Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Interactive Mithras by Caroline Lawrence

The evening of Thursday 17 May 2018, just over a week from the date of this post, is your chance to meet me, Caroline Lawrence. I will be welcoming children (and their guardians) to an ancient Roman underground temple: London’s Mithraeum. This is the first #MuseumsAtNight session at the Mithraeum which only opened to the public last year. 

I am honoured to have been invited and will be doing some fun interactive activities to prepare kids aged 8-13 for the Mithraeum’s Immersive ExperienceThere will be four separate sessions, each lasting about half an hour. 

To brainstorm ideas for a new book I am writing called Ways to Die in Londinium, I will be trying to recreate some of the sensations of being a worshipper of Mithras. 

This will be difficult in one sense. Mithraism was a Mystery Cult which means that lots of its rites and rituals were purposely kept secret, like a secret club. 

On the flip side of the coin, because we know so little, we can play around with various ideas based on the evidence and what we think we know. 

Here’s my script for what I hope to say:

First you need to know THREE BASIC THINGS.

Who Was Mithras? 


We think that Mithras was a new god created out of different older gods. This is called syncretism and is something the Greeks and Romans often did to link cultures together. Serapis was a blend of Dionysus, Hades, Osiris and Apis for Greeks in Egypt. Sulis Minerva linked a Roman god to a British deity. Mithras was certainly partly inspired by the Persian god Mithra (no ‘s’) and a creation story involving the stabbing of a cosmic bull. The Greek goddess of victory – Nike – is sometimes shown stabbing a bull. Mithras wore distinctive Persian clothes, which happens to be the same thing the Trojans wore, a long-sleeved tunic over leggings and the famous Persian cap which looks like a Smurf hat. He also has a billowing cloak, a dagger and sometimes a bow and arrow. Mithras looks a lot like Paris, the Trojan who started the Trojan War and killed Achilles by firing a poisoned arrow into his heel. 

What Did Worshippers Want?

The worshippers of Mithras wanted part of themselves to live forever. They may have believed that a series of initiations took the soul on a journey whose goal was immortality. There is lots of evidence for seven grades of achievement. Why seven? Because the Greeks and Romans believed in seven planets: the five they could see and also the sun and moon. They thought each ‘planet’ and the god who went with it ruled a sphere, or a ‘heaven’. So when you reached the highest level you were in the seventh heaven. One ancient document encourages the worshippers to say ‘stella sum’ or ‘I am a star.’ I wonder if they imagined the soul getting purer and purer as it rises through the grades until it is a little twinkling star, looking down on earth and waiting go into another body. (Yes, Mithraists probably believed in reincarnation) But, like every journey, there is often a battle or an ordeal. Each time a follower of Mithras wanted to go to a higher grade he had to go through a scary initiation.  

What’s with the bull?


If the cross is the symbol of Christianity, this very complicated and mysterious image of Mithras stabbing a bull is the symbol of Mithraism. It’s called a ‘tauroctony’ (tar-AWK-tony) which is Greek for ‘bull-slaying’, though that word never appeared in ancient times and we’re not even sure he was actually killing a bull. People have written whole books about the ‘tauroctony’ but for now just know that some of them have the signs of the zodiac around it, along with two men holding torches. The signs of the zodiac are linked to planets of course and the guys with torches might be guarding the gates to the heavens. The one with his torch up ushers the soul in its upward journey towards the stars. The one with his torch down is showing the immortal soul the way back down to a mortal body.  

Did you notice I keep saying ‘men’? That’s because, unlike almost every other religion known to us, Mithraism was for men only. So the first thing I will do is to give all you girls a sex change and grow you up real fast. Imagine you are a Roman man, probably a soldier. 

Next, I will assign you your grades or levels. As I said, there are seven. The avatars are Raven, Bridegroom, Soldier, Lion, Persian, Sun-Runner and Father. Each has its own ruling planet and the god who goes with that planet. They each had their own attributes. And each probably had a special colour and sound. 

Who wants to be a Raven?

You get a black wristband. You are the lowest and possibly most common grade. You are under the protection of the planet/god Mercury. Your code name is Corax. Several accounts talk of Ravens flapping their arms and making a ‘cawing’ noise. Everybody flap your arms and make a cawing noise!

Who want to be a Bridegroom?

Your attributes are a lamp and a garland. You get a yellow wristband. Bridegrooms are under the protection of the planet/goddess Venus. Your code name is Nymphus. The sound you made might have been ‘Yo!’ which was the ancient equivalent of ‘Yay!’


