Notes on the Mithraic small finds from Sarmizegetusa


The recent stage of Mithraic studies are dealing with a change of paradigm, orienting the focus of the research from the iconography and from the quest for the origins, to the local and archaeological aspects of the cult. The intense study and the systematic excavations of the recently found sanctuaries offered a huge amount of new, archaeological material which can be interpreted finally, in their own, local and archaeological context. After the discovery of the Mithraic sanctuary from Apulum in 2008, the Romanian historiography must change also his focus from iconography to the votive small finds and the local, social, economic and religious networks of the cult.

This article is dealing with one of the most discussed Mithraic sanctuaries, many time quoted in the international and Romanian bibliography as the “biggest” sanctuary from the Danubian provinces and even from the whole Empire. It’s tremendous amount of reliefs provoked in the end of the 19th century a unique scholarly effervescence, attracting the leading scholars of Mithraism in Transylvania. The case of the mithraeum from Sarmizegetusa shows the current state of the Romanian research: the historiography focused almost exclusively on the reliefs and the iconography, neglecting the small finds and the rituals behind these small objects. Reinterpreting and analyzing in details these objects open a new path in the research, changing our view not only about the “biggest” Mithraic sanctuary ever discovered, but also about the internal geography of a mithraeum.

The first mithraeum excavated in Transylvania

The cult of Mithras in Dacia was well attested in the 19th century and even before, due to some well known reliefs and inscriptions from Apulum and other localities. However, few of them came from Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa, the capital of the province. One of them was found in 1856 in Várhely (Sarmizegetusa village). The exact place and condition of the discovery is unknown. Theodor Mommsen saw the altar at Grădiştea or Abrud at the local priest. Russu affirms – without  explanation – that the altar was found „in the mithraeum”.

In the end of the 19th century, the newly founded Historical and Archaeological Association of Hunyad County (Hunyadmegyei Történelmi és Régészeti Társulat) begun their extensive excavations at Sarmizegetusa, marking the beginning of the first systematic research of a Roman city in the ex – territory of Dacia. In the end of  the 1870’s some local inhabitants of Várhely (today Sarmizegetusa village) discovered some Mithraic finds. Soon, the Association from Deva bought the finds with the help of Sámuel Nemes and the systematic excavations could begin at 5th July, 1882.

Pál Király (1853 – 1929) directed the excavations with the help of Gábor Téglás. The first season took only ten days, in which period the team discovered around 260 fragmentary monuments – the biggest find of this kind ever found in the Roman Empire. However, the exact number of the finds are unknown. Király’s catalogue presents 184 pieces, but he speaks about 250-260 pieces in his introduction. Vermaseren’s corpus enroll 112 pieces trying to fit together the extremely fragmentary reliefs. A different number of monuments appears in the corpus of Cumont. The later catalogues usually just copied the repertory of Cumont and Vermaseren, neglecting the original publication. The discovery became very famous in Europe, many of the foreign scholars – like Franz Studnicka and Otto Benndorf – visiting personally the site and the museum of Deva examining the monuments. Later, the “patriarch of Mithraic studies”, Franz Cumont also visited Transylvania collecting personally the rich Mithraic material of the province. A second season took place between 14 and 26th August, 1883, when further monuments were found, examining the surrounding area of the sanctuary. Király, with the help of Károly Torma, József Hampel, Gábor Téglás and Géza Kuun, catalogued the material of the sanctuary and published in a Hungarian monograph in 1886. His book became one of the most quoted – but less read –  works of the Mithraic historiography. Cumont didn’t read the manuscript of Király, using for his corpus only his personal visit and examination. Vermaseren used a translation by Henri Boissin, a French orientalist. The later publishers usually just copied the interpretation of Cumont and Vermaseren. The rich material was partially republished during the last 130 years.

Without entering in details about the excavation, it is important to mention some particularities of this find. First, the extreme number of the monuments (around 260 artifacts) is so unusual, that it suggest or a later deposition and votive spolia from many different Mithraic sites of the city or a possible workshop – center for reliefs. There are no Mithraic sanctuaries in the Roman Empire with such amount of reliefs found in a same place (more than 50 relief – fragments in a same spot). Similar deposits we can find in Merida, Sidon, the Walbrook mithraeum in London or in Apulum. It is possible that the finds came from multiple mithraea, however, the topography of Sarmizegetusa at the moment doesn’t help us to identify the sanctuaries, even if some scholars suggested the existence of three mithraea in Sarmizegetusa. If they come from one sanctuary, than we need to reconsider the inside geography of a mithraeum. The iconographic typology of the reliefs, the material used suggesting a single provenience and a local workshop. The example of Tienen shows that this kind of sanctuaries based on a collegia – system were in strict relation with mass production of pottery. Other studies revealed the important role of the commercial and merchant groups and collegia with the Mithraic communities in Ostia or even in Dacia.

