London Mithraeum: Visit a Roman Temple Under London
The London Mithraeum was first discovered in 1954, but as part of the new Bloomberg HQ, it’s been restored to its original position. Now Londoners can step back 1,800 years, inside a Roman Temple!
Finding a Roman Temple
Between 1952-54, a chance discovery on a bomb site revealed Roman remains. London was gripped by this exciting find and on some days 30,000 people were queuing to have a look around the site.
Photo credit: Robert Hitchman © MOLA
It was only on the last day of the scheduled dig that they discovered the answer to unlocking these ruins; a small but perfectly preserved sculpted head of Mithras.
A reconstruction of the sculpture in resin, on display on the mezzanine level. (Photo Credit: James Newton) The original is in the Museum of London.
This last minute find meant London had a choice. The media piled on the pressure not to build over the remains as planned, but to preserve them somehow.
“There is something grievously wrong with our planning if an important antiquity of this sort can be destroyed almost before it has been seen.” – The Times, 1954
Eventually a compromise was reached. The temple was moved around 100m from its original site, built over a car park and lying there, pretty unloved from 1962 -2011.
1962 Temple of Mithras reconstruction Queen Victoria Street (c) MOLA
Before we see the new Temple of Mithras, an important question hangs over us…
Who Was Mithras?
The cult of Mithras, a Roman cross between a religion and gentlemen’s club, had at its focus the young boy; Mithras.
A second resin replica inside depicts the ‘tauroctony’ the central image of the cult; Mithras slaying a sacred bull inside a cave. Photo credit: James Newton)
The collection of Roman men would gather in a dark space. It was secretive and you had to know the right people to get in, adding to the drama of the ceremonies. The act of sacrifice represents fertility and the link between a real life bull and its zodiac equivalent alluded to a greater connection between man and the cosmos.
In the often harsh world of 1st Century AD, this space allowed men to feel they had a special place within the great plan of the universe.
The challenges facing the reconstruction team were numerous; how do you truthfully present remains which were only minimal? How do you communicate what was missing, conveying the space and scale? And how do you get across the gravitas and mystery of what happened here almost 2,000 years ago?
The solution is an immersive experience. Down steps, leading you to the level of Roman London you enter a dark space. It’s silent for a while until the ‘ceremony’ begins; whispers and chanting growing louder.
Afterwards the lights come up and you’re free to explore the space.
The reconstruction was completed with utmost integrity, they identified the original materials from the 1950s site, discarded elements like the elaborate mosaics – dreamt up by 1950s builders who assumed the floor would’ve been similar!
Most of the masonry is from the original Roman structure, the floor is a hand painted resin cast of actual roman soil, laid down and trampled on by archeologists for an authentic look.
My favourite element was in fact a modern touch, hanging shapes lit from above. Meaning as the light falls, they create a capital and shaft of light which becomes a column.
As well as the temple itself, some of the most exciting Roman artefacts ever found in London are also on display here.
Six hundred of the 14,000 Roman artefacts uncovered on the Bloomberg site are displayed on the ground level of London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE. (Photo credit: James Newton)
It’s the largest single collection of objects telling us what life in Roman London was like. Here are some of my highlights;
Above is the earliest dated writing tablet from London 8 January AD 57 (C. MOLA). One of 407 found here, the above writing tablet records that “I Tibullus the freedman of Venustus, have written and sau I owe Gratus the freedman of Spurius 105 denarii from the price of the merchandise which has been sold or delivered.”
It’s the first record of a financial transaction in The City of London!
The amber amulet (in real life, smaller than half your fingernail) is a miniature gladiator’s helmet, dating from AD 43-170. We think the precious material was imported from the Baltic region and it was believe to have special healing properties.
As well as Roman items like this leather shoe sole, older items were found that made their way to London.
Dating from AD 20-50 this silver coin was minted in eastern Britain before Romans controlled that area. Showing a horse with an ear of corn, it’s possible that this coin was brought to London by one of Boudicca’s followers, the Iceni tribe which razed Londinium to the ground in AD 60-61.