Who wants to be a Soldier?

You get an orange wristband because the soldier’s colours were red and yellow and when you mix red or yellow you get… orange! Soldiers were under the protection of the planet/god Mars. Your code name is Miles (MEE-layz). The sound you made might have been ‘Sin dex!’ Or maybe you just stomped. Everybody stomp and say Sin dex, which is short for sinister, dexter or ‘left, right’!


Who wants to be a Lion?

Lions get a red wristband. You were under the protection of the planet/god Jupiter. Your code name is Leo for one and Leones for more than one. Leonibus means ‘to or for the lions’ and you will hear it in the salutation ‘Nama, leonibus!’ or ‘Hail to the lions!’ No prizes for guessing the sound ‘Lions’ made! Everybody roar!


Who wants to be a Persian?

You get a white wristband because of your protective planet. Any guesses? Yes, the moon. Of course you know the moon isn’t a planet, but the Mithraists counted it as one. Your code name is Persis. Nobody has a clue what sound the Persians made but we know that sometimes worshippers made vowel sounds like Aahh, Eh, Ayyy, Eeee, Oh, Oooh, Ohhh because each planet had its own vowel: alpha, epsilon, eta, iota, omicron, upsilon & omega! So maybe the Persian made a vowel sound mentioned in one papyrus text: Or maybe they purred like a Persian cat. Everybody purr!


The sixth grade is very mysterious and we think very few people reached this level. Who wants to be a Sun-Runner?

 You get a gold wristband. You are under the protection of the ‘planet’ Sol, the sun! Your god is ‘Sol’ in Latin and ‘Helios’ in Greek. Your code name is Heliodromus. Your attributes are a torch, a crown with rays like the statue of the sun god (the Statue of Liberty wears a sun crown) and a whip. Why a whip? Because the sun was often imagined driving a fiery chariot. What sound did you make? Perhaps a whip-crack, or maybe a neigh! Everybody whinny! Now everybody say ‘Nama, Heliodromis!’ Which means ‘Hail to the Sun-Runners!’

The seventh and highest grade was the Father. 

Their colour was the purple of royalty so you get a purple wristband. But there was only one for each Mithraeum. So only one of you can be Father. Fathers were under the protection of the planet/god Saturn. Their code name is Pater. Their sound might have been ‘Hey, you kids! Get off my lawn.’ (joke!) Now everybody say ‘Nama, patri, tutela Saturni.’ Which means ‘Hail to the father, under the protection of Saturn.’

(If you want to see all the chants in Latin and English go HERE


You’re about to go down into the Mithraeum for the Immersive Experience. The word mithraeum has not yet been found, but we do know they said ‘Cave of Mithras’. They called it this because the temple was designed to look like a cave. In Roman times you had to go down seven steps, (natch!) into a dark space mysteriously lit by torches. Today you have to go seven meters below street level, because you usually go down to go back in time.

Because this temple was restored to almost the exact position it occupied in Roman London, I had an idea that it would be the perfect spot for a time portal. When you go to another time, it’s like beaming to a planet in Star Trek. You don’t want to beam into a wall or ceiling. So, if you want to travel to Roman London in the mid third century, the Mithraeum is the perfect place to put a portable portal. (Say that three times quickly!)

The premise for my work-in-progress is this: When 12-year-old London schoolboy Alex Papas is recruited by eccentric bazillionaire Solomon Daisy to go back to Roman London, his mission is to get information about a mysterious blue-eyed girl whose bones were discovered in a cemetery in Southwark. But things go wrong almost from the start and when Alex finds the girl he is totally unprepared for what happens next.

Now I will read a chapter from Ways to Die in Londinium!

To hear the chapter and participate in Carolines interactive Mithras experience, book your FREE place HERE. There will be four slots between 6pm and 8pm. Each will last about half an hour each: my talk plus the Immersive Experience!

P.S. Ten Fun Things About London's Mithraeum.   


Friday, January 12, 2018

Interview with a Roman Sewer Expert

A few years ago I interviewed Erica Rowan, an archaeobotanist who has excavated Roman sewers around the world. Erica grew up in Toronto and studied Classics and Health Science at McMaster University in Canada, graduating with both a BA and BHSc. She then read for an MSt in Classical Archaeology at Oxford and was later awarded a DPhil in Archaeology, also from Oxford, with a specialisation in Roman archaeology and archaeobotany. In September 2014 she took up the two year post of Leventis Associate Research Fellow at the University of Exeter and then spent a year at Exeter as a teaching fellow. She is now a lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London


exhibition poster from 2015
I first met Erica at the Corinium Museum in May of 2015 when she participated in a fascinating exhibition called Food for Thought. Wanting to know more about Roman eating and toilet habits, I lured her to an interview in London by promising lunch in the members room of the British Museum. The interview took place in October 2015, but ancient toilets and sewers never go out of fashion so I thought I would post a slightly edited transcript as a New Years Treat. 

