A journey underground with Tom Holland to discover London Mithraeum
Back in the early years of the century, when my children were at primary school, I would volunteer my services to their classes as a guide round Roman London. Once every year, we would head in a long crocodile from Trajan’s statue at Tower Hill to the leather bikini in the Museum of London, taking in the sights en route. What the children most loved, I came to realise, was going underground. Whether it was plunging into the bowels of the hairdresser’s in Leadenhall Market to gawp at the last surviving fragment of the basilica, or down into a car park to inspect a chunk of the Roman wall, there was nothing they enjoyed more than the sense that the past lay directly under their feet.
This was why the 60s reconstruction of the Mithraeum invariably struck them as a bit of a disappointment. Marooned forlornly on Queen Victoria Street, it looked more like a front patio than the scene of ancient mysteries and secrets. No matter how much I tried to bring it to life by telling my listeners about slaughtered bulls and peculiar rituals, it resolutely refused to come back to life. Eventually I cut it out of the tour altogether. The effort of getting the children to the Mithraeum was simply not worth their inevitable disappointment.
How easy now, though, the task of any tour guide taking children round Londinium! It is surely impossible for anyone, old or young, not to be grateful that the Mithraeum has been moved back underground, and given a setting that vastly enhances what was missing from its former location: a sense of what it might actually have been like. The atmospheric use of light and water haze cleverly brings home to visitors the inevitably opaque state of what we actually know about mithraea – but it also makes play with darkness in a way that we know was indeed characteristic of the Mithras cult.
No less wondrous, though, are the fragments of Roman London garnered from the Walbrook – “the best place in the UK for archaeologists to work”! – and which have been beautifully exhibited by the head of the stairs which lead down to Mithras. Included in the display is the oldest known document in the entire history of London: a wooden tablet that has been dated to AD 57. Fittingly for a treasure located below floors and floors crowded with financial analysts, it is about the one subject that has always kept London ticking: money. Pecunia obediunt omnia…
Read more about London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE and MOLA’s contribution to this fabulous reconstruction on our blog or download the free Archaeology at Bloomberg book. Book your visit at www.londonmithraeum.com.
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