Tuesday, 21 May, 2002, 20:42 GMT 21:42 UK

Dig reveals Roman transvestite

Archaeologists in North Yorkshire have discovered the skeleton of a cross-dressing eunuch dating back to the 4th Century AD.

The find was made during excavations of a Roman settlement in Catterick, first started in 1958.

The skeleton - found dressed in women's clothes and jewellery - is believed to have once been a castrated priest who worshipped the eastern goddess Cybele.

Archaeologists say it is the only example ever recovered from a late Roman cemetery in Britain.

The young man was found buried in a grave at Bainesse, a farm near Catterick, and once an outlying settlement of the Roman town.

He wore a jet necklace, a jet bracelet, a shale armlet and a bronze expanding anklet and had two stones placed in his mouth.

Dr Pete Wilson, Senior Archaeologist at English Heritage who has edited a book on the subject, said the man's jewellery was significant.

Jet was regarded in the ancient world as having magical powers and there is a link between the rise in popularity of jet and the increasing interest in eastern mystery religions at the time.

Dr Pete Wilson, English Heritage

He said: "He is the only man wearing this array of jewellery who has ever been found from a late Roman cemetery in Britain.

"In life he would have been regarded as a transvestite and was probably a gallus, one of the followers of the goddess Cybele who castrated themselves in her honour.

"The find demonstrates how cosmopolitan the north of England was"

Cybele, a goddess imported from the east in the 3rd century BC, had long been a Roman state deity and was worshipped in noisy, public festivals.

Turbans and tiaras

Her would-be priests, or galli, castrated themselves following the example of Cybele's lover Atys, who had made himself a eunuch in her service out of remorse for his infidelity.

In the castration ceremony the galli used special ornamented clamps, one of which was found in the Thames by London Bridge and is now in the British Museum.

Thereafter Cybele's priests wore jewellery, highly coloured female robes and turbans or tiaras and had female hair-styles.

Inscriptions and statues show that the cult was well established in the north of England - there is an altar dedicated to Cybele at Corbridge on Hadrian's Wall.

David Miles, chief archaeologist at English Heritage told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Catterick [at the time]... had a very mixed population with people coming from all over the Roman Empire.

"Although this man may well have been local... the jewellery is not normal behaviour for the average Roman or average Yorkshireman of the 4th Century."

Most of the finds from the excavations are held by the Yorkshire Museum.