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The London Mithraeum

April 12, 2019

The Mithras sanctuary of London is one of the most well known remains of Londinium, the Roman city of London. The building has a fascinating history also in antiquity and in modern times, the last sequence of its biography was begun 1-2 years earlier, when the brand new EU headquarter of Bloomberg transformed the site into a new archaeological museum.

The story begins in the 1st century AD, when this area of Londinium was dominated by wooden houses, a very rich and crowded domestic insulae-system. The fascinanting remains – wooden structures, textiles, shoes and wooden tablets – were discovered in 2012-13 in this area of the Walbrook, an area dominated by the brook and a very instable soil. There are no evidences, that in this early period, a sanctuary was functioning here.

Around 240 AD a pater and its small Mithraic group founded a mithraeum in this area. The building itself was a large one, although not the biggest mithraic sanctuary as many claims nowadays.  It has a typical shape and internal structure, having two massive benches (podia), possibly with a colonade on them.  It is presumed, that the sanctuary was founded by a group, who probably moved from a previous sanctuary – form Britain or another province. This might explain the strange amount and consistence of the materiality of religion discovered here. The large head of Mithras – today in the Museum of London – and several pieces of a large tauroctony could be a composite statue with several reused material.

The sanctuary was functioning till the end of the 3rd century, when probably was replaced by a bacchium, a sacralised place dedicated to Liber Pater. Some studies proved, that the presence of the Cambodunum 306 type of pottery in this place shows a striking similarity with the Liber Pater shrine in Apulum, Dacia.

The sanctuary was later abandoned and forgotten, although this part of Londinium was inhabited already in the 7th century AD.

The site was constantly reused and rebuilt, even Thomas More had a house here.

In the 19th century, a beautiful, but small sized ex voto was discovered here, representing the tauroctony. The discovery indicated, that in this location might be a sanctuary, but there were no excavations in this period.

After the severe bombing of London in the II WW, the Walbrook area was rebuilt. In 1952-54 archaeologists discovered the Mithras sanctuary, which is officially named as the birth of Brittish public archaeology, a case study of how to promote urban archaeology in the postmodern era. It was also the beginning of the MOLA, the Museum of Archaeology of London, which later became an etalon in field urban archaeology and public archaeology too. So the discovery of the sanctuary had a huge impact in the promotion of London’s archaeological heritage too. It was the biggest Mithraic sanctuary  discovered in Britain and some of the finest Roman sculptures ever revealed here.

The site was later moved in a new, artificial place, later abandoned and less and less visited.

After 2013, the Bloomberg company bought this area of the city and revitalised the old site of the sanctuary, moving back the Roman site near the original place. It was a great  example of experimental archaeology and archaeological reconstructions too, although many of us might be sceptical also here, if this methodology is useful or not.

The museum itself is indeed, a great example of public archaeology: modern technologies helping the contemporary society to understand the Roman past through fascinating audio-visual effects. Unfortunately, the site is not much about the archaeological material – which is mostly remained in the Museum of London – but on the visualisation of religious experience, made with the help of several academics from the UK (R. Tomlin, R. Gordon, H. Bowden).

There is a nice collection of archaeological pieces discovered in 2012-13 from the 1st century AD period of the Walbrook area. The material from the excavations in 1954 however is not exposed. There are few photos about the excavation, and although the space is very generous and large, it is extremely empty and minimalist: I would imagine much more information on the discovery, a general introduction on Londinium, on the cult of Mithras, on Roman religion, ancient mobilities and so on. This might be replaced by a fantastic phone app, which presents the site and the archaeological material by voice and texts.

In the “pronaos” of the sanctuary, the visitor can see some nice monitors with photos on the Roman cult of Mithras, reliefs, complex Mithraic narratives. One of the examples are from Dacia, Apulum – mentioned strangely there as “Mures Port”, refering to the Marosportus or Partos, the former territory of Colonia Aurelia Apulensis.

Inside the sanctuary the visitor can experience a 10-15 minutes long “religious” initiation, with audio-visual effects, although without a proper introduction, few of the visitors can understand what the choir and the male voice of the pater is speaking (the texts are from Santa Prisca, Dura Europos and other literary sources, mentioning the known phrases of the initiations).

In conclusions: the place itself is beautiful, fascinating visual effects, but not much about archaeology. Definitely better than most of the archaeological sites one can visit, but maybe a bit more information would have been useful there.

 

 

 

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