On 1 May 2018, BSR Members and Ashby Patrons entered into the cult of Mithras at the London Mithraeum, an interactive museum lying deep below the new European headquarters of Bloomberg on the east side of the Walbrook. Director Sophie Jackson and Project Manager Louise Fowler from the Museum of London Archaeology kindly offered to take BSR Members on their very own private tour, with specialist insight from their time excavating and reconstructing the site.
Having descended the stairs to the original Roman street level and crossed the mezzanine, guests are beckoned into the temple space of the Mithraeum for their ‘initiation’ into the cult. Once inside, visitors are enveloped in mist, darkness and whispers. Latin lamentations grow louder as walls of light are built all around. Gradually, seven pairs of light beams fall in columns where they once lay as stone, each representing a different grade within the cult of Mithras. Not a sound of the living can be heard in the room as visitors are absorbed into the atmosphere with baited breath.
As the bodiless priest utters his last prayers, revelry replaces silence. The sound of music and dancing, of laughter and chatting, fills the space. An enlarged image of the tauroctony, Mithras killing a bull, stands centre stage in the former apse, and the full glory of the temple is exposed to waiting eyes. A slow meander around the temple’s periphery reveals small details of preserved wooden benches, a wooden well and temple stairs. The short time it takes makes one realise how small and intimate this temple really was. Male-only drinking underground, often naked, was likely to become ‘quite a pungent experience’, as Sophie Jackson put it. We were only grateful they had not added to the experience with scent!
Throughout the lobby, mezzanine and temple spaces, the experience of the cult holds true throughout. Instead of grasping for clichés to ‘pad-out’ the experience, design company Local Projects chose to emphasise key components of ritualistic activity associated with Mithras, such as light and astrology. Many mithraea were at least partly subterranean meaning one must descend into them, an experience you can replicate yourself at the Mithraeum today. Astrological images and figures dance across the mezzanine walls, iconography deliberately representing Mithraic themes of creation and humanity’s place in the universe.
Importantly, the tauroctony and Mithras’s head, now both on display at the Museum of London, are ever present as resin reconstructions, and help to remind us of the many lives of the London Mithraeum. From its conception around AD 240 and its abandonment in the 4th century AD, to its rediscovery in 1954 and subsequent relocation to Queen Victoria Street during the 1960s, all the way through to its final reconstruction at its former site of discovery, the Mithraeum has touched many lives and created many stories.
Today in its ever-evolving capacity, the influence of its current host, software company Bloomberg, contributes its own stamp in a non-invasive manner. Interactive kiosks allow visitors to explore both architectural and historical elements of the Mithraeum, while a wall of artefacts can be explored digitally with hand-held interactive tablets. This partial selection of the 14,000 artefacts found during excavations of the site is displayed in great beauty opposite an equally stunning contemporary art display (Isabel Nolan’s Another View from Nowhen, 8 November 2018–3 June 2018), strongly juxtaposing the old with the new. This, in addition to the immersive Mithraic experience throughout, marks this exhibition as a triumph of curation, technology and art carefully combined to bring back to life this most precious piece of British history.
Jessica Venner BSR Administrative Officer (Alumni and Events)
Photographs by Jessica Venner.