Margaret, interviewee for the Temple of Mithras oral history project

Lasting impressions: the Temple of Mithras

Clare Coyne

Oral Historian Clare Coyne has been working on the Temple of Mithras oral history project and tells us about some of the people she's met...

As the oral history project about the Temple of Mithras discovery in 1954 draws to a close, the sum of interviews recorded is almost thirty. Just over one hundred people have now made contact with the project, each one bringing their own unique memory about their visit to the excavation site, or in some cases a relevant piece of information or ephemera that has been handed down to them.

The sixty year anniversary of the Roman find in post-war London – when people had barely finished queuing for rations and the cityscape was one of bombsites overgrown with willowherb – has prompted responses from a typically global 21st century audience. Following the BBC either abroad or at home, browsing websites or talking with friends and family, people from around the world as well as across the country have been in touch: an archaeology academic based in Ankara; a woman long-since emigrated to Australia who visited the site with her uncle, then Group Planning Officer for London County Council; the daughter of a employee of the construction firm working on the site, now living in Spain.

Closer to home, we have heard from a lady from Holm Firth who remembers scurrying to the site on 18th September with her journalist husband who was hungry for the latest scoop; a London cab driver who moved to Hertfordshire many years ago; and also W F Grimes’ widow, living just outside Swansea.

This list raises the merest nod to the range and number of people who have been in touch. There have been several common threads, however, not least the wonder of experiencing history on the doorstep:

  “It was the first time anything like that had been found in the City of London, it was something unique, nobody had seen anything like it before, not in London. To find a temple almost intact under the streets of London was quite extraordinary”, Martin Baker, born 1939, union worker.

Another theme concerns how the sight of the muddy temple ruins on a damp autumnal day triggered an interest in archaeology that endured a lifetime. For some this lead to successful careers in the field:

  “In 1954 I was a 14 year old school boy…I knew nothing about archaeology…I joined the queue of thousands of people…then the walk around the site and I thought this was amazing, the discoveries were incredible…then I got the thrilling opportunity of digging on the site so I went back…and it was an hour and half before I found the corner of a Roman well…this was my first day on what was to be a career in archaeology”, Peter Marsden, born 1940, archaeologist.

For so many people we have interviewed, the discovery of a complete Roman temple in the midst of the post-war rubble embodied the resilience of London and its people and offered hope for the future:

  “It was quite grim going up to London in those days... so much was broken and still not being cleared away and then out of the bombing of that building had come really the miracle of discovering this temple...and from that point of view it's not surprising at all it really caught the public imagination because here was something really exciting coming out of something really find a haven't got just one end of a've actually got the whole layout of this temple.” Diana Van Rooyen, born 1939, research psychologist & lecturer.

Comments like these reveal something of the joy we have experienced whilst gathering memories for the project.

  • Mithras
  • From the experts
  • Roman
  • Research
  • Community project
  • Placemaking

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