A Mithraeum was excavated by the Yale University Expedition to Dura Europos, Syria. Photographs from the archive of the Yale Art Museum.


Cast bronze ornament found as part of a ritual offering in the Mithraeum at Dura Europos. Rostovoziff (1939:67, Figure 31) indicates that this bronze phaleron was placed in the circular basin of the Early Mithraeum's offering table, covered with a pottery vessel, then sealed with a combination of soil fill and plaster cover. A phalaron is a shield-shaped baldric fastener; a baldric is a belt worn over one shoulder that allows a sword or heavy weapon to rest at waist height. Frisch ad Toll (194911, Figure II.12) report that the metal disk measures 5.2 cm in diameter and 4 to 4.5 mm in thickness. All edges are carefully beveled and the central still retain a cotter pin when discovered. They report the design as rosette-shaped. Reg. no. 1938.4693 - kept in Damascus after the partition of finds.

Symbolism? A wheel? A rosette pattern? A cross with splayed ends? It is something of a rorschach test. I first saw the cross when looking at the photograph, but that may not have been what the original artisan saw who manufactured the phaleron.


Diagram published in the preliminary report of 1938-1939 showing the findspot of the phaleron (Number 8) inside of the circular basin of the Period 1 altar table (Number 4) that was built into the rear wall (Number 5) of the Mithraeum. The phaleron was beneath an inscription (Number 7). A pottery jar (Number 6) was placed on top of the inscription during Phase 2. Earth fill (Number 1) was placed around the pottery jar and a new plaster surface (Number 3) was added [the report suggests during Phase 1). Later, a very elaborate 4 horned altar (number 2) was added during Phase 2.

Rostovtzeff (1939:63) presumed that the damaged inscription was from a nearby shrine that had been despoiled. It is interesting that this one of three inscriptions made by Alexander the son of Epinicus. None of the inscriptions names the "god" to which he made his vow. Rostovtzeff (1939:130) assumed the god was Ba'al-Zeus.


Inscription 869 found in the plaster lined basin above the bronze phalaron.


Text and translation of inscription 869 that was published by Rostovtzeff (1939:130).


Clay oil lamp found as a ritual offering in the Mithraeum at Dura Europos. Rostovotzeiff (1939:75) reported that the main altar was replaced during the construction phase called Middle Mithraeum from approximately AD 210 to 240. Associated with the rebuilding was an offering deposit of bird bones, sheep bones, fish bones, 7 intact oil lamps and 1 broken oil lamp. Reg. no. 1938.4693


Clay oil lamp found as a ritual offering in the Mithraeum at Dura Europos. Reg. no. 1938.4691. Baur (1947:35) reports that the lamps from the ritual offering are all identical measuring Length = 7.7 cm, width = 6.8 cm and height = 2.3 cm.


Clay oil lamp found as a ritual offering in the Mithraeum at Dura Europos. Reg. no. 1938.4690. Baur (1947:35) notes that all of the lamps have the same very faint decoration: three circular rows of globules are positioned around the ring of the filling-hole. The selection of identical "plain" lamps seems intentional.


Clay oil lamp found as a ritual offering in the Mithraeum at Dura Europos. Baur (1947:35) notes that none of the offering deposit lamps show any trace of use in terms of lamp carbon. That observation is not true. One intact lamp (Reg. no. 1938.4692.) has a trace of lamp soot that would represent a single, short burning. The carbon shows on both the original field photograph and recent museum photography. The broken lamp shows the same pattern of a single short burning.


Clay oil lamp found as a ritual offering in the Mithraeum at Dura Europos. Reg. no. 1938.4698.


Clay oil lamp found as a ritual offering in the Mithraeum at Dura Europos. Reg. no. 1938.4697


Clay oil lamp found as a ritual offering in the Mithraeum at Dura Europos. Reg. no. 1938.4709


The broken clay oil lamp found in the offering cache in the Mithraeum at Dura Europos. So, let me go out on a limb and offer two observations:

1. This lamp was carefully, intentionally snapped in half. It did not fall off a table and break like this. It must have taken some practice to make such a clean break.

2. The broken lamp has a small amount of lamp soot at the wick hole. It was burnt once - maybe only for a few minutes.

The ritual sacrifice of the single oil lamp (while it was burning or after it had just been extinguished) could have been part of a symbolic reenactmnt of the dismemberment of the sacred bull in preparation for the meal shared by Mithras and Sol. The seven unused lamps could have been symbolic of the seven grades of initiates to mysteries of Mithras. Of course, other interpretations can also be constructed. Reg. no. 1938.4712


Bronze ring noted on the artifact card as found in the Mithraeum at Dura Europos. Reg. no. 1938.2337


Pottery vessel in situ in the "Holy of Holies" niche behind the altar in the mithraeum at Dura Europos. Maybe this vessel was used in the sacred meals.

Baur, P.V.C.
1947 The Excavaions at Dura-Europos Final Report: Lamps. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Rostovtzeff, M. I. et al.
1939 The Excavations at Dura Europos - Preliminary Report of the seventh and eighth seasons of work: 1933 - 1934 and 1934 - 1935. Yale University Press, New Haven.
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