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Ritual Experience in New London Mithraeum

November 30, 2017.  A multisensory exhibit incorporating light, sound, haze, and shadow over reconstructed ruins is bringing an ancient temple for the worship of the Roman god Mithras alive for modern visitors. The London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE opened its doors on November 14th in Bloomberg’s new London headquarters. In addition to the Mithras temple, the Bloomberg SPACE highlights artifacts found during its excavation, as well as contemporary artwork commissioned to “respond” to the archeological site.

The temple devoted to the youthful god Mithras has been one of London’s most important archeological sites since its discovery in 1954 during post WWII rebuilding efforts.  At that time, over 400,000 people came to marvel at a Roman Mithrian temple site in the middle of London. Some even had a chance to help archeologists dig. As noted by CCP in a 2016 article History-Changing Discoveries in London Construction Site, “In the fifties, however, archaeological preservation was given less importance than today, and much of the site was dug out and put in storage. A part of the site was moved to Temple Court, Queen Victoria Street, where it was reconstructed in a way that contemporary archaeologists found inaccurate.”

Six hundred of the 14,000 Roman artifacts uncovered on the Bloomberg site are displayed on the ground level of London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE. Photo credit: James Newton

Fortunately, when Bloomberg chose the site for its new London headquarters, it also chose to bring the Mithrian temple back home, as well as to undertake a more thorough excavation of the site. The finds from the excavation have added significantly to our understanding of London under Roman rule. The site is in a former stream bed and the high moisture content of the soil has helped to preserve artifacts that would have rotted away in other conditions.  Among the objects recovered were over 400-waxed wood tablets used to record matters of everyday life such as financial transactions. A well-preserved shoe was also discovered. A cache of coins found in one area is thought to have been discarded when new currency was introduced to the region. A miniature carved amber pendant in the form of a helmet has attracted much attention.

The worship of Mithras was a secretive Roman cult that flourished between the 1st and 4th centuries CE. Much of what is known about it is based on archeological findings. Most temples to Mithras – there are about 100 known throughout the former Roman Empire – have bas-relief or painted images of a young man, with a sort of stocking-like cap on his head, eyes rolled upward. He is usually depicted in the process of slaying a bull. Because of numerous lighting devices found in the temples, it is thought that the rituals to Mithras involved play of light and shadow. Soldiers and merchants are believed to have been the chief members of the cult of Mithras – it was a male cult based on building bonds with other men.

Although the actual rites are lost to history, the recreation of the Mithras temple in the Bloomberg space, involves the play of light, incense-like haze, rhythmic chanting and an image of Mithras slaying the bull – all evoking an atmosphere of ritual, perhaps similar to the way that ancient Roman soldiers and merchants experienced the ancient temple.

The London Mithraeum Bloomberg SPACE is open everyday except Monday, and admission is free. It is recommended that tickets be reserved in advance.

Bloomberg site under construction, credit Bloomberg.com Above: The London Mithraeum tauroctony depicts a scene of Mithras slaying a bull in a cave, the central icon of the cult. Photo credit: James Newton

 

 

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