Secret London: the Temple of Mithras goes back where it came from

The Temple of Mithras is one of London’s most easily viewed and best known Roman sites, but it is also one of its crappest. The temple has been in the wrong place pretty much ever since it was discovered 50 years ago and now sits unimpressively in a bed of a concrete in front of a banal office building in the City.

The Temple of Mithras: 'crap'

All that is about to change. Next week, Museum of London Archaeology will begin a three year project that will put the Temple back where it belongs, and restore it to something closer to its original form. They will also do a little digging, to see what else they can discover.

The Temple – a shrine to an Iranian god who was said to have killed a mythical bull – was found by archaeologist WF Grimes  in 1952 on Walbrook. The cult was adopted by the Romans in 1 AD and the temple – probably built in around 250 AD – would originally have been a subterranean space where bulls were sacrificed. Archeologists had suspected there was Mithran temple in London since 1889, after the discovery in Walbrook of a relief depicting the god killing a bull but it was only uncovered after the Second World War, when the area suffered heavy bomb damage and became ripe for development.

A statue of Mithras were found buried beneath the temple, and it may well have later been used by followers of Bacchus, as Mithraism went into decline. Mithraism is sometimes seen as a precursor to Christianity, although I don’t know enough about that to possibly comment.

The temple was dismantled shortly after it was discovered so the construction of Bucklersbury House could continue. The material was put into storage and many of the statues loaned to the Museum of London. In 1962, the temple was reconstructed on Queen Victoria Street, 90 metres from its original site at ground level, embedded in the courtyard of a City office block. It was a particularly dismal and unsympathetic treatment of a genuine archaeological curiosity. Most people had no idea what it was, and even if they did, it was very hard to care.

The site is now owned by Bloomberg, and they are about to start dismantling the temple by removing it from the cement that currently encases it, and then reconstructing it on its original site in what they call ‘a purpose-built and publicly accessible interpretation space within their new building’. This will take three years, but many will rejoice that it is happening at all.

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6 responses to “Secret London: the Temple of Mithras goes back where it came from

  1. Some very good news from the City at last…

  2. Pingback: Best of Recent Blog Posts #33 « London Historians' Blog

  3. Mrs. Molly Grimes

    I am the widow of Emeritus Professor W.F. Grimes but, at the time of the ‘dig’, all London was agog and stories filled every newspaper and cartoons were rife, some particularly funny. Now at 86, I am glad to hear that something is being done to improve the site of the Temple of Mithras as my husband was very unhappy at the way it had been treated. (I had no idea it would be my fate to marry Peter – as he had always been called although Britten’s opera had no bearing on this.) A friend and I stood in a line for 4 hours in a huge queue of people which seemed to stretch for literally miles around the City but it was worth it. However, Peter always resented being known as a Romanist thereafter because his specialty was Prehistory. Molly Grimes.

  4. Thanks for your comment Molly, many Londoners are delighted that the Temple is finally getting the setting it deserves.

  5. I go past this on a double decker every day, and its about time they did something with it. For a city that owes so much to the Romans, the treatment of one of its most visible (and mysterious) reminders was always a bit embarrassing, and as it was, completely without any context. All the stones seem to be up now anyway, looking forward to seeing what they do with them.

  6. I hope the reconstruction goes well.
    It would be a shame to see the remains of the temple destroyed completely.

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