Slaying the bull, a cult in the city.
Capital beneath the capital.
The London Mithraeum, and the corruption of prehistory.
The Mithraeum in London was found and excavated in the early 1950s as part of a campaign of work by archaeologist WF Grimes to explore ruins and bombsites created by the Second World War. Hints of this structure were found in 1952 when the Walbrook waterway was identified, and full exposure and excavation happened in 1954. As well as the remarkable architecture of this riverside Temple, carved stone fragments were also found including parts of the god Mithras himself.
Some 400,000 flooded to visit these excavations, in advance of commercial redevelopment. The initial discovery was memorable and powerful, as documented by an oral history project (instigated by the Museum of London Archaeology Service (MOLAS) and Bloomberg). In some cases a visit to the site stimulated a lifelong interest in archaeology. This kind of public interest, and pressure, as noted by Mike Pitts (Digging up Britain), forced the developer to “rebuild the temple foundations within the new office block” some 100m from where it was found. This replication only came after a period of storage in a nearby builders yard, and seems to have been something of a hasty and mishandled compromise. Thus began what might be termed the ‘peripatetic’ (source) life of this monument, and an entanglement with City of London money.
For many decades the Temple lay hidden in plain sight beside Queen Victoria Street, about 100m from its original location. Orientated north-south rather than east-west it looked every inch a shallow ruin, “embedded in concrete outside Bucklersbury House” (Great Wen blog). The general consensus as far as I can tell from blogs and memories of this incarnation of the Temple was rather sad and lost. Mike Pitts has described this location as, “a weed-grown pavement ornament collecting food wrappers wafted by passing buses” (Digging up Britain (2019), pg. 64). Not the kind of deposition that the acolytes of this mystery cult had in mind, but certainly an ordeal – a trial – for this building.
But thanks to unfettered capitalism, the Mithraeum moved again! In 2010, the development merry-go-round began once again, the churn of new-for-old office blocks meaning the end was finally nigh for Bucklersbury House. Unlike the Temple of Mithras, this structure was not dismantled brick by brick and put into storage, having little value other than as a testament to really really boring post-war architecture, of which there are and remain many better examples.
Excavations in the 1990s and 2000s in advance of massive shiny (but still boring) new office blocks at Poultry and then Bucklersbury revealed loads more evidence for Roman occupation of this area documented nicely by Mike Pitts in Digging up Britain (page 64 onwards) and this book produced by MOLA. This development also posed a fundamental threat to the the Temple itself, but the developer, Bloomberg, committed to give a permanent new home to the Temple more or less where it was found in the 1950s.
There is no doubt that the construction of the European headquarters of this massive information and media company allowed a lot of archaeology to be found. There is also no doubt that Bloomberg were keen to celebrate, embrace and (let’s be honest) exploit these discoveries, probably due to a mixture of a genuine sense of duty and some of that reputational boosting feelgood magic dust that only deep time can sprinkle. Don’t take my word for it, this is Michael R Bloomberg in the 2017 book (link above) called Archaeology at Bloomberg:
As steward of this ancient site and artefacts,
Bloomberg has embraced the City of
London’s rich heritage. And as a company
that is centred on communication – of data,
information, news, and analysis – we are
thrilled that Bloomberg has been at the core
of a project that has provided so much,
hugely important, new information about the
character and development of Roman
London during its first century of existence.
Before reaching its current original – final – resting place, the Mithraeum moved again, being constructed and deconstructed more times that one would normally expect even for a Roman site. Sadie Watson who ran many of the excavations around this bit of London told me that before reaching its current location, the Temple was moved and rebuilt temporarily to Battersea. The remarkable resilience of this structure is testament both to the original builders and the skills of archaeologists.
And so eventually, in November 2017, the Temple of Mithras had been moved back to more or less where it had been found by Grimes, and was opened to the public within and beneath the huge shiny gold Bloomberg HQ building. Located 7m beneath street level, it offered the opportunity for a free archaeology experience in the heart of the city of London, and I have been lucky enough to visit twice since then (in November 2019 and October 2022). One thing that was noticeable on both visits was that there were primary school groups there, so this is clearly a popular educational visit.
Discourse around discoveries made at the Mithraeum are rooted in the world of commerce and finance as befitting a site that sits near the heart of the City of London, a gold bar’s throw away from the Bank of England. Or as Peter Ackroyd would have it, “…where the clerks of the Empire tossed their pens into the water” (London the Biography (2000), pg 27). Perhaps this is inevitable, with the survival of the Temple and its current fancy latest incarnation down to the largesse and riches of Bloomberg.
