London: The Mithraeum

The London Mithraeum has been on my to-do list for a long time, but because Ancient Romans aren’t exactly a priority, I kept putting it off. But since I knew I’d be in the area anyway for a training course, and I was taking a trip to Rome the week following, I thought I might as well get myself in the mood by looking at some Roman ruins right here in London (I also made potato pizza al metro style, which is one of my favourite things to eat in Rome, but that was more because I had potatoes and slightly mouldy Gruyere to use up, and because you can never have too much pizza). Planning ahead with the Mithraeum is key, since they strongly encourage you to pre-book a free slot.

The Mithraeum is located in the Bloomberg building, which I was a little concerned about finding since the City is very easy to get lost in, but it is located right next to one of the many entrances to Bank Station and is clearly signposted outside. I arrived about twenty minutes early because my course had finished a bit sooner than anticipated, but I was welcomed right in (though I was asked for my ticket as soon as I walked through the door, so clearly they are serious about the pre-booking, even though it wasn’t busy at all when I was there), and given an introduction to the three floors of the space, which made it sound quite grand. The reality is a little bit different. The ground floor is meant to be the gallery space, though I really didn’t get the current installation at all, nor was there any explanation provided. It just seemed to be a load of bottles sitting on a tiled cube, with some tiled benches to one side that may or may not have been part of the installation.

The highlight of this section was definitely the big wall o’artefacts, actually a wall of Roman ruins excavated from the site, which were beautifully arranged and had a rack full of tablets next to them that you could pick up and use to learn more about each object. I’ve never seen shards of pottery referred to as “sherds” before, as they were here, but perhaps it’s an Anglicism I’m unfamiliar with (I asked my curator colleague about it at work, and she informs me that you come across it occasionally, but shard is more common now. I guess they’re more or less interchangeable, except in the case of the building. Maybe I’ll start calling it the “Sherd” just to be weird). Had I known how underwhelming the other floors would be, I might have spent more time studying the wall, but as it was, I only spent about five minutes looking at it before heading down to the mezzanine level.

This contained replicas of exactly three objects, each with a touch screen where you could learn more about it: the head of Mithras, the Tauroctony (a plaque with a bull on it, basically), and a replica of the original temple. Now seems like an appropriate time to get into the history of the site that I’ve been neglecting up til now. Basically, like pretty much everywhere in the Square Mile, this area was part of the original Londinium, Roman London. In 1952, a temple was discovered during the course of excavating a bomb site. This was the Mithraeum, a 3rd century temple dedicated to the god Mithras, who appears to have been known mainly for slaying a bull. Not much is known about the Cult of Mithras, except for it was men-only and probably involved drinking in some capacity, but it was certainly popular, as 100 different Mithraea have been discovered all over the former Roman Empire. The one in London was dismantled in 1954 and reconstructed in a different site, but when Bloomberg bought the original site in 2010, they agreed to move the temple roughly back to where it was discovered, which is where it is today.

They clearly have tried to turn the Mithraeum into a bit more of an experience than what is merited by what is actually here. They only let people in every twenty minutes to the actual ruins, so you just have to hang out in the dark mezzanine area with the three illuminated objects in the meantime, which is why I regretted not spending more time on the ground level. Once you are actually inside, you experience, as they call it, “an ephemeral installation,” aka some sound and light effects: hazy light and a recording of some men mumbling in Latin. The lights gradually come up so you can actually view the ruins, which are underwhelming at best, but that is what I tend to think about all ruins. I was wondering whether I had to stay in here for the whole twenty minutes, because I’d more than finished with the ruins after about three (there being nothing to read within the temple itself), when some guy came out and told us a bit more about the site. Apparently 80% of the ruins are original, and 20% are a reconstruction, which I assume includes the metal figure of Mithras and a bull in the middle of the altar. Fortunately, after he finished talking, people started to leave, so I felt free to make my escape too.

As I always feel when something is free, I can’t complain overmuch, but the word “underwhelming,” which I’ve already used at least twice in this post, is the main thing that comes to mind. Apparently the old site wasn’t much visited, and I think they’ve tried to jazz it up a little to make it more of an attraction, but there’s only so much you can do with ruins. I suppose if they’d tried to get more artefacts in they could have made more out of it, but most of those, including ones found on the site (other than what’s on the display wall) are now housed at the Museum of London. So I’ll give it 2/5. It’s nice that they’ve tried to preserve it, and maybe people who actually like the Romans (not me, though Mary Beard tries her best (and to be fair to her, her programmes are interesting, I’m just not motivated to learn more after I finish watching them)) will get more out of it, but I certainly wasn’t thrilled.

 

 

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10 comments

  1. Nice post. The ones you enjoy the least seem to be the best to read about! As for the shard vs sherd issue, I’ve seen both too but sherd would probably be the posh way of saying it. The display wall looks cool, though.

  2. Not been here, but there is a Mithraeum in Northumberland which I was very familiar with growing up. The sort of place you stopped for 5 minutes on the way to more substantial Roman ruins. I looked it up just now to check if it was as I remembered and I see English Heritage says “Please be aware: Farm livestock is likely to be present.” Presumably not a problem in London!

  3. I’m glad I’m not the only one to excise the mold and make the best of the rest!😉 As for shard vs. sherd: if I recall correctly, my colleague on the cultural resources side of the business says that shards are bits of rock or glass, sherds are bits of pottery.

    I’m usually underwhelmed by ruins, too, so I get your point entirely..

  4. What on earth could that installation be about? With apologies to whoever created it, it looks pretty lame. The bottles and vases, or whatever they are, look like ‘80s junk from a Miami Vice set. But the artifact wall is a lot of fun. Too bad the actual Mithraeum was a meh.
    I’ve come across “sherd” before and it is odd. It’s like oriented and orientated. Why did that happen?

    1. Ugh, I don’t know. It was bad. Yeah, oriented and orientated is another weird one. I’ve started exclusively using orientated, because British people don’t seem to recognise oriented as a word, but I’m pretty sure they’re both valid.

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