The plan of the sanctuary – reconstructed by Király as a monumental, 44,23 m long building – is an exaggerated one, which need to be reinterpreted. He get this unusual size from a very sophisticated equation based on the two monographs available at that time. There are few sanctuaries with similar dimensions in the Empire (CIMRM 1682) which makes sure that his calculation is wrong. However, the international bibliography still use the plan of Király without questioning its authenticity.

The small finds of the Mithraeum

Beside the impressive quantity of figurative and epigraphic monuments found in the sanctuary, a particular group of objects need to be analyzed – neglected till now by the scholarship. The votive small finds found in the mithraeum of Sarmizegetusa are extremely important, because they are the only sources of this kind from the city and the biggest amount from the province excavated till now. Important to mention, that the detailed description of the mithraeum from Slăveni from 1837 and the one from from Decea Mureşului from 1888 also mention some votive small finds. Very interesting is the description of Blaremberg, who mentions probably a votive deposit in the entrance of the sanctuary and some “fragmentary pieces (“sfărămături”) which could be interpreted as pottery too. From Decea, Károly Herepei mentioned “four painted ceramics” which came from an amphora.

The small finds are extremely important sources for the understanding of the internal structure, liturgy and religious activity inside of a religious community.  Until the recent systematic excavations, the pottery, terracotta, glass and small bronze objects were neglected by the scholarship, enrolling them laconically in a repertory, focusing their study on the figurative and epigraphic material. After 2004 the studies are focusing intensively on the interpretation of the small finds too. The sanctuaries discovered and published in the last twenty years – most notably the sanctuaries from Tienen, Bornheim – Sechtem, Güglingen II, Els Munts and the reexamination of the Crypta Balbi mithraeum from Rome – revealed the importance of the small finds in the rituals, integrating this category also in the so called “star – talk” or sacred geography of the mithraeum.

From the 184 objects enrolled in Király’s repertory, there are 29 “building elements” and only 22 small finds named by he as “interior fixtures”. It is possible, that in 1879, the owner of the field found other small finds too. After the discovery the finds were taken to the newly founded Museum of Deva. Some of the elements are mentioned very shortly also in other works of Király and at Vermaseren. Gábor Téglás, as an appendix of Király’s volume, made a short summary on the osteological material – the first of this kind ever published from a mithraeum. He mentions that the osteological material was highly chared. Téglás tried to identify the animal types, enrolling the ovis aries, capra hircus, sus scropha, gallus domesticus, capreolus capreolus. His short report can’t replace such a detailed analysis as in the osteological material of Tienen was made. In that case the almost 14000 animal bones were analyzed very carefully, showing the presence of  various bird species (mainly fowl, goose) and pigs, cattle, goats and two eels. Their study proved the importance of the cock and fowl, as the case of Künzig mithreum, presented much more in the sanctuaries. They explained this as a special offer and a Mithraic symbol. The case of Crypta Balbi – and other urban centers – however shows a high percentage of pigs in the sacred banquet. General osteological researches show that the high percentage of the pigs and birds reflects only a general tendency and not a special cultic activity.

In many sanctuaries – such as the case of Martigny – large amount of coins were found, possibly thrown intentionally as a part of a ritual. In the case of the Sarmizegetusa mithareum, there is no report about numismatic finds in the sanctuary.

The majority of the small finds was published without the exact finding spot and detailed archaeological context, thus their interpretation could be very laconic. The number of the small finds is disproportionately small in comparison with the figurate and epigraphic monuments, which could suggest that the monuments came from multiple sanctuaries of the city. The archaeological methodology of that period could serve also as an explanation for the extremely small number of small finds, the archaeologists being focused to collect only the most relevant and complete pieces. As an analogy, the mithraeum I. from Poetovio was excavated also in this period (1898 – 1899). Although, it contains more than twenty stone monuments, Vermaseren enroll only 2 small finds: a bronze raven and a dagger. In the recently found sanctuaries – Tienen, Heidelberg, Martigny, Bornheim – Sechtem, Güglingen II – the number of the small finds are much higher than in the great sanctuaries discovered earlier and excavated fastly, with an old methodology. What is sure, is that the presence of the small finds proves the existence of rituals and cultic activity inside of the building.

The glass and pottery material shows clearly the presence of the sacred banquet, attested many times now not only from literary sources, graffities and iconographic representations, but also from archaeological evidence from Mithraic and other cultic places too. None of the presented objects has a specific, “Mithraic” feature or iconography –as we can find in some exceptional cases. The drawings of Király are very bad, making problematic the identification of their typology and functionality. A vase discovered is an unknown form, but could be easily interpreted as a lid or as a Pompeian Red plate present usually in Mithras sanctuaries. Both drinking and cooking vessels are present, however this insignificant amount doesn’t help us to estimate the number of the participants such as in the case of Tienen.

