Jaunt to the London Mithraeum

Jaunt to the London Mithraeum.

Inside the London Mithraeum
The London Mithraeum

My cousin, Dave, and I went on a hunt for Roman remains in London some time ago and on our list of must-sees, was the London Mithraeum (click here to read about that particular jaunt). Unfortunately, although we saw some wonderful things, the Mithraeum wasn’t one of them because we couldn’t find it. That puzzled me because I knew I’d already seen it and it had been visible from the street.

Dave, however, discovered that the ruins had been moved into Bloomberg’s European Headquarters so, on the day we reserved places on our tour of Stationers’ Hall (click here to read about that jaunt) we also booked to see the Mithraeum.

If you’d like to visit, you need to reserve a slot (click here for details on the Mithraeum and for booking information) although the tickets are free. And even if you don’t book, it’s well worth a look on the Mithraeum website for some fascinating images showing the discovery of the temple and stone head of the god, Mithras, in 1954.

The entry is in Walbrook, EC4N 8AA and once inside, visitors can see a large wall covered in artefacts which were found in or near the site. Digital tablets give information about each object and my favourite, was a wooden writing tablet and stylus (AD 57). At one time, the wooden tablet had been filled with black wax and letters were scratched into this with the iron stylus which was inlaid with copper alloy decoration. If the writer pushed too hard into the wax with the stylus, it scratched the wooden tablet, leaving an imprint of the letters. This appears to have happened with this artefact, turning it into the oldest commercial record of a transaction in the City of London. It’s dated January 8th AD 57 and acknowledges the debt of one freedman to another.

Over the centuries, many of the artefacts were protected by the mud of the Walbrook and are in excellent condition, such as the leather open-work shoe (AD 70-125) and the pottery whose glaze is still shiny as if it had been made in modern times. The information on the interactive digital tablets can also be accessed outside the Mithraeum, by clicking here. It is best viewed on a phone or tablet although by adjusting the width of your browser on a desktop, you can still see the artefacts and access the information.

Having torn ourselves away from the wall of artefacts, Dave and I descended the stairs which displayed the different levels of London’s history. Centuries of living and failure to remove building debris or rubbish have led to the ground level rising, so the modern Walbrook, is up to 9 metres above the earliest Roman deposits. At the bottom of the stairs is the Mezzanine level where there is information about what experts believe Mithras symbolised and how his followers worshipped him. The head of Mithras is a model of the one found at the site in 1954.

Drawing of the Temple of Mithras
Artist’s impression of the Temple of Mithras by Judith Dobie

The artist’s impression of the temple is shown above with what the surrounding area in Londinium might have looked like. Note the wells which are square and in fact, in the corner of the temple you can still see the well which is also square (see below). This is thought to have been used to hold water which was used in rituals and may have been more of a tank than a well.

Temple of Mithras
The well can be seen on the left in the raised section.

It is thought the rituals took place in the central nave and the two aisles seated a congregation of around 30. The seating areas were separated from the nave by sleeper walls and seven columns on either side, the bases of which can clearly still be seen.

The rounded apse at the far end would have featured a statue of Mithras on a raised platform and the stone head found in 1954 is likely to have been part of the statue. The building appears to have had no windows and it’s probable that it was lit by torches, lamps and braziers. Pieces of the original timber flooring still lie in situ, where they would have been in the temple.

Original pieces of wooden flooring
Original pieces of wooden flooring

The central icon of the cult is an image of Mithras slaying a bull. No one knows for sure what happened during a ceremony but archaeological evidence suggests worshippers enjoyed chicken and wine, along with honey which was also used in cleansing rituals to symbolise purity. It is thought that initiation ceremonies may have incorporated chanting, shouting, music and the burning of pinecones as a form of incense.

Our visit allowed us about twenty minutes in the darkened Mithraeum which with wonderful use of light and sound, gave us a taste of what it may have felt like to attend a ceremony in the temple.

Dave and I were very interested in the artist’s impressions of a map of Roman Londinium which showed the position of the Mithraeum and also the Amphitheatre which we’d previously visited beneath the Guildhall. It showed an impressive rectangular building which didn’t appear to be labelled, so we thought that on our way home, we’d drop in at All Hallows by the Tower Church and look at their model of Roman Londinium to see if we could find out what it was.

I’ll tell you about that next time…