Sophie Campbell



One for the boys: Mithraeum

November 1, 2017
Isabel Nolan's Mithraeum tapestry 'Another View from Nowhen' SC

They found it on the last day of the dig. Out of a bombsite in the City of London, just before rebuilding began in 1954, emerged the head of a young man carved in Carrara marble, with raised eyes and parted mouth. On his luxuriant curly hair sat a pointed cap that told the wartime archaeologist William Grimes that he was Mithras, focus of a bull-slaying cult popular with soldiers and administrators across the Roman Empire.

The find was significant enough to buy the dig more time, allegedly because Winston Churchill saw the picture in the papers. The head and other Mithraic artefacts are still in the Museum of London today. But the temple, dating to around AD220, the middle of the Roman occupation of Britain, was bunged on the side of a busy road.

Fast-forward to 2013 when Michael Bloomberg, the news and financial information billionaire and former mayor of New York City, was negotiating for an entire block by Walbrook on which to build his new European HQ. The company agreed to fund a dig and conservation by MoLA, the Museum of London’s Archaeology department.

600 objects from the MoLA dig SC

Last week, the subterranean temple reopened, yards from its original site, as a free-to-access public museum beneath the £1.2bn Bloomberg Building. And it’s a class act.

It’s divided into three sections, timed to coincide with a mini-light and sound show in the temple site, 30 feet below the surface, which takes places every 20 minutes.

At ground level is Bloomberg SPACE, currently showing a dazzling woollen tapestry of the City’s archaeology by Isabel Nolan (see above), and a vitrine containing, with admirable restraint, just 600 of the thousands of finds unearthed at the site. Visitors use iPads to identify the earliest written reference to London, pairs of tweezers, a baby’s ceramic feeding bottle, shoes, jewellery, trinkets and tools. Everyday life, 2000 years ago.

Stairs clad in black marble etched with a timeline descend into the gloom, where Perspex versions of the Mithraic artefacts found in the 1950s occupy three interactive pedestals that you can use to find out more about the masculine cult and its rituals, which involved blood sacrifice and feasting.

Interactive image of Mithras slaying the bull SC

Then, the temple itself. It’s almost entirely dark at first, with the subtlest of light and sound effects: visitors stroll around a space about the size of an elongated squash court, with laser light ‘walls’ and a semi-circular image of Mithras at the far end. Men’s voices can be heard to one side, feasting, drinking and networking.

It’s extraordinary that this mysterious building has made its reappearance beneath modern London – and what luck that Bloomberg had the money and the passion to do it in such style, and then open it free.

  • The London Mithraeum is open 10am to 6pm Tuesday to Saturday, 12pm to 5pm Sunday, 10am to 8pm first Thursday of the month. Entry is free but you do need to book. Also visit the Museum of London, where you can see the original Mithraic finds.
Restored Mithraeum with laser ‘walls’ SC

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Contact Sophie or check availability via the links or see Guild of Registered Tourist Guides or Association of Professional Tourist Guides.

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Sophie Campbell

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