Thursday, 16th August 2018 – The London Mithraeum, Bloomberg Arcade, London
I recently came to the conclusion that my lunch breaks on the days I don’t work from home could be usefully dedicated to doing some tourism in London, especially given how close the office is to a number of interesting sights and sites. And the one I’ve been keeping an eye on for a long time is the newly re-opened (and relocated) London Mithraeum. Now I’m sure many people know that London was at one point a Roman town of some standing, and that there are some remnants of that time to be seen. Not everyone will know where those vestiges are, however. In fact for some while no one knew where a lot of them were, as they vanished below later layers of occupation, and only came to light as a result of bombing raids in WWII or major construction projects afterwards.
One such site is the London Mithraeum, next to Walbrook, a street on the site of a now mostly underground river, unsurprisingly called the Walbrook, which used to be an important source of fresh water for the city. The Mithraeum was discovered during building work in 1954 and was excavated by the then Director of the Museum of London, W. F. Grimes, There was an initial belief that it might prove to be an early Christian church, but what came to light was a mid-3rd century temple dedicated to Mithras, possibly along with some other deities that were popular among Roman soldiers, before being rededicated, probably to Bacchus, in the early 4th century.
The temple site basically came to light because it was on the site of the new offices for Legal & General, Bucklersbury House. In order to preserve the original building, it was dug up and moved to Temple Court, where it was reassembled in the open air, having original been at least partly underground. By all accounts the reconstruction was a bit haphazard, and there was a lot of criticism of the building processes used.
Bucklersbury House and four other buildings were scheduled for demolition in 2007 and there were plans to create a new Walbrook Square development, with the Mithraeum returned to its original location. For a variety of tedious reasons, the project was put on hold in October 2008, and two years later the Mithraeum was still at Temple Court.
Finally in 2010 the Walbrook Square project was purchased by Bloomberg, and they decided to put the the Mithraeum back in its original location underneath their new European headquarters. The temple is now 7 metres (23 ft) below the modern street level, and very close to its precise origins. Apparently it had to be moved very slightly to the west, because more of the original walls were still there and are too fragile to be displayed today. Along with the construction work between 2010 and 2014, 50 archaeologists from the Museum carried out further excavations of the site, and recovered more than 14,000 items. It is believed that many of them ended up there as the inhabitants brought in landfill and soil to try and improve the marshy banks of the Walbrook.
The ruins have been reconstructed as they appeared at the end of the excavation in October 1954, reflecting the first building phase of around AD 240 without any later Roman additions to the site. Most of the stones and bricks are original, with new wood, render and lime mortar based on samples found at other Roman sites in London. It’s now free to get in, though you need to apply for a timed slot. I arrived on time on a wet soggy lunchtime, and was soon inside, staring at the display case full of around 600 objects from the site, including the remains of a pair of leather shoes, which have survived because the attempts to sort out the marshy bank were obviously not that effective and the local waterlogged soil conditions preserved all sorts of materials, including the oldest financial document from London, which is dated AD 57. Given the City is now the financial heart of the capital, this seems entirely appropriate.
Once you have examined the finds, aided by the provided iPads, you can go into the reconstructed Mithraeum itself and be treated to a sound and light show. This happens every 20 minutes and everyone goes in together. You are first plunged into total darkness, and then various lights come up, there is a lot of chanting, and you can happily wander around taking photos until the lights come right up ready to start all over again.
It’s very clever, though it doesn’t answer many questions about the actual use of the temple. Those questions are closer to being answered outside, with the various interactive displays and audio-tracks that you can sit and listen to. I liked the display that showed other items of the same type, and where they were found, including the Tauroctony (Mithras slaying the bull).
The London one was found quite a lot before the actual Mithraeum came to light, having been discovered in the Walbrook in 1889. The marble relief is 0.53 m tall, and shows Mithras in the act of killing the astral bull, accompanied by the two small figures of the torch-bearing celestial twins of Light and Darkness, Cautes and Cautopates, within the cosmic annual wheel of the zodiac.
Selecting different areas produced detailed information about the different facets of the relief, and while I might not have learned a great deal I didn’t already know, it was fascinating, and a great way to spend a lunch break. I walked back given the section of Roman wall that remains near the office a fierce looking at.