Caroline: So, Erica, you’re an archaeobotanist, which basically means you study plant remains and especially food remains. Are you happy to be doing sewers? Is it quite fun?

Erica: It is quite fun. You get to see what people actually ate. 

Caroline: Is being an archaeobotanist a separate thing from being a ‘poopologist’? Or are they essentially the same career description? 

Erica (laughs): They’re slightly different. Human waste only survives in limited number of contexts; latrines, sewers and the like. Archaeobotanical remains, and especially carbonized material, tends to preserve at almost all sites. 

Caroline: You’ve been on digs at Aphrodisias in Turkey, Herculaneum in Italy and Utica in Tunisa, a Phoenician site. So what were the Phoenicians eating? 


A New York Sandwich... with pepper! 
Waiter (interrupting): One New York sandwich and one Middle Eastern Salad. 

Caroline (laughs): I’m the Middle Eastern Salad. 

Erica: And I’m the New York Sandwich. 

Caroline (looking at the newly arrived platter): So which of these things would the Phoenicians have been eating in Utica, in Tunisia? 

Erica: Not potatoes, tomatoes or cauliflower. 

Caroline: But they might have had a balsamic vinaigrette? And chicken?

Erica: Yes. Chicken, bacon, cheese… But the earliest material I have from Utica is Roman, not Phoenician.

Caroline: Ah! What sort of remains tell you it’s Roman? Fragments of fish sauce jars for example? 

Erica: No, we dated the site from the context. Its hard to tell Roman influence from food remains because the whole Mediterranean had the same staple foods. 

Caroline: What do you mean by staples? Is fish sauce a staple?

Erica: A staple food would be anything they depended on. In the Mediterranean the three main staples are grains, wine and olive oil. 

Caroline: Is there any evidence of food fads?


Erica: Not in Utica, but in Herculaneum black pepper was very popular. The people eating it were not necessarily upper class but they were willing to pay. It comes all the way from India so is expensive. 

Caroline: So it was a status symbol. 

Erica: Yes. 

Caroline: Speaking of black pepper, may I grind you some? And smile! I’m taking a picture. 

(Erica laughs and submits to having her photo taken.)

Caroline: So what got you interested in Classics? What was your spur moment?

Erica: My friend made me go see Gladiator and I really liked it, although it’s not historically accurate... Also, we were studying the Romans in high school. 

Caroline: Fun! So Tell me a bit about being an archaeologist. Are you out in the sun and the rain? Under a tent? Or is it mainly lab work in a basement?

Erica: It depends on the site. If it’s a small section I’ll excavate it myself. When I was in Aphrodisias I excavated a section of a drain. 

Caroline: With a trowel and everything?

Erica: Yes. I take my samples and then do flotation and process them on site.

Caroline: Flotation?


Erica: It’s a method used to identify plant remains using buckets of water and sieves. You put the material in agitated water. The soil and sand sink but seeds, grains and lighter objects float to the surface. 

Caroline: What did you find at Aphrodisias? The staples? Anything remarkable? 

Erica: I’ve found wheat and barley, and also grapes, olives and peaches.

Caroline: Do you remember your first dig? 

Erica: I was in Jordan for seven weeks. It was an amazing experience. The site was Humayma, about an hour north of Aqaba, and very dry. There were about a dozen of us from Queen’s University on this particular dig. 

Caroline: Describe an average day?

Erica: We would drive up there every day. We would get up at 5.30 am, pile into a minibus at 6am and get to the site around 7am. We were working with Bedouin. They would make us extremely sweet black tea when we arrived. It was really good. Then we would dig until about 10am and stop for breakfast, cooked in a frying pan over a file kindled by the Bedouin. I was excavating part of a bath complex.

Caroline: What did you eat for breakfast?

Erica: They would bring fresh flat bread baked by their mothers or wives. And we would bring food, too: canned tomatoes, corned beef and peas. They would heat the food in frying pans over a kindling fire and we ate it with the fresh flatbread. Then we would dig again until 1pm when we finished for the day. We would go back, have lunch, sort and wash the pottery and then leave it on the roof of the building to dry. Once that was done you had the rest of the afternoon free. 

