The London Mithraeum at 12 Walbrook was brought to our notice by one of the volunteer Friends of the City Churches at St Mary Abchurch. We had never heard of it but are glad now that we have. Strictly speaking, although entry is free, you do need to book in advance. Even though we hadn’t heard of it many others obviously had. There must have been a lull so the receptionist allowed us to come in, gave us the booklet and advised us of the procedure.
“Situated on the site of Bloomberg’s new European headquarters, this new cultural hub showcases the ancient temple, a selection of the remarkable Roman artefacts found during the recent excavations, and a series of contemporary art commissions responding to one of the UK’s most significant archaeological sites.
The Making of the Mithraeum
The site lies over the course of one of London’s lost rivers, the Walbrook. Nearly 2,000 years ago when Londinium was founded by the Romans, this river marked the limits of their first settlement. In the 3rd century AD, nearly 200 years after the founding of London, a Roman Londoner, built a temple to the god Mithras on this reclaimed ground, next to the river.
The mysterious cult of Mithras first appeared in Rome in the 1st century AD. It spread across the Empire over the next 300 years, predominantly attracting merchants, soldiers and imperial administrators. Meeting in temples which were often constructed below ground, these were private, dark and windowless spaces. The mythological scene of Mithras killing a bull within a cave, the ‘tauroctony’ is at the heart of the cult, and its full meaning is subject of much speculation.”
The display of an amazing selection of artefacts found during the excavation of the Bloomberg European HQ site. These artefacts are, to me, the most fascinating aspect of the whole visit. How had these things survived in such good condition for all of these years? Each visitor is lent an iPad and able to click on each item on a plan to read the details of the find displayed. All the latest technology enables us to examine the details of the past.
Shoe : AD80-95 wood/iron
Hundreds of Roman shoes have survived in the water-logged levels of the Walbrook valley and most were made of leather. Sturdy wooden shoes, or clogs, such as his one are less common and are likely to have been worn by people who worked in wet or dirty conditions.
This early Roman shoe was made from a single piece of leather with openwork decoration. The loops at the front of the foot allow it to be laced up and in size it would have suited a small adult.
Bull Plaque : AD43-125, Lead
This bull probably represents the astrological sign Taurus. Astrology was important to the members of the cult of Mithras who built their temple on this site and it also played a role in other Roman religions and beliefs. A similar plaque depicting two fishes, most likely a representation of the sign Pisces, was found during excavation here in the 1950s. Both plaques pre-date the Mithraeum and suggest that there may have been an even earlier temple on the site.
We hand back our iPads and proceed down a flight of stairs to one level below ground. As we descend we are aware of a Timeline every few steps telling us what period of history we are on a level with. Modern street level is 9 metres above the earliest Roman deposits.
This level serves as a waiting room in advance of entering the site of the reconstructed temple itself. There’s a small exhibition interpreting the clues found during excavation as to the basic rituals and myths and symbols of the cult of Mithras. Every 15 minutes or so a group is called to step down and into the hall where the temple remains have been preserved. On returning to the interpretation area you can, of course, spend more time looking and reading and learning.
You can walk right round the temple remains in order to study them from every angle
The central icon of the cult is an image of Mithras killing a bull. Modern scholars have interpreted this a creation myth, encompassing fertility and perhaps a vision of the universe.
There are two fascinating short videos on this page. The second concentrates solely upon the ‘Bloomberg’ Writing Tablets found on the site.
“Archaeologists from MOLA [Museum of London Archaeology] found 400+ fragments of ancient Roman writing-tablets on the site of the new Bloomberg London building. The collection is the largest and earliest of its kind in Britain and includes the first known reference to London and the earliest hand-written document in Britain. Roman waxed writing tablets were used for note taking, tallying accounts, correspondence, and legal administration.”