A very important object is the small knife found in the naos of the sanctuary – the only small find from the excavated, archaeologically attested part of the building. Published as a “sacrificial knife” by Király, the role of the object is unknown. The size and form of the object is typical for Sarmizegetusa, however the lower part is slightly different from this type. The publishers mentions that there is only 2 examples for this type in Sarmizegetusa omitting to mention this object. The same happened with the bronze objects too.  The presence of knifes, daggers and even swords in Mithraic context is very common, their interpretation varies from “sacrificial objects” to “ritual objects” or simple cutlery. The fragmentation of the osteological material from Tienen shows also the procedure used in the preparation for the sacred banquet, where knife played only a banal, laic role of cutlery.

However, the knife appears many times also in the Mithraic iconography on reliefs, statues and even altars and – as an akinakes – a symbol of the perses grade. On the floor of the Felicissimus mithraeum, a dagger (or sickle) appears as the symbol of the pater – the highest rank in the initiation. The small Mithras hands made in bronze represents also the knife, as a ritual object – many times the knife itself being separately attached to the hand. These small bronze objects are very popular in the Germanic provinces. A very similar analogy to the Sarmizegetusan example we can find in Poetovio, from the I. mithraeum. In this case, a bronze raven was perched on a dagger. There we can presume also a ritual meaning of the object.

The knife or the sword represented with Mithras Petrogenitus in an orphic context could represent the creator weapon of Saturnus and in this context, had an important role in initiation rituals too – as we can see in the frescoes of Santa Prisca or Capua Vetere. Another interpretation is – at least for the iconographic scenes of tauroctony – that Mithras carries the knife of Aries, the symbol of Mars. The presence of this object – independently from it’s interpretation – is very important, because it reveals a particular part of the internal life of the local community.

The bronze and iron objects also represents a very interesting aspect of the material. The presence of some possible bronze vessels, furniture decorations (knobs), scissors and the iron hook could indicate the material reminiscence of a sacral banquet, however the exact function of these objects are unknown. The hook with 8 form links could serve as a keeper of a cauldron. There are no analogy for a scissors in a mithraeum, their functionality here could be more banal, than the context of a sanctuary could suggest. Rep. nr. 13, identified by us as a knob is very similar to a small, unidentified object from Tienen. The presence of a furniture decoration is very surprising, our knowledge and imagination about the interior design of a mithraeum missed till now this aspect. There are few representations however, which indicate the presence of chairs or tables. Their position, the dining spaces of a mithraeum – represented especially on our modern reconstructions on the podiums – needs a new methodology to approach.

Similarly, the three integrally preserved oil lamps represent a particular aspect of the cult. The sanctuary of Mithras – a reconstructed spelaeum and sacred space – was meant to be dark and mystical, increasing the sensual and psychological effect of the artificially created, religious space on the worshipers. The lamps are typical firmalamps (firmalampen – Loeschcke X type) probably made in a local workshop. One of them signed with the stamp of FORTIS, the most popular workshop in the Empire and in Ulpia Traiana Sarmizegetusa too, with many subdivisions and types. The role of the lamps in the Mithraic context probably differs from those find in Asklepieia or other sanctuaries, such as in the case of the possible Deus Aeternus sanctuary from Apulum. As in some modern reconstructions we can see, the interior of a mithraeum was slightly illuminated. Important to mention however, that most of the 3D reconstructions are purely hypothetical (an exception is the Crypta Balbi sanctuary). The role of the oil lamps in this case was not necessary a cultic, but a pragmatic one, representing furthermore a personal object of the worshiper as in many, private spaces too (Gui-Petruţ 2012). Almost every mithraeum has oil lamps, most of them from local or regional production, without any specific decoration. It is very surprising that in a much more smaller sanctuary such as Tienen, they found 12 oil lamps. Their functionality was only a pragmatic one. However, in some rare cases, like in Rome, the Crypta Balbi mithraeum or the Aventicum we find the thymiaterion form lamps or altar shaped lamps which surely played a special role in the sanctuary. In the Crypta Balbi mithraeum we can find also imported pieces from North Africa.


The small finds of the mithraeum of Sarmizegetusa were ignored by the Romanian and international scholarship, the research focusing on the impressive amount of reliefs and epigraphic monuments – which made this sanctuary so unique not only in Dacia, but also in the whole Empire. The republication of the small finds of the first, systematically excavated mithraeum of Dacia has the main aim to show the importance of these small objects in the local community, highlighting also the perspectives for the Romanian archaeology of religion, which must focus more carefully on this aspect of the Roman religion too.

(Article first published as: Cs. Szabó, Notes on the Mithraic small finds from Sarmizegetusa. In: Ziridava, 28, 2014, 135-148. See also: Cs. Szabó, Sanctuaries in Roman Dacia. Materiality and religious experience, Oxford, Archaeopress, 2018.)