I read about the London Mithraeum on the London’s Museums blog, and immediately put it on my list of places to visit. You have to book in advance, but entry is free, and I signed up to visit in the morning of the best Saturday of the year so far. It was bright, sunny and not too cold, and as I arrived at Bank station well before my entry time, I spent a few minutes just wandering around the area and enjoying the outdoors (something which is highly unusual for me).
The Mithraeum is located in the basement of Bloomberg SPACE, which is on Walbrook, just next to Bank station. The street was named after the Walbrook river which used to flow over this very spot; I also spied an artwork by Cristina Iglesias marking this lost river. The river is important to the Mithraeum, as it was the soggy conditions of the soil in this spot that allowed the preservation of so many incredible Roman artefacts.
The Roman settlement of Londinium was founded nearly 2,000 years ago. Almost two centuries later, a resident built a temple to the god Mithras on the banks of the Walbrook. Eventually covered over and forgotten, it was rediscovered in 1954, its purpose only uncovered on the last day of excavations when a head of Mithras was found. The discovery sparked great public interest, with more than 30,000 people queuing up to see the site on some days. The Temple was dismantled and reconstructed elsewhere, opening in 1962.
Bloomberg acquired the site in 2010, and worked with the City of London and conservation specialists to restore the Temple to its original location and allow the public to access it.
I entered the building at the appropriate time, had my ticket scanned, and was immediately confronted by a very un-Roman scene: a work by Isabel Nolan, Another View from Nowhen, comprising a colourful tapestry and a large open sculpture. before heading towards the display case at the back of the building. Gazing in awe at the huge range of archaeological finds I was offered an electronic tablet to help make sense of them. As previously mentioned, the damp earth allowed for many objects to be preserved that would ordinarily have decayed long before, including a door, sandals, and writing tablets. There were the usual pottery fragments and decorative acessories, including a striking bull ornament supposed to represent Taurus.
Heading down the stairs to the next level, a timeline on the wall leads you back through time via significant events in London’s history. At the bottom, models of important discoveries with interactive displays help you to understand the significance of Mithras and the Temple before you head into the Temple itself.
Who was Mithras?
Scholars have been studying the cult of Mithras for two hundred years, but even so not a lot is known. Most of what we know is down to interpretation. The central icon of the cult, an reconstruction of which is displayed here, is an image of Mithras killing a bull, which may be a battle or a sacrifice. It has been interpreted as a creation myth and possibly a vision of the universe, owing to the Zodiac symbols surrounding one of the models. Other Mithras icons have been found all over Europe, and they and the archeological sites from which they come have helped scholars to deduct what a Mithraic ritual might have been like.
Inside the Temple
Temple ‘experiences’ take place every twenty minutes. You enter a long dark room, with a walkway around the edge of the wall and jutting out slightly into the centre. Audio and lighting effects create a spooky atmosphere, as if Romans were walking into the Temple to worship. It’s hugely atmospheric and effective, and you get a sense of what the Temple might have looked like and how it all fits together. A metal frame at the end shows where the model of Mithras would have been.
To sum up…
The Mithraeum is amazing and well worth a visit. The display is great and well-organised, and the temple itself is very atmospheric. Don’t miss if you have any interest at all in the Roman history of London.
Address: 12 Walbrook, London, EC4N 8AA
Opening Hours: 10-6 Tues-Sat, 11-5 Sun (advance booking recommended)