The materials on display reinforce this connection between ancient London and finance, with an obsessional focus on one type of object found during the MOLA excavations – wooden tablets with legible words impressed into them. One dates back to between AD43 and 53. Ghostly Latin words captured some sentiment about a debt and a poultry-keeper. Pitts notes that this tablet is concerned with ‘finance’ and notes also another tablet dated to 8 January AD57 is also concerned with finance, this one being an IOU. In the wall of artefacts on the ground floor of the Mithraeum experience, the caption for this latter tablet reads: “the oldest record of a financial transaction in the city of London”. This stuff isn’t subtle.
The mystery religion of Mithras was, therefore, replaced simply by the mystery of the markets. Occult practices that shape our lives today with their origins millennia ago. Merlin Coverley included the Temple of Mithras in his occult gazetteer of London (Occult London (2008), pg. 136), suggesting that this riverside cult centre set in motion an almost unbroken sequence of the performance of all-male dark arts in this place.
Visiting the Mithraeum is less of an archaeological deep dive and more an exploration of the murky world of secret, unattainable knowledge. In many ways this is a shame, as the nakedly capitalist agenda and the overwhelming miasma of big money almost overcomes what should be a simple exploration of a place of worship. When I was there all I could think about was that this was the corruption of prehistory. As Pitts has noted, “There was no London at all before Rome invaded in AD43”, but there was a whole lot of prehistory out there to inculcate into pseudo-capitalistic practices and tensions.
This is mediated through a multi-media immersive experience of the Temple. Booked timeslots manage the flow of punters, offering a sense of control and selectivity of those allowed in which again reflects the original purpose of this structure. (Although to the great credit of Bloomberg this is a free attraction, unusual in London.)
There is a gallery – the Space – with temporary art exhibits, and a large wall display of objects from various excavations in this block, displayed in a clinical and stylised fashion, with additional information mostly held on tablets that visitors can consult. Thus we have tablets about tablets and all the other Roman rubbish on display Tetris style.
From here one descends, of course a literal realisation of the subterranean nature of the Mithras experience, to 7m below current pavement level. A schematic section drawing of London lines the side of the stairs, allowing one to descend as if on an elevator through an excavation, unpeeling layers, identifying key moments in the time – the great fire of London! The blitz! Once at the bottom, one enters a dark room with black walls, some touchscreen installations, and ghostly figures projected onto the wall. Music and words float in the air, some from archaeologists, and with a narration by Joanna Lumley. A sense of tremendous anticipation is set up by this gloomy space, with tightly wound tourists pacing beside the closed door that will – when opened – allow access to all that matters, the much-moved Mithraeum.
Down another set of stairs, a performative space is entered, with the ruinous Mithraeum spreadeagled in the centre of a large room, surrounded by a glass walkway and fence, in essence a viewing platform.
The lights gets dimmer and mist starts to form, creating a weird barrier of light around the ruins. Sounds become apparent too, footsteps, chattering voices, a ghoulish horn that reminds one of the opening Germanic battle scenes in Gladiator. Latin chanting begins and there are some groans and animated discussion just beyond the scope of our understanding. A neon tauroctony scene lights up the business end of the Temple, a high-tech version of the hole-and-candle altar to be found at Carraburgh Mithraeum on Hadrian’s Wall. Suddenly it stops and after a photo op, visitors can return back above ground, back to the future and the bustle of London. What passed between these visitors alone with their own thoughts in the darkness, deep in the sweat and pain of pathetic elitism, must remain a mystery.
This is a powerful location, on the banks of the buried and largely lost Walbrook, close to the magical London Stone (which I blogged about in 2018). It feels like a location that has depth enough to enflame solitary male rage, echoes of the bull being slaughtered. Because this bloody act – the Tauroctony – lies at the heart of Mithraism, an eternal chase across the University to kill the bull. This is about men getting their hands dirty, doing what has to be done, whatever the cost. In the streets above this monument to self-serving brutality, pubs in the area heave in the early evening with men in suits holding long thin pint glasses of lager. They smell of booze, of money, of mundane masculinity.
During my most recent visit, a stripped to the waste lone guy climbed onto a Starbucks on Walbrook and started throwing rocks at the windows of a mirrored office block. As we watched from Cannon Street, he restlessly prowled back and forth, ranting. The motivations of this topless shouting man hurling rocks at capitalist totems was never made clear: was he slaying the bull or had the bull slayed him?
The London Mithraeum has at its heart the violent act of slaying the bull, the obsessional and bloody outcome of this mystery religion. On my first visit in 2019 I was disturbed by the violence – the capitalist cult – of this place. and what its location represents today. For London, the coming of money, and this mystery religion, meant nothing would ever be the same again.