From Roman temples dedicated to Mithras to Anglo-Saxon stone crosses, Newcastle’s Great North Museum: Hancock explores an array of beliefs and ways of life in the north of England, as Lucia Marchini found out.
Found at the Housesteads Mithraeum, this partially reconstructed relief shows Mithras’ slaughtering of the bull as an act of creation.
Found at the Housesteads Mithraeum, this partially reconstructed relief shows Mithras’ slaughtering of the bull as an act of creation. [Image: Great North Museum: Hancock]

Originating in ancient Iran, the mystery cult of Mithraism was introduced to the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD. It soon spread far and wide, extending to the northern reaches of empire: along Hadrian’s Wall, temples to the god Mithras were built. With strict discipline, elaborate initiation ceremonies, a rigid hierarchy of ranks, and a deity associated with war, the cult (which only allowed male worshippers) seems to have had some appeal among Roman military officers stationed on the northern frontier, but it also attracted merchants and traders, as Mithras was linked with contracts and truth too.

The Mithraea of Carrawburgh, Housesteads, and Rudchester have yielded many artefacts relating to the worship of the god (meanwhile, see CA 334 for more on the London Mithraeum), and material from the mystery cult can be explored at Newcastle’s Great North Museum: Hancock. The museum began as an institution exhibiting natural history, but reopened ten years ago with its current name and new displays presenting objects from various collections from Newcastle University and the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne, covering archaeology from the North East of England, Sir Flinders Petrie’s excavations at Tell el Ajjul in Palestine, ancient Greek and Etruscan art, and more. There is still an abundance of natural history on display, but the gallery at the heart of the museum is devoted to Hadrian’s Wall, exploring its construction and many aspects of life along the frontier, including its defence, medicine, and worship.

Another relief from the Housesteads Mithraeum shows the birth of Mithras from the Cosmic Egg, which is decorated with the signs of the zodiac in their earliest known appearance in Britain in the form they have today.
Another relief from the Housesteads Mithraeum shows the birth of Mithras from the Cosmic Egg, which is decorated with the signs of the zodiac in their earliest known appearance in Britain in the form they have today. [Image: Great North Museum: Hancock]

It is in this central gallery that finds from the Mithraea are displayed. There are objects linked to the cult’s mysterious rituals – for example, a bronze bell, a bowl for washing hands, a candlestick that would have helped illuminate the dark, cave-like space of the Mithraeum, and a boar’s tusk that may be a vestige of a ritual feast – as well as a number of altars dedicated to the god. The focal point of the Mithraeum was the tauroctony, Mithras’ killing of the bull in a cave as an act of creation. A relief from Housesteads depicts this scene, complete with a snake, dog, and scorpion catching the bull’s blood, and Mithras’ attendants, the twin torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates. Another carving from Housesteads’ temple to Mithras shows his birth from the Cosmic Egg. While most Mithraic legends tell of the god’s birth from living rock, a version of the story where he was born from an egg was preferred by followers from the Eastern Provinces. The Housesteads egg is decorated with the signs of the zodiac, which are thought to be the earliest depiction of these symbols in Britain in the recognisable form they have today.

An egg of a very different kind offers further insight into Roman beliefs on the frontier: a tiny amulet made of smooth clay, also found at Housesteads. It is thought that the amulet would have been held by a woman during childbirth for some magical protection. Other intimate glimpses of the life along the Wall come from shoes from Whitley Castle Fort. The surviving sole of one shoe still has the imprint of its ancient wearer’s toes, while a child’s sandal has two peg marks from repairs in its life.

With a long model of the Wall running through the large room, the Hadrian’s Wall gallery lies at the centre of the museum and explores many aspects of life along the Roman frontier. [Image: Great North Museum: Hancock]
MADE OF STONE

There was plenty going on in the region long before the Romans though, as the museum’s excellent Ice Age to Iron Age gallery shows. Neolithic and Bronze Age stones with cup-and-ring marks (the largest collection in a British museum) are on display along with Neolithic stone axes and a wide range of vessels, tools, and weapons from Bronze Age burials. Many of the objects in the gallery come from stone cist burials, and one skeleton of a man is presented inside his cist and accompanied by a Beaker, reflecting how he was found in a Bronze Age cemetery at Summerhill, Blaydon. Another stone cist, dated to 1700-1400 BC and excavated at Allerwash, yielded an interesting bronze dagger buried with the deceased. Daggers are more commonly associated with male burials, but in this case the bones found belonged to a young adult woman. Yet not all the prehistoric burials were in stone cists. An impressive example of an oak coffin comes from Cartington, Northumberland. Dating from some 4,300 years ago, the Cartington coffin was carved out of an oak log in one piece, with a headrest at one at one end.

Much later stone features heavily in expressions of faith in the guise of ornate Anglo-Saxon crosses, magnificently sculpted from local sandstone and displayed in the medieval gallery (alongside many vestiges of everyday life, including shoes, a hygiene set, spoons, knives, and a well-preserved wooden bucket). One such cross comes from Nunnykirk, AD 800-850, and its surviving shaft showcases exquisite carvings of a pair of birds and two animals, reflecting an earlier design that first appears in 8th-century manuscripts.

The ornate Anglo-Saxon Rothbury Cross is finely carved with a number of scenes, including the raising of Lazarus from the dead as seen on this fragment of the cross shaft.
The ornate Anglo-Saxon Rothbury Cross is finely carved with a number of scenes, including the raising of Lazarus from the dead as seen on this fragment of the cross shaft. [Image: Great North Museum: Hancock]

The fine Rothbury Cross similarly shows a connection between the worlds of sculpture, the manuscript, and religion. Dating to around AD 800, the cross was made about a century after the Lindisfarne Gospels, but it is still part of the same artistic tradition. Scenes on its shaft feature a haloed Christ holding a book, the raising of Lazarus, a crowd of people, and an animal (possibly a calf) grazing on a plant. On one side of the cross head (which has holes on top that may have once held candles), we find an early example of an image of the Crucifixion that is not depicted in a panel, but with the arms of the crucified Christ positioned along the arms of the cross.

Some rather more unassuming Anglo-Saxon stonework comes in the form of grave markers, which can give a clear indication of religious beliefs. One found at Hartlepool, dating from AD 650-750, is decorated with a cross and carries a Latin inscription commemorating a man and a woman which translates as ‘Pray for Vermund (and) Torhtsuid’. A later grave marker, dating from the late 11th century AD, comes from a Saxon cemetery under the keep at Newcastle. Rather than using a fresh piece of stone, this memorial repurposed a Roman millstone, a recycling that bears witness to the long and varied legacy of the Romans in and around the city.

Further information

The Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle is open daily (Monday-Friday 10am-5pm, Saturday 10am-4pm, Sunday 11am-4pm). Admission is free. Visit greatnorthmuseum.org.uk for more information.


This review appeared in CA 357. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

Leave a Reply