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The Moving Story of the London Mithraem

This is a re-publication of an article written for the Hadrianic Society Newsletter in Autumn 2012 by contributor Rose Baillie.

Details of the Museum of London entry can be found here.

The London Blitz of World War 2 left numerous empty plots in the City of London, which far-sighted individuals realised were ripe for archaeology. Into the breach stepped the Roman and Mediaeval London Excavation Council, which appointed Prof W F ‘Peter’ Grimes, Director of the London Museum, to superintend excavations.

In 1954 came Grimes’ greatest discovery, a Temple of Mithras, together with the highest quality assemblage of Roman sculpture yet found in Britain. The excavation aroused enormous public and press interest and was carried on in circumstances of resource, financial and developer pressure that foreshadowed the rescue archaeology of the 1970’s. After Cabinet debate, a two week extension and 100’s of yards of queuing visitors, the Temple was dismantled and rebuilt in 1962 on Queen Victoria Street some 90m from its original location, while the sculptures went to the Museum of London. So far, so familiar.

All things come to an end, including the life of Bucklersbury House, the post-war development on the site of the Mithraeum. A convoluted and complex series of negotiations since 2008 have led to Bucklersbury House and a neighbouring property being acquired by Bloomberg LP, to be redeveloped as their new European HQ. An added complication was that the reconstructed Temple of Mithras had in the interim become a ‘Listed Building’. This meant that Museum of London staff got to superintend its dismantlement and to explore for any possible remains of the original temple.

At this point it was realised that something of a trick had been played on the public for last 50 years, as John Shepherd, former MoL Archive Manager and Grimes expert, told a meeting earlier this year. The fact is that the reconstructed Temple was little more than a ground plan in stone, with which Grimes was very disappointed.

The work was undertaken without proper planning, the stones from the Temple were unnumbered and moved haphazardly to two successive locations and many were lost. The reconstructed Temple had hard modern cement and crazy paving in the aisle. It was built on the street-side roof of an underground car park, on the wrong orientation, without character and context. The one part of the building that was undoubtedly in its correct location was the worn doorstep, with well preserved iron sockets on which the original doors hinged. However,for want of many other visible Roman remains, it became a familiar fixture on London heritage tours. This unsatisfactory structure has now been recorded, dismantled by expert masons and moved once more into storage, ahead of re-instatement as part of the new development.

Thanks to Grimes’ excellent work we know that the London Mithraeum was built around 240AD on an east/west alignment on the rather soggy bank of the Walbrook stream. It was built to simulate a dark cave for Mithraism’s esoteric rituals. It was rectangular, about 18m x 8m with a semi-circular apse at the western end that would have held the main cult statue. There was a sunken floor in the central nave and side aisles separated from the nave by seven columns. Undergoing various modifications, it remained in use as a Mithraeum until around 350 AD. By this time the structure was suffering from severe subsidence and the walls were creaking. It seems likely that the building was taken over by the followers of another pagan cult, probably Bacchus, who repaired it and used it until the end of the Roman period.

Possibly out of respect for the old religion, a group of sculptures were buried in a pit under the floor of the nave. These included heads of Mithras, Serapis and Minerva, the hand of Mithras, and a figure of Mercury. In fact the mostimportant sculpture from the Mithraeum had already been found nearby in 1889. This is the archetypal sculptural scene of Mithras slaying the cosmic bull, with the torch bearing Cautes and Cautopates, surrounded by the 12 signs of the zodiac, the sun, the moon and two wind gods, dedicated by Ulpius Silvanus, emeritus of Legio ll Augusta, from Orange.

One legacy of the discovery of the London Mithraeum was that it began the process by which archaeology eventually became incorporated into City planning and redevelopment. A surprising amount is still being found in the City of London, despite much of the built environment being replaced every 20-30 years. Over time many adjacent sites have been excavated, to build up a bigger picture, while the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre (LAARC) provides a home for finds and researchers.

It was always hoped that the new Walbrook Square would contain the reconstructed Mithraeum in a more historically accurate form, for which planning permission has been given. At the time of writing discussions are underway as to what form this will take. Early reports said the Mithraeum would be rebuilt at its original location.But there is a complication. In the archaeological re-evaluation of the site after demolition Ian Blair, of Museum of London Archaeology, had squeezed himself into a narrow trench and located the remains of Grimes’ excavation. He found a great deal more of the Temple’s original foundations still in situ than anyone dared hope. There were substantial parts of the narthex and aisle walls. And, yes, Grimes’ orientation and levels were spot on, but some reinterpretation may be needed, as some of the extant roman remains are from another building, not the Mithraeum.

You cannot put the reconstruction of a reconstruction on top of what is now a ‘Scheduled Ancient Monument’.So the plan is that there will be public access at street level very near the original location, into a lobby with a display about Mithraism, leading into a darkened, enclosed, lower level reconstruction of the Mithraeum made from the saved stones, which will evoke the cave-like atmosphere favoured by the cult. Nearby but not visible, will be the remains of the original Mithraeum, still resting in the silt of the now invisible Walbrook. It is hoped that the new assemmbage with open in 2016.

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