerings at Carrawburgh, Jo Anderson draws attention to a pair of charred pine cones.

I am guessing that these images are from the illusive The Temple of Mithras at Carrawburgh. By I. A. Richmond and J. P. Gillam, 1951.

There are a few things that I wish had known before creating my mithraeum, but the good news is, I knew of the pines cones and found them utterly charming. While shopping before the event, the wife and I were in the parking lot of a shopping center, eyeing some nearby pine trees. She’s just so sweet and supportive, as she hopped out of the car and began collecting fallen cones.

So when I built a mithraeum in my hotel room, I brought along two kinds of offerings: pine cones and bull’s blood wine.

MithraCon 2015

Back at home, things are decidedly different. First and foremost, I can burn incense. No need to worry about setting off smoke alarms, or paying for clean up of a non-smoking room. I have a plastic shoe box of stick incense and typically I’m “told” what to burn. Mithras seems to favor sandalwood, FYI.

I can also light candles at home. At the Marriot I used battery operated candles, again, so as not to set off any alarms. When I enter my studio at home, typically my first thing to do is lit the candle before Nemesis, and the one on the main, Mithras altar. These burn as long as I’m in the room.

The “main” altar, i.e. the oldest.

On the other two altars are various offerings that change as I want.  Barley, pine cones, wine, flame (in the form of sterno), etc. I have two Roman-like glasses I use for wine, and recently purchased a patera so I can actually pour libations. That’s right! Don’t mess with me!

Getting back…

In the voice-over, diorama/reconstruction of the mithraeum at Carrawburgh in the (then) New Castle upon Tyne Museum (now the Great North Museum: Hancock)  there is a cockerel spilling over the top of the far right altar. I’m going to guess that such bones were found on site and prompted the bird’s inclusion.

No longer on display… and the staff I’ve spoken to doesn’t know where this landed. Ah well, I missed my chance to offer to store it. 😉 In the mean time, you can enjoy the “experience” from the comfort of your computer.




Signs: Taurus/Gemini

Mithraeum at Carrawburgh. Photo by Northumberland County Council.

Date range: From Wiki, or more specifically, from the too awesome RIB:

They show its garrisoning units to have been as follows:

RIB 1550 – Hadrianic? c. AD133 – First Cohort of Aquitani

RIB 1563b – AD122-138 – First Cohort of Tungri

End 2nd century – Cohors I Cugernorum

RIB 1544, RIB 1553, and Notitia Dignitarum – AD213-222, AD237, and AD400 respectively – First Cohort of Batavians

First Cohort of Frisiavones

Discovered in 1949 by a dog named Adam, this mithraeum is the one I’ve visited the most, and love the best. When I decided to recreate a mithraeum for the annual event, MithraCon at Yale University, Carrawburgh was the only choice for a model. I have chronicled my work on this project elsewhere, but now, years later, Carrawburgh remains the focus of my worship. (If you’re a Romanist you’ll see what I did there.)

The focus of one of my altars, while still a WIP.

In the main, this mithraeum is pretty much like its 400+ siblings. Long, dark, benches to recline on, the usual iconography, and an antechamber for domestications.

Shhhhh! Don’t tell them we’re looking in!

Food for ritual use would have been prepared offsite, and possibly reheated in the antechamber. We may never know how this potluck went, but eat they did. Food remains vary by location, which is not surprising, as well as by season and doubtless by finances as well. I’m sure imported food appeared when available, but here on the frontier we’ll be looking at domestic foodstuffs.