Thursday, December 14, 2017

Ten Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About London’s Mithraeum

by author Caroline Lawrence

Sophie Jackson, Catharine Edwards, Fiona Haarer & Michael Marshall
A few days ago I went to see London’s Mithraeum, recently reopened in the basement of Bloomberg’s new building. I’m fairly jaded by museums and wasn’t expecting anything special, but it was great. Coming up out of the ‘experience’ I ran into Sophie Jackson and Michael Marshall of MOLA – two of the archaeologists responsible for the display – along with Catharine Edwards, Professor of Classics and Ancient History from Birkbeck College and lecturer Fiona Haarer of the Roman Society. Although I am one of MOLAs archaeology ambassadors, I had booked the normal way and our meeting was totally serendipitous. Chatting with them, I learned a couple of facts which I share below, along with a few other things you might not know. 

I do urge you to go and I hope this short list enhances your experience!

1. Exit 8. It’s easiest to reach London’s Mithraeum via Bank station exit 8. If you’re coming from Waterloo just get the Waterloo & City line. One stop is all it takes. Exit via the travelator and when it ends make a sharp left to reach Exit 8 which now has London Mithraeum added at the bottom of a list of landmarks. Go up the stairs to street level and continue straight ahead for less than 200 meters, passing the Starbucks on your left. You’ll see entrance to the Mithraeum on your right. It’s on the ground floor of Bloombergs brand new European headquarters. It doesn’t look like a Mithraeum from here; it looks like a modern art gallery because it is a modern art gallery called SPACE. N.B. As of 2019, you can take the brand new Walbrook Exit and emerge literally next door to the entrance!

2. Dead Time. Entry to London’s Mithraeum is free but you have to book a visit. They won’t just let you roll up. But sometimes if you roll up at their ‘dead time’ of 3pm they might let you in. N.B. Never show up on Monday, when the exhibition is closed. 

3. Three Parts. Like Gaul, the London Mithraeum is divided into three parts. The first part is in the art gallery reception where a guide will give you a Samsung tablet and point you at a modular wall displaying around six hundred roman artefacts all found within a few metres of where you are standing. Tap the outline of an object on your tablet and up comes a superb hi-res image of the artefact. Swipe right and find a line or two about what it is in a nice big, easy-to-read font. Why do you need a tablet when you can just look? Because some of the pieces are quite high up and/or small, and the imagery is superb. 

4. Special Glass. The piece of glass in front of the modular display of Roman objects is state-of-the-art. According to Sophie Jackson, Director and Archaeologist at MOLA, (Museum of London Archaeology), it is the biggest piece of glass you can get of that thickness and with the non-reflective properties. Hidden hinges on the left allow the slab of glass to swing open so that the modular displays can be regularly updated. 

5. Lucky Amulet. The tiniest object in the modular display wall is an amulet of amber shaped like a gladiator’s helmet. It is minuscule, about the size of your little fingernail. According to Michael Marshall, Senior Finds Specialist at MOLA, it was put in a day before we were there, replacing a less sexy pair of tweezers. Michael also told us that this tiny object was spotted by an archaeologist the old-fashioned way, with the naked eye. (Near the amulet is the famous LONDINIO tablet, also recently added by popular demand.) 

6. Go Down to Go Back. Someone at MOLA or Bloomberg had the very clever idea of showing how you have to descend to go back in time. As you go down the black marble stairs you see what the ground level would have been for important moments in Londons history such as the WWII bombing level and the Great Fire of 1666. There is a similar graphic on the back of the elevator. The Temple of Mithras dates from about 240 AD, almost 200 years after Londinium was first established. 

7. Famous Actress Joanna Lumley narrates some of the commentary on the mezzanine level, which is the second part of the experience where ‘clues to what form the cult took are explored in light and sound.’ Listen to the commentary as you watch a ghostly light show on the walls. 

8. Please Touch. You are allowed to touch the three resin casts: the head of Mithras, a tondo with inscription and a 3-D plan of the temple. As a cheerful guide named May explained to me: The exhibition is meant to be touchy-feely!’ The head of the mysterious god Mithras with its distinctive Persian cap was found in 1954 on what was intended to be the last day of excavation of just one of hundreds of bomb-exposed sites in London. Planned building on the site was halted so that the Mithraeum could be excavated and eventually removed to another site. Bloomberg and MOLA have brought it back to exactly the place it was originally found. 

Get Well card by Roman glassmaker David Hill
9. Just Theories. Don’t swallow the written explanations or spoken commentaries whole. Our understanding of this mysterious cult is changing all the time. We don’t really know what they did at these ceremonies. We don’t even know if Mithras was actually killing the bull or just wounding it. In a recent article, scholar Christopher Faraone claims the word ‘tauroctony (i.e. bull-slaying scene) is a nice-sounding Greek noun that appears nowhere in Mithraic inscriptions or literary testimonia and in fact nowhere in ancient Greek. JRS 103, pp 1-21 

10. The Experience. The third and final part of London’s Mithraeum is an ‘experience’ on the site of the ruins themselves. I don’t want to spoil it for you but it involves sound, light and mist. And although it was one of the coldest days of the year this underground space was comfortably warm.
There is a superb free guide to the history of London as revealed in the Archaeology at Bloomberg co-produced by MOLA. You can download it HERE. (Spoiler alert: There are some images in the final pages of the brochure which might spoil the third part of the experience.) 

You can also get an interactive guide to the wall of artefacts on your smartphone or tablet by going to

Bravo to Bloomberg, MOLA and Foster + Partners Architects! You did a great job. 

Book your FREE tickets to the Mithraeum HERE