Caroline: What was Aqaba like? 

Erica: It’s not too big. A fort town. Pretty modern but with a few old buildings including a fort and giant flagpole. I really liked it. I liked Tunisia, too. 

Caroline: When were you in Tunisia? What period was the site?

Erica: The site was Utica, so about 30 minutes outside Tunis. It was a Punic, then Roman, then Islamic site. I was there from 2013 to 2015. 

Caroline: I love going to places like that. Sometimes I think it’s the closest we’ll get to travelling back to the past. 

Erica: In Tunisia you go to these outdoor barbecues in a big group and they cook freshly slaughtered meat for you. If you drive past at a certain part of the day you often see an animal they’ve slaughtered just hanging there. There’s no blood so they must have drained it before they hang it outside underneath a tent. They put the head on display. There are often live sheep tethered to the tent near where they cook the meat. 


preparing to slaughter a ram in Morocco 2006
Caroline: A dozen years ago my husband and I saw a ram slaughtered, inflated, skinned and dismembered at a Berber village outside Marrakech, Morocco all in the space of about half an hour. It was like a scene out of the Old Testament: Genesis book 22, the binding of Isaac. There was a thorn thicket and everything.

Polite Woman (interrupting):  I wonder if we might borrow your salt and pepper; we seem to be in rather short supply.  

Caroline (laughs): Sure. Here’s our luxurious pepper. And salt. 
(to Erica) Have you ever been on a dig here in Britain? 

Erica: Yes. An Iron Age and Roman site called Marcham near Oxford. It was a rural sanctuary site. 

Caroline: What did you notice about the diet there? 

Erica: Cereal and chaff. I was doing flotation. In the Iron Age, people were bringing their crops and processing them there. 

Caroline: When you process grain its like a biblical threshing floor, correct?

Erica: Yes. You often find burnt chaff nearby, which shows it was used for kindling. 

Caroline: Did they dedicate some of it the grain after threshing? Or just take it back home? 

Erica: They ate it.

Caroline: What evidence do we have for a Roman presence at Marcham?

Erica: There were a lot of oysters, even though Marcham is quite far from the coast. Experts can tell which coast an oyster comes from by the markings on its shell. 

Caroline: What’s the most memorable revelation you’ve had digging through sewage material? 

Erica: The diversity of their diet. That particular sewer at Herculaneum served Romans from the lower and middle classes. It was below an apartment building with shops at ground level and people living behind and above. There were a few independent apartments on the upper floor, but nothing elite. From that one sewer we catalogued 114 different types of food including fish, shellfish and plants but not including other animal meat. They didn’t seem to have any food taboos; privately they would just eat anything. It’s often assumed the poor would eat cheap bread and wine but they’re eating a huge variety of things, and seasoning their food with dill, coriander, fennel…


Magna Roma menu cover
Caroline: sometimes when you read their recipes they really seem to overdo it, with up to a dozen spices. I once ate at a short-lived restaurant called Magna Roma near the Colosseum in Rome. The owner tried to replicate authentic Roman dishes. But the food tasted so strange that the restaurant folded after just a few years.  

Erica: Some friends and I tried to recreate some Roman dishes and I think it’s actually more like Asian than modern Italian food. 

Caroline: Yes! They say that garum is more like Thai Fish Sauce than like Worcestershire Sauce. It’s pretty revolting.

Erica: The fish sauce is essentially salt because they didn’t add salt. And although there were often lots of spices the quantities were quite small, so the taste was hidden. My friends and I made a lentil dish with chestnuts, honey, red-wine vinegar, and Thai Fish Sauce. Within those ingredients you can’t identify any one thing. It’s a good holiday dish for winter. Feed it to people and don’t tell them what they’re eating. Then afterwards you can mention it had fish sauce in it! 

Caroline: It sounds delicious!

Erica (nodding): We also made a dish of pork and figs. We boiled the figs to make syrup and then cook the pork in that. It was the moistest piece of pork I have ever had. 

Caroline: Fascinating. They found an ancient Roman amphora in the Thames full of olives preserved in sweet grape syrup!

Erica: Columella talks about olives in honey and how it’s both salty and sweet. 

Caroline: That would be such an alien taste.
Erica: When you cook these dishes it doesn’t taste like anything you’ve tasted before. 

Caroline: Thanks for sharing all that, Erica. Do you have a photo of you on a site that I could post?

Erica: Sure... 

Thanks, Erica, for letting me post this interview. Good luck in your future adventures and research!