Of Mithras and Men

There is a host of exhibitions and events taking place in our region this year to mark the 1900 years since Hadrian’s Wall was built – the fortified northern frontier of Rome’s mighty empire. Men of the Roman elite, especially military officers like the ones stationed here, were devotees of the eastern God Mithras, and there are remains of some 100 temples dedicated to this deity, mostly situated near major military sites. Mithraic temples, or Mithraeums, were buildings without windows and the secret rites and rituals inspired by legends of Mithras slaying a bull in a dark cave that were performed there are, by their very nature, largely unknown, leaving much to the imagination. 

Brocilitia, Carrawburgh: Image by Following Hadrian Photography

If travelling the C18th Military Road (B6318) that runs the course of much of Hadrian’s Wall take time out to park or get off the bus at Brocilitia and stroll down the shallow valley there. The unusually dry hot summer of 1949 exposed the outline of foundations below the former wall fort at Carrawburgh and further digging revealed it to be a mithraeum, operational from around 200-330 AD. Replica concrete altars now replace the originals, housed at the Great North Museum in Newcastle.

Long before Hadrian had his wall built Londinium had rapidly grown rapidly from its foundation to become the principal port and trading centre of the province of Britannia, constantly being rebuilt and extended. Around 240AD a particularly large Mithraeum was erected on the banks of the Walbrook in the heart of what is today the City of London. Due to intensive German bombing a third of buildings in the square mile were destroyed between 1940-45. The remains of the ancient temple were thus unexpectedly exposed and subsequently excavated in the immediate post war period, at the same time as its smaller contemporary counterpart in rural Northumberland was being unearthed. The metropolitan discovery evoked huge public interest amongst war weary Britons and thousands queued to view the remains. Further rich discoveries of artefacts from four hundred years of Roman occupation in the city were made, including a marble frieze (pictured above) and head of Mithras, which proved conclusive evidence for the existence of the temple on that site. (Both now on display in the nearby Museum of London and there are facsimiles in the Bloomberg Mithraeum waiting room).

The Walbrook stream was an open inlet then, a tributary of the Thames, and not culverted, as it is has been since the Georgian era. The Bloomberg development has made possible an interesting water sculpture, commissioned to reflect the hidden London river beneath. I can testify it’s a pleasant spot to sit and ruminate amid the passing noise and bustle of the country’s financial hub

When Bloomberg cleared the immediate post war buildings to set up its  European HQ here a decade ago the US data giant went to great lengths to honour its history. The 3.2 acre site, designed by Lord Norman Foster to sustainably house their 4,000 London based employees, was split in two with a central arcade restoring public access on the line of the old Roman highway of Watling Street, which had originally linked Londinium to Hadrian’s Wall. The fragile remains of the recovered temple were painstakingly reassembled on a site very close to its original location, and at the same depth – some 23 feet – below current ground level.

Access is free, although booking is advisable as numbers are strictly limited. There is a selection of recovered Roman artefacts displayed in the ground floor art gallery, which also has changing exhibitions by international artists inspired by the archaeological remains. https://www.londonmithraeum.com/

Loved my morning here a few weeks ago, on my last trip to London visiting family. Bloomberg’s wealth and cultural reverence has brought this significant building back to life through dramatic use of sight and sound; cleverly evoking one’s imagination and creative abilities to carry the story on, when known facts have registered but can take you no further. And that is quite an achievement. I won’t be able to revisit the Brocolitia site without recalling the Bloomberg Mithraeum experience and I’m grateful for it. The God of both places – with a bit of help from mere mortals – transfers spirit, each to each.

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