The London Mithraeum: finding Ancient Rome in London

I first saw the London Mithraeum a few years ago in its previous home above a car park on a relatively anonymous City of London street.  It had been put there after excavators discovered it in 1954 during London’s post war building boom.  On the final day of the excavations, the head of the god Mithras (now on show in the Museum of London) was found, leading to a surge of interest in the site and its significance.  Subsequently,  30,000 people a day queued up during the extended excavations before the owners moved the contents to the site above that car park to make way for an office block.

In its Roman London heyday, this was a place to worship the mysterious god Mithras.  Built in the middle of the 3rd Century CE, it was shaped a little like a modern church, with an apse at one end.  Such temples were built to reference the cave where the mythical Mithras slayed a bull, and would not have had any windows to the outside world, suggesting a cramped and cave like environment.  This one was eventually abandoned sometime in the 5th Century after the collapse of Roman influence in Britain.

Fast forward to this century and changes in land ownership presented new opportunities for excavating the site and restoring the temple to its right location, removing some of the anachronistic elements such as the crazy paving floor. Now the Mithraeum has been lovingly restored, and hosted in a purpose-built site almost in its original location, thanks to Bloomberg.  It’s now 7 metres below the city’s Walbrook, close to both the Bank of England and the Mansion House.  It opened to viewers in November 2017.

You can book tickets for your visit online, but I just showed up on a Friday afternoon on spec.  And what a wonderful experience it was. The site sits over three layers. Housed in a contemporary purpose-built space, the ground floor layer hosts a beautifully displayed selection of finds discovered during the recent excavations and rotating displays of modern art. Those artefacts include jewellery, pottery and everyday objects including writing implements.  Significant numbers of animal bones were also discovered. The current modern exhibition is by Pablo Bronstein, and is titled London in its Original Splendour.

A stark black staircase leads to a lower level and is used to evoke the sense of going into the past, with key moments in the city’s history marked on the descent.

On the next mezzanine level, visitors wait to make their final descent to a timed display. Key objects are explored interactively, and the significance of the symbolism of a Mithraic temple are described in a voiceover by Joanna Lumley, including the distinctive Tauroctony, or bull-slaying scene.

Finally, the descent into the temple itself.  The site is in almost complete darkness awaiting the display.  And what an evocative display.  The sounds of the ancient Roman ceremony are evoked through a soundtrack which incorporates background noises of men’s voices (this was a space and a cult for men) and chatter, tinkling bells and then a chant in Latin which reaches a crescendo.  That Latin came from script written on the walls of a temple in Rome, enabling some insights into this mysterious religion.  Light is used beautifully to suggest the walls of the site, which includes a reconstruction of that bull slaying scene.

And then it’s back upstairs and into the bustle of modern London.

Have you been to this or other Mithrauem? What was your impression of this mysterious site?

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