Our team has begun to excavate a new mithraeum in Alba Iulia, Romania (ancient Apulum). Please visit our blog for updates on our progress.
In 2013, Princeton began excavation of a 2nd/3rd century AD Roman mithraeum (sanctuary to the god Mithras) in ancient Apulum (modern Alba Iulia, Romania), in partnership with Babes-Bolyai University. We are currently seeking interested student volunteers to participate in the project and to learn the principles and practices of field archaeology.
The mithraeum was discovered in the Roman municipium during rescue excavations in 2008, but remains largely unexcavated. In 2013, we focused on documenting the 2008 excavations and continuing to excavate the exposed 2/3 of the building to establish its chronology and ritual usage. The six-week 2014 season (late June-early August) will concentrate on excavating the final third of the structure to better understand the use of the cult building. The site offers a unique opportunity to understand better the cult of Mithras in the Roman Empire and local social/religious dynamics in Apulum.
The central questions shaping our agenda are:
- To what extent can we reconstruct the nature of the sanctuary-community and its ritual practices?
- How do these practices help us better to understand cults of Mithras in the Roman Empire?
- What are the connections between these practices and the cult at the other sanctuaries and cult communities in Apulum, including at least two other mithraea known from the site?
We will be taking approximately eight Princeton students on the excavation and providing full training in archaeological techniques and interpretation, as well as the history and archaeology of Roman Dacia. If you are interested in participating, please contact Dr. McCarthy or download the application form at the bottom of this page.
In addition to field training, we will organize trips to visit nearby sites of cultural and historical interest that might include the Roman collections at the Muzeul National al Unirii; Colonia Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa, a capital of Roman Dacia; and the famed wineries of Alba county.
Our team will be housed in the dormitories of the University of Alba Iulia, located in the centre of the town within the Hungarian fort and a few hundred meters from our excavation site. The rooms are shared between two participants, and have en-suite bathrooms. Meals will be catered by local restaurants.
We will work on-site five-and-a-half days a week, with normal work schedule (depending on weather) as follows:
7:30 Depart for site
7:45 Begin work
10:30 Snack/water break
11:00 Return to work
2:30 Return to work/finds processing
4:30 End of day
Field archaeology is hard work: be prepared for physically strenuous days swinging a pickaxe under the sun. That said, it is enormously rewarding work: you will be the first person in nearly 2000 years to see, handle, and interpret a range of materials, including pottery and sculpture.
The project budget will cover the cost of accommodation and most meals for participants; students will need to pay for flights and transportation to Alba Iulia, but Dr. McCarty will work with participants to find departmental or university funds to defray those costs.
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 int eh 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, limited the availability of data related to Mithraeic ritual. The Apulum mithraeum, which does not appear to show signs of violent destruction of heavy re-sue, represents a rare opportunity to excavate a site with 2nd-3rd century 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 favissa adjacent to the temple (and seemingly related to a single event rather than regular practice), the lack of similarly-excavated sites has so dar prevented meaningful comparison. With the likelihood of 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.
Modern Alba Iulia sits in the fertile heart of Transylvania on the banks of the Mures River. The town is dominated by an 18th century Hungarian fortress, which currently houses both the university and Muzeul National al Unirii. The fortress also overlies a key piece of the Roman settlement: the military camp of the XIII Legio Gemina. After the conquest of Dacia in the second 2nd century AD, Apulum housed the headquarters of the regional Roman occupation force and, at various times, the governor of the Dacian provinces.
Ancient Apulum actually consisted of several settlement areas: the military camp, along with its neighboring civilian support network, and across the Mures, a larger town that grew into the Colonia Aurelia had at least one mithraeum of its own, which is under investigation by a German-Romanian team. In the early 3rd century AD, a second town was created adjacent to the military camp: the Municipium Septimium Apulensis. Our site lies there, just outside the military camp.