A review of the London Mithraeum, by MA student Klara Hegedus.
The London Mithraeum is a small museum built on the site of the excavation of a Temple of Mithras, at the heart of the City of London. It is a permanent exhibition, part of the Bloomberg European headquarters. The museum is free, but tickets are required as it is a small space.
The Temple attracted huge crowds when discovered by accident in 1952-4. There was great debate about whether the site should be retained or built over, but eventually a compromise with the would-be builders was reached and the remains were moved to a different place on the site. When Bloomberg bought the site in 2010, they moved the remains once more, back to their original site.
The first, ground floor level area is an exhibition space. There is a wall of some of the 14,000 archaeological exhibits that were found. There is a writing tablet and stylus, which still shows the letter of a freedman, detailing the debt of another freedman. As well as jewellery, tools and an impressive selection of daggers, there is a small “sippy cup”, used to feed the very old, or unwell. Having just written an essay discussing the merits of archaeological or written sources, it was interesting to see an example of just the sort of “domestic detail” that archaeology can tell us about. Many of the artefacts and the 63,000 shards of Roman pottery found, indicated trade and commerce in the area.
There are also modern art installations shown on that floor. The one we saw today was a modern interpretation of what Roman London could have looked like, if the Romans had been heavily influenced by the Georgian and Victorian buildings we see in London today. It was in the form of a 3D type printed wallpaper.
Visitors walk down the stairs to the second floor, another display area, this time dedicated to Mithras and explaining a bit about the nature of the cult of Mithras. It used a looped recording to explain that it appears to have been an exclusively male cult, possibly using the symbol of the bull that Mithras kills, as a sign of fertility and man’s control over nature. Temples showed zodiac star constellations in the temple and there seems to be a vision of the universe within the cult. It was also noted that very little is really known about this religion and a lot of supposition is involved in its interpretation.
Every 20 minutes, visitors are invited to the final floor for an “immersive experience”. You gather around the excavated floor of the temple and the lights are dimmed. You then hear a voice speaking Italian and other sounds, in a suggestion of what a “service” might have been like. There are further voices praying and then feasting, which was apparently a key part of the ritual. It was very atmospheric. Visitors then get a chance to look around the site in proper lighting.
Although very small, the museum is very interesting and gives a lot of information. The site was discovered in 1954, when London was undergoing a post war rebuilding programme. It was fascinating to see a Roman cult in such an archetypal British context, illustrating the contemporary life that surrounded it and the world history that led to its re-discovery.
Klara is a student on the Open University Classical Studies MA.