At first glance the new hi-tech Bloomsburg HQ looked like an unlikely place to discover the remains of a building from the days of the Roman Empire.
Just a short stroll from Bank Tube Station at No 12 Walbrook (across the street from Starbucks) the London Mithraeum, one of the city’s newest museums, is located within this HQ building and is the home of the ancient Roman Temple of Mithras.
A vibrant tapestry and steel sculpture by artist Isabel Nolan, although interesting in its own right, might have been more appropriate at Tate Modern and felt a little unexpected at the entrance to this ancient place of worship.
Nevertheless, I was very curious to see what delights this slice of Roman Britain which had been described in it’s publicity material as an ‘immersive experience’, had to offer.
The Temple of Mithras has had a rather unfortunate time since its discovery on this site back in 1954 during post World War 2 excavations. Initially it was a huge attraction, capturing the imagination of the public and bringing an estimated 400,000 visitors to this part of the city. However, due to planned reconstruction of the area, it was decided that the temple should be dismantled. Sadly, for some years, this remarkable find languished in a builder’s yard. It was then reconstructed in 1962 on a street level roof of a car park on Queen Victoria Street where it remained unceremoniously sandwiched between ugly crazy paving.
As part of the terms for redevelopment of the site, Bloomsburg agreed to re-incorporate the Temple and happily it has again been reconstructed and returned to it’s original home on the banks of one of London’s lost rivers – the Walbrook.
For the purposes of this post, I’ve divided into the London Mithraeum exhibition into 3 areas and I shall explain a bit about my experience visiting each in the sections below.
Area One: Cabinet of Finds
Upon arrival, I received a short verbal introduction to the project with a small group of other visitors. I then had the opportunity to explore an amazing collection of artefacts which had been excavated in a large glass fronted cabinet. At this stage, each person is handed an i-pad which you use to click on the shape of each find to obtain more detailed information. Here are photos of just a few of the items that you can view in this display.
Area 2: Exploring The Beliefs And Rituals of Mithraism
It is believed that followers would wait in a separate darkened chamber before climbing down some steps to enter the temple and this area of the exhibition has recreated this atmosphere.
Information is obtained through 3 touch screen pedestals and recorded commentary by actress/presenter Joanna Lumley.
As the space is limited, your admission to the temple has to be in a timed slot, so you have the opportunity to take some time here to learn a bit about what you’re going to see until you’re given the go-ahead to enter the temple by the member of staff supervising the entrance.
The Cult of Mithras first appeared in Rome in the 1st century AD. Only men were permitted to join the Cult which mainly attracted merchants, soldiers and imperial administrators. Temples were often below ground, secluded, dark and windowless places. The iconic sculpture of the God Mithras killing a sacred bull – is known as the ‘Tauroctony’ (discovered in 1889) and is at the heart of the Cult (however, experts don’t believe that a bull was ever slayed in this particular temple). The 12 signs of the Zodiac encircle the central scene of Mithras slaying the bull and represent the cycle of a full year.
The men who met here made offerings to Mithras which they believed could assist them in their everyday lives. Initiation rituals and feasts gave the members a shared sense of identity and their own unique understanding of the world. The sculpted head of the God Mithras from AD200 was discovered during excavations in 1954. This find confirmed that a Mithraeum once stood on this site. The head was once part of a life-sized bull slaying scene which formed the focal point of the temple. Mithras (wearing a distinctive soft cap) is shown gazing away to the right of the bull and some scholars think that he may have been looking up to Sol, the Sun God, in search of approval or direction. Both the Tauroctony and the Sculpted Head of Mithras can be viewed in the Roman Gallery of the Museum of London.
Area 3: The Temple of Mithras
You enter the Temple area through some heavy curtains and it’s quite dark and hard to see at first. The room then gets slightly lighter, a back-lit representation of Mithras slaying the bull appears and in the background audio you can hear voices and Latin chanting. Cult members would have sat on timber benches on the higher side of the aisles enabling them to view the rituals being performed. The best view for visitors may be had on the raised platform near the entrance if you do not have too many people in front of you.
You are allowed to take photos without using a flash. Below are a few pics of the temple area.
Planning Your Visit and Pros/Cons
It is advisable to book your visit in advance online as slots are timed and there is no guarantee you will get in if you just turn up. Click here to make your booking. Tickets are FREE of charge.
London Mithraeum is more of an experience for the senses rather than a traditional museum. There are not loads of cabinets or information that you spend hours browsing – I only spent about an hour there altogether. You have a limited amount of time (approx 15 minutes) in the temple itself as your slot is timed, so it’s probably best to relax and try take in the atmosphere imagining what it would have been like to be a visitor to the temple in Roman times.
It’s well worth visiting but if you’re in London for the day, you could think about combining this activity with something else. A good idea might be to visit to The Museum of London – Roman Gallery (also FREE admission) where you can view some of the original sculptures which were found on the London Mithraeum site – Head of Serapis (God of the Underworld), Head of Minerva (Goddess of Wisdom), Neptune/River God, Roman God/Genius. I’ve posted some pics of these sculptures today on my Facebook page @middlesaxons.
In Area 2, at the time of my visit, I found it quite busy around the pedestals with everyone trying to get information on the temple at the same time, so found it better to sit on the long bench and listen to the commentary and then look more fully at the on-screen information in my own time after viewing the temple. If you decide to do this too, the disadvantage is that you won’t have such a broad overview of what you’re about to see so you might like to do a little research before your visit to get some background information.
If you would like to explore the story of the Roman occupation of Britain in a bit more detail, you might also like to take a day trip to the town of Colchester (known in Roman times as Camulodunum – which was the Roman capital of Britain).
Here you can walk around the Roman walls and visit Colchester Castle which was constructed on the foundations of the Roman Temple of Claudius. You can view the foundations of the temple on a guided tour of the Castle. In the Castle Museum you can learn more about the Roman occupation of the town and view their collection of finds from in and around the area – including the Colchester Mercury – see pic below.
The nearest tube stations to London Mithraeum are Bank or Mansion House.
Opening hours are:
Tuesday – Saturday 10.00 – 18.00
Sundays/Bank holidays 12.00 – 17.00
First Thursday of the month 10.00 – 20.00
Closed Mondays, Christmas & New Year bank holidays.
Nearest tube stations to Museum of London are Barbican or St Pauls.
Colchester is about an hour’s train journey from London Liverpool Street Station. You can book your train tickets in advance and get timetable details via National Rail Enquiries. The Visit Colchester website is a good source of information on the town and the Castle Museum website can provide details on tickets and opening hours.
Learn more about the London Mithraeum from this short You Tube Clip.