An ancient underground temple where initiates of a cult used to meet for rituals, ceremonies and feasting, was strictly members-only in Roman times, but has now been opened to anyone who cares to descend to its gloomy depths.
The restored temple to the god Mithras, the only one of its kind in London, can be found beneath the Bloomberg building on Walbrook, along with the highlights of a collection of 10,000 new finds from the time of the Roman occupation of Britain.
Among them are a Gladiator’s amulet carved from amber, which has survived intact, a large collection of good luck charms, and a hoard of coins and pewter which had been thrown inside a well, along with some cow skulls, as part of a ritual ceremony.
After a team of archaeologists from the Museum of London was appointed to excavate the three-acre site, known as the Mithraeum, the dig revealed the extent of the original foundations and uncovered complex drainage systems built by the Romans to channel waste into the Walbrook River.
The cult of the god Mithras first appeared in the first century AD and spread across the Roman Empire over the next 300 years. The legend of Mithras killing a bull within a cave was central to the cult, and temples were built underground to resemble the gloomy confines of a cavern. Mithraism was commonly associated with the military and was also popular with merchants and civil servants, who often travelled across the Roman Empire.
When the remains of the temple were first discovered in the City of London in 1954, it caused a sensation, with thousands of visitors queueing to see the work in progress at the site. The original excavations, led by the eminent archaeologist W.F. Grimes, unearthed valuable architectural finds, including a head of the god Mithras, and other carvings, which were later displayed at the Museum of London.
Built around 240-250AD, this temple is the only one of its kind in the London area. There are three other temples to Mithras in Britain, two on Hadrian’s Wall and one in Wales, and several hundred across ancient Roman territories in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
The London Mithraeum covers a three-floor installation. On the first level is a display of finds from the archaeological dig, and the second level uses interactive screens and audio-visuals to illustrate the practices and symbolism associated with the legend of Mithras.
The temple itself has been restored to its original level, seven metres below the streets of London. In this atmospheric underground setting, an immersive experience combines sound effects, mist and lighting to recreate the rituals of this ancient cult, which though long gone, continues to be a source of mystery and fascination.
Entry to the London Mithraeum is free of charge. Advance booking is required to guarantee entry. Opening times:10am to 6pm, Tuesday to Saturday and Sunday from 12 noon to 5pm. https://www.londonmithraeum.com/whats-on/
Illustration of amulet (C) MOLA