Long thought to have been solely used as a burial site by ancient Romans in the 1st century B.C. and the 2nd century A.D., a tomb in the necropolis of Carmona, Spain (just outside of Sevilla) surprised researchers from Universidad Pablo de Olavide last week, who announced that the tomb was actually first used as a temple by the devotees of Mithraism, a cult that came to exist during the Roman empire.

“In some stages, it was used for burial purposes, but its shape and an archaeoastronomical analysis suggest that it was originally designed and built to contain a Mithraeum [temple to Mithras],” said study researcher Inmaculada Carrasco, in an interview with the Spanish news agency SINC.

This view is supported by the structure of the Elephant Tomb itself (so called because of the elephant shaped statue within the tomb), which has many design aspects typical to Mithraeum structure: the building has a room divided into three chambers, in the center of which a shrine or altar would be illuminated by a window cut into the opposite wall, and the window is so placed that, on the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes, the sun would shine directly onto the proposed location of the shrine. The tomb/temple also has a fountain, often used in Mithraeum construction, and the whole structure would have been aligned with the constellations Taurus and Scorpio, both of which are constellations used in the sacred images of Mithras.

Researchers have determined that the temple would have been repurposed as a tomb by the Romans after the cult worshippers lost faith in their religion and abandoned the site.

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